WHAT does it mean to be “speeding”?

Does it mean you’re exceeding the posted speed limit? Driving too fast for conditions? Travelling at a speed that makes people outside your vehicle nervous or uncomfortable?

Judging by the number of requests for traffic calming over the last several years, speeding is a huge problem throughout Winnipeg. Often, those requests result in a traffic study being approved. What happens next?

The city comes and sets up equipment to measure speeds over the course of a certain period. The findings are almost always the same: few drivers are actually exceeding the legal speed limit.

Nevertheless, residents say there is a “speeding problem” on their street and they’re worried about it. Their concerns go unanswered because technically, there is no problem to address. People aren’t speeding. Nothing to worry about. No traffic calming is warranted.

But lay people — everyday citizens in a neighbourhood — are trying to communicate feelings of concern about comfort and safety, but the only way to describe those feelings is with words such as “speeding” and “too fast” — concepts traffic engineers will measure in concrete numbers and compare against the posted speed limit.

When neighbours say there’s a speeding problem on their street, what they are really saying is that the posted speed limit, which drivers are following, is too high.

Just a few weeks ago, my youngest child mastered the two-wheeler. She’s now keen to spend every waking moment enjoying her newfound freedom. It’s a joy to witness, and fun that we can ride bikes together as family. But sadly, as parents, as we move throughout our neighbourhood, that enjoyment is tempered by a constant state of high alert as we try to anticipate every car’s movement, speed, direction and intention.

As a driver, you might think to yourself, “I see that family riding bikes up there – I’ll be careful.” But as the parent outside the vehicle, with three kids in tow, I have no idea whether you see us, whether you’ll slow down, whether you’ll give us room to pass. It’s of zero comfort to me to know that you’re not going over the 50 km/h speed limit. The knowledge that “no one has died on this street” does not reassure me.

The pandemic has unlocked an enormous appetite and enthusiasm for spending time in our own neighbourhoods. Bike sales are through the roof. Running shoes, too. We want to be outside and we want not just to be safe, but to be comfortable. We want to feel at ease going for a walk or a bike ride with a friend, with our senior parents, with our children, with our pets.

Opponents of speed-limit reductions like to point out that residential streets aren’t where people are getting killed anyway. They suggest lowering speed limits tries to solve a problem that doesn’t exist, and will bring the city to a standstill because all the cars will have to drive around at a snail’s pace.

Reality says otherwise. Most commuting is done on major arterials (or should be), not on residential streets. Lower speed limits will result in negligible increases in travel time. To the point of solving a problem that doesn’t exist, surely we’re not just waiting for tragedy to occur to prove otherwise? In truth, slower neighbourhood speeds are about so much more than just preventing collisions.

Winnipeg’s adopted Climate Action Plan requires us to change the way people get around the city, given that nearly one-third of emissions come from personal vehicle use. Yet from Waverley West to St. Boniface to Weston, people say their neighbourhoods are a hostile place for walking or biking. How do we expect to convert more than one in every four car trips to other modes when people don’t feel at ease outside a vehicle?

Imagine neighbourhoods with fewer exhaust fumes and cleaner air. Neighbourhoods where pavement lasts longer because more of the traffic involves bikes and people, not heavy vehicles.

Imagine, too, quieter neighbourhoods where you can hear birdsong and have a chat with a neighbour from across the street without yelling: a reduction of 10 km/h in vehicle speeds results in a 40 per cent reduction in noise. Right now, many people seeking a pleasant and safe environment for walking must hop in the car and drive to a regional park. But if people simply drove more slowly, every neighbourhood in the city could have that calm and comfortable feeling.

We also know from study after study that there’s a huge contingent — close to 45 per cent — of potential bike riders in the “interested, but concerned” category. They would like to ride, but are wary of existing conditions and therefore don’t.

Those are the kinds of problems lower speed limits would solve.

Emma Durand-Wood is a volunteer with Safe Speeds Winnipeg, a grassroots group of people of all ages that are concerned about safety, comfort and sustainability in our neighborhoods.