June 15, 2023 BY Jenn Foxin News, Webinars

Prioritizing Safe Speeds in Vision Zero Planning & Actions

The fact that speed is a factor in at least one-third of roadway deaths in the U.S. is well known in traffic safety circles. Yet, for too long, we have made little progress in addressing America’s tragic – and preventable – speed problem. 

Why? Part of the reason, we believe, is that we’ve been focusing on the wrong problem – that of controlling individuals’ “speeding” behaviors, when we should dedicate more attention, resources and political will to address the way our systems promote inappropriate “speeds.” 

An opportune time to make this shift – explained further below – is when developing (or updating) a Vision Zero Action Plan. And the federal government’s new Safe Streets and Roads for All (SS4A) grant program is a timely way to fund this important work.

Several Vision Zero leaders – in big, small and medium sized cities – shared their experiences leveraging Vision Zero planning to build buy-in for effective and equitable speed management strategies – not just addressing speeding. Check out the Vision Zero Plans for these featured cities:

You can watch the 1-hour conversation in our recording, and read our summary of key takeaways below.

What: Focus on Speeds over Speeding

While there is a need to address speeding in our communities, which the U.S. Department of Transportation (USDOT) describes as “exceeding the posted speed limit or driving at a speed that is too fast for conditions”, it is not enough. These strategies aim to influence people’s behaviors using downstream or reactive strategies, such as education campaigns or enforcement efforts. 

We need to work more upstream, when it comes to managing speeds. Experts agree that planners, engineers, policymakers and others should focus greater attention on the systemic strategies of managing speeds in the transportation system, or a Safe System approach. The main areas of focus include designing safe streets, setting safe speeds, and leveraging safe speed technology very carefully (more on those below).

We recommend reading the USDOT’s informative new report Safe System Approach for Speed Management, which was released in May 2023 and emphasizes just how important, do-able and effective this upstream, systemic approach is. As the report states (emphasis from VZN): 

“Focusing on speeding alone minimizes the actual impacts of speed itself on traffic safety…” 

“... a singular focus on speeding ignores the impact that even high, legal speeds can have on safety, since human injury tolerance can be exceeded even when drivers comply with the legal speed limit.” 

"Speed management efforts are intended to reduce harmful speeds rather than just control speeding behavior.”

How: Redesign Roads for Safe Speeds

How do you make this important distinction – focusing on speeds, not just speeding – work on the ground? You can start by developing (or updating) your community’s roadway safety plan to center Safe System-oriented speed management strategies, especially how roads are designed (or re-designed) and how speeds are set (or re-set).

For Salisbury, Maryland, a small community of about 32,000 residents, this includes identifying and addressing high-speed, high injury roadways. As part of their Vision Zero Action Plan, Salisbury prioritizes managing speeds, in large part by adding traffic calming measures and re-designing roads to encourage people to travel at slower, safer speeds. 

For example, Salisbury is installing bicycle boulevards on residential streets not only to encourage more biking but also to add traffic calming features that slow drivers down, making the road safer for everyone – those walking, biking and driving. 

On bigger roads, Salisbury is reducing and/or narrowing auto lanes as part of their speed management work. The city’s planners recognize that some of the roads – for example, five-lane collectors – are overbuilt for today’s needs and priorities. So, as part of their Vision Zero speed management work, Salisbury is reducing the numbers of lanes (sometimes repurposing to more biking and walking space) and narrowing travel lanes, a simple traffic calming countermeasure.

Salisbury is being rewarded for taking a Safe System approach in their Vision Zero work. The City won a $12 million implementation grant in the first round of USDOT’s new Safe Streets and Roads for All (SS4A) program. Thanks to these funds, Salisbury plans to install traffic calming measures, high-visibility pedestrian crossings, implement bikeways, infill sidewalk and side-path gaps, and improve intersections for the safety of all users, largely focused on its High Injury Network, as outlined in its Vision Zero Plan.

[Check out these resources on managing speeds with street design: Federal Highway Administration’s (FHWA) Traffic Calming ePrimer; NACTO’s City Limits: Setting Safe Speed Limits on Urban Streets; and FHWA’s “Self-Enforcing Roadways.”]

Jersey City is also re-designing roadways to encourage slower speeds as part of their Vision Zero work. As the city’s Vision Zero Action Plan states: “Speed management is an essential part of designing safer streets…The effects of speed are most pronounced for pedestrians, whose risk of dying if struck by a vehicle increases with vehicle speed.”

Jersey City efforts include major engineering projects addressing parts of the High Injury Network and, notably, a large number of smaller-scale, low-cost, high-impact safety improvements citywide. Jersey City leaders are gaining praise for fast-tracking Quick Build projects, including traffic calming with “mini-roundabouts” at intersections using quick-and-dirty materials, such as paint, planters, barrels, and plastic delineators.

The good news: this “slow don’t tell” approach is working. Jersey City has not experienced a roadway death on city streets since 2022 (read about Jersey City’s impressive approach). 

Excerpt from Jersey City, NJ Vision Zero Action Plan, definition of Communities of Concern

Jersey City’s pilot projects test out the best approach on the ground, while also helping people in the community understand and share input on the changes. These projects, mainly intended to slow speedy drivers and improve safety, also help the City offer placemaking opportunities by including public art, green infrastructure, and neighborhood amenities. Importantly, Jersey City prioritizes these efforts in High-Injury areas and in Communities of Concern (as defined in the graphic on the left).

No matter what size a community, it’s important to develop a Vision Zero Plan that recognizes and builds on how road designs influence people’s speeds and, ultimately, safety. Simply put, certain changes to the shape, size, and feel of the roads –  such as narrowing lanes, adding roundabouts and protected bikeways, and even using low-cost materials like paint and planters (more ideas here) to tighten intersections and calm traffic – can save lives. 

How: Set Speeds for Safety

Another core part of the Safe System approach is setting appropriate speed limits that align with your safety goals. Most communities have a lot of room for improvement in this area.

“Much of the current surface transportation system in both the United States and abroad was not designed with human injury tolerance in mind. In other words, the current system produces speeds that may not be safe for all road users.” — Safe System Approach to Speed Management, USDOT

We acknowledge that speed limit changes can be controversial. But, used effectively, this is a core strategy to advance Vision Zero and one that should be considered central in Vision Zero planning and implementation. Research and experience from around the world demonstrates that lowering speed limits, along with implementing effective roadway redesigns and adding traffic calming elements, decreases operating speeds and crash frequencies.

Seattle, Washington is one of the many U.S. communities proactively lowering speed limits to advance Vision Zero. In 2016, Seattle lowered default speed limits from 30 mph to 25 mph on arterial roads and from 25 mph to 20 mph on smaller, mostly residential streets. This was coupled with adding new speed limit signage and a public education campaign about the change. 

Research by the Insurance Institute of Highway Safety (IIHS) shows that Seattle’s speed management actions have been effective. Their analysis found the following: the speed limit reduction was associated with a statistically significant 17% drop in the odds of an injury crash downtown (less outside the city center); and on arterial roads only, there was a statistically significant 20% reduction in the odds of an injury crash downtown (less outside the city center).

[Check out Vision Zero Network’s 2020 webinar: Cities Managing Speed for Safety: Learning from Seattle and Minneapolis and this great Seattle's presentation from 2023 Lifesavers conference]

Seattle’s Vision Zero High Injury Network prioritizes equity: in addition to focusing on areas with high numbers of fatal and serious injuries, Seattle places a 50% weighting on equity, using the city's Racial and Social Equity Composite Index. 

These changes were possible, in part, because of strong support from community organizations, like AARP, who advocated at the the Washington Legislature to allow Seattle this power to lower some speed limits for safety. This is a common problem across the nation. Vision Zero advocates in the state of New York, and elsewhere, are working hard to gain this basic right for local communities to set speeds based on safety needs.

Seattle’s recent Vision Zero Top to Bottom Review laid out its approach to make progress:

  • Be willing to reduce vehicle travel speeds and convenience to improve safety 
  • Implement iterative, ongoing improvements to our infrastructure 
  • Accelerate planning for broader or systemwide implementation of proven interventions

Smaller communities are also working on these life-saving changes. Salisbury is considering a citywide change of speed limits – lowering from a default speed of 30 mph to 25 mph, and to 20 mph in the downtown area. They have local political support for the changes but face barriers on state- and county-owned roads, which represent a majority of the locations where severe and fatal crashes happen.

They’re not alone in this challenge. More than half of fatal crashes in urban areas in the U.S. occur on roads managed by states, leaving local leaders with little authority to make safety changes. Local or regional Vision Zero Plans should include identification and attention toward all roads that are part of the High-Injury Network, regardless of ownership. This is especially important because state-owned roads are more likely to be high-speed, high-volume arterials and to run through communities of color and low-income communities that suffer disproportionately from crashes. Read more: Now is the Time to Address Safety on State-owned Roads.

Re-designing roadways and lowering speed limits are primary strategies to manage speeds.  Interest is also growing in leveraging technology to deter dangerous speeds. As with any approach, technology strategies should be vetted for efficacy and their impacts on equity. Read more about two potential technologies – Intelligent Speed Assistance (ISA) and speed safety cameras.

Put It in Your Plan & Fund It

If you’re serious about Vision Zero, prioritizing speed management is essential.

As USDOT states: “Strategic plans, like Vision Zero, help build public will for speed management practices, and agencies can align those practices with Safe System Approach-based traffic safety goals.”

This entails building a Safe System foundation that lifts up the “Safe Speeds” element as central and evolves beyond the traditional E’s approach.

We point to strong work in Austin, Texas, where their Vision Zero priorities include a robust Speed Management Program, including the following strategies: 

  • Using a data-driven process to select priority street segments and construct cost-effective traffic calming treatments that support reduced roadway speeds. In this way, Austin uses safety interventions proven to slow speeds, increase visibility and separate road users (Complete Streets).
  • Proactively assessing streets citywide for problems with dangerous speeds, not waiting for injuries or deaths to occur. Where needed, they recommend changes in speed limits, prioritizing areas that have been historically underserved, are close to transit, and have a high concentration of people walking and biking.

Read more about USDOT's Safe System Approach in its National Roadway Safety Strategy

Funding work to manage speeds is available, thanks to the new federal SS4A grant program. If your community is one of the more than 100 regional government organizations selected for round 1 SS4A awards, you may be eligible for round 2 funds to further local work that informs the regional plan, including in-depth speed management analysis or piloting lower speed limits and traffic calming measures. See more examples here.

Read more about managing speeds for safety, including why speed matters most, and how community advocates are working for safety over speed. And, check out our video library on speed management.

Interested in learning more? Check out these relevant resources:

We express our gratitude to the panelists who generously shared their time and knowledge: 

  • James Le, Senior Civil Engineer, Seattle, WA
  • Barkha Patel, Department of Infrastructure Director, Jersey City, NJ
  • Brian Soper, City Planner, Salisbury, MD

And thanks to more than 200 participants who asked great questions and are working to save lives around the country. This webinar was one part of the Fundamentals of Vision Zero Action Planning series. Missed our previous series installments? No problem - check out our recordings, recaps, and resources:

  1. Fundamentals of Vision Zero Action Planning
  2. Building a Safe System Foundation for Your Plan
  3. Critical Collaboration & Commitments for Vision Zero Action Planning
  4. Prioritization: Data, High-Injury Networks, Equity Emphasis
  5. Prioritizing Speed Management in Vision Zero Planning
  6. Institutionalizing Health Equity
  7. Performance metrics: transparency, accountability, evaluation, evolution

Learn more about How to start on the road to Vision Zero and see our other Vision Zero resources. Stay up-to-date on our and other groups’ work for Vision Zero, sign up for our monthly Vision Zero Network e-newsletter.

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