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.