Reduced speeds won’t expand travel time

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I drive a car that spends almost all its time on the streets of Winnipeg. Thanks to the vehicle’s trip computer, I know my average speed — 31 kilometres per hour.

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Opinion

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 17/07/2021 (389 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

I drive a car that spends almost all its time on the streets of Winnipeg. Thanks to the vehicle’s trip computer, I know my average speed — 31 kilometres per hour.

So, the current debate over lowering speed limits on some city streets comes as a bit of a surprise. There is some opposition as the City of Winnipeg begins a yearlong experiment with reducing the speed limit to 30 km/h from 50 km/h on sections of four local streets. Do opponents of the move realize how fast they really travel?

The simple fact is that lowering speed limits to 30 km/h on many residential streets is not going to change how quickly you get around town — and it will save lives in the process.

JOHN WOODS / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS FILES Reducing speeds on residential streets, as is being done on four routes during a City of Winnipeg experiment this year, would have little impact on drivers’ overall travel times.

It is well known that the actual speed vehicles travel in an urban area is governed by such factors as traffic volumes, the road system, accidents and construction — and not so much by posted speed limits.

A study in New York a few years ago famously found that the average travelling speed of a vehicle in Manhattan was 7.5 km/h, which means you can just about keep up to cars on foot at a brisk walking pace.

Winnipeg rarely has gridlocked traffic, but try crossing the city on Route 90 during morning or afternoon rush hours. Sure, the signs say 50 km/h, 70 km/h or even 80 km/h, but try achieving that on Wednesday at 4:30 p.m.

I am about as average a motorist as can be, driving to work and other activities over a series of residential streets, neighbourhood collector roads and highways, all within city limits. I rarely venture outside the Perimeter Highway.

Over thousands of kilometres every year, the trip computer comes up with the same average of 31 km/h in the stop-and-go traffic I encounter across the city. That’s not going to change if I have to slow down to 30 km/h on some residential streets. In fact, like most drivers, I spend very little time on residential streets and rarely drive the speed limit on them in any event. They are usually the first leg or the last leg of a journey, as they are intended to be.

The focus on speed limits shows a lack of knowledge about how fast people really drive, and also about how speed limits fit into the bigger program of road safety.

The stated goal of many cities now is to achieve “Vision Zero,” a concept that eliminates traffic fatalities entirely. Lower speed limits play a role in this. But the concept is much broader. Its goal is a safe transportation system in which the needs of street users, vehicles and the transportation network have to be addressed in an integrated manner, through a wide range of interventions.

It can involve redesigning roads, redirecting traffic, creating separate routes for pedestrians and cyclists, improved driver training and many other features. The whole system must work together and cannot have elements that are at odds with the bigger picture.

That is where lower residential speed limits come in. The design of most residential streets makes them perfectly safe if vehicles travel at 30 km/h. Drivers can stop quickly if, for example, a child runs onto the street. Motorists and cyclists can safely share the road, with lots of time to react, move over and drive around.

Speed things up to 50 km/h and the dynamics change. The motorist expects to travel at that speed. The child is in danger. The cyclist and motorist get into conflict because the motorist must slow down or stop to avoid a collision.

My River Heights street has speed bumps, stop signs and yield signs, all within a distance of a few hundred metres. The only thing that makes it dangerous is a motorist racing to get up to the 50 km/h speed limit for a few seconds on the one-block, 400-metre unimpeded stretch in front of my house.

A street for vehicles going 50 km/h needs separate lanes for motorists and cyclists, more traffic lights and crosswalks, more safety measures. There are lots of streets like this in Winnipeg, nearby the residential streets, and the speed limits on them are not changing.

Neither is the time it is going to take you to get across the city, travelling at the real average speed you go on city streets.

Bob Cox is the publisher of the Winnipeg Free Press.

Bob Cox

Bob Cox
Publisher

Bob Cox was named publisher of the Winnipeg Free Press in November 2007. He joined the newspaper as editor in May 2005.

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