20 MPH speed limit impractical in Downey

DOWNEY - In light of the fact that two Letters to the Editor in last week's issue of The Downey Patriot commented on the 20 mph residential speed limit under consideration by the City of Downey Green Task Force, let's take the bull by the horns and examine just how this possibility, engendered by the very successful European "Twenty Is Plenty" program, ties into transportation issues here in Downey, as well as in southern California, and in the U.S. as a whole.Mr. Maurie Thomas raised several salient questions in his letter to the Patriot, the first of which was to ask if a 20 mph speed limit improved pedestrian safety to a greater extent than the 25 or 30 mph residential speed limits already in place in Downey. The answer to that question is an unequivocal "Yes." Results from numerous studies compiled by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration have shown pedestrian fatality rates of 5% at vehicle speeds of 20 mph, increasing to 40-45% at speeds of 30 mph, 80-85% at 40 mph, and nearly 100% at vehicle speeds over 50 mph. Further, the Slower Speeds Initiative, a U.K. nonprofit linked to "Twenty Is Plenty," affirms that "in general, every 1 mph reduction in average [speed] is accompanied by a 5% reduction in the number of crashes." Hoboken, New Jersey, across the Hudson River from Manhattan, experienced a 30% reduction in pedestrian crashes and a 63% decrease in bike collisions after implementing a traffic calming program that included "Twenty Is Plenty." Closer to home, according to the Southern California Association of Government's (SCAG) 2012 Regional Transportation Plan/Sustainable Communities Strategy (RTP/SCS), 25% of traffic fatalities in the region involve pedestrians and bicyclists. Safety is clearly an enormous concern. But the question remains, as Mr. Thomas also asks, "why is the Green Task Force involved with this?" The answer to that question can be found in the title of the SCAG RTP/SCS just mentioned. SCAG has a federal and state mandated responsibility to provide a transportation plan for the region, to be revised every four years. For the first time this year, that responsibility also includes the implementation of a "Sustainable Communities Strategy," mandated by CA SB-375, the goal of which is reduction of greenhouse gases (GHGs). That being the case, bicycle and pedestrian modes of transportation, which do not generate greenhouse gases, have a significant impact on a primary objective of state and federal law. In fact, again according to the SCAG RTP/SCS, bike/ped travel accounts for 21% of all trips in the SCAG region. And it would be criminally irresponsible not to address safety concerns in the course of encouraging transportation modes which do not create GHGs. So the safety issues tie directly into the sustainability issues. One need look no farther than the transportation debacles that occur every school day at Warren and Downey High Schools (and to a lesser extent at other schools throughout the district). Long lines of cars spew GHGs while waiting to deposit scores of students at campus entrances. Furthermore, this daily occurrence in Downey factors into two other issues that should be of great concern to the community: 1) childhood obesity rates of 20%, and 2) 20% population growth anticipated in the SCAG region by 2035. In summary, pedestrian and bicycle safety, and thus speed limits and other traffic safety measures, are inextricably tied to broader issues of sustainability, health, and air quality, as well as transportation challenges as a result of population growth. But let's return to two other issues related to the Green Task Force assessment of 20 mph speed limits. The City staff presentation to the Task Force included, along with details of the success of the "Twenty Is Plenty" program, specific detail on state traffic laws which limit a municipality's capacity to reduce local speed limits. The primary operating principle is to insure traffic efficiency and to enhance the flow of traffic. Under state law therefore, it would be difficult, if not impossible, to legally reduce residential speed limits throughout Downey to 20 mph. In other words, the staff presentation to the Green Task Force delivered an open and shut case: "Wouldn't it be nice?" was quickly answered by "Not according to state law." One other significant factor cannot be overlooked in relation to "Twenty Is Plenty." Hoboken, New Jersey, mentioned above, is the poster child for the U.S. success of that primarily European program. Hoboken, like its European counterparts, is a dense urban area of only one square mile. Most European cities, as U.S. travelers know, have exceedingly narrow streets and dense infrastructures combining business and residential life in compressed downtown areas. Sidewalks are narrow and crowded, and residences do not have back yards such as we enjoy in most of suburban America, of which Downey is a shining, if retrograde, example. Not only that, but the entire transportation infrastructure in the U.S. is historically designed upon vastly different principles. In a nutshell, "Twenty Is Plenty," with its 20 mph speed limit, is impracticable in a city such as Downey. All is not lost, however. For there are U.S. programs designed to address the same purposes for which "Twenty Is Plenty" exists. Many of them are in fact embraced by the same governmental agencies whose responsibility it is to implement state traffic law. We shall examine these strategies, and other transportation issues as they relate to sustainability, in upcoming articles in this series.

********** Published: April 12, 2012 - Volume 10 - Issue 52