Time to Reduce Ottawa's Speed Limits

Living in a country in which rehab, fraud and corruption have dominated news coverage of municipal politics, it’s hard to imagine that elsewhere, a mayor’s campaign promise to lower speed limits could be considered, well, rather exciting.

But earlier this year, Anne Hidalgo, newly elected as mayor of Paris, ran and won with a proposal to reduce the speed of traffic to a maximum of 30 km/h on most of the city’s streets. In an era when high velocity is a selling point – think the zero to 100 km/h scale in the car advertisements — why the emphasis on slowing things down? The answer is that reducing speed in our cities saves lives, enriches neighbourhoods, and encourages other forms of transportation, all important objectives.

On average, a pedestrian or cyclist dies every day in Canada due to a collision with a motor vehicle. Saving lives is the most compelling reason to lower the speed of urban traffic.

Cities should encourage walking and cycling for good reason. Residents wants safe choices among different modes of travel. As well, the economic, environmental and social costs of so-called “active transportation” are considerably lower when factoring in wear and tear on roads, pollution, costs of congestion and public health. But many would-be pedestrians and cyclists hesitate to travel on roads on which the cars travel fast, thus their options are impaired.

Despite the clear benefits of limiting higher-speeds in urban environments, Canadian cities are not doing enough to make it happen. Here are three concrete steps municipalities can take to get there:

1. Speed Limits: On my street, as on many residential streets in the nation’s capital, anyone can legally drive 50 km/h. The obvious place to start slowing cars is on the streets on which kids bike and play, elderly people stroll and dogs are walked. Posted limits reduce, but don’t eliminate, speeding, so the use of radar signs (that remind us of our speed), photo radar and spot checks are important additions.

2. Street Design: Narrower vehicle lanes and streets, sidewalk bulb-outs, raised pedestrian crossings and speed bumps are means to slow the speed of traffic and can each be used depending on the traffic volume and road conditions. They each force us as drivers to increase our awareness and reduce the likelihood that we’ll speed.

3. Context: Perhaps least intuitively, what surrounds a street plays a role in how fast we drive along it. People on sidewalks, trees on the periphery and main street facades have the effect of giving us a reason to slow down. Think of it like positive rubber-necking. Roads should be part of the built environment of a city, not separated from it.

Integrating transportation into larger urban design can be a source of conflict in city bureaucracies. A new cohort of urban planners is advancing concepts such as livability and place-making, but these concepts are at odds with those focused only on facilitating the movement of vehicles. Outdated technical standards are often barriers to change.

Fortunately, some transportation specialists are taking up the challenge. The U.S. National Association of City Transportation Officials last year released an innovative Urban Street Design Guide, which offers new transportation standards that complement — not obstruct — efforts to limit urban speed and build healthier cities. Toronto has just signed-up – other Canadian cities need to follow suit.

Lower speed limits, better street design and ensuring a vibrant street context are effective ways to limit speeding in our cities. Municipal councils across the country need to support these simple and cost-effective means to make our cities more liveable – and safe.

Tobi Nussbaum is a community leader, lawyer and former diplomat who is running for Ottawa city council. Twitter.com/tobi_nussbaum

Source: Ottawa Citizen