This article has been republished with the permission of Albert Koehl
Lowering limit by 10 km will save lives and rescue the planet
Imagine a candidate in the mayoral race who promises to make the streets safer, improve air quality and reduce traffic congestion.
Imagine a candidate who says these promises can be kept without increasing taxes.
A city with our problems should welcome such a candidate. Every day in Toronto, about 150 collisions involving motor vehicles leave dozens of people injured.
We’ve heard the numbers before: more than 400 residents die prematurely each year as a result of car and truck pollution, and traffic congestion costs us billions of dollars annually because of delays in moving people and goods.
Fortunately, complex problems don’t always require complex solutions.
Lowering the speed limit on city roads by 10 to 20 kilometres per hour might sound revolutionary to some, but a movement for 30-km streets has already met success in a number of European cities.
Toronto has lowered posted limits on certain streets. St. George, for instance, smoothly moves large volumes of traffic – by bike, foot and car – at 30 max.
Will people accept lower speed limits? It depends on who’s being asked – and who’s voting.
Will seniors and the disabled feel less anxious around more slowly moving cars? Will pedestrians and cyclists feel more welcome? Do we accept the status quo even though motor vehicles are the number-one accidental killer of children?
A joint report by the World Bank and World Health Organization (WHO) describes the death and injury toll on our roads as a growing public health concern. Canada suffers almost 3,000 road deaths each year, despite improved vehicle safety features.
A pedestrian hit by a car going 30 km/h or less has an excellent chance of surviving, while someone struck at 45 km/h or more has a 50-50 chance of ending up in the morgue. Cars can mix relatively safely with pedestrians and cyclists at speeds under 30. The saving in grief alone makes this worth considering.
Lower city speeds also clear the way for cleaner car products that are a better fit for cities and the humans who live in them.
"Slow Down, You Move too fast." Simon and Garfunkel
Velvet Bokeh by Savatey
Low-cost, low-emission, battery electric cars, also known as Neighbourhood Electric Vehicles (NEVs), are already approved for use on many U.S. roads even though their top speed is under 50 km/h. Unlike the electric cars being hyped by the auto industry, NEVs wouldn’t need massive government subsidies.
Sustainable transportation activist Wayne Scott says, “We rely on powerful distance vehicles for city driving when smaller, less potentially lethal low-speed vehicles suit urban needs better.”
Indeed, carmakers promote vehicles capable of crossing treacherous terrain with a trailer in tow when the average trip by a motorist in Canada is just over 5.5 kilometres – on smooth paved roads.
Low-speed battery electrics would help reverse the North American trend that has seen improvements in fuel efficiency cancelled out by increases in vehicle power and weight.
High speed on our roads is generally an illusion, a fantasy enjoyed mostly during TV commercial breaks. Motorists on city roads might be able to accelerate to the posted speed limit for a few moments (a rather wasteful use of precious natural resources), but the average Toronto cyclist can keep up with motor traffic in much of the city, a fact that the police, who are increasingly turning to bikes for downtown areas, can confirm.
It’s the business of auto companies to make, market and sell cars. It’s the apparent business of many traffic engineers to move cars through cities. But it’s our business to decide what products and what speeds best serve our community.
In their race to propose solutions for T.O.’s transportation woes, mayoral candidates ought to consider lower speeds. Slow and steady could be a real improvement for traffic – and perhaps even become the road to the mayor’s chair.
Albert Koehl is an environmental lawyer, a founding member of Bells on Bloor and an adjunct professor in natural resources law at Osgoode Hall Law School. This article was originally published in NOW magazine.