Cities Can Look to Boston, IIHS for Inspiration to Reduce Speed Limits

by Veronica Vanterpool December 3, 2018 in News, Safety Over Speed, Webinars

We are seeing a growing number of local communities recognize that their speed limits are set too high, sending the wrong message and encouraging less-than-safe behaviors. And fortunately, more and more of these communities are stepping up to attempt to change their speed limits to prioritize safety over speed. But, we know the process is not as straightforward as it should be.

Most cities, towns and villages encounter major hurdles in trying to lower speed limits to a safe level, including restrictions from state authorities, lack of understanding of how lower speeds save lives, as well as outdated, restrictive engineering guidance using the 85th percentile speed setting standard.

The Vision Zero Network’s November 2018 webinar, Lowering Speed Limits to Manage Speed: Experiences in U.S. Cities, highlights Boston’s successful recent efforts to lower the city’s speed limit, as well as helpful research about Boston’s experience after one year, conducted by the nationally recognized Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS). Cities eager to manage speed will find inspiration from Boston and useful data points from IIHS in this webinar.

In the webinar, Charlotte Fleetwood, Senior Planner in Boston’s Transportation Department, shares a brief overview of the city’s successful campaign to lower speed limits from 30mph to 25mph as part of its Vision Zero program to ensure safe mobility for all road users. Boston’s prior lack of state authority, increasing pedestrian fatalities, particularly among children and the elderly, and a limited budget for outreach are challenges often faced in other cities.

Photo courtesy: Boston Transportation Department

Fleetwood discusses how creative use of in-house staff, interagency coordination, engaged citizens and even borrowed speed sign logos helped educate the public about the drop in speed and change behaviors. Encouragingly, community support for the change has grown. In fact, the Boston City Council is considering reducing the speed limit further — from 25mph to 20mph — and even provided funding to expand the city’s 20mph Neighborhood Slow Street Zones.

So is there a benefit to lowering speed limits? During the webinar, Wen Hu, Senior Research Transportation Engineer at IIHS, discussed its independent study of Boston’s reduced speed limits, which shows promising results. [You can also read the Vision Zero Network’s previous blog post on this study.] The study showed that in lowering its speed limits, Boston saw the greatest decline — a 29.3% reduction — in the odds of speeding for vehicles traveling faster than 35 mph. This is notable because it is at these higher speeds that crashes are most dangerous, especially for those walking. The faster a car is moving, the less time the driver has to see a pedestrian and slow down or stop and the higher the injury risk for the pedestrian.

Photo courtesy: Insurance Institute for Highway Safety

In comparing speed setting trends in the U.S. and abroad, the webinar highlighted the troubling direction that U.S. communities are trending toward. While other countries are lowering speed limits on freeways and rural roads, IIHS points out many states in the U.S. are moving in the opposite direction, increasing speed limits. In fact, the number of U.S. states increasing speed limits on these road types has increased six-fold in the past 25 years. This is the opposite of what Vision Zero principles — and successes across the world — show as proven safety measures.

So, we’re encouraged to see Boston — and a growing number of cities — buck this trend and prioritize safety over speed. We hope this is something more local and state communities commit to in the near future.

Want to know more about how we’re encouraging communities to prioritize safety over speed? Check out the Vision Zero Network’s speed management resources here.

Interested in some technical support to boost your local community’s speed management efforts? Find out about an opportunity for help here. Applications for this 1-day speed management workshop, led by the Institute of Transportation Engineers and the Vision Zero Network, are due Friday, December 28, 2018. Thanks to the Road to Zero Coalition for its grant support of this effort. Learn more here.

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