Next time you’re in a car driving through a residential neighborhood, try this experiment. Glance at the speedometer when you’re in the middle of a block. You’ll probably find it’s pretty easy to reach or top 25 mph, the standard residential speed limit for cities in Oregon and Washington.
I did this yesterday on my way to pick up my daughter from elementary school. And you know what I got from other parents walking on the sidewalk, often with a toddler or two in tow? Super dirty looks.
To someone on foot navigating narrow streets with parked cars and unprotected intersections, it feels like you’re driving too fast. And they’re probably not wrong. As I was cruising up to 25 mph (on streets outside the school zone), I tried to imagine that a ball rolled right in front of me with a kid chasing it. Or that someone with an armful of groceries opened a car door without looking, or that a pedestrian in dark clothes stepped into a poorly lit intersection. Would I be able to stop in time? Maybe, maybe not. It would depend on how soon I saw whatever I was about to hit.
Then drop your speed to 20 mph. With that small change, it becomes much easier to halt the momentum of 3000 pounds of metal. When I drove through the neighborhood at 20 mph, what reaction did I get from the moms and dads? Smiles. Polite waves as I stopped easily to let them cross in front of me. Like I was a safe, respectful driver (probably a parent!) who wasn’t trying to kill their children.
It turns out that the mom scowl is grounded in science. That’s why cities that are getting serious about pedestrian safety and creating family-friendly cities are lowering speed limits in residential neighborhoods to 20 mph. And thanks to recent changes in Washington and Oregon state law that made it easier for cities to do so, a handful of Northwest cities are beginning to explore or implement the change.
Next year, for instance, Seattle plans to pilot “20 mph neighborhood zones” in five to ten areas of the city where collision data, pedestrian and bike traffic, and community input indicate lower speed limits spanning a few blocks could improve safety.
London did it in specific residential areas decades ago, and has seen a 40 percent reduction in road casualties there. Whom did the change most protect? Small children. Research from the US has shown that kids under 14 are far more likely to be hit by cars on streets with speed limits up to 25 miles per hour, presumably because that’s where they’re usually playing. Other studies have shown that the odds of a pedestrian dying after being hit by a car traveling 20 miles per hour is about 5 percent, and they get worse in a hurry the faster the car is traveling.
New York City has become a champion for safer streets with its Vision Zero campaign, which aims to end pedestrian deaths and injuries. Even before it lowered citywide speed limits to 25 mph this year, New York began implementing neighborhood slow zones with 20 mph limits and other traffic calming elements two years ago. In those areas, it’s seen a 10—15 percent decrease in speeds, 14 percent reduction in crashes with injuries and a 31 percent reduction in vehicle-related injuries. And residents have been clamoring for more.
Here in the Northwest, Oregon passed a state law in 2011 making it possible for cities to lower speed limits on some residential streets by 5 mph without having to undertake expensive and time-consuming engineering studies. The legislation is limited to streets that have fewer than 2000 car trips a day, where average speeds are lower than 30mph, and that have consistent bike and pedestrian signage.
That paved the way for Portland to lower speed limits on 70 miles of neighborhood greenways. That’s the city’s network of traffic-calmed neighborhood streets that have been designed to elevate the needs of pedestrians and cyclists above cars cutting across the city. The standard speed limit is now 20 mph, and engineers use speed humps and other traffic calming techniques to achieve that goal. Eugene is considering a similar change on 8 miles of bicycle boulevards to be built in the next few years.
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So far, Seattle is the only city to take advantage of the Neighborhood Safe Streets Bill, which the Washington legislature passed last year, though others are considering action. The new law allows cities to lower speed limits to 20 mph on residential streets and non-business arterial streets without having to go through expensive red tape. That frees up money for on-the-ground improvements to reduce speeding, address cut-through traffic, and make neighborhoods safer for people of all ages and abilities.
So far, the city has only implemented 20 mph speed limits on 12 miles of neighborhood greenways, which are similar to Portland’s. That will be the default speed limit as the city expands that network of family- and bicycle-friendly streets (the green lines on the maps below).
Next year, Seattle wants to explore the idea of wider 20 mph zones. Officials plan to comb through collision data and ask communities if there are multi-block zones—ones with pedestrian and bike traffic or a history of collisions or injuries—where lower 20 mph speed limits could improve safety and livability. These could look something like “neighborhood slow zones” that New York has pioneered.
With a budget of just $100,000, it’s likely the city would start with five or ten pilot projects scattered across the city and developed with support from community groups and businesses, said Seattle Traffic Engineer Dongho Chang. Initially, the city would likely use signage and street paint (the cheapest options) and community awareness to mark the new zones.
If data show the city needs “more oomph” to slow traffic to 20 mph, it could consider adding engineered solutions like speed humps, Chang said. Hopefully, the combination of engaging the community and taking relatively simple steps can effectively create safer places to walk and bike, Chang said, after which the program could be deployed more broadly.
That remains an open question, as research has generally shown engineering streets to be more effective than just posting signs. But it’s a good start, and I bet the scowling parents will approve.
Many of Seattle’s neighborhood side streets are only 25 feet wide with parking on both sides, and 20mph might be considered the “design speed” already. But the arterial streets that make the side streets into a network are another matter. Their design speed is more like 30mph, and a 20mph speed limit would be difficult to enforce without major design changes.
And don’t forget, many of those neighborhood arterials also carry transit buses. Do we really want to slow down bus service by 33%? Collateral damage to public transit as part of the war on cars?
While you have a correct impression about the engineering design of neighborhood streets–narrow traffic lanes and reduced sightlines due to parking–the opposite is probably true for many arterials. They are designed for much higher speeds than 30. Also I don’t think any city is considering calming down to 20 on arterials. The Oregon law in fact wouldn’t allow it as the volumes are over its limit.
Thank you for raising the issue of 20mph speed limits on arterial streets. To verify, I went to the source, RCW 46.61.415, and the law is clear — the 20mph speed limits are only for non-arterial streets in either residential or business districts.
Seattle will not be reducing the speed limits on arterials to 20mph.
State law establishes the default speed limit for all urban streets, both arterial and non-arterial, to be 25 mph. Hopefully SDOT will reduce arterial speed limits to the state’s default speed limit.
Maybe I am just old, or because I was raised by very caring parents, but children shouldn’t be “playing” in the street. That is what parks, and yards are for. I grew up in the country and not only could you have played, but napped in the street as well with as much traffic as we had, but still…Streets are for cars. Not kids.
I respectfully disagree. Streets have long been play areas. I grew up in a quiet neighborhood of Portland. My neighbors and I used to play football, baseball, frisbee, what have you in our street. When we saw a car coming, we’d move out of the way, then it was “Game On!”
Cities are places for people first. Cars don’t need to be the priority on EVERY street.
Oh, Jill, you’re just not old enough! City streets were used for kids playing long before speeding drivers came along to kill and maim them. The AAA launched an “education” campaign targeting young children in the 1920s to radically create the idea that “streets are for cars” using methods that might fairly be called brainwashing today. Do some reading. It isn’t the streets that have changed, only the attitudes. Once upon a time, a motorist killing a child would result in community outrage and a likely murder conviction. Today, the driver won’t likely be charged at all and we’ll all wag our fingers at the parents.
Residential streets should be for the street’s residents. Most of the people upset with this are people who want to drive past these streets (as fast as reasonable), not arrive ON these streets.
Cars suck. They are a sometimes-necessary evil. Most of their lives they are pedestrian, biker, and community hostile. The more there are in one place, the more noise, the lower the property values, the worse the air, the more litter-strewn the streets become.
If the street is called a RESIDENTIAL street, then it should be about the residents, who I will guarantee all want fewer and slower cars. The streets will be less hostile, and less crowded, because slow speeds will dissuade drivers from using them as shortcuts in the first place. Most people using them will be actual residents.
Alright, let’s be real here. I agree that cars go to fast on residential streets and in turn put children/adults at higher risk of being injured/killed. That being said…
Referencing the 1920’s to enforce your argument? Nearly 100 years ago? Get out of here. You know what other attitudes people had then? The attitude that women couldn’t vote. In this day and age, streets are primarily for cars. Don’t believe me? Go look at a street.
More cars = lower property values? The population of Portland (and therefore the number of cars) has increased dramatically the past 10 years. You know what else has increased along with that? Property values.
Residential streets should be for the street’s residents? I mean, are we now creating gangs of middle class families? The Johnsons rep Clinton St and their rival family, the Smiths, rep Salmon St? Do you understand how taxes work? If I pay taxes to Portland, you better believe I can drive on whatever “PUBLIC” road I dang well choose.
But besides your moronic arguments, I somehow still agree. Drivers need to be more responsible and careful while driving in Residential areas. Reference the golden rule right about now.
I could not agree more with your statement. I have noticed one thing though, drivers don’t mind driving on your street like a bat out of hell but have a real problem if it is done on their street.
Maybe that applies to true residential streets with no through traffic. However, on the Eastlide, where I live, there are streets deemed “residential” judging by the 25 mi/h speed limit, which are serving as busy connecting streets. Parking is not allowed on these streets, pedestrians are rare and children are nowhere to be seen (maybe sadly so). On top of that, the speed limit is in place at any time of day, so when I am driving down these streets at 11 PM it is a pain in the side to follow the stupid limit. There should be more discretion in setting the limits. I also hate the 35 mi/h limit on larger streets – some divided, no parking, two lanes in each direction and no block intersections – example – 148 Ave in Bellevue.
How far do you drive on these residential streets? Five blocks, ten blocks, a mile? Even if you drive a mile — a whole freakin’ mile — the time difference is minimal. I know, it seems like forevvvver. But really, it isn’t. Do the math (http://tinyurl.com/25kyl9). You can’t spare 36 seconds? Boo Hoo. Grow a pair and slow down. Really, speed only matters if you are going really far (like hundreds of miles).
If you are driving miles and miles on residential streets, then you are driving like a dick. Seriously, you should always find the closest arterial and follow it. At 11:00 at night (or 3:00 AM, when only the big boys and girls drive) that is the way you do it. No traffic to avoid, no narrow streets; just time the lights and you will be tucked in safely for nighty-night well before curfew.
Good point! I can spare 36 seconds, no problem. But again, why do I have to do that? It is definitely not for safety, because I have seen no children and very few pedestrians on these streets, visibility is great.
On the other side of the equation, in addition of time, you should consider pollution – gasoline cars are at peak efficiency at about 45 mi/h.
Overall, I think that speed limits (I speak for the Eastside) are on the conservative side.
@ Chris – if peak efficiency is your goal, stop driving a gasoline car. Peak efficiency in my EV is ~ 15 mph. Golden.
Kudos for response on this issue; I think a lot of the problem is that a certain percentage of people in this country believe that every one should obey the law but them. The 1970’s it’s all about me is still alive in some people’s mind.
While I love the UK’s 20s Plenty campaign I am chagrined at how many places in the US think this concept is crazy. I applaud Portland for helping move the legislative needle to allow this in Oregon and it’s great that other cities are starting to notice. Perhaps it will gain enough traction to become a national movement rather than a left coast nutty.
As a quick aside though posted speed limits and speed bumps (humps) do little to bring speeds down. It needs to be a multi-pronged approach involving engineering (creating “friction” so the driver slows because they perceive danger), community demand, community training, enforcement and buy-in from politicians who really don’t have the first clue about traffic calming and it’s benefit to a neighborhood or retail core.
I’ve not seen this mentioned but the difference in arriving at a destination is hardly affected at all by a reduction in speed to 20 MPH from 25 MPH. The only place a higher speed limit affects your arrival at a destination is if you are going long distances. With short distances the difference in arriving at a destination is hardly affected at all by lower speeds. This applies to highway driving as well. Unless you are going 100 miles or more higher speeds don’t affect your arrival time at your destination greatly.
It also amuses me greatly to have a high speed “weaver” stuck at the same traffic signal that I roll up to doing the posted limit or less. Long distances are the only area where an increase in speed make much of any difference.
I totally agree with this article. It is tough for a lot of drivers to accept, but the difference between 20 MPH and 25 MPH on a residential street is minimal. There are a couple reasons for this. Unless you are an idiot, you don’t drive twenty miles on a residential street. You drive less than a mile. This means the difference in time is a lot less than a minute (it is typically less than 30 seconds). Second, there is no traffic light. So even if you are in a freakin’ hurry, it really doesn’t matter. It just doesn’t.
But to a pedestrian, especially a pedestrian on the side of the street that doesn’t have a sidewalk (and a lot of Seattle’s streets don’t have sidewalks) it makes a huge difference. Twenty is plenty. Of course it is.
Allow me, for the heck of it, flip the argument: how much of difference the 25 to 20 mi/h make in terms of braking distance? At that speed it is mostly seeing and reaction time. And I do not think that hitting a pedestrian at any speed is acceptable.
In a car-ped collision at 20 mph, 9/10 people survive. At 30 mph, 5/10 survive.
Also, check out the field of vision differences between 15 mph and 30 mph on slide 19 of SDOT’s Rainier Ave S Safety Corridor Project presentation”.
I find 25mph too slow. If you notice dirty looks on people’s faces, you are not paying attention to driving.
Jennifer, have you ever talked to Ben Hamilton-Baillie about woonerfs? The 20 mph limit is part of the concept, so the new laws might make them feasible here.
Yes, Mike – I’ve written about woonerfs (and other iterations of shared streets) in previous posts:
If you actually want to keep people below 20, make the posted limit 15 MPH. People routinely go 5 miles over the speed limit. And going under the speed limit is usually considered improper.
Note that I am ONLY proposing this for residential streets. You should be able to reach an arterial within half a mile (or less). We’re talking about a few blocks, folks.
Slower traffic in residential neighborhoods brings people out into the streets to talk, socialize, and play. Eyes on the street keeps us all safer by significantly reducing crime rates. And that’s a huge win for everyone.
No way is 25 mph safe on the narrow residential streets in Seattle, with a handful of exceptions. The glacial pace of the 20 mph movement here is cause for despair. Most residential streets are suitable for < 15 mph, if the goal is to be able to stop in time to avoid a child on a bike, or cross traffic at unmarked intersections. Moms have every right to throw more than just a dirty look at folks driving over 20.
Yes! Thanks for commenting Mike!
Reality check here. No way are we going to get police traffic enforcement to patrol neighborhood local access streets looking for speeders exceeding the 20mph limit. We’re talking symbolism here, folks; put up the signs and urge/shame people into complying. The number of speeding tickets handed out in any given year will be counted on the fingers of one hand.
The Odd Duck
Why don’t we get rid of cars and bicycle all together and use mass transit. After all bicycle have been know to injure and to kill pedestrians. Why do I say it in this manner? There is an old saying “do as I say, don’t do as I do”