What would a 40 km/h speed limit mean for Ontario?

On January 28, pretty much all the major news sources in Ontario reported that the Government of Ontario is considering a couple options to facilitate the widespread introduction of lower speed limits in urban areas:

  1. Changing the default urban speed limit from 50 km/h to 40 km/h, either on a province-wide or municipal basis, or
  2. Introducing the concept of a “speed limit zone” where speed limits are assigned to areas within a city, rather than each individual street.

Because none of the articles really explain the significance of these options, I feel the need to explain these concepts myself.

1. Changing The Statutory Speed Limit

Speed limits in Ontario are defined by section 128. (1). of the Highway Traffic Act, which states:

No person shall drive a motor vehicle at a rate of speed greater than,

(a) 50 kilometres per hour on a highway within a local municipality or within a built-up area;

The next few clauses are a bit convoluted, but they roughly translate to:

(b): 80 km/h on rural roads in rural municipalities (“Townships”);
(c): 80 km/h on designated controlled-access highways
(d): the speed limit defined by a municipal council, including city-wide default limits for school zones; or a speed limit defined by the province, including province-wide default limit for provincial parks, provincial highways, or areas without municipal governments;
(e): the temporary speed limit posted in a construction zone;
(f): the posted speed limit.

Put simply, the legal limit is the speed indicated by speed limit signs.  If there is no speed limit sign then the statutory speed limit applies, which is generally 50 km/h in urban areas or 80 km/h in rural areas.

Changing the statutory speed limit on a province-wide basis would simply involve changing clause (a) to read “40 kilometres per hour” rather than 50.

Changing the statutory limit on a municipal basis would involve changing the number displayed on a municipal entrance signs, such as this one for the Town of Richmond Hill:

Default speed and parking limits for the Town of Richmond Hill (From Google Streetview)

Default speed and parking limits for the Town of Richmond Hill (From Google Streetview)

Either way, the change would only affect streets which lack speed limit signs.  For the most part, these are local streets.

Most arterial roads have speed limit signage, even when the limit is 50 km/h.  They would therefore be unaffected by a change in the statutory speed limit.

2. Introducing Zone-based Speed Limits

Under our current framework, a speed limit sign applies to a given street.  So if we want to introduce 40 km/h limit throughout a neighbourhood, every single street needs to have signs.

In contrast, a zone-based signage system would designate a “40 km/h zone”, and signage would be posted only when entering or exiting that zone.  This system is used right next door in Québec, where the following sign indicates an entrance to a 40 km/h zone:

40 km/h zone sign in Québec

Zone-based speed limits are the typical way of introducing neighbourhood speed limits in Europe, though their standard is 30 km/h (20 mph in the UK), not 40 km/h as in Québec.

Comparison of methods

Here’s how each method would be applied in order to lower the speed limit in a residential block of Waterloo to 40 km/h.  The example here is bounded by Erb St to the north, Fisher Hallman Blvd to the east, University Ave to the south, and Ira Needles Blvd to the west.  The Boardwalk is under construction in the southwest corner of the map.

Here are the current posted speed limits in the area, including all speed limit signs.  Note that only the local streets are controlled by the statutory 50 km/h limit.

Current posted speed limits and signs

Current posted speed limits and signs

There are currently 8 signs controlling speeds within the neighbourhood: two “Maximum 40 Begins” and “Maximum 40 Ends” signs for each of the two school zones.

a) Post 40 km/h Speed Limit Signs

Under the current framework, if we wanted to reduce neigbourhood speed limits to 40 km/h, we would need to post signs on a street-by-street basis.  We probably wouldn’t bother posting speed limits on very short streets.

40 km/h posted speed limit (arterial speed limit signs not shown)

40 km/h posted speed limit (arterial speed limit signs not shown)

The above scenario requires 32 “Maximum 40” signs within the neighbourhood.

b) Change the Statutory Speed Limit to 40 km/h

If the statutory speed limit were lowered to 40 km/h, no speed limit signage would be required at all.  Even the existing school zone speed limits would be removed.  This change would affect almost all residential streets.

40 km/h Statutory Limit (Arterial speed limit signs not shown)

40 km/h statutory speed limit (arterial speed limit signs not shown)

c) Introduce a 40 km/h Zone 

With a 40 km/h zone, signs would only need to be posted at the entrances to the neighbourhood, and would apply uniformly to all streets within.

40 km/h zone (arterial speed limit signs not shown)

40 km/h zone (arterial speed limit signs not shown)

The above scenario uses 15 speed limit signs: a “Maximum 40 Zone Begins” and “Maximum 40 Zone Ends” sign for each of the 7 entrances, and a “Maximum 40” sign for the cul-de-sac directly off Ira Needles.


In all of the coverage about this development, all sources other than the CBC explained the options using language that was ambiguous to the general populace.  It is therefore unsurprising that almost every single comment regarding the province’s speed limit review has been a rant about existing posted speed limits on arterial roads – a topic that is completely irrelevant to the methods being considered.

Some news outlets seem to be even aiming to spark outrage in readers by using sensitive keywords like those in the Global News Toronto headline proclaiming “Speed limit debate tries to slow down traffic in Ontario”.

I guess we can always count on the media to sensationalize a story, because they profit from clicks and views, not from spreading correct knowledge.  It’s fairly safe to assume that a factual article on the signage policy review would not have caused anywhere near the sensation that these articles have.

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3 Responses to What would a 40 km/h speed limit mean for Ontario?

  1. I noticed that there are quite a number of roundabouts in Waterloo Region, with more than a dozen planned. Unfortunately, the design they use relies on multiple lanes a bit too much, and of the multi lane roundabouts they still use, there are conflicts, the Dutch created a solution to that (google turbo roundabouts). The flare out is also concerning, as it leads to much higher exit speeds on the roundabouts too, as well as entry speeds. But also a concern is how there are generally bicycle lanes on the approach, a multi use path in the boulevard space if you’re lucky, and those have a ramp that leads you onto a shared use sidewalk and you are supposed to dismount to walk across. There isn’t a need for this approach. Take a look at this: http://www.aviewfromthecyclepath.com/search/label/roundabouts. Gives you another idea to write about I guess.


  2. I actually came up with a plan that goes even further, with only having 50 and 30 km/h areas, 30 in the form of zones with 50 as the default limit, used on distributor roads, 30 on access roads. I added red dots to your diagram to show where road closures can create compartments only cyclists and pedestrians can go through, and I changed the legend a bit. Link here: https://pbs.twimg.com/media/CehJWn-WQAEMG_P.jpg


  3. IMO, I prefer the following speed limits:

    Motorways: 100-120 urban area, 130 km/h rural area, or otherwise equal to the design speed

    Expressways, motorway like roads with at least a divide between the two directions and no at grade crossings at speeds over 70 km/h: 100 km/h.

    Rural distributor road: 70 km/h.

    Rural access road: 60 km/h zoned.

    Urban primary distributor: 70 km/h.

    Urban arterial and secondary roads, otherwise known as a distributor road: 50 km/h.

    Urban access road: 30 km/h.

    These are the limits the Dutch and Swedish find are the best ones given the environment they are in.


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