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Canadian Urbanism Uncovered

Beyond Speedbumps: other ways to calm traffic on residential streets

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Last fall, I went on a community walk in Rivertowne, a new development north-west of Queen E. and Broadview that combines public and market townhouses. The residents have been concerned by cars speeding through the development, especially on the rebuilt Munro St., which provides a clear route for cars, but also on other streets and laneways. Their concern is heightened by the fact that there are many children in the neighbourhood, and at least one has been hit, fortunately without serious injury.

There were speedbumps in one laneway, and the residents hoped for others to slow traffic on Munro, but speedbumps are not always easy. Emergency services don’t like them, and they require a traffic study that demonstrates certain conditions are met that make them necessary in order for staff to recommend them.

The situation got me thinking about the other methods that are available to calm traffic on residential streets, many of which are also more subtle than speed bumps. In some cases, these other methods are also cheaper and easier to implement. Most of them have additional benefits that enhance the street and the community, in a way that speed bumps don’t.

So here’s a list of a few alternative strategies to calm traffic and create a more appealing residential street environment, starting with some that are quick and low-cost to implement.

The key to all of these strategies is to create a complex environment — one in which drivers are taken out of autopilot and have to, or want to, pay more attention to their surroundings. When they do so, drivers drive more slowly. It is sometimes referred to as “psychological traffic calming.” Another advantage is that these measures are less aggressive towards drivers, and in some cases may actually make the driving experience more pleasant as well.

These strategies can be used individually or in combination. A combination of these strategies can lead to a fully shared street — a street where vehicles share the street with other uses.

Painting the street or intersection

In Portland, a group known as “City Repair” started a process called “Intersection Repair.” It can include many different elements, but a key one is the community coming together to paint a giant mural on the surface of the intersection. It signals to drivers that this is a place, not just a throughfare — and they may even want to pause long enough to absorb the image. Murals can be also be painted on the street itself — for example, the recently created pedestrian streets on Gould St. and Willcocks St. on downtown campuses are signalled in part by paintings on the asphalt. It’s inexpensive, requires no change to infrastructure, and can be created by the community in a weekend.

Alternating parking

In “woonerfs” in Holland (see the photo above, from Amsterdam), one of the ways cars are slowed is by having to manoeuver around obstacles, including parking that changes side of the street and direction (sometimes parallel, sometimes vertical). Without adopting a full woonerf, a residential street with parking could have that parking alternate which side of the street it is on within the same block. Drivers are accustomed to watching for parked cars (whose presence can in itself slow traffic if a street is narrow enough), and they would simply have to slow further to work around them. This strategy would only require street paint and signage to indicate the correct parking locations. With a further investment, sidewalk bulb-outs could be created to demarcate the parking zones.

Street games

Kingston, Ontario recently adopted guidelines that allow street hockey and other street games on residential streets. Rather than having children darting into the street while playing games on the edges, numerous children occupy the street itself, becoming far more visible. They are required to make way for vehicles, of course — but vehicles will naturally slow down to watch for playing children and give them time to clear. It requires no infrastructure investment other than a warning sign for drivers, and it helps keep kids healthy.

Street trees

Recent research has suggested that having trees planted close to the street   helps to slow traffic (PDF). They create a sense that the road is narrower, and therefore needs to be travelled more slowly (and, perhaps surprisingly, one study suggests (PDF) that drivers too may feel a street with trees is safer). They also create many other benefits for the neighbourhood, of course — shade, windbreaks, absorbing rainwater runoff and pollution, not to mention beauty.

Narrowing entrances and bulb-outs

Narrowing the entrance to a street is a way to signal that it is not a through-street but one that should be driven through slowly and carefully. On a street with parking, there is always a gap at the intersection where parking has to stop for the sake of visibility. It’s easy to create a bulb-out at such locations, so that the sidewalk extends out to take up this space and narrows the entrance to the street, while also making for a shorter crossing for pedestrians. Bulb-outs can also be used mid-block to remind drivers to slow down and provide space for street furniture. The extra space can be used for an attractive purpose, such as decorative pavings or a flowerbed. This strategy requires a more significant investment.

Raised pedestrian crossings

At intersections, pedestrian crossings can be safer, more accessible and avoid winter “puddling” effects if they are raised to the level of the sidewalk, with the street sloping up to meet them. It’s also feasible for the entire intersection to be raised. Without being an actual speed bump, rising to meet this intersection slows drivers slightly, avoids rapid acceleration through an intersection, and reminds them to be aware of people on foot.

Different surfaces

If more money becomes available, using different street surfaces such as interlocking brick will tend to slow drivers down and signal to them that they are in a different environment. They can be helpful even just at significant sections of the street such as intersections.

Un-defining the street space

One interesting strategy for increasing driver’s attention is removing definition (paint, signs, curbs) that demarcates the space. Woonerfs, for example, usually don’t have separate curbs to define a sidewalk.

Without realizing it, Toronto already has some elements of this approach — for example, residential two-way streets generally don’t have lane markings on them, and this encourages cars to slow down to negotiate around each other. As well, many suburban streets don’t have sidewalks —  which is a source of danger to pedestrians in the absence of any traffic calming measures, but which could become the basis for a shared street if other interventions were introduced.

Signage and speed limits

In many European cities, shared residential streets are signalled by a particular type of sign that shows a pedestrian, a playing child, a car and house sharing the space. These signs validate the use of the street for purposes other than driving. Such streets also normally have much slower speed limits than regular streets.

Even just dropping the speed limit to 30 or 25 kph on residential streets would make a significant difference — below these speeds, cars are far less likely to kill someone they hit. New York City is currently in the process of setting up neighbourhood “slow zones”. As for signs, even simple “children at play” signs can validate the use of the space by children and help remind drivers to keep an eye out. And the speed limit can be painted on the road at the entrance to the zone.

However, signage and speed limits are not enough. They only work if the street also provides other indications that it is shared. A wide, straight empty street will be a speedway for vehicles no matter what signage it has.

Making it happen

In Toronto, there are isolated examples of some of these infrastructure strategies — bulb-outs on a few streets (such as Logan Ave.), the use of brick pavers and street trees to calm traffic on St. George, and a short stretch of Kings College Circle in the University of Toronto where the cobblestone street transitions smoothly into the sidewalks. But the cost of changing infrastructure tends to mean these strategies remain limited and isolated.

We have not really explored the possibilities of giving communities some space to experiment with their own lower-cost solutions for residential streets. Yet I expect there are many residential streets in Toronto where the residents would love to find ways to calm traffic, and might come up with additional ideas beyond these ones, too. If the city would allow communities to adopt multiple strategies from a menu of options, it might find it gets happier residents and calmer streets for little cost.

Photograph by Dylan Reid



  1. This is a great collection of strategies Dylan. I’ve been trying to get traffic calming on my street, Indian Grove, north of Dundas West and absolutely nothing has happened. We get the irate overflow from Dundas West at rush hour and new condo owners zooming down this short strip of Indian Grove to the parking garage under Heinzman place. (These new condo owners seem quite put out by people crossing the street and often drive up onto the sidewalk if they face on coming traffic instead of waiting a second for the other car to pass safely.)

    I made 2 official complaints to the city about dangerous driving and speeds down this previously sleepy street. I’ve also talked to my City Councillor’s office (Gord Perks) about it multiple times – but there has been no action or followup. I *was* told that the city rarely installs obstacles to cause drivers to do the slow down and swerve thing. However I have seen them in more affluent and organized neighbourhood – the big cement planters that stick out into the road.

    I’ve taken photos of 3 accidents that happened on this 1 block strip – all the result of drivers going to fast. I’ve forwarded those all to the Perk’s office.

    I was told the police were doing speed checks – but never heard of the results of this study.

    It’s not easy to get things changed. I guess I should pull together a huge number of my neighbours and we’ll do a study, and create the plans and demand we get traffic calming so we can reclaim our streetscape and neighbourhood life.

    I wish these kinds of street calming techniques were the norms and neighbours simply had to vote for which was more appropriate rather than reinvent the wheel and try to coordinate the City engineering department, the parking department, the police and the City Councillor’s office to talk to each other and get the job done.

    Unfortunately most City employees are in a very pessimistic mood these days thanks to Ford and co. I’ve been told directly by some that they aren’t willing to take on new challenges that might cost the City extra money or make their department stick out in any way.

    Meanwhile I’m worried about a person or animal getting hit, and the deterioration of my neighbourhood street life.

  2. The phrase “traffic calming on residential streets” is one that everyone’s familiar with, yet few realize just how devastating an indictment of cage culture it is.

    I applaud your sincerity and the suggestions are all to the point. In the meantime, short-cutters who speed, blow off stop signs, and lean on the horn are abusive, and so I’ve found a way to make my own separate peace with them.

  3. The one-way streets north and west of Gerrard & Broadview have another solution. These streets have parking on one side of the street, but periodically there are one or two spots on the other side of the street as well. It certainly slows me down.

  4. Alternating parking was implemented on the street (Barton, near Bloor and Bathurst) in my neighbourhood last year with some degree of success. Not a magic bullet, but a very cheap and easy way with some effect.

  5. Dawn makes some poignant points. Spacing often presents interesting, rational ideas for improving cities, but once you talk to some bureaucrats about implementing these ideas to solve problems in your neighbourhood, you get a variety of negative responses, a common one being “we don’t the have money”. Of course, if the issue is serious, then one must try harder. Yet it doesn’t strike me as effective governance if such issues on the street aren’t anticipated. And now, it seems that the desire to innovate and solve problems on the local level outside of the most prominent places is gone from many of the planners and bureaucrats under Ford.

  6. The odd thing is that the city of Toronto seems to have been willing to take measures in the past, but only here and there. Was there more funding to do it before? More political will? More residential clout? Intersection separated for all but bikes and pedestrians, Heath St E and Inglewood Dr: Earl St/Huntley St Laneway/parking transition, Rachael St Disconnection from intersection, Hudson Dr These all seem to be have been added after the fact, and we are still a long way from incorporating these features into original designs such as