It’s been years since I sat through an Edmonton City Council debate. But I am no stranger to the arcane and convoluted discussions that occur under the glass pyramids. I spent more than 20 years covering Edmonton city hall for CBC Radio.
Full disclosure. While I am very much a journalist, the death of our son, David, while crossing Whyte Avenue, has pushed my wife and I to advocate for greater road safety. But my experience in interpreting and explaining the nuances of city decision-making still holds. And I feel the record needs to be set straight after some misleading news stories resulting from Tuesday’s seven hours of questions and debate. Particularly, the suggestion that councillors simply “kicked the can” further down the road when it comes to lowering residential speeds.
1. 40 k/hr residential speeds city-wide.
First let’s look at what city councillors supported and what they rejected.
By a vote of ten-to-three, they supported the idea of lowering speeds in all residential areas to 40 k/hr. During the final stage of the debate every one of those councillors (except one–more on this later) spoke about pressure from their constituents who have been demanding slower speeds in their communities.
“People want to feel safer on their residential roads, ” said Ben Henderson.
“This is about reducing risk. This is the biggest lever we can pull,” added Sarah Hamilton.
Michael Walters added “I am 100 per cent certain people do not need to drive 50 k/hr in residential areas.”
The administration had suggested that councillors could opt to keep 50 k/hr speeds on residential collector roads. Those are the slightly larger roads that run through neighbourhoods and connect a series of smaller streets in the community (think Snow Routes.) Councillors summarily rejected the suggestion, something that you might have expected from politicians who were wavering on the 40 k/hr blanket approach.
One of the votes in support of 40 k/hr decision was from Coun. Moe Banga, who said he was only doing that to see what comes forward in the final bylaw.
That leaves nine votes in favour of going to 40 k/hr in all residential areas of the city. You only need seven votes for the plan to become a reality. And every one of those supporters made it clear they have heard the opposition, but have also heard a much stronger demand for slower speeds.
This is the very first time there has been that kind of majority support for this key initiative, and something road safety advocates have every right to cheer about. This is headline news, for us anyway.
2. #YegCore Zone
But councillors did not stop there. In a very elegant solution proposed by Coun. Andrew Knack, they also supported a further step to reduce speeds. It says speeds will be 30k/hr, both on collectors and neighbourhood streets in the inner core of the city.
The vote on the #YegCore Zone initiative was seven-to-six, a narrow majority.
Some, including Coun. Sarah Hamilton, are not convinced that having one speed for most neighbourhoods and a slower one for others is a reasonable approach. With only a one-vote margin the #YegCore Zone decision might be on shakier ground.
But even if #YegCore supporters lose at the bylaw debate, core areas of the city will still see speeds drop to 40 k/hr, with 30 k/hr in playground zones. And there are a lot of playgrounds and schools in those core areas.
3. No change until next year?
Now let’s talk about the notion that council simply delayed making a decision, again. The changes council approved need a special bylaw. Under the procedures, the administration must prepare the bylaw and all its complex legal language and present it at a public hearing before a final debate. Officials predicted this would take until the fall, at the earliest.
One of the reasons is that this is new territory. Until recently, only the province could set default speeds for a municipality like Edmonton. Now the city has that power, even for specific geographic areas. (You can thank the Notley government for that.)
Councillors are also emphatic that they want their officials to take a close look at any anomalies that the bylaw could create before they approve it. City politicians are still smarting about having to backtrack on some recent speed changes in playground zones and others where the new limits just didn’t make sense to anyone.
So the plan is to bring the bylaw reflecting council’s directives back for a public hearing and vote in January. That’s the standard process the city must go through to implement this change.
Will there be opposition? Undoubtedly. There are those, who cling to the notion that the car is king and everyone else should just get out of the way. They don’t believe a speed reduction will make the streets safer. These people have their voices on city council. Couns. Moe Banga, Mike Nickel, Jon Dziadyk and Tony Caterina are all skeptics about the value of lowering residential speeds.
4. What next?
If you sat through Tuesday’s debate as I did, all seven hours of it, you would have been struck by the passion of those councillors who want to lower residential speeds. They believe it is a significant and major step towards the city’s Vision Zero campaign of reducing deaths and injuries on our streets. And it’s one that can be made relatively quickly, easily and at a lower cost than other traffic safety improvements.
So did council “kick this down the road.” Not from where I sit.