When Victoria city council voted two years ago to lower speed limits on several streets, it looked a lot like a solution in search of a problem. Now it seems the solution has become the problem.
Council members heard this week from city staff that many motorists are ignoring the lower speed limits, introduced as a safety measure. But pedestrian and cycling collisions have increased slightly, although staff were uncertain if the rise in collisions was related to the lower limits.
Anecdotally, some police officers say lower speed limits have resulted in congestion on streets where there was previously no congestion, with a resulting rise in road-rage incidents. And B.C. Transit has complained that drivers are having trouble sticking to schedules on some bus routes because of slower traffic.
The change in speed limits was a pet project of Coun. Ben Isitt and former councillor Shellie Gudgeon. In 2013, they tried unsuccessfully to get the Union of B.C. Municipalities to adopt a resolution asking the province to make 40 kilometres an hour the default speed limit in urban areas.
They had better luck back home in Victoria. In 2014, councillors voted unanimously to lower speed limits on several streets, mostly to 40 km/h from 50 km/h. Richmond Road, Quadra Street, Gorge Road, parts of Bay and Cook streets and several downtown streets were among those affected. The limit on Cook Street between Southgate and Dallas Road was lowered to 30 km/h.
They made the changes despite advice from city staff. Now the staff say the changes didn’t work as planned.
“They didn’t exactly say: ‘We told you so, you idiots.’ But they sort of said it in their report,” Coun. Geoff Young said. “It’s pretty much what the staff told us was going to happen, which was: not much.”
It’s the job of city employees to study and advise, and the job of councillors to make decisions. Still, it’s hubris to ignore the advice of trained professionals, a practice that can be expensive and unhelpful. It’s reminiscent of the sewage issue, in which amateurs on municipal councils wasted a lot of time and public money second-guessing qualified engineers.
We don’t advocate a wild-west approach to traffic on urban streets. Speed limits are necessary, but they must reflect reality. Traffic has a way of regulating itself. Except for a few rogue drivers, people generally adjust their speed to conditions, and speeds are often constrained by circumstances — narrow streets, cars parked on either side, traffic lights and stop signs.
One of the aims of the lower limits was livability in neighbourhoods, but livability isn’t enhanced if buses are late or have to be cancelled. It’s not good for a neighbourhood to be afflicted by the exhaust fumes from cars stuck in traffic.
There is a way, of course, to ensure that more drivers observe the lower limits — put a police officer on every corner. But that would be a poor use of police resources and is something the municipal budget could not afford.
No matter how good the intentions, it’s unwise to pass a law without providing the resources to enforce the law. Bringing in laws that can’t be enforced increases disrespect for the law.
Some added speed restrictions are necessary — school and playground zones, for example, and sharp curves or steep hills that call for extra caution. But it’s better for all for traffic to move through an area as expeditiously as possible. There’s an optimum speed to do that, and it’s not necessarily a slower speed.
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