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To Speed or Not To Speed
That Should Not Be The Question
Students returned to school this week, and with that we see the annual reminders for everyone to exercise more caution on our streets since there will be many children walking and biking to school again. Of course, such reminders are far less effective for improving safety than designing safe streets in the first place. Given that speeding is the main concern that residents share with council, it’s clear that we see value in safe streets. The question is how do we get there?
One, perhaps even the most, important way is slowing drivers down. Slow streets are safe streets. As Councillor Schnider (Kitchener, ward 2) posted to his website, “If a pedestrian is hit by a car travelling 50km/h their chances of survival are about 15%. When travelling at 40km/h their chances of survival increase to 70%.” The survival rate increases to 90% when travelling 30km/hr. Clearly, lowering the speeds we travel can impact safety significantly.
Thankfully, many of our local municipalities have taken this to heart and lowered speed limits on residential streets. While I firmly believe that design is the most crucial factor in creating safe streets, lowering speed limits (and enforcing them) can offer improved safety in the short-term.
I was therefore discouraged to learn that Kitchener Council is considering raising speed limits in some areas, after voting to reduce them only a few years ago. Let’s dig into what’s happening.
At the August 14th Planning and Strategic Initiatives Committee meeting, council discussed the possibility of increasing the speed limit on Bingemans Centre Drive (from 50 to 60km) and also moving away from a consistent, year-round speed limit of 30km/h in school zones. Staff recommended against both of these options. (You can read a more detailed summary of that meeting here).
At the following council meeting (on August 28th), an amended report was proposed. While staff still opposed increased speed limits, for Bingemans Centre Drive they now recommended that Council “approve changing the priority of a boulevard multi-use trail along Bingemans Centre Drive from medium-term to short-term in the Cycling and Trails Master Plan.” Council agreed and passed this recommendation. Therefore, the speed limit will remain 50km/h until, at minimum, a multi-use trail is installed. (Read more here).
As for Councillor Ioannidis’ (Kitchener, ward seven) motion to move away from a consistent, ‘static’ 30km/h school zone speed, Council decided to wait until the Region completes its year-long pilot of reduced school zone speeds (for schools fronting regional roads) only during school times. A Regional update on the project is expected this Fall.
Given the drastic improvement in survival rates with reduced speed limits, I believe we should keep the existing limits as they are. Local radio show host, Mike Farwell disagrees, saying, “Common sense should dictate the school zone speed limit need not be in place all day, every day."
He is frustrated by the inconsistency between the school zones on Regional roads and those on municipal roads. I agree that consistent messages are often safer. It’s worth noting however, that Waterloo and Cambridge also have 30km/h school zones year-round. Given that the vast majority of our region’s schools exist on residential, not regional, roads, it’s more important to be consistent with these municipalities. If consistency is key, perhaps we need to bring the Region more in line with what the municipalities are already doing.
Farwell shares an example from the States that he thinks would work well here. “The U.S. school zones were marked by speed limit signs with flashing amber lights. When the lights are flashing, you are to drive the lower, school zone speed limit.” However, according to a regional staff report, we already have two such examples in place locally, and staff state, "studies regarding the effectiveness of these signs have shown little to no impact on driver speeds." While Farwell considers flashing signs to be, “easy to implement, easy to understand”, the staff report suggests that may not be the case.
A shift from consistent, year-round school zone speeds fails to recognize that schools act as community hubs and gathering spaces outside of regular school hours. Additionally, consistent, static speed limits provide simpler (and safer) messaging for all road users. Of course, speed limits are one small way to slow drivers down. However, much more work is needed and Kitchener Council has committed to doing that work when it approved its Vision Zero policy. Stay tuned for an upcoming Citified post that digs deeper into that policy.
I shared many of the above concerns with Kitchener Council at the August 14th meeting. Here are my comments:
Good afternoon council. Earlier this year, we sold our vehicle allowing us to be a car-free household. Part of the reason we have been able to make that shift is due to recent city policies such as Vision Zero, Complete Streets, the DTK cycling grid, along with regional improvements to transit. These policies work together to create safer and more accessible streets. I’m thankful that Kitchener council has committed to these policies over the last number of years.
However, some recent council discussions and decisions have me concerned, such as the Lancaster Ramps decision as well as discussions around speed limits. I’m worried that we are losing sight of some of the goals in those policies I mentioned. So, I want to remind us of how we got here.
Just over 4 years ago, Council passed a motion that the Neighbourhood Speed Limit Review be approved as phase one of an initiative to create safer, slower streets.
That same year, the “city was looking to move away from car-centred designs to a "complete streets" approach that makes roads safer and easier for pedestrians, cyclists and transit.” So, “Instead of designing streets primarily to ensure the smooth, swift flow of cars, streets would be designed to improve the safety of all users.”
And complete streets “focus on sustainability, with wider boulevards so street trees can thrive, and ideas for greener street design” which supports council’s 2019 declaration of a climate emergency. At that time, Councillor Ioannidis said support of his motion is important as it signals that we are taking climate change seriously.
In March 2020, Council directed staff to develop a Vision Zero Strategy with the goal to improve street safety for all road users regardless of age, ability or mode of transportation.
In September 2021 Council approved: That the speed limit be reduced to 40km/h; and that school zones be further reduced to 30km.
Councillor Schnider shared these policy updates on his website where he noted that “Speeding in residential neighbourhoods is one of the most common concerns raised by residents to Transportation staff and Council.” He stated that, “The lowering of speeds is important for safety and that we can play a significant role by observing the speed limit, especially in and around school zones.”
In response to the motion passing, the mayor said that these speed limit reductions are, “an important step in improving roadway safety for all ages and types of transportation, and it sets an ambitious goal as we work towards Vision Zero.”
The data supports this.
Speeding is the top safety issue in school zones.
Approximately 52% of students use active transportation to commute to school.
The pilot demonstrated a 12% reduction in the average speed in school zones.
Cities around the world are finding innovative ways to improve road safety, such as school streets in Paris.
At committee, I heard some councillors say that we must seek ‘balance’ on our roads. However, it’s important to note that for far too long, the scales have been tipped heavily in favour of vehicles. The vast majority of collisions that involve vulnerable road users, result in injuries or fatalities.
I also heard support for consistency, which I agree is important. However, we already align with Waterloo and Cambridge, so, let’s urge the Region to bring their guidelines to match the three municipalities.
In regards to Bingemans Centre Drive, staff note, "that vehicles are currently not complying with the posted speed limit. Increasing the limit could further increase the speeds of vehicles." They also highlight safety enhancements for this road such as pedestrian islands.
Staff remind us though that, “Higher posted speed limits could undermine the effectiveness of such measures, compromising the safety of vulnerable street users.”
I agree with staff’s conclusion that, “an increased speed limit should only be considered when the on-road bike lanes are upgraded to separated cycling facilities."
My hope is for council to support staff’s recommendation to maintain current speed limits. However, if council decides in favour of an increased speed limit, at a bare minimum I’d hope for:
separated cycling infrastructure before the speed limit is changed and without impacting other planned projects,
a review to implement a sidewalk on the south side of the road,
and a pilot for the speed limit increase. We seem to love pilot projects on things we know increase road safety, such as reduced speed limits - we should expect the same, or more, when considering a speed limit increase.
I feel fortunate to live in a city which values safer, complete streets through these and other policies. It has allowed my household the freedom to shift to car-free living. I believe that increasing speeds in school zones or elsewhere, doesn’t align with the policies that council has endorsed. I therefore urge council to follow staff’s recommendation to maintain current speed limits.
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