The headline recommendation from a new Toronto Public Health Report, Road to Health: Improving Walking and Cycling in Toronto, is reducing speed limits in the City of Toronto: reducing the limit on residential roads from 40 km/hr to 30 km/hr, and reducing the “default” speed limit on other roads (where no specific speed is posted) from 50 km/hr to 40 km/hr.
Note: this recommendation has been widely
misinterpreted to be that all roads should be 40 km/hr, but in fact it’s only for the default non-posted speed. Higher posted speeds (e.g. 60 km/hr) would override it. To be fair, the actual section in the report (p.50) is ambiguous, but the agenda linked to in the first paragraph is clear.
(Correction: Toronto Star reporter Daniel Dale followed up with the Medical Officer of Health on this question. His position is, in fact, that 60 km/hr limits should be reduced to 40, but there would be exceptions where posted. I find this position ambiguous and politically unfeasible. As well, it is too much in conflict with the speed invited by the infrastructure of these roads. So I would continue to advocate the position I originally thought was indicated in the Board of Health agenda — that the default speed should be dropped to 40 where no other speed is posted).
The recommendation comes at a particularly apt time for me. In addition to the many reasons for this proposal from a pedestrian and cyclist safety perspective, I have just started experiencing our roads from another perspective: that of a driver.
I recently started taking driving lessons (a refresher course because I haven’t been behind the wheel for 20+ years). One of the first things that I noticed, while driving along a residential road with a theoretical speed limit of 40 km/hr but actually moving at 25 km/hr to get over the regular speed bumps smoothly, was that current speed limits in Toronto don’t make a lot of sense.
Let’s start with what should be a slam-dunk: reducing residential street speed limits to 30 km/hr.
The fact is, between narrow roads, parked cars, speed bumps and regular stop signs in the older parts of the city, and curving roads and cul-de-sacs in the suburbs, not to mention watching out for kids, I doubt many drivers hit 40 km/hr for any sustained amount of time on residential streets anywhere in Toronto.
The photo above encapsulates the absurdity — a posted speed limit of 40 km/hr a hundred meters in front of a dead-end near Danforth and Pape. If you were going 40 at that point, you’d have to slam on the brakes to avoid ramming into the concrete wall.
And when drivers do hit the limit, they probably aggravate the people living on the street because it seems too fast (and they are probably accelerating and decelerating rapidly at intersections). So public opinion would probably be largely favourable. Sure, people might resent reducing speed limits in the abstract, but ask most people in Toronto about the particular street they live on and they will enthusiastically endorse slow traffic there.
And then of course there’s the safety argument. The report surveys the many studies that show that people hit by a car going less than 30 km/hr may get injured, but they are rarely killed (PDF). But once you start moving to higher speeds, the likelihood of death increases rapidly. (I heard transportation guru Bruce Appleyard describe this as the “running into a tree” effect — humans are built to survive impact with an object at their top running speed, but not faster).
There’s an argument that one should not reduce speed limits if the infrastructure is built to encourage faster speeds — but as I’ve experienced, many of Toronto’s residential streets don’t encourage speed anyway. And reducing the posted speed might encourage the City to be more open to introducing subtle speed reduction measures (beyond speed bumps), which are also recommended in the report.
The argument for the “default” speed is more controversial, but there too it was actually something that occured to me as soon as I started driving around Toronto’s east end. Setting the “default” speed at 50 km/hr leads to weird situations. Jones Ave. (correction: it might be Donlands), for example, keeps switching from 50 to 40 and back again every few blocks. At one point I was driving along a modest collector road with mostly housing on either side, but I was supposed to be speeding along at 50.
I imagine there are plenty of arterials in the centre of the city where, between congestion, traffic lights, streetcars, parked cars, turning cars, bikes and pedestrians, only a fraction of drivers ever hit the speed limit. In the suburbs, meanwhile, arterials are already signed for even faster speeds so they wouldn’t be affected.
There are certainly plenty of large roads in Toronto where a 50 km/hr limit makes sense, but these could easily be signed appropriately. Rather than having to sign when the speed drops, it makes sense to set the default as the low speed and then sign when the speed is higher. And if there are lots of areas along a minor arterial where schools, commercial districts, etc call for a lower speed, why not just make that speed consistent along the whole street?
The Public Health report is certainly a good idea from a walking and cycling perspective, but it probably also makes sense simply as a way to manage traffic speeds more rationally in the city.