Portland City Council recently voted to set 20 miles per hour speed limits on residential streets. The council voted unanimously to reduce speeds to 20 mph from 25 mph in residential areas, which make up about 70% of the city’s street grid. The ordinance takes effect immediately on roads that lack speed limit signs. The council predicts that replacing all the 25 mph signs throughout the city will take until April and cost upwards of $300,000. Speed limits on arterial streets will not change.

Portland commissioners Amanda Fritz and Nick Fish strongly support the change. Ms. Fritz has had three family members killed in traffic collisions. She believes that excessive speed may have contributed to the death of her husband who died in 2014 in a car crash. Mr. Fish thinks law enforcement should work to enforce the policy, recalling a time driving through Northeast Portland when he drove the posted speed limits and surrounding drivers were visibly upset.

Reducing traditional 25 mph speeds by just five miles per hour is part of the city’s big picture goal of eliminating traffic-related deaths. The Vision Zero campaign launched in 2015 takes center stage in decisions made to improve road safety conditions throughout Portland. The city would not be alone in this venture; Seattle and New York City have both implemented 20 mph zones that have reduced the number of injury crashes. These “slow zones” in NYC first appeared in 2011 and were credited with a 14% reduction in accidents that caused injuries.

Benefits of Reducing Residential Speed Limits

Although drivers with a need for speed may gripe at the thought of speed limits going down rather than up, communities regularly benefit from safe speeds. Reducing speed limits in other parts of the world has proven that lowering speeds is a sensible approach to making roads work for everybody who relies on them.

According to AAA, this small change in speed packs a heavy punch. A pedestrian hit by a driver going 25 mph is nearly twice as likely to die as a pedestrian struck by a driver traveling at 20 mph. Just one mile-per-hour reduction in vehicle speed results in a 6% decrease in traffic fatalities on urban streets, according to 20’s Plenty For Us, a UK-based organization pushing for 20mph limits throughout Britain. 

In our car-centric culture, lowering speed limits is a divisive venture, yet there are many reasons communities should embrace a slower pace.

Slow Speeds = Safer Communities

Reducing speed limits on residential streets protects the people who live on them. Drivers traveling at slower speeds have greater peripheral vision that allows them to predict the movements of cyclists, pedestrians, and other drivers. The slower the rate of speed, the more time the driver has to avoid a collision. This neat guide shows what a driver can see at varying speeds. Optimal visual range occurs between 10 and 15 mph.

Families with children share a universal concern that their kids are not safe outside when careless drivers plague the roads outside their homes. When people can walk alongside the road freely, without fearing for their own lives or those of their children and pets, they become more comfortable seeking alternate forms of transportation. Cyclists and pedestrians are more likely to bike and walk to their destination when they feel that the drivers around them are cautious and keen to their surroundings.

Slower Speeds Strengthen the Local Economy

Believe it or not, big cities like San Francisco have experienced a spike in spending after implementing pedestrian-friendly street designs. In the Mission District, nearly 60% of retailers reported increased spending by locals after they narrowed traffic lanes to slow traffic down. Streets that are inviting for walkers and cyclists encourage walkers and cyclists to shop locally. In turn, property values go up when safety is improved.

Slower Speeds Help the Environment

Slower speeds build healthier communities by encouraging more people to walk and bike to their destinations. With fewer people choosing their cars to get around, fewer collisions take place. Fewer cars on the road means fewer harmful emissions are released into the air, which also helps the environment.

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