Dear Edmonton City Council: When it comes to speed limits, it's time you lead by Tim Querengesser

The status quo is powerful. So powerful that it’s rarely forced to defend itself. But as Edmonton eclipses one-million people and graduates from what many still see as an oversized small town into a bona-fide large city, when it comes to who our streets are for and what they can do for us, it’s time to consider what the defense for the status quo really is.

I’ll save you some time: there is no way to defend speed limits on residential streets at 50km/h.

The defense is a laughable, but still powerful, assemblage of angry tweets and emails, and of course swear-word-laced phone calls placed to city councilors at hours too late in the evening to take seriously. It is a constituency of political pressure that wants the status quo to remain for the simple fact that it’s the status quo. After all, the support for a default 50km/h speed is not scientific, or economic, or rational. It’s just that it’s what’s considered normal and what will keep Lorne Gunter writing about other things.

Flickr: Waferboard

Flickr: Waferboard

For those unfamiliar, the status quo I’m speaking of is a statutory speed limit of 50km/h on all residential streets in Edmonton, regardless of how they are built, or their context, or how many people live along them. As you may know, I’ve taken my journalist hat off over the past few years in order to help plead the case to change the status quo on streets. In our corner is an overwhelming body of scientific research that shows pedestrians are likely to die in collisions where drivers hit them at 50km/h, our current default speed. That same research shows pedestrians die a little less frequently when hit by a driver traveling at 40km/h (and this is the speed members of our council recently suggested should become Edmonton’s default on residential streets) and a whole lot less frequently at 30km/h.

To put this another way: physics suggests the speed drivers should travel on a street that they share with other users, like the kids I see walking to their school bus each morning in my own neighbourhood of Cloverdale, is at most 30km/h. This, after all, is the speed most of that street’s users will live if all things go wrong and there is a collision. And it’s this sort of minimum safety sort of thinking that underpins the Vision Zero movement that Edmonton joined in 2015 (as well as throughout heavy industries in our province). It’s also this sort of thinking that’s spurring nearly every major and mid-sized city in Canada at the moment to either shift speed limits in residential areas to 30km/h or, like Edmonton, discuss doing so beyond just school zones.

But let’s pretend that the status quo on our streets actually needs more than scientific evidence to see its regulators — our city council — change the rules (to be clear, it doesn’t). Let’s pretend we don’t see that scientific research and concern for safety is sufficient in other areas for regulators to act. It’s sufficient, after all, to protect you and I from being forced to fly on a Boeing 737 Max8 following a crash and subsequent finding of a flawed design. It’s sufficient, through regulator-demanded research like test crashes and collision analysis, to revolutionize the safety of vehicles we drive daily, evolving from the basic lap belts of cars in the ‘60s to today’s litany of airbags, crumple zones, anti-lock brakes, stability controls and other mandated (and costly) measures.

If we pretend we need to justify changing the status quo on our streets beyond the trump card, safety, we need only look at our visioning documents, like the upcoming iteration of our City Plan, which will attempt to set our city on a course to be a city of two-million in another generation or so. Or we need only look at our Complete Streets documents, our Vision Zero commitments, our Way We Move documents, our … well, I hope you get the picture. Literally every one of these perspectives into what Edmonton needs to be in future prioritizes us being a safe, compact and liveable city. Viewed from this perch, changing the status quo on residential street speeds is the only option. The status quo itself is what should be on trial.

But I’ll take it one further. Over the next generation, led by Mayor Don Iveson, who has made transit his decisive legacy project, we are building dozens of kilometres of low-floor LRT from the southeast, through our downtown, into the west. While many fixate on the delays and frustrations of this project, which is understandable given the cost, the thing that we must always keep in mind is that low-floor, street-car style LRT works only when you can walk to and from it. What this ultimately means is that our city is investing billions into a project to shift the way we move, and that one of the main things that could destroy our return on investment is our status quo. If you don’t feel safe or enjoy your walk to your neighbourhood’s new streetcar, why would you bother? Why not just drive?

It’s this billion-dollar gamble that our council needs to recognize, right now, this week.

Tomorrow, council will discuss the rough outlines of a proposal that Julie Kusiek, Troy Pavlek and myself put dozens of hours in to build, only to see it gain an inertia and support that none of us anticipated. Council this week will contemplate adopting the Core Zone concept that Julie, Troy and I have brought forward and which has garnered support from, literally, all corners of the city. And it’s this sort of concept that will not only answer concerns on safety but allow us to maximize our returns on investment.

It will be changing the status quo on residential streets that will finally shift our city from a great one to drive through to a liveable and vibrant assembly of great places to be.

I’m hopeful, but also realistic. I’ve watched city council for quite a while in Edmonton. This particular council is struggling to define itself. What does it stand for? What is it hoping to achieve? At best, we are seeing a lot of status quo while several councilors work on their projects to build toward a race for mayor.

Changing default speeds on residential streets in the core is the sort of decision that can define this council. It’s the sort of thing that should be a reason for someone to run for council in the first place. The status quo doesn’t need your tending, councilors. Change does. Get to it already. Be leaders already.

It's time we use our city plans to decide our budget by Tim Querengesser

As I listened in on yesterday’s budget meeting at city council, where more than 100 people signed up to advocate for Edmonton to continue to spend on an amenity they care for, I couldn’t help but think about individuals and collectives.

Using a hypothetical person and their car, let me explain. To this pretend person, their personal car is great. It gets them places, keeps them warm, makes them feel connected. But to a collective, like a city, this car and a person using it is less great. It creates congestion, a need for vibrancy-killing storage and all sorts of support services. And if we scale it up to where many people are doing the same thing as our hypothetical friend, we see many negative outcomes, from pollution to pedestrian deaths to social isolation to infrastructure that creates winners and losers.

Flickr/Kurt Bauschardt

Flickr/Kurt Bauschardt

Edmonton is a collective. But at council, during budget time, most feedback that decision-makers will receive will come from the individual perspective. If you cut this proposed rec centre, individuals will tell council, this will be the outcome for my family. If we don’t have this program in this preferred spot, we will have to drive this much farther to take our daughter or our son to this or that lesson or activity.

It’s all fair. Faced with losing something we value or that enriches our lives, we naturally try to protect it. I would do the same thing. In fact I have. I advocate for things that I feel would make Edmonton better, but also make my individual life better.

Trouble is, Edmonton is a collective that can struggle to think of itself as one (I thank the city’s settler, individualistic roots for that). Budget time is a great example of this tension. To assuage individual concerns, council must always take from the collective. Build or cut a recreation facility here or there, for example, and you benefit or harm certain corners of the city yet, on the whole, not all of it. But do this balancing act enough times, mollify the loudest voices while ignoring the ones that can’t spare the time to speak up, and you start to chip away at the overall benefit for the collective.

When looking where to shave spending, as Edmonton definitely is, what is the best for this collective? What decision will positively affect the most or negatively affect the least? These should be the central questions we’re asking in the age of purported austerity. Thankfully, we created some guidelines to answer these questions. They’re our ‘The Ways’ documents and other city plans that spell out our vision and goals. They tell us that we aim to be a compact city. A vibrant city. A connected city. A walkable city. A safe city. An affordable city.

As I listened in yesterday, as individuals talked of how they needed investment to remain in their corner of the city, I couldn’t help but thinking: Okay, but how will this benefit the entire city?

Our council has a challenge before it. They have a road map that has a route on it to our collective goals. With fewer dollars to spend, council will be forced to decide if some of us get more and others get less, or most of us get what’s best for the whole. Thankfully, they have that road map. Let’s hope they use it.   

How Edmonton is quick to words but slow to action by Tim Querengesser

On September 10, Calgary will debate a motion to adopt a 30km/h speed limit on its residential streets. For anyone in Edmonton – a city that has bragged about being the first major Canadian city to adopt the principles of Vision Zero, which it did in 2015 – this debate and the widespread support the proposal appears to have within Calgary's council should be instructive.

You see, Calgary has not declared itself a Vision Zero city in the way Edmonton has. Those advocating for improvements under the Vision Zero banner in Calgary are not city employees beholden to the bureaucratic maxim of not rocking boats while trying to make change. 

They are just advocates.  

Flickr/Allain Rouiller

Flickr/Allain Rouiller

This distinction is important. Reaching the very necessary goal of Vision Zero, which is to see a road design that results in zero deaths from collisions, will not be achieved through pain-free information campaigns that urge us to slow down, or tell pedestrians to pay more attention, or suggest those on their feet wear reflective tape, or have people with flags announce their presence at crosswalks. And it won't be achieved through having police ticket speeders (though this does help slow people down somewhat).

Instead, it will require a rethink of our streets and how we design them. Design a street for speed and you will get speed.   

While Edmonton has made some progress to protect active-mobility users on our streets, including the bike-lane network, creating some actual Vision Zero targets, adopting Complete Streets as a design standard and contemplating banning rights on red, what we have right now is a bit of city council contradicting itself. It has done this by voting in Vision Zero but then choosing to postpone a vote on one of its many necessary steps, which is 30km/h speeds in residential areas.

Speed is central to Vision Zero goals. As one Swedish Vision Zero expert visiting Edmonton said, as reported by the CBC, "To my eye, you have very high speed in your town compared to what we see in Sweden. We are giving higher priority today to cyclists and to pedestrians, getting the speed of cars down, making the city a lot of livable."

Ouch.  

In Edmonton, real, hard, often unpopular decisions will have to be made for us to even come close to achieving Vision Zero. Political will, well, will have to be shown. Emails from angry drivers will have to be either ignored or absorbed or balanced, rather than used as reasons to postpone decisions. 

The boat, in short, will have to be rocked. Thirty will have to become normal in neighbourhoods.

I find it highly interesting that Calgary has gotten to this point and, after September 10, if all goes the way advocates hope, may in fact overtake Edmonton in putting some basic Vision Zero principles in place. All despite Edmonton having a dedicated office, budget and staff charged with that very task. 


 

Freedom of Information needs to earn its name by Tim Querengesser

On June 12, I filed a Freedom of Information request with the City of Edmonton as part of a story I'm working on. 

Under the Act, which came into force in 1995, the city has 30 days to respond to a Freedom of Information request. The city did this – only to tell me there was going to be a delay for an unspecified period. The staff that oversee these requests to the city have been mildly pushing to find a way to get me the public information I have requested. They have suggested ways to streamline the language of my request and reduce the people identified in it in order to shrink the amount that's caught in the inevitable net. They have been helpful, if requiring me to keep checking in on something that, ostensibly, they're supposed to be getting to me on a deadline. 

Flickr/IQRemix 

Flickr/IQRemix 

Still, none of this has resulted in documents in my hands or even a firm date of when I can expect my information request to be honoured. This means today, August 23, is 71 days since the request was filed and 41 days beyond the timelines the Act spells out as its target response times.

It's a convoluted and incredibly time-consuming process to do much about this, like file a complaint. And given the discussion about Freedom of Information with the city, it's something we need to discuss fulsomely.