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Calgary speed debate punted to February; plebiscite question possible

Calgary will push the issue of an unposted speed limit of 40 km/h citywide to February 2021 and it could go to a plebiscite.

After a public hearing split over two days, councillors approved a motion by Coun. Peter Demong to punt the matter to next year and consider a potential plebiscite question.  

Councillors had been considering a blanket posted speed limit to 40 km/h. In addition, the posted speed limit on collector roads in the City of Calgary would be changed to 50 km/h, until there’s an environment for a lower speed limit.

City of Calgary Traffic Safety lead, Tony Churchill delivered a presentation that’s been seen many times before, outlining some of the safety reasons behind the decision.

“As an engineer, I’m good at crunching the numbers. But I’m very mindful that in the two years I’ve been doing the speed limit review for you, there been more than 1,000 life changing or in a few cases, life-ending incidents on our neighborhood roadways,” Churchill said.  

“And to me, that isn’t just a number. It’s Calgarians, like you and me.”

The public hearing

It was split over two days and, due to other matters at city council, the initial part didn’t start until late Monday night.

That whittled down an initial list of 29 speakers to 10. The following morning none of those remaining 19 came back to the meeting.

Those who did speak, brought up the general issue of safety.

Laura Combden lost her partner, Ryan Fox, in a 2010 Calgary pedestrian collision. She acknowledged the minus 40 temperatures and potential bad decision making, “and the driver didn’t see him in time,” she said.

Speed reductions can save lives, she said. As can changes to road design and other rules. She said the debate has been ongoing and a lot of it is centered around a drivers’ time.

“The way I see it, we could drag this out for another 10 years and pit drivers against pedestrians, despite them being interchangeable, and reinforce the idea that time is somehow a factor in this equation,” Combden said.

“And really, when death is on the table, it really shouldn’t be.”

Others, like Dr. Larry Stanleigh, said in his 33 years of practice, that the majority of pedestrian involved injuries come in places other than residential roads. They come in intersections, crosswalks, stop signs, and school zones.

Stanleigh said after seeing more than 4,000 patients in the past 17 years, there are five common places that these injuries occur.

“I have not had a single patient in 17 years who hase been injured by a motor vehicle in an uncontrolled area in Calgary,” he said.  

“So, the question is, is lowering the speed limit going to achieve our very our goal of reducing injuries?”

He wondered if the $2.3 million could be better spent elsewhere on education and potentially enforcement.

Cost effective to implement

Coun. Jeff Davison, who chairs the city’s Transportation and Transit committee, said 10 of the 11 community associations in his ward support the reduction.

“And personally, as a parent, and as a concerned taxpayer, I feel this is the most cost-effective program to address safety and cost control that we could possibly implement,” he said.

In correspondence to his ward office, however, Davison said many are on the fence.  He said that’s the result of misinformation out there.

He said residents’ issue with speed is across all wards, he said. But when they take the speed cameras out, most people aren’t speeding. But millions are spent annually on traffic calming, he said.

“It’s about the perception that people are speeding when they’re actually not on residential roads,” Davison said.

“It’s because citizens feel the posted speed limit is simply too fast.”

Coun. Shane Keating said that he supports the move to 40 km/h, but that better enforcement needs to be considered.

“That’s what I think we need to be looking at is many ways in which we are openly letting the community know that if you speed, you’re going to get a ticket,” he said. He wanted even more electronic enforcement areas, especially with a reduction in mind.

“I think this is a brilliant move. 40 is the right speed, to start with, because without enforcement 30 would be absolutely difficult to enforce.”

Misinformation on speed limits

Mayor Naheed Nenshi said he was disappointed the recommendations didn’t come back with rules around collector roads.

But, he said that the bigger issue they’re facing is that of misinformation about neighbourhood speeds. He cited the idea of turning the city into a playground. He cited incorrect information about not having injuries on residential roads. Also, the mayor raised the point that plenty of valid, scientific information has been brought forward.

“I am worried that if we take this to the electors that this will be a huge campaign of misinformation,” he said.

Coun. Peter Demong put forth a set of recommendations, including potentially pushing the issue to a plebiscite in the October 2021 municipal campaign.

He said he’s also concerned about misinformation. But he said it happens on both sides.

He said on an issue like this, citizens should be able to have a specific say.

“I’m simply saying that we should be asking Calgarians how they want to travel on their streets,” he said.

Coun. Druh Farrell said that she had no faith that the information put out during a plebiscite campaign would be valid.  Coun. Woolley agreed.

Both Couns. George Chahal and Jeff Davison said that right now, with the economy on people’s brains, that this might not be a top priority.

In the end, that motion was approved 8 – 6.

Mayor Nenshi clarified that it doesn’t necessarily mean we’re going to a plebiscite on the issue.

Administration will craft a question that will be brought to council in February. At that time, the mayor said that they can approve or decline that question.

At the same time, they can vote on the original motion on the reduction of speed limits.