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.
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.”