REID: Getting sensible speed limits

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.



  1. Great idea, I was happy to see this as a headline in the Globe & Mail today.

    My borough of Islington in central London (which is rather urban and leans left politically) has just enacted a borough-wide “Twenty’s Plenty” limit. In the UK speed limits are in mph, and 20mph equals 32kph. Similar to the Toronto proposal, the 20mph limit applies to unsigned streets, and other more major roads where the speed is posted can exceed the 20mph limit. More info:

  2. 40km/h default? Non starter. This isn’t Mayberry FFS.

  3. What I don’t really get is: why do this?

    Whenever I drive, I find (much like you did) that the speeds that people drive in the old city of Toronto tend to be the “natural” speed for that road.  That often means less than 40km/h on residential roads, and higher than the posted limit on others.  I’d like to see some research on the actual speeds that people drive in this city, and whether they are in fact dictated by posted speed limits.  My hunch is that they aren’t, at least not on the types of roads that would be affected by this change.

    I should also add that I’m not sure what the situation is in the inner suburbs, however I bet that speeds are higher since streets are designed more around the car.  This would be the place lowering the speed limits could help the most, but again, I’m personally doubtful that lowering the limits would change driver behavior in a meaningful way.

  4. Just about most residential roads have signs with 40 km/h on them. It would the cheaper (I would have thought Rob Ford would have suggested this) to remove the 40 km/h signs, and only post the 50 km/h and 60 km/h, etc. where needed on the arterial roads. Having 40 km/h as the standard urban speed limit would help to reduce the cost of signs, limiting them where the speed is over or below 40 km/h.

  5. Very laudable proposal. 30km limit on residential street is very sensible. I am not a slow driver but I can very rarely get beyond 30km on side streets. 40km in downtown main roads also make sense. Yes sometimes I was able get up to 50km but chances are you will have to brake pretty soon. 40km for major road in the burb is not going to work. People routinely go up to 70 there. 50 with the common understanding that you can go over 20% without consequences is probably a sensible compromise. So I’d like to see 10km slashing across the board.

  6. Dan, I agree with your observation, but not your conclusion. Yes, most people do drive below the marked 40 on side streets. But there are the jerks who do drive at 40 or even a bit over (I see those jerks once a while in my own kids-filled neighbourhood and am super annoyed), but what they do are perfectly legal under current regime. Slashing the limit to 30 will at least send a strong message to them that what they do is not OK and provide the legal ground for enforcement if the behaviour persists.

  7. Exactly right.  This is modeled on the NYC Slow Zones, which themselves are modeled on the UK 20-is-plenty zones. Would only apply to certain areas that meet certain conditions, just like in New York:

    See page 50 of the report.  This is well proven and old news at this point.

    It’s amusing noting all of the NYC references in the report — now Toronto has to learn from the land of Robert Moses how to be a cyclist/pedestrian?  Times have changed…

  8. “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.”

    I’d make a related argument: instead of wasting effort on signs that don’t really affect behaviour, we should be fixing dangerous infrastructure whenever it is due for rebuilding.

    As noted, a lot of downtown residential streets already do a good job of signalling to drivers that they need to go slowly. That essentially none of the fatal collisions in Toronto occur on these streets implies that drivers are already going below 30 km/h.

    For suburban residential streets, narrowing of the paved surface, planting of trees nearer the road edge, bump-outs and painted or textured road treatments would all be much more effective at slowing vehicles. Drivers’ behaviours and speed are based on how dangerous a road feels to them, not signs that are obviously out of touch with the actual physical conditions.

  9. Why do cars have to adjust? certain special interest group bitching and demandning that cars adjust for pedestrians and cyclists yet they won’t follow their own verbal diarhea.

    1) Pedestrians need to look BOTH ways when crossing
    2) Pedestrians need to cross at proper crossings and not jaywalk

    3) Cyclists need to stop bitching, if traffic is too fast for you then go to a smaller residentail street that runs parallel to the major street that is having traffic too fast
    4) Cyclists need to obey the same rules cars do, oh it would be nice to start sometime

    5) Cyclists: RED MEANS STOP, just so you know
    6) Cyclists, stop riding on the sidewalk thus taking away space and endangering pedestrians.

    Downtown streets should have slower speeds due to things being more compact. 30/40 in the suburbs? are you friggin kidding me?

    Yu, so people going 40 in a 40 zone is an issue? Your kids shouldn’t be playing on the street, street hockey is illegal in the first place. Go take them to the library or the mall.

  10. I live along the stretch of Dundas east of Dundas/Roncesvalles, and motorists frequently take it upon themselves to floor it, especially going eastbound. It’s noisy, unsafe, and just plain obnoxious.

    This is especially a problem this time of year, because the motorcycles are back out in full force. A floored motorcycle is insanely loud and can shake nearby buildings to an alarming degree (and this comes from someone who’s completely acclimatized to living on a streetcar route).

    I couldn’t tell you what the speed limit here is, but lowering it (and enforcing it) would presumably dissuade this kind of stuff, which would go a long way to improving the feel of the neighbourhood.

  11. Yes, LAKA, given the density and nature of the neighbourhood, 40 is an issue, and the fact that it is marked as 40 zone is also an issue. That is why the report calls for a lower limit. BTW, in case of side streets, the limit can be totally a local decision. I don’t give a damn if the residents in the burb want their neighbourhood street to be 40 or 50 or 60, they can have their way. But I am pretty sure residents in my neighbourhood, and probably most downtown neighbourhood would agree that 30 is a more reasonable limit in our neighbourhood.

  12. Laka’s comments are a perfect example of the different attitudes residents of this city have towards their streets.

    I completely understand why drivers take this kind of attitude towards pedestrians and cyclists. My problem is that he is not asking the same of his fellow drivers. They break the law as much as pedestrians and cyclists. The only difference is that when a driver breaks those rules the consequences can be much more dire and tragic.

    That’s why drivers have to adjust and not pedestrians. I’ve never heard of a pedestrian running into another pedestrian and it resulting in a death or dismemberment. Its because the speed of cyclists and pedestrians (and their mass) is not dangerous.

  13. While Laka’s comments were very aggressive and uncalled for, she does make one good point: 30-40 in the suburbs is not going to work. I don’t know how they would do it, but in the old city making the non-posted speed 40 while in other areas making it 50 could work.

    Also, while some short stub streets may have a non-posted limit of 50, the reason for this has more to do with the cost of implementing a speed limit sign on each and every one of such roads. This and expecting the smallest level of common sense of a driver that if a road is only a few hundred feet long with no posted speed limit, that flooring it to 50 is not a necessarily a good idea for their safety – let alone others. As mentioned earlier, people will drive at a speed which feels safe to them. With this in mind, referring back to the picture above, the question shouldn’t be why the posted limit is 40, but why the city spent the money to put up any speed limit sign on such a small street.

  14. Ben,

    I’d like to reiterate my position that speed limit on residential streets can be a local decision (say, councillor of each riding can listen to the voice of the constituents and request a certain limit for the riding). That way suburban residents can maintain (or even increase if they wish) speed limit in front of their house; while downtown residents can decide for themselves what they want, which I firmly believe is going to be a lower speed limit.

  15. It’s like I’m talking in a vaccuum.  Read the NYC page I linked to — the slow zones” being installed there are only being used in very, very specific areas that meet a long list of certain criteria, and they have to have strong local approval.  You don’t get them automatically, you have to apply as a tiny 5×5 block area with local political support.

    When deployed under these conditions, they are an excellent idea that only a person stuck in the 1960s would oppose.  

  16. I’m surprised that there seems to be a consensus that drivers travel the speed limit in residential neighbourhoods and generally in the downtown area.

    For example, Davenport Road is posted as 40kph. If you drive 40kph (other than at rush hour when traffic is backed up), you will be the slowest car on the road. I would say the average speed by observation is approximately 60kph and faster is not unusual.

    Shaw Street is a residential street that is posted 30kph (near schools) and 40kph in other areas. There are may stops and speed bumps in some areas. I can pretty much guarantee that no one does 30kph . . . and even around speed bumps drivers often brake and then accelerate aggressively.

    For any driver who doesn’t agree, I suggest they do a test. Drive in the city for one week never exceeding the posted speed limit. You will see that you are usually the slowest driver on the road and usually annoying to other drivers who feel no obligation to follow the posted speed limits.

    Personally I would rather see existing speed limits enforced effectively before reducing speed limits, but in principle I support reducing speed limits for the safety of all users of public space. If drivers (and I am one) follow the speed limit and drive less aggressively, everyone is safer, there are reduced environmental impacts and they save gasoline and money.

  17. Wow, the comment section has become a bit derailed over this!

    Implementing the “Twenty’s Plenty” campaign in London meant reframing the debate from an us-versus-them, war-on-the-car focused discourse to one that outlines the benefits to the whole community. – Quieter streets;
    – Safer streets for children to play in (this one is really compelling for families, even car-loving ones)
    – Cleaner air
    – Higher property values

  18. @Don

    As a driver, I’d agree that most vehicles are generally going about 10-30 km/h over the speed limit on streets like Davenport (i.e. older through streets, no stop signs, 40-50 km/h posted limits). If there’s a known speed trap, then about half of drivers tend to be going at ~9 km/h over the limit to avoid a ticket.

    On the one-way, stop signs at every intersection, parking on both sides residential streets, I’d still say that most vehicles are travelling at the speed limit (with the exception of the idiots who believe it’s okay to go the wrong way down a one-way street as long as they’re flooring it in reverse).

    Compare either of those to a suburban collector/arterial road. The speed limit can be as little as 50 km/h, but drivers will be going 80-100 km/h if they can. For better enforcement to really work (i.e. catch the most dangerous drivers), you’d need large-scale location tracking or extensive police presence so drivers know they will be caught almost 100% of the time, which would be hugely invasive and expensive on an ongoing basis.

    Drivers travel at the speed that feels safe and not overly risky to them. One way to make them slow down is to increase the risk of getting a ticket to a very high level. The other way is to decrease their feeling of safety and increase their feeling of potential risk. On a lot of our streets, drivers feel safe at high speeds; they have clear views, wide lanes, long distances between intersections, and they’re inside an invincible machine. All these create an expectation that nothing unexpected can happen.

    A better way is to design the environment to give them cues that dangerous things might happen, and that they need to be on guard.

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