Cities and towns around the world are moving to a 30 km/h speed limit for residential and urban streets.
By Ryan McGreal
Published April 07, 2014
The most effective strategy to reduce the incidence and severity of collisions on city streets, where people and vehicles are guaranteed to come into contact regularly, is to control vehicle speeds. It is a matter of basic physics that reducing vehicle speeds produces both a lower risk of collisions and a lower risk of injury in the case of a collision.
The kinetic energy of an object is related to the square of its speed, so if you double a car's speed, you quadruple its energy. You also quadruple its stopping distance, which means it's harder to avoid hitting something (or someone) in the first place.
A pedestrian struck by a car going 30 km/h has a five percent chance of dying, whereas a pedestrian struck by a car going 64 km/h has an 85 percent chance of dying.
Partly in light of this, Hamilton's North End Neighbourhood recently adopted a 30 km/h speed limit on most of its streets (with the exception of James Street North and Burlington Street) as part of a pilot project implemented under the Setting Sail neighbourhood plan.
Knockdown sticks make a curb bumpout in the North End (RTH file photo)
The plan includes both a lower legal speed limit and several traffic calming devices, including bumpouts and neckdowns at intersections to give pedestrians more room and shorter crossing distances, while forcing drivers to slow down through turns.
Part of the agreement is that the speed limit pilot project has to run for five years, and no other neighbourhoods are allowed to request a similar 30 km/h speed limit until after the five years are over.
What was Council afraid of? It certainly won't take five years to determine whether it makes sense.
If the evidence shows that Hamilton is like every other city on earth and a 30 km/h speed limit is safer and well-supported by residents, why on earth would they not want to expand it, and quickly?
Of course, we know the answer. People who persist in thinking about streets only in terms of how fast they can drive on them will reflexively oppose lower speed limits.
Some councillors either think that way themselves or are afraid to stand up to constituents who explode with outrage over the prospect that their commute might be a few minutes longer.
The good news is that public opinion is already starting to change. A recent survey conducted in the United Kingdom found that 78 percent of respondents support making the default speed limit 20 mph (32 km/h) on residential streets, around schools, and in village, town and city centres.
Several towns and cities are already doing this: some 12.5 million people in the UK, or around 20 percent of the population, now live in neighbourhoods that have implemented or committed to 20 mph speed limits.
After a highly successful two-year (not five-year) pilot project, the mid-sized industrial city of Bristol recently committed to establishing a 20 km/h speed limit across several large areas of the city. They will complete the work over a single year.
Meanwhile, in New York City, new mayor Bill DeBlasio differentiated his election campaign with an inspiring "Vision Zero" plan to eliminate pedestrian fatalities in that city.
The City's Vision Zero Action Plan states:
This status quo is unacceptable. The City of New York must no longer regard traffic crashes as mere "accidents," but rather as preventable incidents that can be systematically addressed. No level of fatality on city streets is inevitable or acceptable. This Vision Zero Action Plan is the City's foundation for ending traffic deaths and injuries on our streets.
A core strategy in that plan is to design streets that make it difficult to drive dangerously, including at dangerous speeds that put pedestrians at risk.
That is entirely consistent with the Ontario Coroner's Report on Pedestrian Deaths, which concluded that cities need to adopt a "complete streets" approach that designs streets to be "safe, convenient and comfortable for every user, regardless of transportation mode, physical ability or age."
In Hamilton, we are still reactive - and barely even that - when it comes to safe streets. Staff have started a traffic safety review on Queen Street, but it took two serious pedestrian injuries in under a month and an upswell of citizen outrage to trigger.
Police block Herkimer at Queen on March 7 (Image Credit: Andrew Spearin)
What we need is a more proactive approach that transforms how we design and build our streets. Instead of prioritizing fast, high-volume automobile traffic, we need to prioritize safety, inclusion and accessibility for all users - particularly the most vulnerable users, senior citizens and children.
Currently, the city's default unsigned speed limit is 50 km/h - dangerously fast for streets that pedestrians are expected to navigate.
Even worse, our formal traffic engineering approach is to design minor arterials for 70 km/h with an expected average running speed of 50-60 km/h, and to design major arterials for 70-100 km/h with an expected average running speed of 60-80 km/h.
In other words, we explicitly and deliberately design our city streets to the average flow of traffic will exceed what is already a dangerously high legal limit!
Vehicle recorded exceeding the speed limit on Herkimer Street next to Durand Park (RTH file photo)
These dangerous street designs incorporate multi-lane one-way thoroughfares, wide lanes, highway-style turning ramps and large corner radii, and the elimination of visual distractions - like street trees and curbside parking - that would reduce the perceived width of the street and send drivers a psychological signal to slow down.
And we wonder why Hamilton is the second most dangerous city in Ontario for pedestrians according to a recent report by the Social Planning and Research Council, with a pedestrian injury rate that is almost one and a half times the provincial average.
Last week, Nicholas Kevlahan argued that our streets are dangerous by design and, just as we would treat a defective consumer product, we need to issue a recall on our streets and redesign them to make them safe. On twitter, people are already organizing around the hashtag #RecallOurStreets.
I believe most Hamiltonians - even many of those who are currently in the habit of regarding city streets purely through the "windshield perspective" - can recognize and agree that everyone deserves to live, work and play in a safe, welcoming and inclusive neighbourhood.
If Council overturns its five-year cooling off period on other neighbourhoods adopting a 30 km/h speed limit, I would be very interested to see how quickly this becomes a popular request in neighbourhoods all across the city.
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