In 2010, Montreal lowered speed limits in neighbourhood zones to 40 km/h. Photo: Montreal Gazette

I read a post recently in the charmingly-titled Facebook group “I HATE Halifax Metro Transit” complaining about, among other things, bus drivers going 30 km/h in 50 km/h zones.

The poster clearly seemed to believe that 50 km/h was actually more of a recommended speed than a maximum not to be exceeded. Sadly, this is how many of us think about speed limits. If the sign says 50 km/h, then we have a right to go 50 km/h. And everyone in our way, or driving the bus we’re on, has a duty to go 50 km/h, too.

But the truth is, it’s rarely safe in urban Halifax to go 50 km/h, even though that is our provincially legislated speed limit. Our residential streets are filled with parked cars, pedestrians, people on bikes, people in wheelchairs and scooters, and even kids playing ball. On these streets, 50 km/h is dangerous.

Speeds as high as our residential limit could actually prove deadly for vulnerable road users like pedestrians. According to a 2008 report by the World Health Organization, if hit by a vehicle going 50 km/h, over 80 per cent of pedestrians would likely die. If that vehicle were going 40 km/h, the probability of death is cut in half, and half again at 30 km/h.

From page 5 of Speed Management, A Road Safety Manual, published by the World Health Organization in 2008. Their source: OECD/ECMT Transport Research Centre: Speed Management report, Paris 2006.
From page 5 of Speed Management, A Road Safety Manual, published by the World Health Organization in 2008. Their source: OECD/ECMT Transport Research Centre: Speed Management report, Paris 2006.

In some parts of the world, these numbers are causing governments to rethink how they manage speed on city streets, where pedestrians, cars, and bikes mix. And part of the approach that many jurisdictions are taking, is reducing speed limits.

In 2010, as part of their new city-wide transportation plan, Montreal reduced speed limits on residential streets to 40 km/h, leaving main arterials and collectors at 50 km/h. The move was part of a “global speed management approach where the combination of different actions and measures lead to significant traffic calming all over the roadway network. Lowering the speed limit is one of the first steps of this approach,” according to a consultant’s report on speed limits commissioned by the province of Nova Scotia.

In 2014, New York City reduced its speed limit from 30 to 25 miles-per-hour (the equivalent of going from 50 km/h to 40 km/h) as part of a wider Vision Zero street safety plan.

Three out of six Edmonton communities that underwent a six-month 40 km/h pilot project in 2010 opted to keep the lower limit. The city has since created a neighbourhood speed reduction policy, in which communities can request to be considered for a reduced 40 km/h limit.

Last year, the province of Ontario started considering a plan to lower default speed limits to 40 km/h across the province, in part to save municipalities the costs of posting signage in neighbourhoods that chose lower limits.

So what about here?

Speed limits in Nova Scotia can be lowered with the approval of the Provincial Traffic Authority, who traditionally says no to such requests, though that may change in the future.

The provincial Road Safety Advisory Committee (RSAC) is currently mulling over the results of a posted speed limit study wherein nine streets in Nova Scotia saw 40 km/h speed limit signs posted for a year. Though residents were notified of the project, there were no complementary actions in education, enforcement, or engineering of the nine selected streets. The study was designed to test posted speed limits in isolation.

Streets included in 2015 Posted Speed Limit Study
Check out the map here
Grennan Dr (Lower Sackville)
Inverary Dr (Dartmouth)
Lancaster Dr (Clayton Park)
Westmount St (Halifax)
Conrads Rd (Hubbards)
Viewmount Dr (Tantallon)
Maple Blvd / Scenic Dr (Bible Hill)
Ryland Ave (Bible Hill)
Springwaters Place (Bible Hill)

As much as I’d love to share the results of this government funded study with you here, I’ve been told the findings are not for public consumption, yet. First, RSAC will deliberate on them (in fact they have already asked the consultant to make a few changes to the report). Then RSAC will make its recommendations on setting speed limits to government. After that, they will release the results of the study to you and me.

Back in March, however, the provincial traffic authority, Mike Croft, made a presentation to Halifax’s Active Transportation Advisory Committee (ATAC), apparently sometime before the decision to keep the findings under wraps. The minutes of that meeting on March 24, 2016 describe one key finding that Croft presented to ATAC:

The study found that there was an average reduction of 2.4 percent [in speed] directly after the lower speed limit was posted while the reduction became less over time.

2.4 per cent is not much of a speed reduction, especially when you’ve just reduced the posted speed limit by 20 per cent. (But of course, one number from a study full of numbers is not much to go on, either.)

Sustainable transportation advocate Tristan Cleveland was at that ATAC meeting. The results, he says, were “kind of obvious… You can’t just change the number on the sign. People don’t slow down that much. You can’t reduce the speed of the road without designing the road differently.”

“The discussion at ATAC was actually very positive,” says Cleveland. Members of the committee discussed the possibility of setting up a classification system for Halifax streets, with appropriate engineering guidelines, and lowered speed limits to match. According to Cleveland, the response from Mike Croft was positive. “So there is a way forward on that issue,” says Cleveland. “It’s very exciting.”

So is the provincial traffic authority changing his mind about speed limits? Not really. More like he’s being asked a different question.

“Our pilot project did only look at changing the posted speed limit,” says Mike Croft. “It didn’t look at any other factors. But a lot of the requests that we receive, that’s exactly what the municipality wants to do. All they want to do is go and change a speed limit sign. They’re not talking about an awareness campaign. They’re not talking about education or enforcement. They are not talking about physical changes to the street or traffic calming. They’re simply coming and asking for a speed limit change on that street.”

And hence the answer, to date, has been no.

Now that Halifax is engaged in creating an Integrated Mobility Plan, we have the opportunity to present a consistent and rational system for not just speed limits, but for a comprehensive plan to control speed and improve safety in our urban residential areas. We might muster the planning and resources to present the province with a Montreal model system. As long as we pay attention to street design, enforcement and education, we have a chance of approval with the provincial traffic authority.

Tristan Cleveland certainly isn’t put off by the idea of physical changes to Halifax streets: “It’s actually encouraging to be told to design the streets for the speed you want.”

“It’s the driving environment,” says Croft. “I think if you were to combine a speed limit change with making changes to your street environment to make it look like it’s a street that people want to drive at a lower speed, that would probably work or be effective.”

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  1. From my observations, there is no real issue with busses driving too slow. What I do see is a lot of very impatient drivers who seem to think 50KM is a suggested started point and want to do 60 or 70.
    If a bus seems to be going to slow, it probably is because the driver is driving for the conditions as presented to him. It might be visibility, other traffic etc.
    From excessive speed to distracted driving, there are wider problems in our traffic flows than somebody who thinks they are important getting delayed by 17 seconds getting somewhere.

  2. It’s not like you can actually do 50 in most parts of the city anyhow. My car is three years old and has that feature that can track the average speed. I drive on average 35,000 km/year with (8,000 – 10,000 km of which is highway driving) and the average speed is 38 km/hr.

  3. Someone should go up the Hydrostone, drive the speed limit on Hennessey Place (50 km/h) and report back.

  4. Maybe the bus was in a school zone, where the limit goes from 50 to 30, and in my experience at least 90% of drivers are completely oblivious to the bright yellow signs even in the presence of actual children. This is a good example of how a change in the speed limit, in the absence of other changes and enforcement, does not result in a change in driver behaviour.

    I know there is some justified confusion about the school zones and when the lower speed applies, but I am specifically referring to times when children are going to or from school and there are crossing guards out.

  5. See MVA 107 (1).

    Going slower then the limit is impeding traffic.

    Transit drivers going 30 should be charged, but the MVA also makes buses immune to all traffic laws (which the drivers have interpreted to mean immune to all laws of physics, but that is another story.)

    1. That’s not what s 107 of the MVA says:

      107(1) Except when necessary for safe operation or to comply with this Act, no person shall drive a motor vehicle at such a slow speed as to impede or block the normal and reasonable flow of traffic.

      (2) Where a person is driving a motor vehicle at such a slow speed as to impede or block the normal and reasonable flow of traffic, he shall stop where it is reasonably safe to do so and permit traffic so impeded or blocked to pass
      his motor vehicle.

      Context has to be considered. If visibility is affected by fog or rain or if one’s ability to slow/stop is affected by snow or slush, then it’s negligent to insist on going 50 in a 50km/h zone. Rear-end a stopped vehicle ahead of you or his someone in a crosswalk while driving the speed limit in shitty driving conditions and a court will place some (if not all) liability for the accident on you, should a civil suit arise.

      Section 101 of the MVA is a general provision regarding speed and describes several factors to be considered to which s 107(1) would be subject (ie “or to comply with this Act”):

      101 A person operating or driving a vehicle on a highway shall operate or drive the same at a careful and prudent rate of speed not greater than is reasonable and proper, having due regard to the traffic, surface and width of the highway and of all other conditions at the time existing, and a person shall not operate or drive a vehicle upon a highway at such a speed or in such a manner as to endanger the life, limb or property of any person.

      All of which is to say a bus driver may be acting reasonably by driving 30km/h in a 50 zone, depending on weather, road and traffic conditions.

    2. That is not what MVA 107(1) states

      Slow driving

      107 (1) Except when necessary for safe operation or to comply with this Act, no person shall drive a motor vehicle at such a slow speed as to impede or block the normal and reasonable flow of traffic.

      I don’t know how slow “such a slow speed” is but I doubt driving 5 km below the speed limit would be considered ‘such a slow speed’. And as commented elsewhere perhaps the bus was in a school zone, respecting the lower speed limit.

      I observe posted speeds are ‘limits’, or in other words maximums and not speed ‘targets’.

      Slowing down will save lives and reduce the seriousness of injuries.

      Norm Collins