Public Works: Lowering Speeds to Save Lives
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Public Works: Lowering Speeds to Save Lives

London's financial district has reduced speed limits on all roads—and reduced traffic fatalities in turn. Should Toronto adopt a similar model?

Public Works looks at public space, urban design, and city-building innovations from around the world, and considers what Toronto might learn from them.

In July 2014, London’s financial district (confusingly called the City of London, as it is located within the historic boundaries of the British capital) introduced 20 mph (32 km/h) speed limits on all its streets.

The change is expected to reduce traffic accident casualties by 30 per cent—and it’s not the only measure being undertaken to improve road safety. The City has implemented a Road Danger Reduction Plan that, in addition to the speed cap, includes pedestrian crossing countdown clocks, redesigned intersections, and contra-flow bike lanes that allow bikes to travel both ways on one-way streets.

The move to reduce driving speeds in cities is based on some convincing statistics. Greater London contains roughly 400 zones with 20 mph speed limits, and these are credited with reducing traffic fatalities by 42 per cent. In London, Barcelona, Brussels, and a handful of other European cities, low-speed zones have resulted in significantly increased bike and foot traffic, according to a 2013 study, as people have begun to feel safer on city streets.

The U.K.’s Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents in 2011 found that decreasing average driving speeds by just one mile per hour would reduce the accident rate by about 5 per cent. There has even been academic research on the success of lowered-speed zones in the U.K.

So, could it work in Toronto? In 2013, the city had one of its worst ever years for traffic fatalities. Only 15 per cent of pedestrian traffic deaths happened downtown, however, which suggests implementing lower speed limits there is not a top priority. But at this point, lowered speed limits anywhere in Toronto would be a welcome change for pedestrian and cycling advocates.

In 2012, Toronto’s chief medical officer, Dr. David McKeown, recommended limiting speed limits in the city to 40 km/h and limiting residential street traffic to 30 km/h. Mayor Rob Ford called the idea “nuts, nuts, nuts, nuts.” Public works committee chair Councillor Denzil Minnan-Wong (Ward 34, Don Valley East) asked whether McKeown didn’t “have better things to do than interfere in every single department and everybody else’s lives.”

Nothing ever came of McKeown’s recommendations, but lower speed limits became a mayoral election issue this summer when candidate Olivia Chow said she’d allow neighbourhoods to request local limit reductions.

Europe is embracing low speed limits. Even New York, a city that seems almost proud of its dangerous traffic, has gotten into the idea. Can Toronto be far behind?