Archived columns and blog posts by Matt Elliott

Relax, lower speed limits in Toronto won't kill anyone

By: Metro Published on Wed Jun 24 2015

Soon after Toronto & East York Community Council voted Monday to reduce speed limits on local roads to 30 km/h, critics emerged to say the decision was short-sighted. And not supported by transportation staff. And that enforcement might be tricky.

Oh, and also? That those lower speed limits could kill people.

The Toronto Sun was all over this one. In an editorial, they declared “a blanket lowering of the speed limits not only won’t save lives but could make many local roads more dangerous.”

Guest columnist Mark Towhey — former chief of staff to some mayor whose name I forget — was even more direct. In a piece headlined “How many will die with lower speed limits?” he wrote, “this decision will make councillors feel better, but is unlikely to prevent a single accident or save a solitary life. It will, however, cost a lot of money. And that, may cost lives elsewhere.”

Towhey’s argument hinges on the fact that it will cost about $1.1 million to update speed limit signs and traffic signal timing to accommodate the lower speed limits. That money, he reasons, could otherwise be spent on things that directly prevent people from dying — he cites fire trucks, paramedics and malaria-preventing bed nets.

The problem with this argument, of course, is that it logically implies that a great big swath of current government spending is effectively murdering people.

Take the Toronto Public Library, for example. Libraries, while nice, don’t really have any live-saving potential. They mostly just have books. And yet the city will spend $188 million on operating its libraries this year. That’s money that theoretically could go toward medical supplies or buying Bruce Wayne another Batmobile.

The same goes for most of the rest of public spending. With a $438 million operating budget, how much blood is on the Parks department’s collective hands? How many people have died because of the city’s public art programs? Why are we spending billions on a Scarborough subway when that money could go toward researching a cure for cancer?

You get the point.

None of this is to say I’m feeling super enthusiastic about the move to lower downtown speed limits.

As policy goes, it’s a justifiable decision. According to a 2012 Board of Health report, a person’s chance of dying when hit by a car travelling at 50 km/h is 85 per cent. At 30? Just five per cent. That alone is enough for me think it’s a worthwhile move.

Still, I bristle at the notion this is some great step forward for pedestrians and cyclists in Toronto. This doesn’t even qualify as a half-measure.

A real step forward for better active transportation in this city would do a lot more than slap up some new speed limit signs. It’d look at the actual configuration of streets. It would widen sidewalks. It would close entire lanes of car traffic. Hell, it would close entire streets to car traffic.

And it would see the widespread implementation of serious, no-fooling bike lanes — lanes that don’t magically and frequently turn into de facto parking spots.

And yet, despite the pervasive notion that Toronto has been waging a “war on the car” for years, we’ve seen far too little of this kind of thing. Too busy saving our elevated expressway, I guess.

Though it won’t kill anybody — seriously, I promise — a lower speed limit on some downtown streets doesn’t make up for that overall lack of progress. At best, it’s a baby step in the right direction — an acknowledgement that road users who aren't driving matter, too.

I’ll take it. But I want to see a lot more.

This post was originally published at on 2015-06-24T00:00:00.000Z

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Matt Elliott

City Hall watcher, columnist and policy wonk in Toronto.
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