Halifax city council may be asking the province to lower speed limits on residential streets.
Last week, council’s transportation committee approved a recommendation that would see Halifax request a change in the provincial Motor Vehicle Act (MVA) to reduce “prima facie” speed limits in residential areas down to 40 kph from the current 50 kph.
In the past, many Nova Scotia municipalities have made requests to lower speed limits, but for specific roads and streets. Such requests require engineering studies for each roadway in question, and are seldom if ever approved by the province’s traffic authority.
The request that HRM staff have recommended (which still needs to be approved by council) is much broader, as it would apply to all streets in residential areas throughout the province. It’s a much bigger ask, to be sure. And probably doomed to fail, unless other municipalities across the province get on board (and it somehow manages to find its way into the election platform of our next provincial government).
MVA section 102 sets a “prima facie” speed limit, meaning that unless otherwise specified, that is the maximum legal limit on a given street in a “residence district” throughout the province. (The MVA also includes a list of other applicable areas, like the frontage of churches before and after services.)
“Residence districts” are defined in the MVA as pretty much anywhere people live, except where businesses constitute more than half of the frontage. Those areas are deemed “business districts” and they too are actually included in our current “prima facie” 50 kph limit, but for some reason they are not included in the current formulation of the city’s potential request to the province.
During the discussion at last week’s transportation committee, councillor Sam Austin worried that limiting the change to “residence districts” could make for awkward application of a new default limit. What if, for example, downtown streets (which seem to fit the MVA definition of “business district”) would remain at 50kph despite their high levels of both pedestrian and vehicle use?
Ultimately councillors set aside any concerns and sent the recommendation along “as is” to be considered by full regional council.
While I would have been happier to hear from a few more councillors who seemed to actually understand what they were asking for, it’s probably not worth it for councillors to spend much time debating the details of how speed limits are or should be applied, as the issue is ultimately a provincial one.
When or if urban speed limits get a rethink, it will be your MLA, not your city councillor, that needs to understand fine print.
I’ve written before about why I think urban speed limits should be lower. Lower speeds mean fewer accidents due to increased reaction time, and reduced severity of injuries resulting from accidents. And while lower speed limits don’t necessarily translate to lower speeds (we drivers are notorious scofflaws, don’t you know), our current default limit does not match the nature of our dense, mixed-mode urban communities.
While some argue we need to wait to redesign our streets before fiddling with limits, I say we should acknowledge that something is already out of whack between our policy and our design.
Most of our existing urban streets are crowded with parking, signage, and street furniture. They mix large numbers of vulnerable road users with vehicle traffic. Sure, there are plenty of physical design improvements that could and should happen to keep vehicle speeds low, but why wait for them to roll out piecemeal over the decades before at least telling drivers to slow down?
It’s time we updated our laws to reflect what we now know about speed, and the importance of safe, welcoming pedestrian environments to growing a healthy, happy, city. I have no idea if our next provincial government will have what it takes to do that. But at the very least, it’s worth asking.