At City Council Hearing, Impassioned Appeals for Lower Speed Limits

City Council reps and members of the public spoke unanimously today in support of a bill to lower speed limits to a life-saving 20 miles per hour in neighborhoods citywide. But if the council adopts the measure, it will do so over the objection of DOT, which said the proposal would create conflicts with state law.

The family of Samuel Cohen Eckstein testified at today's hearing. Photo: ##https://twitter.com/bradlander/status/395933933939851264##@bradlander##

During an emotional two-hour hearing, council members on the transportation committee heard from advocates, neighborhood groups, and individual citizens, virtually all of whom implored lawmakers to see the bill passed.

Proposed by Council Member David Greenfield, Intro 535 would require DOT to set speed limits no higher than 20 miles per hour, down from the current citywide 30 mph limit, “on all streets fewer than sixty feet wide in areas zoned for residential purposes.”

Kate Slevin, assistant commissioner for intergovernmental affairs, and Ryan Russo, assistant commissioner for traffic management, testified on behalf of DOT. Slevin said 20 mph speeds in tandem with other traffic-calming measures is not only “a common sense approach to saving lives,” it’s a required combination under state law. State traffic code allows New York City to set speeds from 15 to 24 miles per hour, Slevin said, only if other physical traffic-calming treatments are also implemented, or the street in question is within a quarter-mile of a school.

“Unfortunately, not every residential street is appropriate for speed bumps, roadway narrowing, or other traffic calming treatments,” said Slevin. “As such, DOT would be unable to comply with Intro 535 as currently drafted.” Slevin and Russo did not specify how DOT or state law define “other traffic calming treatments” — whether they include paint, for instance, or other low-cost improvements.

Slevin said that, instead of passing the Greenfield bill, the council might consider lobbying the state for permission to lower the speed limit citywide.

Committee Chair James Vacca told Slevin and Russo he is frustrated by the gradual pace of the Slow Zone rollout — the timetable for currently approved zones now stretches to 2016 — the limited number of approved zones, and the backlog of requested speed bumps. He pledged to push the next mayor to accelerate the implementation of Slow Zones, but in the meantime, Vacca asked if DOT could lower speeds on certain streets to 25 miles per hour. Slevin replied that DOT could do that, but said the department prefers a more holistic approach. Slevin said DOT meets frequently with other agencies, including the Department of Education, the Department of Health, and especially NYPD, to address traffic safety — a process Vacca said should be formalized.

Council Member Brad Lander requested that DOT provide information on what could be done to lower speeds under current law, including an analysis of streets that are now eligible for 20 miles per hour speeds.

Vacca and Lander acknowledged that NYPD, which did not send anyone to the hearing, does not prioritize traffic enforcement. Lander complained that offenses including speeding, red-light running, and failure to yield are rampant. Of NYPD’s enforcement stats, Lander said, “Anyone who took street safety seriously and believed in data would be appalled.”

“What you’re doing is good,” Vacca told Slevin and Russo, “but we want to expedite this citywide.”

Several times, Russo cited speed bumps as the most effective tool for slowing drivers. But Paul Steely White, executive director of Transportation Alternatives, said data from London and Portsmouth, England, show that lowering speed limits alone reduces crashes. White said that cities in Wyoming and South Carolina have default speed limits that are lower than that of New York City. “While we wait for enforcement,” said White, “we should get signage.”

Rather than lobbying Albany for permission to advance piecemeal measures such as speed cameras, red light cameras, and lower speed limits, White called for a blanket home rule that would allow NYC to set its own regulations to make streets safer. Vacca said he would support such a home rule — which, of course, would have to be approved by Albany.

The mother, father, and sister of Sammy Cohen Eckstein, who earlier this month was killed by the driver of a van in front of their home on Prospect Park West, spoke in favor of the bill. Amy Cohen said that from what the family knows, on the afternoon of October 8, Sammy went into the street, with the light in his favor, to retrieve a soccer ball. But the light changed before he could get back to the sidewalk, Sammy fell, and he was hit by the driver, who entered the crossing at full speed. “Our family has suffered an unspeakable loss,” said Cohen.

Gary Eckstein said that even with successful safety measures implemented by DOT, which include a protected bike lane, motorists routinely speed on Prospect Park West. During testimony that brought many in the room to tears, Eckstein and Cohen said that, while they don’t know if the driver who struck their son was speeding, data prove that lower speed limits reduce crashes and dramatically improve survival rates. Eckstein also called on NYPD and the mayor to prioritize speed enforcement.

“Please do whatever is necessary to bring this legislation to the full council, and pass it,” said Eckstein. “Soon.”

Advocates from Park Slope Neighbors, the Brooklyn Heights Association, and CHEKPEDS also testified for the bill.

Other than DOT staff, the only person to speak in opposition to Intro 535 was David Pollack, executive director of a taxi medallion leasing organization called the Committee for Taxi Safety. After paying his respects to the family of Sammy Cohen Eckstein, Pollack said lower speed limits on residential streets would “create confusion” for cab drivers. Lower speeds make streets less safe, Pollack said, warning that cab drivers would be distracted by new signage, rather than keeping their eyes on the road. Pollack said NYC speed enforcement is a revenue spigot, and that traffic tickets threaten cabbies’ licenses and livelihoods.

Under questioning from Greenfield, Pollack admitted he didn’t really know the particulars of the bill — he feared, for instance, that the speed limit on Second Avenue would be lowered, though that corridor would not meet the bill’s parameters. Greenfield noted that slower speeds would improve safety for cab drivers, their clients, and other street users — a point Pollack seemed to concede.

“It’s obvious the slower you go, the safer it’s going to be,” Pollack said.

  • Ian Turner

    Sounds to me like we should set the speed limit to 25 and then lobby Albany for home rule.

  • Alex

    Wow, Pollack probably made the best case of anyone in favor of this bill. “Confusion” caused by by signs? “NYC speed enforcement is a revenue spigot”? If this is the kind of idiocy coming from opponents, this bill is a no brainer.

  • Anonymous

    I’d say if it’s a spigot they need to turn it on! Safer streets and more revenue seem like a win-win to me.

  • Daniel

    I’m not sure changing the speed limit by itself will do anything when 90% of drivers speed through residential neighborhoods. There needs to be enforcement, and we need cops to have some respect for the law, at this point I have some hope the next police commissioner will move things in the right direction. Maybe the best thing for the city council to do today is to direct more funding to the slow zone program? I support 20 mph or less as the default, but we have a large number of streets that were unfortunately designed to speed cars along at 50 mph with a *wink wink* speed limit of 30 mph, a *wink wink* speed limit of 20 mph isn’t going to help. At the state level we can and should fight for tougher penalties for speeding in residential areas and for a 1,000,000% increase in the number of traffic enforcement cameras in NYC. Enforcing speed limits by chasing down offenders in a car is one of the most idiotic and wasteful government schemes I’ve ever heard of, we can do better.

  • Joe R.

    Not to mention chasing down speeders probably causes more problems than it solves. Automated speed enforcement, coupled with street redesign, is the best way to go. We can also give drivers a carrot here by raising highway speed limits to the 95th percentile. NYC’s 50 mph highway speed limit is ridiculously slow. If motorists know they can drive at comfortable speeds on highways without getting a ticket, it will tend to take cars off local streets. That’s a win-win situation for everyone.

  • Joe R.

    Pollack makes it sound like the streets exist solely for the benefit of taxi drivers. The entire taxi industry could die tomorrow and NYC will be just fine. In fact, it would probably be better off given that half the traffic in Manhattan seems to be taxis. Whatever taxes and fees taxi drivers pay, they cost the city far more with the damage they cause. If indeed ” traffic tickets threaten cabbies’ licenses and livelihoods” and “lower speed limits on residential streets would create confusion for cab drivers”, then those are two more reasons to support this legislation.

  • Anonymous

    New York City’s DOT found that 70% of pedestrians hit by vehicles traveling 40 mile per hour or faster are likely to be killed, while those hit at 30 miles per hour have an 80% chance that they will live. Chicago reports that a pedestrian hit at 40 miles per hour has a 15% chance of surviving, at 30 miles per hour a 55% chance of surviving, while at 20 miles per hour, the pedestrian has a 95% chance of surviving.[1]

    [1] http://www.tbd.com/blogs/tbd-on-foot/2012/05/how-a-car-s-speed-affects-the-chance-a-struck-pedestrian-survives-15470.html

  • Joe R.

    You’re preaching to the choir here. I agree 100% motor vehicle speeds need to be lowered. I just feel chasing down speeders in a poor way to do so. As Daniel said, we need more speed cameras. I’d prefer that we blanket at least all the 20 mph zones with speed cameras to ensure near 100% compliance. We could also strategically put cameras in non-20 mph in areas with heavy pedestrian traffic.

  • JK

    The council should pass this law, despite the fact that it is trumped by state law, and will be effectively void. So what! Passing the local law gives a big boost to efforts to pass a new state law. It also highlights the backwardness of an Albany that won’t allow the city to use enough speed and red light cameras or control its own speed limit. DOT should explain the legal facts, but get out of the way. It’s a mistake for the agency to attempt to defend or explain a status quo that is illlogical and counter-productive. Most U.S. cities already have 20 or 25mph speed limits on residential side streets. It’s a bizarre anomaly that we — the densest, most walked city — have this higher speed limit. (Incidentally, it’s good that this taxi industry rep got up and spouted his nonsense in the light of day. God help us if di Blasio is basing any policy of any kind on the demands of this band of government licensed crooks. )

  • Anonymous

    I’d much rather see increased enforcement of the current speed limit (preferably automated) then reducing the speed limit by continuing the current lack of enforcement.

  • Ann

    Come on Streetblog! This article inaccurately states DOT’s position. The agency suggested ways for the Council to change the state law, should they want to, not “opposition” to the bill. Let’s keep it accurate guys.

  • Anonymous

    We need better enforcement before we need tougher penalties. Red light and speeding cameras at every major or problem intersection that create a probability of being caught would do the trick. At present no one even knows that they are even doing anything wrong, but suddenly getting hit with 6 or 8 camera tickets in a month at a modest $50 or $100 a pop would make drivers less oblivious. It would also change the competitive atmosphere of the streets with a collective effect that will slow everyone down. No more *wink wink*.

    Cameras could also help us to determine exactly what happened in specific cases, especially in a case like Sammy Cohen-Eckstein where we have no way of knowing how fast the van driver was going or even who had the right-of-way.

    We need to change the environment, and the surety of low level justice is the way to go. Throwing people in jail after the fact will not do; it’s too late. We should all live in a world where our mistakes are definitively penalized but not with lethal consequence.

  • I don’t see how this post misconstrues DOT’s position. It seems very clear that while DOT doesn’t oppose the spirit of the bill, the agency doesn’t want it to pass and would prefer another measure that doesn’t conflict with state law. Just about everyone else at the hearing wanted this exact bill to pass. DOT’s objections were reasonable, but they were still objections.

  • Needs

    Do you get the sense that everyone else at the hearing understood, before hand, the potential conflict with state law that the DOT raised? It’s my experience that officials in the the city agencies have better understanding of the constraints Albany puts in place than do council members.

  • Ann

    DOT explained the state law. The agency never said it was opposed to the bill. The reps just said DOT wouldn’t be able to comply with the bill should it pass because it would violate state law. Pointing out that a bill conflicts with state law is very different than “opposing” a bill.

  • Brad Aaron

    If you can point to a quote that I got wrong, or a sentence that misinterprets what was said by DOT staff, I will go through my notes and audio to confirm, and make whatever corrections are necessary.

    Otherwise, your issue is with the definition of “oppose.”

  • Anonymous

    I agree. What’s the point of lowering the speed limit if the current one is so regularly ignored? At best it’s only a symbolic act. Once we get enforcement we should lower it though.

  • Ian Turner

    Sure they do, the people in the agencies have to deal with BS regulations in their job every day.

  • Bronxite

    Police enforcement is simply ineffective. There are just not enough police available.

    I do agree that speed cameras should blanket the city along withwith other physical forms of aggressive traffic calming.

    A significant percentage of NYC land area is mixed use. Rather than labeling residential streets, these 20 MPH traffic calming measures should be implemented citywide while allowing for 30 MPH maximum along major arterials where safe to do so.

    You should not be physically able to drive faster than 30 MPH outside a limited access roadway in this city.

  • Joe R.

    Just one caveat about the physical traffic calming measures-they shouldn’t affect cyclists because most cyclists are already traveling at the “calmed” speed. Speed humps should have pass-throughs maybe about 6 to 8 inches wide for cyclists. None of the other measures you mentioned adversely affect cyclists. I personally think chicanes are one of the best traffic calming measures. Motorists have to slow down, but cyclists can keep a straight line through them.

    Another great way to enforce slow zones is with uncontrolled intersections, provided you make sure those intersections have decent lines of sight. When street users have to negotiate with each other at intersections, speeds much over ~20 mph are impossible.

    Regarding arterials, I often wonder if 30 mph is really needed when you consider that average speeds are seldom over 20 mph due to traffic signals. The traffic signals enable speeds over 20 mph but at the same time they often require stopping. The arterials might be safer but just as fast with 20 mph speed limits and roundabouts at major intersections. We just need to change motorist’s perceptions where they associate their rate of progress with their maximum speeds, not their average speeds.

  • Sarah

    Regarding lowering the speed limit: “David Pollack, executive director of a taxi medallion leasing organization called the Committee for Taxi Safety,” said “cab drivers would be distracted by new signage”.

    I would be so ashamed to utter such a lie. If the speed limit were reduced to 20mph across the board in most residential neighborhoods, it would be announced for days in the tri-state area on every tv and radio news show, be in every newspaper, and be made known to all who drive for a living.

    This “argument” is worse than specious – it’s outright false. Pathetic – how can this “committee” sleep at night?

    Also, if drivers would put down their handheld devices and focus on driving, I’m sure they could manage to safely read road signs.

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A City Council effort to lower speed limits to 20 miles per hour on residential streets citywide has been dropped in favor of a bill that would set limits at 25 mph on narrow one-way streets. The original bill, sponsored by Council Member David Greenfield, would have set speed limits no higher than 20 mph “on all streets […]