Eric Adams Talks Speeding and Street Safety on a Neighborhood Walkabout

In September, State Senator Eric Adams introduced a bill that would add a component about interacting with pedestrians and cyclists to the licensing course for first-time New York State drivers. He said he’s pushing for better driver education to “make the roads safer for those who use the roads other than vehicles.”

Adams’ interest in increasing driver awareness dovetails nicely with the street safety initiatives that came out of NYC DOT’s landmark pedestrian safety report, released this summer. The action plan that accompanied the report recommends establishing a 20 mph speed limit in one New York City neighborhood — a pilot program that could be expanded elsewhere if successful. Slow-speed zones have been sweeping the UK and in London have prevented dozens of serious injuries and deaths each year.

Yesterday, Adams took a walking tour of Park Slope with Rod King, director of the UK’s 20’s Plenty for Us campaign, Noah Budnick of Transportation Alternatives, and local civic groups. Clarence Eckerson brings us these highlights from the walk.

  • Chris

    Changing the speed limit to 20mph is meaningless without aggressive enforcement and driver education. I mean how many drivers even know that the speed limit is 30mph in NYC? Either they don’t know, or they don’t care.

  • Eric Adams’ Stock is Going up!

    Nice to see the Senator is saying the right things and understands (and you can tell he grasps it, unlike many of the reps NYC sends to Albany.) Let’s hope this goes beyond words and moves into realm of action. He has at least attempted that with his bike safety bill.

  • Geck

    Nice, from the man who had opposed the 9th street traffic calming/bike lane

  • I meant “Dizzy’s,” not “Ozzie’s,” of course.

    Rod King is a true inspiration, and kudos to Senator Adams. 20 should be plenty for us, too.

  • re: #1 Chris, “Changing the speed limit to 20mph is meaningless without aggressive enforcement”

    You’d have learned that this is a widely touted misconception if you’d been to the NYU Rudin Center Speed Summit today.

    A 20 mph speed limit is transformational and the facts prove it.

    As this will save lives and improve the quality the city life, society readily complies with what are widely recognized as good laws.

  • Joe R.

    It all depends where 20 mph zones are implemented. On fairly quiet residential streets with little thru traffic it makes sense. On the arterials it really doesn’t ( although measures should definitely be taken to calm arterial traffic down to the current 30 mph speed limit instead of the more usual 40 or 50 mph ). The city needs to strike a balance between efficiency and safety. Right now the pendulum has swung too far in the direction of moving traffic as fast as possible.

    20 mph zones and traffic calming can have other effects besides saving lives. If done right, they can reduce traffic in residential areas. This is why perhaps we should use a carrot and stick approach. You keep a couple of key arterials, especially those along mostly industrial areas, as they are, perhaps even raise the speed limit to 40 or 45 mph. Slow down the other streets. Drivers will naturally gravitate to the faster boulevards. Everywhere else will have slower ( and less ) traffic. Perhaps even consider bumping up the 50 mph limit on the city’s expressways to get motorists off surface streets entirely.

  • Lauri Schindler

    Friends, this isn’t about changing the speed limit nor is it about enforcement, it’s about changing the culture to one that promotes a sense of awareness and responsibility, and as a result our streets become more safe. Thank you Rod King for your leadership. Senator Adams thank you for speaking up – you’re on to something that will do a world of good for the communities you serve.

  • BicyclesOnly


    I was at the Transportation Alternatives forum today and it seemed to me that all of the speakers agreed that lowering the limit without aggressive enforcement would change little. Several speakers argued persuasively that automated photo enforcement was the most effective, because it was swift and sure.

  • #8 BicyclesOnly, “all of the speakers agreed that lowering the limit without aggressive enforcement would change little.”

    Not completely true. Nothing was mentioned about enforcement in Opening Remarks by several speakers.

    Morning program speaker Rodney King, Founder and Director, 20’s Plenty for Us presented a case study I believe in Portsmouth, UK comparing speed zones to setting the speed limit overall in a city where just setting the speed limit in an area to 20 mph rather than providing the more aggressive enforcement of the 20 mph speed limit in a speed zone lowered the overall speeding at minimum cost.

    None of the morning’s subsequent speakers mentioned aggressive enforcement (as far as I can remember) including Ian Sacks of Hoboken and those in the “Panel Discussion: Slower Vehicle Speeds = Healthier New Yorkers.

    I left at noon so enforcement was likely more important in the latter part of the Summit as I believe there was at least one vendor selling automated enforcement equipment.

    Yes, aggressive enforcement lowers the amount of speeding much more dramatically but comes at a cost. Setting the overall speed limit in a given area still reduces the speeding more overall at a minimal cost than if a small area is set up as a highly controlled and expensive speed zone. Perhaps the psychology is something like the seat belt law where people are in general given permission to wear seat belts and, in this case, people are given permission not to speed.

    Setting the default speed limit to 20 mph in a city is a simple low-cost design remedy that greatly reduces accidents, death and injury and improves the quality of life and is a major first step in fixing a serious flaw in the way most transportation systems based on cars are designed in urban areas; not nearly as costly as the type of the supposedly dangerous design flaws that Toyota had to fix.

  • You’re right, Gecko. I should have limited my assertion to “those who spoke to enforcement at all,” and avoided the quibble.

    But on the point of reducing limits without enforcement, check out T.A.’s speed surveys in Central Park, before and after the limit on the Loop was reduced from 30 to 25.

    The 2003 survey, reported:

    * The posted speed limit in Central Park is 30mph.
    * The average speed is 36mph.
    * 90% of motorists drive exceed the legal speed limit.
    * 67% exceed the speed limit by 5mph or more.
    * 22.5% exceed the speed limit by 10mph or more.

    After the limit was reduced to 25 MPH in 2004, T.A. did a follow-up study that found:

    * The average speed was 36.67mph.
    * The median speed was 37mph.
    * 0.14% traveled at or below the posted speed limit.

    In other words, the reduction in speed limit had almost no effect on driver behavior. As someone who was riding his bike on the Central Park Loop most mornings during the period covered by the two surveys, I do not recall seeing any speeding enforcement by NYPD. In fact, I don’t think I’ve ever seen speeding enforcement in the park. This is probably because there are few if any safe places to pull cars over on the Loop, creating a safety issue for police and motorists. Obviously, automated enforcement would address that safety issue.

    I’ll allow that there may have been methodological or other differences in the two surveys that can account for the similarity of the findings, but they certainly suggest that NYC drivers may not modify their behavior at all in response to a lower speed limit, absent increased enforcement.

  • Rodney King also stressed the importance of public education and buy-in to the lower speed limits and that community action was important. Aggressive enforcement is probably best as a last resort.

    Civilized societies cannot depend on aggressive enforcement of all the laws and public compliance is largely voluntary. It might be a good sign that when aggressive enforcement is required that there is something wrong. A good definition of a failed state is probably when the rule of law breaks down.

    In another field, Microsoft’s Bill Gates was noted for saying that if a user says that a software application is difficult to use that software is difficult to use no matter what the designer thinks. The user is right and it is the designer’s job to make it easy to use. In this regard “conventional” mass transit is absolutely awful. I find it absolutely awful as do a lot of others. I use a bicycle. Others use cars and in many instances they have no practical choice. This can and will change. A lot of money can be “sunk” into mass transit to provide satisfactory results on a limited scale, although newer much more practical designs can provide tremendous improvements in human mobility at the same time address the dire environmental challenges of these difficult times.

    Even electric cars are just a modest incremental improvement at best and do not address the scale of required change.

  • On the topic of enforcement: I am living in a 30km/h zone here in Austria, thats about 20mph, and there is no and has been no aggressive enforcement.

    It was a combination of *reasonable* enforcement (probably police was checking once in a few months in the beginning, now it is down to once two or three years in my area), very few speed bumps, “30” painted on the roads, and of course campaigns.

    In fact in the beginning the speed bumps were overdone, and some of them were taken out again after people were used to the 30kph limit.

    It comes down to two factors:

    1: People no longer go through these 30km/h zones, if they can avoid it, but on the other hand they don’t really feel restricted in trips *ending* in the 30kph zone. After a few months or a year or so, the traffic patterns are different, and these zones are almost free of through traffic, except on main roads. Huge difference.

    2: Once everybody has experienced how pleasant these zones are for people living there, acceptance goes up. Basically there will always be a hard core of very vocal car nuts who do not accept *any* driving restrictions, who feel that speeding is a human right. These are against the zones. Even they don’t really speed there, because sometimes (rarely) the limits *are* enforced. Everybody else would not want to go back to the higher 50kph limit we had before. And that includes households with several cars, who love driving, but not traffic in front of their doorstep. From my experience absolutely everything that Rod King says in the video really works in practice.

  • In his seminal book “Diffusion of Innovation,” Everett Rogers a professor at Stanford University describes the specific manner in which successful innovations have diffused. These innovations are based on his research of 1,500 innovations over a fifty-year timeframe . . .

    He divides up the population for a particular innovation into four groups. The first group he calls “early adopters”. These are people who have a high tolerance for experimentation and seek out innovations based on their interests. Early adopters represent about 15 percent of the population for that innovation. Early adopters represent about 15 percent of the population for that innovation. The next group he calls the “early majority”. They wait for the innovation to be proven and more accepted before they adopt it. They are mostly interested in belonging, and represent the next 35 percent of the population for the innovation. The next group he calls the “late majority”. They wait until the innovation is well established and participate because of necessity or to avoid social ostracism. They represent the next 35 percent. The final group he calls the “laggards”. The will never voluntarily accept the innovation and it is not worthy spending time trying to convince them. They represent the last 15 percent. — David Gershon, “Social Change 2.0,” 2009, page 264

  • #13 gecko continued (from David Gershon’s Social Change 2.0),

    Now this is an elegant solution:

    Preach to the choir

    Ask the choir to sing loud enough to get people into the church

    And then, encourage and support these new churchgoers to become evangelists.

  • One really bizarre practice of transportation engineers regarding higher-than-safe speed limits seems to be quests for maximum through-puts of cars, kind of an autistic-like fixation disorder where the goal is somewhat more closely aligned to the maximum through-put of people where the system really crashes when people are injured and killed; kind of like overclocking computers to run too fast causing excessive metastable states or bit-error rates causing the machines to crash.

    Crashes defeat the whole purpose and well-designed mission critical systems greatly defeat the possibility of this happening, which is something transportation engineers do not seem to be overly concerned about.

  • Joe R.

    Regarding enforcement, many of you here are completely missing the point. BicyclesOnly illustrates this point vividly in post #10. Basically, speed limits have little effect on driving behavoir. I learned this in a transportation engineering course I took in college. My guess is you could set the speed limit in the Central Park loop to infinity and the average speed would remain at the current 36 mph or so. Drivers drive only as fast as they feel comfortable. Narrow the lanes, put in tight curves, in general make the road feel less comfortable at speed, and motorists WILL slow down. That’s actually the basic premise behind these 20 mph zones in the UK. Without street redesign they just won’t work. Aggressive enforcement, which incidentally was attempted when we tried to impose a national 55 mph speed limit, by and large always fails. We should have learned this already. Drivers speed in NYC because many of its streets are wide, open boulevards where even 50 mph doesn’t seem out of line. We’ve already seen what narrowing lanes and adding taking away lanes can accomplish. This is really what needs to be done, but on a larger scale. Sure, don’t make every single road 20 mph. The idea here, as mentioned in post #12, is that motorists will mostly avoid the 20 mph zones in favor of faster streets. This makes life much more pleasant for those living in the 20 mph zones. Nobody here is saying to turn all of NYC into a 20 mph zone. This isn’t a small town. Often people must go miles on local roads, and often in the outer boroughs they have no viable options except driving ( or possibly cycling ). Therefore, you need to keep key arterials at 30 mph, perhaps even consider raising the limits and retiming the lights to attract traffic away from the 20 mph zones. Even as a cyclist, I would find 20 mph citywide to be a bit too stifling ( although I doubt the police would ticket cyclists unless they were way over the limit ). That goes double if I can ever afford a Quest velomobile. 😉

  • Joe R.

    “One really bizarre practice of transportation engineers regarding higher-than-safe speed limits seems to be quests for maximum through-puts of cars, kind of an autistic-like fixation disorder where the goal is somewhat more closely aligned to the maximum through-put of people where the system really crashes when people are injured and killed; kind of like overclocking computers to run too fast causing excessive metastable states or bit-error rates causing the machines to crash.”

    If you let traffic engineers actually practice their profession, we would have fewer crashes. On limited access highways the practice is to measure traffic speeds, and then set the speed limit at the 95th percentile, rounded up to the nearest 5 mph. This can and did work well, at least up until legislators thought they were traffic engineers, and could mandate speed limits, starting with the national 55 mph limit in the early 1970s. Of course, since the limit was set for a speed far less than drivers felt comfortable driving at, it was ignored. This unfortunately impacted safety in a roundabout kind of way. A majority of motorists broke the speed limit on expressways with little safety consequence ( because it was set too low ). They then started ignoring other traffic laws on the same premise that these laws likely erred too far on the side of caution. This included going through red lights, speeding even on roads where the limit was set properly, no longer using turn signals, even texting while driving. In short, motorists lost respect for the law because we legislated a maximum speed limit on expressways which didn’t reflect reality. We’ve seen the sad results of this.

    If we want motorists to regain respect for the law, then the answer is clear-let the traffic engineers do their job. Don’t legislate maximum speed limits. If a road is too fast for the conditions ( i.e. children playing, elderly crossing, etc. ) then reengineer the road so motorists don’t feel comfortable at high speeds. Conversely, on our wide open expressways, let the limit end up at whatever it does. If a traffic engineer measures speeds on I-87 and figures a 100 mph limit is appropriate, so be it. Let the lawmakers cringe. The purpose of the 95th percentile is to let police focus on that outlier group which really does cause problems by speeding. It’s really a large differential in traffic speeds which causes problems, not speed in and of itself. Incidentally, due to better motor vehicle and road design, the speeds on expressways have been steadily rising by about 5 mph per decade since the 1950s. Unfortunately, the speed limits don’t reflect this reality because they’re mostly set by law, not by traffic engineers. A road which was posted at 60 mph when I was born ( in 1962 ) probably would be set for 80 or 85 mph today if traffic engineers could do their thing. Incidentally, in either case, traffic would be flowing at the same speed, except in the latter case 95% would be in compliance with the law, compared to maybe 5% or 10% now.

  • Re: Joe R.

    Yes, Senator Eric Adams was giving a walking tour of I-87 in Park Slope. My apologies!

  • Joe R.

    @ gecko,

    City streets are a different case. I agree 100% that we really need to calm traffic in places like Park Slope. These aren’t Interstate highways. The question is how best to do it. Reengineering the streets is the most cost effective way. Massive enforcement of lower limits without such reengineering would be like trying to drill a hole in water. The minute the enforcement slacks off, speeds will creep back up. And the city certainly can’t afford to stick a patrol car on every block for speed enforcement.

  • Yesterday I was driving a Toyota Camry on 9 Mile Road just north of Detroit, MI, in a 30 mph zone. 9 Mile is a straight two-way street with turning bays and parking on either side. It required a conscious effort to restrict my speed to 30 mph. I think it would have felt more “natural” to drive at 40 mph.

    Make of this what you will; I think it argues for Joe R.’s point; if you want drivers to go more slowly, you have to narrow the lanes, rough up the pavement, or something.

    The problem as I see it is that especially in grid-planned cities like New York and Detroit, one driver’s arterial is one resident’s neighborhood street.

  • Steven F

    Joe @ 17 – it’s the 85th percentile and not 95th that traffic engineers use as the holy grail. Unfortunately, 85 itself is just a construct and not some scientifically derived perfect number – it’s not Pie. The nearest 85th percentile comes to science is social science – and even then, because “it feels good.”

    Second, there are scientifically derived speed limits for roads based on physics, usually referred to as civil limits – as in civil engineering, and not as civilized behavior – another issue entirely. Curves have maximum speeds, hills will affect acceleration and braking, etc. However, design speeds do vary for trucks vs cars, for cars with average tires versus high performance tires, etc. So some drivers are comfortable at LeMans speeds and others are sliding off the road at half that speed. There are a lot of 55 MPH zones on Interstates because of on-off ramp conflicts even if the main roadway appears to be safe at 75 MPH. Apparently a lot of drivers can’t deal with this very well, and most run too fast past the on-off ramps.

    Your argument that the gas saving 55 MPH speed limit just breed disrespect for all other laws would have a lot stronger argument if drivers had not been speeding and driving recklessly long before and long after the 55 limit was in place. It took MADD to finally make drunk driving Un-Civilized behavior, and at least it is being enforced, but driving drunk is hardly zeroed out. Drunk driving predates the 55 speed.

    Joe, In your pot #19, you are making the argument for Speed Cameras and Red light Cameras. Right, cops can’t be everywhere, chasing speeders is dangerous and time consuming, and there just aren’t the resources for the coverage needed.

    So, either we as a society find that speeding is not to be tolerated and we install a shit load of cameras, or we don’t install the cameras and accept that drivers will do what they damn well please, which is what they can get away with most of the time.
    OR; we raise the bar on getting and keeping drivers licenses in line with what is typical in Northern Europe. Speeding and reckless and drunk driving is very unusual there, with only minimal speed cameras and no more police on the roads than here.

    186,000 miles per second,
    not just a good idea, it’s the law.

  • Joe R.

    Steven F,

    Common practice is 85th percentile of local roads and 2-lane highways, 95th percentile on Interstate highways. These numbers weren’t arbitrarily selected. Rather, studies found that travel speeds tend to cluster around some median number, with most drivers going within about 10 mph of the median. Those on the outliers, both high and low, give rise to the high speed differentials which result in crashes. This is why some expressways have a minimum as well as a maximum speed. You don’t want granny going 45 mph on I-87 any more than you want some kid in a rice burner going 120 mph. Both will cause accidents.

    True what you said about reckless driving and especially drunk driving predating the 55 mph. However, I was around before and after. I started cycling in 1978. I’ve noticed a huge difference between then and now. Sure, drunk driving has thankfully decreased due to zero tolerance ( only to be sadly replaced by distracted driving which is just as dangerous ). What has gotten worse since then is the lack of regard for any traffic laws. I remember in the 1960s and 1970s courtesy actually existed among motorists. People would let you in to get on an expressway, for example. And everyone signaled when turning or changing lanes. Blowing through a red light was practically unheard of ( or at least I rarely saw it ). You rarely saw the idiotic jockeying for position which drivers do these days, where everyone tries to be at the front of the line.

    Contrast this to nowadays. Lane changing without signaling is routine. Even when turning, if drivers bother to signal at all, they do so 50 feet before the turn. Almost every time I cycle, I see several drivers blowing lights. A lot of people drive as if in a coma, starting and stopping multiple times in a block, as if clueless on their next move. And of course, you have the aforementioned jockeying for position. I actually feel LESS safe when I cycle now than I did 30 years ago. It’s not just the disregard for laws. Rather, there is no longer any pride in the ability to control a vehicle well. People lack driving skills. Most regard their car as an extension of their living room. While legislated speed limits weren’t the sole cause, they set into motion a general contempt for following any rules at all while driving.

    Yes, we should raise the bar for getting and keeping licenses. Part of what got us into this mess was the idea that everyone should drive. In my opinion, upwards of half the population lacks the spatial ability, judgement, and coordination to drive regardless of how much training they receive. The licensing process should reflect this. Instead, we dumb down the roads to accomodate these poor drivers, but they still get in accidents anyway. We’ll all benefit from more stringent licensing. We’ll have fewer cars on the road. Because of the higher level of competence, we can have higher 95th percentile speeds on highways, and safer roads around town. We’ll have greater demand ( and support ) for public transit and cycling once some large segment of the population can no longer drive.

    Higher licensing standards are really where it’s at. Everything else you mentioned ( red light cameras, speed cameras ) is really just a bandaid put on an open wound. So many drivers are either hopelessly incompetent, or just have an awful attitude. It’s better to get them off the roads for good. It’s a pity though any support for higher licensing standards is politically dead in the water. Maybe we should work on changing public opinion here. We all benefit from more stringent licensing, even if the end result is some people can no longer drive.

  • Joe R.

    Interesting article semi-related to the subject:

    It’s about the declining compliance with stop signs. Ironically, part of the reason given is the overuse of stop signs. In general, when any means to control traffic is overused or abused ( i.e. NYC is great at installing unnecessary traffic lights all over the the place thanks to very vocal community boards ), compliance will go down. This also might explain the reason drivers are less willing to follow the rules – we keep sticking ever more traffic controls ( lights, stop signs, lower speed limits ) even if places where they don’t make sense from a traffic engineering perspective. What it boils down to is legislators and community boards have to get it through their heads that they’re not the ones who should be making these decisions. Just because some community activist THINKS a traffic light at some corner will make things safer doesn’t make it so.

  • It is clear that there is no real downside to changing the speed limit in New York City from 30 mph to 20 mph.

    It is probably also clear that the quickest way for achieving compliance is broad public engagement.

    Children can be some of the most effective proponents of safe lifestyles which concerns them greatly like “Please don’t smoke,” and “Please don’t speed.”

  • BicyclesOnly

    Joe R. and Steve F. both make some good points.

    1. Agreed that controls often seek to reduce speeds below those many drivers can safely use on a given roadway. But the answer can’t be relaxing controls to match design speeds (with design speed reduction as the primary tool to reduce speed), because–as Steve says–(a) design speeds are often too high and it’s too expensive to reduce them, (b) drivers vary in their ability and judgment as to what speed they can safely use on a given roadway, and (c) there will always be a significant minority of motorists (especially in NYC, of both the local and the tourist variety) who on a policy basis will operate at the “speed limit plus ten” or faster, absent enforcement directed at those speeds.

    2. Joe’s classification of “arterial vs. residential” roadways is valid, but in NYC virtually every roadway is residential, and even those that are not (e.g., West Street in Manhattan) have heavy pedestrian traffic that call for a 20 MPH limit. Even many of the interstates and parkways within NYC are so serpentine a 50 MPH limit seems to high for many drivers.

    3. Joe’s point of cultivating disregard for the law with unrealistic, unenforced controls is key. The speakers on the enforcement panel at Friday’s Transportation Alternatives Stop Speeding Summit made a very persuasive case that automated enforcement is effective against 99% of excessive speeding, with before-and-after statistics from a variety of settings. As the most effective, and most cost effective, method for controlling motorist speed, we should wholeheartedly embrace speed cameras. Because automated enforcement results in swift, certain sanctions, it will have the added beneficial effect of restoring respect for the law more generally, by osmosis as well as by freeing up law enforcement officers to enforce laws that require humans to enforce them.

    4. Higher licensing standards are also very important, but practically speaking would be IMO an even heavier political lift in Albany than winning authorization for speed cams. Plus, NYC will always have plenty of drivers licensed by other states, so this is not a complete solution.


    “One benefit of changing an entire city or neighborhood to 20 mph speed limits is the cost, which King says may average 50 times less than London-style 20 mph zones. Another plus is that a uniform speed reduces confusion over constantly changing rules.

    “Perhaps the most convincing argument for a blanket 20 mph speed limit is that it helps residents buy into the concept of driving more slowly. According to King, the fiercest opposition comes from those who have to drive through 20 mph speed limits but still live on fast-moving streets. ‘They don’t own the benefits of the 20 mph zone where they live,’ he said, ‘but they still have to pay the cost.’ When a large contiguous area is covered by lower speed limits, it’s easier for everyone to make the psychological switch to slower speeds.”

    When we are able to put up cameras where required that would be great but this important initiative should move forward in any case.

  • Clarence Eckerson Jr.

    Glad to see people discussing this (and Tweeting it) I thought Sen Adams was pretty awesome and am planning to go on a Streetfilms bike ride with him in the Spring. I think it is a good thing that the Senator’s views on bicycling as transportation continue to evolve positively, it is a good sign that other lawmakers will come on board.

  • Joe R.

    “Joe’s classification of “arterial vs. residential” roadways is valid, but in NYC virtually every roadway is residential, and even those that are not (e.g., West Street in Manhattan) have heavy pedestrian traffic that call for a 20 MPH limit. Even many of the interstates and parkways within NYC are so serpentine a 50 MPH limit seems to high for many drivers.”

    Minor additional point-we can probably go to a blanket 20 mph limit in Manhattan without any issues since driving there is optional, distances are fairly short, and practically speaking it’s not possible to go much above 20 mph most of the day due to congestion.

    The outer boroughs represent a different problem. Here there isn’t as much foot traffic, driving is less optional due to sparse public transit, and distances are longer. Here keeping 30 mph, at least along key arterials, makes sense to me. What we should try to do, however, is make sure that motorists really do stick to 30 mph through speed cameras or some other means of enforcement. Right now many of the arterials in Queens and Brooklyn are driven at highway speeds, not 30 mph. A good idea to make compliance with 30 mph voluntary would be to time the lights for that speed, and post digital signs at every intersection stating the speed you need to drive to catch the next light. This will keep drivers from speeding between lights on the theory that they need to do so in order to “make the light”. Couple that with cameras which trigger at a reasonable margin of error over the limit ( say 10% plus 4 mph = 26 mph for 20 mph zones, 37 mph for 30 mph zones ), and you could have much better acceptance/compliance with speed limits. An interesting factoid here is even on arterials, I’ve noticed many lights are either ill-timed, or totally uncoordinated. As a result, average travel speeds are rarely above 25 mph anyway, even with no traffic, despite peak speeds sometimes in excess of 50 mph. A major traffic light retiming for a consistant green wave if you travel at a steady 30 mph ( or even a few mph less ) might actually allow better travel speeds, plus better safety. The key here would be driver education. Motorists would have to be made aware of the new system via the digital speed signs I mentioned at every intersection. And the system would need to be implemented properly. If the signs tell the driver a speed to do, and they get caught at a light anyway, they will eventually start being ignored just like many other traffic controls.

    Another thing you can do with this system is retime the lights for faster speeds during off-peak hours, at least along arterials with a high enough design speed. This would be my carrot and stick approach – allow higher speeds when its safer to do so. In fact, in my opinion all speed limits along arterials and expressways should be variable via digital speed limit signs. None of this would cost much to implement in the scheme of things.

  • BicyclesOnly

    Thanks for correcting my Manhattan-centric blind spot, Joe.

  • Good one!

    An engineer writes about street standards, blindly applied – frm @clmarohn

  • Steven F

    Joe, you noticed significant changes in traffic safety since you started riding in 1978 – comment 22. You are absolutely right.
    I started riding my bike around NYC in the early 1950’s. An order of magnitude change in both volume, and attitudes over the past 55+ years.
    There was a fraction of the motor traffic which affected both street space and drivers attitudes. Growth in licensed drivers and the number of cars has far outstripped population growth. More cars squeezed into the same constrained space – a recipe for aggressive behavior.

    At the end of WW-II, most people did not have cars and used the dense subway, trolley and bus system. There was no postwar subway expansion into the boroughs, trolleys and buses were slowed by the new car traffic, just encouraging more car use. Related negative impacts was the Federal Housing/VA policy of providing mortgages primarily to new single family houses, and red-lining the old brownstone neighborhoods of NY. New money for housing was only being spent on sprawl into vacant parts of the outer boroughs and surrounding suburban counties. Driving became a self fulfilling prophecy.

    Factor in the changes in auto performance – cars are much faster and have much better steering control than the 1950s. It took forever to get a big old Buick up to speed, and with the bias ply tires, no driver wanted to take a turn too fast. Today, even heavy SUV trucks have 300 HP engines that accelerate twice as fast as a 1950’s car, and those “rice burners” you mention are both fast and handle to thread the eye of a needle. It really is a different road out there than it was in the 1950s or 1970s.

    Drivers Licenses – this really is square one – the weakest link in whole chain. To resurrect an old cliche from the 50’s, “The problem with the car is the nut that holds the steering wheel.”
    The observation that the driver, and not the car or the road is the first place to look to improve road behavior and safety has been long known. But too many people don’t want to face up to their limitations.
    Northern Europe has very stringent licensing requirements that seem to work without causing the entire economy or society to crash. It should make a good model for what can be done here.

    There is more to discuss, but enough for now…



    When the public and politicians tell engineers that their top priorities are safety and then cost, the engineer’s brain hears something completely different. The engineer hears “Once you set a design speed and handle the projected volume of traffic, safety is the top priority. Do what it takes to make the road safe, but to it as cheaply as you can.” This is why engineers return projects with asinine “safety” features, like pedestrian bridges and tunnels that nobody will ever use, and costs that are astronomical.

    An engineer designing a street or road priorities the world in this way, no matter how they are instructed:

    1. Traffic speed

    2. Traffic volume

    3. Safety

    4. Cost

    The rest of the world generally would prioritize things differently, as follows:

    1. Safety

    2. Cost

    3. Traffic volume

    4. Traffic speed

    In other words, the engineer first assumes that all traffic must travel at speed. Given that speed, all roads and streets are then designed to handle a projected volume. Once those parameters are set, only then does an engineer look at mitigating for safety and finally, how to reduce the overall cost (which at that point is nearly always ridiculously expensive).

    (End of excerpt)

    Personal note: Building a lot of software applications with rapid application development software with considerable success; was often asked where the error-checking was. The response was that error-checking was unnecessary since the stuff was so straightforward that user-error was very pretty much eliminated. This is the way transportation should be designed. Most techies are incredulous when they hear this!

    In a similar vein, when method actor Dustin Hoffman was acting in Marathon Man with Laurence Olivier, Sir Laurence asked him why he was beating himself up running all the time. Hoffman answered so that he would look tired from running. Olivier then asked “Wouldn’t it be easier to act like you’re tired?”

  • Joe R.

    Steven F and gecko, you both bring up great points. Incidentally Steve, the increase in traffic makes for both road rage AND “bike rage”. All road users, including cyclists, generally have a certain expectation of travel times. I’m no exception. I only ride recreationally, mostly because I can do all my errands by walking. Because of the order of magnitude increase in traffic ( probably less than that since I’ve started cycling but nevertheless still a huge increase since 1978 ), I’ve mostly been forced to ride after 9 PM. On weekends, especially Sundays, I can still occasionally squeeze in a day ride without hitting much traffic, but it’s mostly night riding for me. Why? Basically when I get on the bike, I have certain expectations regarding speed even though I don’t really have to be anyplace. If I average 15 to 17 mph overall, including any reasonable stops or slowdowns for traffic, I’m happy because I’m averaging a good percentage of my cruising speed ( typically 18 to 22 mph ). I used to be able to do this day or night, even weekdays, except possibly during rush hours. Nowadays though all bets are off. Traffic has increased. Moreover, stupid, selfish behavoir has increased even more, which in turn slows traffic more than it needs to be slowed for any given volume. I’m talking about double parking, driving slowly while talking on cell phones, stopping dead in the middle of the road for no apparent reason, jockeying for position, etc. Add in all those school buses which mostly didn’t run 25 years ago. If I try to ride during the day, I’ll often find nonsense like this slowing me down on every single block.

    It is these constant impediments which causes road rage. People can deal with something unexpected a few times during a trip. When every single block becomes an obstacle course, the rage builds. Easy to see why people who have to drive during the day become nervous wrecks. Also easy to see why they drive aggressively. They try to make up the time they lost because of something unnecessary getting in their path. Note here that the key word is “unnecessary”. Nobody expects to have a totally unimpeded trip, at least not in a place like NYC. I tolerate reasonable impediments like an occasional red light I can’t pass due to traffic, or a rough road where I need to slow down a bit, or perhaps natural impediments which slow me down like hills or headwinds. What drives me crazy though is the stupid, selfish driving behavoir which creates unnecessary bottlenecks. Also, the sheer volume of traffic means there’s more likelihood of such behavoir on every single block.

    This brings me to gecko’s point about the priorities of road design. Yes, we do design our roads to maximize volume and speed to the extent of all else. Putting aside the fallacy of 60 mph design speeds on roads with 20 intersections per mile ( a good point bought up by the article ), designing roads for throughput actually creates more demand for auto use! This in turn creates the very traffic which causes aggressive driving behavoir. Add in very lax licensing requirements which basically allow the nearly the entire population to drive if they want to. Now you have a perfect storm for disaster.

    In my opinion the way out is first to have more stringent licensing requirements with no grandfathering. Everyone must pass the new requirements, even if you’ve been driving 40 years. Can’t pass, your days of driving are done. This would reduce traffic volumes. It would reduce stupid, selfish behavoir even more. End result will be that courtesy/civility return to the roads. As a bonus, overall travel times will likely be reduced due to less volume, plus better flow for any given volume. It won’t matter any more if roads were designed for maximum throughput, either. The number of people qualifying for licenses would set an inherent upper limit on traffic volume. “Induced demand” from wider roads would no longer be a factor. We could make this requirement as strict as we want in order to control the number of drivers. Like I said, there is no good reason most people should have a driver’s license. It wasn’t that way years ago. Out of my four grandparents, only one had a license, and he gave up his car years before I was born. I personally don’t have a driver’s license. Living in the city, I just never saw the need.


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