If an award was given out for the organization that best exemplifies the phrase “You can’t please everyone,” the city’s office of traffic safety would be a contender every year.
That’s because it’s hard to find a subject that fires up Edmontonians more than traffic.
Everyone, it seems, has opinions on what should be done to curb congestion, the design and maintenance of roads, and the relative idiocy of other drivers — along with specific instances in which the city has acted excessively/not done enough to address safety issues.
I am not immune to this.
My particular pet peeve revolves around an intersection near my home where the city installed a separate left-turn signal a few years ago.
The change has meant motorists can no longer decide for themselves when it’s safe to turn, and must instead wait for the green arrow, even though the intersection has clear sightlines and relatively minimal traffic outside of rush hour.
The extra delay drives me nuts — no pun intended — and it’s just one signal.
As such, you can imagine the hullaballoo expected to erupt among Edmontonians as city council contemplates a much more massive change to its traffic safety regime, specifically in regard to residential speed limits.
Two main options are on the table.
The first calls for the speed limit on residential and collector roads to be lowered to 30 km/h in a central “core zone,” while the residential limit in all other parts of the city would remain at 50 km/h.
The second choice envisions a single, 40 km/h maximum for residential and collector roads throughout Edmonton, with no “core zone.”
Though you are free to wonder, as I have, why these are the only two scenarios, there’s still lots to chew on.
Let’s first deal with the easier dilemma the options present, which is that a universal limit is preferable in several respects: It’s simpler for drivers to understand, especially newcomers and visitors to the city. It’s easier to enforce. Less signage clutter. No one would have to wonder if they have wandered in or out of the core zone.
As well, the idea of designating a special district may send a message, intended or not, that residents in some neighbourhoods are more deserving of protection, just because they happen to fall on one side of an arbitrary map line.
We need to ask ourselves, why would 30 km/h be appropriate in Holyrood or Hazeldean, but not in Laurier Heights or Lago Lindo?
Moreover, the city’s projections suggest there would be minimal safety benefits to a 30 km/h core, with a mere two per cent reduction in injury collisions expected and about a one per cent drop in property damage collisions.
That brings me to the harder dilemma. Because if council does end up favouring a single limit — and I think they should — there is debate about what that limit should be.
While the proposal before councillors is to move from 50 km/h to 40 km/h, some residents would like the whole city to go down to 30 km/h. Others balk at any reduction, and might be heard to use the term “nanny state.”
In certain respects, the 30 km/h proponents do have some tempting arguments.
They note, correctly, that such a limit would add only a small amount of time onto most trips (although I think this needs to be considered in context with other traffic measures, like the left-turn signal near my home and poor light synchronization).
They note that slower speeds make street life more pleasant, and that it might encourage more people to leave their cars at home, which would have a number of benefits.
And yes, dropping to 30 km/h would probably curb road carnage.
However, I think we also have to acknowledge that a pattern of diminishing returns kicks in at some point.
We could probably prevent even more deaths, injuries and noise by dropping to 20 km/h or installing traffic lights at every intersection, but we don’t because the costs and effects on traffic flow would be onerous.
Absent a more robust transit system, we have to remember that some residents do need to drive, and that part of having a “livable” city means ensuring that people and products can get to place to place in a reasonable time.
As such, my view is that a 40 km/h maximum appears to offer the most balance among the competing demands.
Worth noting is that recent city research in two sample neighbourhoods — suburb and inner city — found that average speeds in both were already below 40 km/h.
Though not a comprehensive study, this indicates to me that a good number of motorists are already driving with caution in residential districts. Any changes to traffic standards shouldn’t be targeting these folks, but rather those who are less considerate.
So let’s give 40 km/h a try, and measure what happens over the next couple of years. Hopefully, with appropriate enforcement, motorists will take it as an opportunity to change their perceptions as to what constitutes safe driving behaviour.
Otherwise, should the effort prove insufficient, the city will be justified in looking at even stronger measures.
And the hullaballoo will begin all over again.