How Calgary's 'built for speed' playground zones punish people for doing what comes naturally
Safety advocates say enforcement a 'Band-Aid' solution but road design offers longer-term fix
This story was originally posted on June 6.
Over the past three years, Calgary drivers have racked up hundreds of thousands of tickets for speeding in playground zones and shelled out tens of millions of dollars in fines.
And yet, even in Elbow Park — home to the most-ticketed playground zone in the city — area residents say speeding remains a problem. Drivers continue to rip through the residential area in spite of the frequent enforcement.
So maybe, some road-safety advocates say, enforcement isn't the answer.
Maybe there's another way to slow drivers down near schools and playgrounds.
Maybe we should look at the roads, themselves.
Speed and psychology
Calgary is "a city that's built for speed," said Coun. Druh Farrell, who represents the inner-city Ward 7.
One-way streets downtown, divided roadways in residential areas and lanes wide enough to meet highway specifications are all commonplace, she notes, and these types of design choices tend to encourage fast driving.
She says there's a psychological element at play, one that's hard for even the most rule-abiding driver to override. When a road is large enough and open enough to handle high speeds, travelling at 50 km/h — let alone 30 km/h — just feels too slow.
And so, Farrell says, is it any wonder that drivers continue to speed through playground zones?
"There is a compliance problem with playgrounds," she said. "And I would say that's a design problem."
Police say enforcement is their primary tool to reduce speeding, but Sgt. Joerg Gottschling admits Calgary's urban design can make it a challenge, in places, to keep drivers from travelling too fast near children.
"The city is laid out so that some of our schools or playgrounds are on these busier roads," he said.
"It's not ideal for the safety of kids, but police aren't the ones who set up where the ... playground zones are."
A lot of it, he says, has to do with the way the city was built — especially the inner-city — decades ago. Past planners plunked down schools and playgrounds right next to major thoroughfares, and now Calgary is largely stuck with the situation.
That's part of the reason, Gottschling says, that police focus so much of their enforcement in the central part of the city.
But traffic-safety advocate Greg Hart says there are problems in more suburban areas, too.
A longer-term solution?
Traffic might be lighter outside the core but roadways are often wider, which Hart says encourages faster driving.
As a co-founder of Vision Zero YYC — an organization that works to reduce injuries and deaths from traffic collisions — he has been pressing for fundamental changes in the design of roadways in all parts of the city.
It's not that roads and kids can't co-exist, he says. Rather, it's a question of what those roads look like — and feel like — when they are adjacent to schools, playgrounds, or other high-risk areas where drivers need to slow down.
Given the current road design in many playground zones, he says, it's hard to blame drivers for letting their speed creep above the posted limit.
"We create a road that's an 80-km/h design speed and then tell people to drive 30 km/h," he said. "And then get mad at them when they drive more than 30 km/h. That's a problem."
The solution, in his view, is to put the revenue from speeding tickets to work — by using it to redesign roads.
Earmark fines to specific zones
Instead of directing the money to the provincial and municipal governments' general coffers, Hart says the fines from a particular playground zone could be earmarked to a fund dedicated to that zone.
When enough money is raised to retrofit the playground zone with traffic calming measures — such as curb extensions, lane-width reductions, speed humps and the like — police could then shift their enforcement to a new playground zone, and repeat the process.
Over time, Hart believes this would lead to greater reductions in drivers' speeds in more and more playground zones, reducing the overall need for enforcement.
But the changes have also been controversial, raising the ire of many drivers. Similar complaints have been levelled at traffic-calming measures across Canada, from Vancouver to Edmonton to St. John's.
Another common complaint among Calgary drivers who get caught speeding in playground zones is that the signs are not visible enough and easy to miss.
To fix that problem, Farrell says, the city should look overseas.
She thinks Calgary could learn from places like the Netherlands, where, in addition to signs, they use physical changes to the roadway to indicate the beginning of a low-speed zone, making it harder to miss.
"There's these visual cues that show that you're entering a playground zone: the texture of the street, the way the street is designed — it often narrows — and so there's a visual indication that something's different," she said.
"And they see better compliance."
She also agrees with Hart that Calgary could work on retrofitting some of its older playground zones, but believes there's an even easier place to begin making changes.
"The first thing should start with is: stop designing our streets like that. We know better now," she said.
"A sign of failure, to me, is when you've got a brand-new community and you're getting calls from residents there desperate for ... traffic control measures, when it's a brand-new neighbourhood. We can design safety and better behaviour into those communities."
Hart would be happy to see design changes start anywhere.
He believes the status quo of targeting enforcement in areas where drivers are most likely to speed isn't only ineffective — it's unfair.
"If we're generating all this fine revenue and we're not using it to fix the problems, then we've got a really big moral problem on our hands," he said.
"Because we are just literally taxing people for behaving in a way which is, frankly, not inconsistent with the design of the roadway."
This is the final part in a three-part series on playground zones. Read the other two here:
- PART ONE | Calgary has 1,200 playground zones. Most speeding tickets are issued in just these 10 spots
- PART TWO | Northeast Calgarians wonder why their playground zones get so much less speed enforcement
Calgary: The Road Ahead is CBC Calgary's special focus on our city as it passes through the crucible of the downturn: the challenges we face, and the possible solutions as we explore what kind of Calgary we want to create. Have an idea? Email us at firstname.lastname@example.org
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With files from CBC data journalist Jacques Marcoux