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What if there was a way cities and towns across Canada could instantly reduce greenhouse gas emissions, improve mobility, cut the number of stop signs dotting our streets while improving safety?

In fact, there is: the 30 km/h speed limit.

Most just choose not to use it, despite the fact Canadian municipalities aspire to be part of the solution to the biggest collective-action problem in human history:

“They can lead the way,” according to the Federation of Canadian Municipalities (FCM), “to achieving Canada’s climate change and sustainability targets.”

Municipalities can directly and indirectly shape around 50 per cent of Canada’s total greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. Yet, in most cities transportation remains the largest or second largest emitting sector, driven primarily by personal-vehicle traffic.

Local policymakers face a significant challenge. The sheer scale of urban-transportation infrastructure represents what economists and political scientists call path dependence. From roadway expansion to urban sprawl, past decisions constrain contemporary choices because they reinforce mobility patterns that encourage car usage as the default mode of transportation.

Many Canadian municipalities have increased investment in public transit and complementary infrastructure to promote active transportation such as separate bike lanes or complete streets made for safe mobility for all users.

However, this approach alone is not sufficient to escape from the high-carbon mobility trap. What is needed is a paradigmatic policy shift that not only incentivizes walking and cycling, but also disincentivizes personal-vehicle traffic through robust traffic calming.

A look across the Atlantic demonstrates that municipalities have options. By the 1970s, European cities had begun to gradually pedestrianize their inner cores. In the 1980s and 1990s, they started to introduce speed limits of 30 km/h on certain residential roads along with so-called “play streets” that allow pedestrians, cyclists and vehicles to mingle on an equal basis.

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Since the Paris Agreement in 2015, these efforts have ramped up. In 2022, in car-centric Germany, an alliance of 263 municipalities asked the federal government for full legal authority to expand existing 30 km/h zones wherever they deem necessary.

To be sure, 30 km/h zones won’t solve the problem all by themselves. But they are an important tool as part of a more equitable and sustainable local transportation infrastructure. The German Environment Agency, the Canadian Association of Road Safety Professionals and the World Health Organization all urge local governments to follow the lead of cities such as Brussels, Lille or Grenoble and roll out 30 km/h limits across-the-board.

The reason is an abundance of empirical evidence suggesting that 30 km/h is a critical threshold that makes a difference by reinforcing infrastructure equity and sustainability. A lower limit significantly enhances road safety, reduces GHG emissions and eases traffic flows.

In zones of 30 km/h, many four-way stops can be done away with in residential neighbourhoods. Four-way stops are terrible for managing traffic. They also lead to higher vehicle emissions and fuel costs. In place of four-way stops, other cities safely use the rule of “priority to the right” in low-speed zones. One road is given the right of way by default, and approaching vehicles yield as they enter.

But unlike their European counterparts, the vast majority of Canadian municipalities have shied away from adopting policy instruments that local leadership believes would add restrictions for drivers.

Montreal and Banff are noticeable exceptions. For example, Montreal was among the first Canadian municipalities to experiment with 30 km/h speed limits in 2014. Banff demonstrated leadership by introducing 30 km/h as the default in 2022.

On the flipside, in Ontario’s Waterloo Region, one of the fastest-growing metropolitan areas in Canada, we get a glimpse into the dynamics behind mediocre efforts to decarbonize local transportation systems.

There, two orders of government share the responsibility for transport infrastructure: three city councils (Cambridge, Kitchener and Waterloo) and the regional council regulate different roadways.

In February 2023, Waterloo city council revoked an earlier decision to introduce 30 km/h on most residential roads, opting instead to apply the reduced speed limit downtown only.

The City of Kitchener did not even consider 30 km/h for its Vision Zero strategy, instead going with 40 km/h in residential neighbourhoods. According to the city’s own pilot project, the average speed reduction was a meagre three km/h. Yet for the mayor this step “sets an ambitious goal.”

Even in school zones, municipal and regional councillors have demonstrated unwillingness to establish a harmonized framework that prioritizes students’ safety. The same school campus can be subject to different speed limits. For example, if an adjacent road belongs to the region, it is 40 km/h. If it belongs to the City of Waterloo or Kitchener, it is 30 km/h.

On Dec. 11, 2023, Kitchener’s city council decided to further increase inconsistency with a measure whereby only streets without automated speed-enforcement cameras will keep the 30km/h limit.

The same councillor who introduced a motion recognizing a climate emergency in 2019 spearheaded the opposition against robust speed limits in 2023, arguing it is too challenging to get compliance. In the Dec. 11 council meeting, he talked about how speed-camera enforcement is considered punitive.

In Waterloo Region and elsewhere, entrenched interests of drivers are amplified in public debates while those of vulnerable demographics and future generations who would benefit most from change barely resonate. Significant change will remain elusive as long as municipal policymakers fear backlash caused by presenting drivers with a perceived inconvenience.

Effective policy can alter public opinion. When the Austrian city of Graz enacted a speed limit of 30 km/h on all its residential roads, approval rates increased from 44 per cent shortly before it was introduced to 77 per cent two years later. Berlin had success with a 30 km/h project in 2017, and elsewhere in Europe, similar experiments have been a success story.

Canadians are among the highest GHG emitters per capita worldwide. As we learned from the commissioner of the environment and sustainable development in early November, Canada is poised to miss its 2030 emission target. This is not only a federal problem. Local governments bear as much responsibility as the provinces or Ottawa.

Cities can make a difference with modern approaches like lower speed limits. They have little or no downside and are a win-win for safety and the environment.

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Jörg Broschek
Jörg Broschek is a professor of political science and Laurier research chair at Wilfrid Laurier University. X: @Jorg_Broschek

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