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:
- Changing the default urban speed limit from 50 km/h to 40 km/h, either on a province-wide or municipal basis, or
- 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:
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.