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Tristan Cleveland is an urban planner who has also worked in Montreal, Guyana and Venezuela. Cleveland grew up in the south shore of Nova Scotia and has been an advocate for sustainable planning in Halifax since 2012.

Tristan Cleveland: Halifax shouldn't need permission to lower our own speed limits

Metro's columnist says our streets should be slower, but getting that change is the power of one Nova Scotia bureaucrat.

A vehicle travels through a Dartmouth neighbourhood on Monday.

Zane Woodford / Metro

A vehicle travels through a Dartmouth neighbourhood on Monday.

In Nova Scotia, speed limits are required to be at least fast enough to kill people.

At 30 km/h, 90 per cent of people hit by cars survive. At 50 km/h, only half survive.

And yet, except in school zones, Nova Scotia does not allow municipalities to set limits lower than 50 km/h, even for the most family-oriented, quiet residential streets. The provincial government should get out of the way and let our towns and cities make their own decisions about their own streets.

Montreal decided last week that all residential streets will have a speed limit of 30 km/h. Toronto, Boston, and Seattle have also reduced speeds across the board. Sydney, Australia cut fatal and severe collisions by one third in their downtown this way.

Right now, 30 km/h streets may seem radically slow, but in truth, it would only take 40 seconds longer to drive a kilometer, and only in residential neighbourhoods. Arterial roads, where people drive to go any distance, would still be plenty fast. It would just mean kids could play in their front lawn without an immediate, plausible risk of death or injury.

One reason 30 km/h seems slow is because we have designed too many streets so wide they feel like highways. The old safety philosophy was that if you give drivers more space, they are less likely to hit stuff. In fact, that extra space makes it seem natural to drive faster, and the evidence is clear that it’s speed that really increases the risk of hitting stuff — and people.

Doing 30 km/h doesn’t feel slow on Spring Garden Road, because that street is, in effect, designed for that speed. We should similarly redesign any street where the safety of the people who live or shop there is more important than people passing through to go elsewhere.

Changing street design is the right long-term solution, but it will take time. Meanwhile, setting lower limits and enforcing them has been shown to save lives. So why aren’t we allowed to?

Strangely, the barrier is not a law. The barrier is one man, the province’s Manager Traffic Engineering and Road Safety, Michael Croft. For some reason, municipalities have to come to his office and ask permission to give streets a reasonable speed.

He has, to date, nearly always said no.

Whether you agree with me or not on slower speed limits, I hope you’ll agree Halifax — and all municipalities — should have the power to make our own decisions about our own streets. A single bureaucrat should not have greater authority than our entire democratic process and the 3,500-plus employees of our municipal government. This is a decision for Halifax residents and our councillors.

Croft’s office has commissioned studies the last few years on whether slower speed limits would actually slow drivers down. I have three messages for him.

First, those studies have already been done around the world and don’t need to be repeated here.

Second, why is the default speed in the meantime the one that kills people?

Third, shove off, Halifax’s own traffic engineers can handle this.

Halifax’s Integrated Mobility and Road Safety Plans are our opportunity to make comprehensive decisions about the right speed limits for our streets. We can choose saving lives over getting to work a minute faster, but we can only have a reasonable conversation about it if the province lets Halifax make our own decisions.

We shouldn’t have to ask anyone permission to make our city safer.

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