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What’s a street for?

Is it just a channel for moving cars from point A to point B, as quickly as possible?

Or is it a public space – and one that, depending on how it’s designed, can make a neighbourhood, or break it?

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Those questions were at the centre of the news this summer in the off-island Montreal suburb of Beloeil.

Five years ago, police threatened to ticket a six-year-old child for playing ball hockey on the quiet street in front of his family home. The boy’s father, a city councillor, was shocked. The incident sparked conversation, and action.

Five years later, Beloeil has a program called Dans ma rue, on joue! – “On my street, we play!” It includes hours of the day when playing on the street is encouraged, accompanied by safety signage and lower speed limits.

The program is a great idea, but it’s also disturbing that this is what it has come to on Canadian roads. When a level of government has to legislate the legality of street hockey, and carve out some limited times and places where it is permissible, something has gone awry.

There is a movement under way to rethink what streets are for. The late-20th-century answer, as correctly understood by police in Beloeil five years ago, is that they’re for cars. Everyone else needs to get out of the way – for their own safety, of course.

Canadian streets are mostly designed to liberate cars and facilitate speed. But that choice has costs.

It makes life less pleasant for anyone who isn’t just passing through a neighbourhood in a car. It also makes it less safe. More than 300 pedestrians a year, on average, were killed in traffic collisions in Canada in the five years from 2013 through 2017, according to Transport Canada.

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Nearly 50 cyclists were also killed every year. Such deaths are usually described as accidents. But are they really the chance result of random vectors?

The roots of the drive for safer streets stretch back to the late 1990s, when Sweden embarked on Vision Zero – an endeavour based on the belief that pedestrians should not be getting killed by cars.

Sweden understood that such deaths are not so much accidents, but rather the statistically expected results of road and neighbourhood design. If we made different choices, we’d get different results.

A key element is the speed limit. The likelihood of a car killing a pedestrian at 30 kilometres an hour is 10 per cent. At 50 km/h, it’s 85 per cent. At 70 km/h, a dead pedestrian is almost guaranteed.

The Vision Zero banner has been taken up in North America. Boston and New York are at the fore, and data show that places with lower speed limits have lower traffic fatalities. In Canada, Toronto and Vancouver rank relatively well but their death rates are triple that of the city with the lowest toll, the Swedish capital of Stockholm.

But change is coming. In Toronto, where the late mayor Rob Ford’s complaints about a “war on the car” still echo, city council in July passed an array of measures it calls Vision Zero 2.0, the follow-up to a tepid first effort of three years ago.

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Toronto is cutting the speed limit on many stretches of arterial roads to 50 km/h from 60 km/h. The limit on other streets will drop to 40 km/h from 50.

Other levers include better enforcement, street design and adding sidewalks to the many roads without them. Toronto may also look at lowering speed limits on local roads.

In Vancouver, city council this spring endorsed a trial of a 30 km/h limit in a few neighbourhoods.

Calgary and Edmonton are moving ahead, but, again, slowly. Winnipeg is looking at a small trial. Hamilton has started the change to a 40 km/h limit, and Halifax is making moves toward that goal.

Montreal boroughs have already cut speeds and the city this year started a process for lowering the limit on many major streets to 40 km/h from 50.

The shift in focus is encouraging, and more can be done. Toronto’s action on arterial roads is significant and other cities can follow its lead. But, as in Beloeil, local streets also have to be a priority.

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And the answer to what a street is for? Pete Fry, the Vancouver city councillor who led the slower-streets initiative, encapsulated it at a council meeting in May: “This is where people live. It’s not just a place for cars.”

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