Families for Safe Streets to Albany: Lower NYC’s Speed Limit to 20 MPH Now

Amy Cohen and Gary Eckstein, parents of Sammy Cohen Eckstein, and family and friends of others lost to traffic violence outside the capitol today. Photo: Brad Aaron
Amy Cohen and Gary Eckstein, parents of Sammy Cohen Eckstein, with electeds, supporters, and other members of Families for Safe Streets outside the capitol today. Photo: Brad Aaron

New Yorkers who have lost loved ones to traffic violence are in Albany today to demand that lawmakers pass legislation to lower NYC’s default speed limit to 20 miles per hour.

About 150 residents, led by members of Families for Safe Streets, gathered for a press conference outside the capitol this morning amid a day of meetings with state representatives.

“We know that 30 miles per hour is not a safe speed, because people are dying every 33 hours,” said Hsi-Pei Liao. His daughter, 3-year-old Allison Liao, was fatally struck by an SUV driver last October as she and her grandmother crossed Main Street in Flushing in a crosswalk with the signal.

Joining Liao’s parents were family and friends of Sammy Cohen Eckstein, Asif Rahman, Ariel Russo, Megan Charlop, Carl Nacht, Luis Bravo, Ella Bandes, and others killed by drivers on New York City streets. State lawmakers Martin Malave Dilan, Adriano Espaillat, Brad Hoylman, Linda Rosenthal, and Michael Benedetto attended the presser, along with City Council members Ydanis Rodriguez and David Greenfield.

Bills from Assembly Member Dan O’Donnell and State Senator Dilan would set the maximum legal speed on NYC streets at 20 miles per hour, except on streets “where the City Council determines a different speed limit is appropriate.” The bills were introduced in January and February, respectively, after motorists killed seven city pedestrians in the first 11 days of 2014. Among the victims was 9-year-old Cooper Stock, who along with his father was struck by a cab driver in an Upper West Side crosswalk.

Dilan has 11 cosponsors for the Senate bill. No members of the Senate majority — Republicans and members of the Independent Democratic Conference — have signed on yet. O’Donnell’s bill has 17 cosponsors as of today.

“Let’s be clear — these aren’t traffic ‘accidents,'” said Hoylman. “These are preventable crashes. There’s no reason the good folks in this chamber from Utica should be deciding the speed limit on the Upper West Side of Manhattan.”

A pedestrian has only about a 50-50 chance of surviving a collision with a vehicle traveling at NYC’s current speed limit of 30 mph. At 20 mph, there is a 95 percent chance the victim will live. Speeding was the leading cause of NYC traffic deaths in 2012, according to DOT. Research cited by the 20’s Plenty For Us campaign shows that lower speed limits reduce collisions overall.

DOT’s Slow Zone program sets speed limits at 20 mph on neighborhood streets, but current state law allows the city to do so only if other physical traffic-calming treatments are also implemented, or a street is within a quarter-mile of a school. In addition, demand for Slow Zones far exceeds DOT’s ability to install them. “The NYC DOT cannot keep up with the flood of block-by-block requests for speed bumps, stop signs and traffic lights in neighborhoods which are trying to cope with the 30 mph speed limit,” said an issue explainer from Transportation Alternatives, which organized today’s trip.

We’ll have more on the 20 mph bills tomorrow.

  • J

    “There’s no reason the good folks in this chamber from Utica should be deciding the speed limit on the Upper West Side of Manhattan”

    Exactly

  • HamTech87

    I don’t disagree, but just want to add that Utica could also use traffic calming.

    http://www.uticaod.com/article/20140429/NEWS/140429223

  • Mark Walker

    The median on the north side of Broadway at 96th is being expanded in the wake of three car killings in the area. Does this traffic-calming measure make that intersection and nearby streets eligible for a Slow Zone? There is in fact a school just a block away at 96th and West End Ave. 20 mph + enforcement at this controversial location would make a big difference.

  • Andrew

    Among whom is it controversial? It seems quite obvious to me.

  • JimthePE

    Why not make 20 mph legal statewide in any urban residential zone, or appropriately traffic calmed suburban area?

  • an

    Why not allow localities to set the speed limit as they see fit, and enforce it with police or cameras as they want, with the provision that there has to be signage a sufficient distance that cars/trucks can comfortably slow down before entering the low speed limit roads.

  • JimthePE

    There are 1600 municipalities in the state, and few have the expertise to set an appropriate speed limit.

    That being said, few have more than minimal coordination between the different disciplines that canaffect motor vehicle speeds. The ideal is the self-enforcing road, where the road design, traffic regulations, land use (zoning), and everything else combine so that drivers voluntarily choose a speed that is appropriate to the neighborhood and street.

  • Daniel

    Towns are already permitted to set their own speed limits. It is the city with an army of engineers on staff that is not.

  • Bobberooni

    I dunno… I’m afraid that a general 20mph speed limit would become open season for cops to harass bicycles with speeding tickets — as they did in Central Park, when it was believed the speed limit there was 20mph (it’s 25). Remember that many/most bicycles don’t have a speedometer. Just the other day, a cop clocked me doing 22mph (legally) on Riverside Drive.

    I would hazard a guess that many/most of the collisions that happen involve cars going over the 30mph speed limit. I would prefer that we set the limit to 25mph and install traffic calming measures. I think that would save lives, without putting bikes at the mercy of NYPD.

  • Bobberooni

    Because some one-stoplight town upstate with a state highway running through an insignificant corner of its territory will set a 25mph speed limit on what’s otherwise a 50mph road, and use that to finance the town budget.

    Don’t believe me? Read about Hampton, FL:

    http://www.cnn.com/2014/03/09/us/hampton-florida-corruption/

  • Albert

    Last night in Manhattan I happened to notice a new electronic sign on 1st Ave a few blocks south of 57th, reading “Vision Zero Zone.” (or was it “Vision Zero Area”?)

    Certainly this area—in the midst of a gap in the protected bike lane / ped refuges—is very dangerous for both cyclists & pedestrians, but I fail to see how merely telling motorists (who are probably largely unfamiliar with livable streets jargon) a new name (undefined) of a new area (of undefined extent) could possibly lead to “safer” driving. If anything, it’ll likely lead to slightly more distracted driving.

    If naming this area happens to get a few more-knowledgable drivers to slow down (hah), are they then expected to speed back up once they leave the area? (I didn’t find the “You Are Now Leaving Vision Zero Zone” sign)?

    Unless this is just the first step in some more well-thought-out program, I expect such signs to prove about as useful as “Look!” is. Which makes me think, is this sign actually aimed at non-motorists, (mis-)leading them to feel safe in this zone?

  • Joe R.

    Bicycles should be exempt from speed limits, period. Even a bike going at 60-70 mph, which is the maximum speed of pro riders during a descent, is far less lethal than a motor vehicle going 30 mph. The fact that bicycles are not required to have speedometers, nor would such a requirement ever be practical, is enough legal grounds to have any speeding ticket thrown out. From a practical standpoint, exempting bikes from the speed limit won’t matter much given that few cyclists can reach 30 mph, let alone exceed it by any significant margin. All such a exemption would do is prevent cops from unnecessarily harassing cyclists who might be going a few mph over the limit in a 20 or 25 mph slow zone.

    I also feel a 20 mph speed limit is eminently sensible on quiet residential streets, or perhaps in school zones during school hours, but we should leave the default NYC speed limit at 30 mph. However, we should have enforcement/engineering measures in place to make sure that the actual travel speed on 30 mph streets is 30 mph or less, not the 40 to 60 mph often seen on major arterials.

  • Bobberooni

    Until/unless such an exception is brought into a citywide 20mph bill, I cannot support a general speed limit less than 25mph.

    But you will also have a hard time getting a blanket speed limit exemption passed for bikes. For example, the protected bike lanes through Manhattan are not good for more than 15mph — if the limit there is not 15mph, it probably should be. It’s also true that a bike at 20mph can do quite a lot of damage to a pedestrian, even death. See here, for example:

    http://www.universalhub.com/node/28965

    Again… I think an enforceable 25mph with traffic calming measures will be far more effective than simply painting “20mph” on existing speed limit signs.

  • Joe R.

    My point is you don’t need to get a blanket speed limit exemption passed for bikes. You just need a cyclist to have the speeding ticket thrown out by a judge on the grounds that a cyclist can’t know his/her speed because bicycles aren’t legally required to have speedometers. That would provide case law to have any future speeding tickets given to cyclists thrown out immediately. I also highly doubt it would ever be practical to require speedometers on bicycles to get around such case law because they would have to be inspected/certified regularly, and kept in working order. It’s hard enough to do that with motor vehicles which are registered/inspected.

    All that said, I agree with you about not supporting a general speed limit of less than 25 mph unless there is an exemption for bicycles. I can see a 20 mph limit as an excuse for police to call an open season on cyclists in order to increase the number of speeding tickets.

    Sure, it’s possible to get killed by a bike going less than 10 mph, but it’s not likely. I’d rather get hit by a bike going 50 mph than a car going 20 mph. Chances are good I’ll come of the former with fewer injuries.

  • qrt145

    I don’t buy the argument that there can be no speed limit for bikes because bikes don’t have speedometers. That’s like saying that there can be no blood alcohol limit for driving because cars don’t have blood alcohol analyzers.

  • Joe R.

    Explain to me legally how a cyclist is supposed to know they’re speeding without a speedometer? The blood alcohol limit is a poor analogy here. The state is just picking a limit where your ability to operate a motor vehicle is definitely impaired but in truth it’s unsafe to be driving if you’re way under the limit. That’s why cars don’t have blood alcohol analyzers and the state can still set a blood alcohol limit. It’s pretty obvious even to laypeople when you shouldn’t be driving, and that’s when you’re well under the blood alcohol limit. It’s not particularly obvious even to experienced cyclists if you’re a few mph over a 20 mph limit without a speedometer, and yet the police would certainly be giving tickets for going 21 mph in a 20 mph zone because cyclists are easy prey. I’ve been riding for over 36 years, most of them with a speedometer of some sort. On a great day I can guestimate my speed to within a mph but on an average day I could be a few mph off, if not more. The road surface, wind conditions, and so forth have a lot to do with it. On a smooth road with a tailwind it’s not all that hard to creep past 30 mph without realizing it, for example. Without a speedometer, you could be better than 5 mph off in your speed estimates, possibly more.

    The problem here isn’t just the police. As things stand now you have some people who complain about “bicycles going much too fast”, even though on average motor vehicles go a lot faster. A small vehicle like a bicycle looks like it’s going a lot faster than it really is. I’ve had bystanders say I was going 60 mph when I was really doing 25 mph. Now if you lower speed limits, combine this with complaints at community board meetings about “speeding bikes”, it’ll be open season on cyclists for speeding tickets the same way it’s been open season on them for red light tickets over the last few years. Now if the police could be trusted to be reasonable and not give tickets unless you’re at least 5 mph over the limit, I might not be concerned but this is the NYPD we’re talking about here. I’m quite sure cars will get a free pass unless they’re going at least 30 mph in a 20 mph zone but bikes will get tickets for going 21 mph.

    Even more importantly, none of this is going to make the streets any safer, but it will make life even more miserable for cyclists. Conversely, from a practical standpoint exempting cyclists from speed limits isn’t going to make things more dangerous given that most cyclists can rarely exceed even a 20 mph by all that much. You can still give tickets for going at a speed inappropriate or unsafe for conditions.

    My own preference here is to rely heavily on road design, as opposed to enforcement, to reduce speeds. If it takes an army of police doing saturation enforcement to keep motorists at 20 mph, then you’ve failed. Speed limits should be largely self-enforcing. Chances are good any road where motorists feel unsafe going over 20 mph won’t have all that many cyclists going over 20 mph, either.

  • lop

    ‘Explain to me legally how a cyclist is supposed to know they’re speeding without a speedometer?’

    You can get a speeding ticket in NYS if you are speeding with a broken speedometer. You’re still legally obligated to know how fast you’re going.

    ‘As things stand now you have some people who complain about “bicycles going much too fast”, even though on average motor vehicles go a lot faster’

    You hear a car coming from far away, you don’t hear bikes. They’re worse than electric cars. It’s a problem, because people are conditioned to walk into the street when they don’t hear a car coming. Because you always hear if it is. That makes bikes dangerous. Sure, getting hit by a bike at 20 mph you’ll likely be better off than if it was a car. But a bike at 20 can do serious damage. An other reason for legitimate complaints about speeding bikes is they often get lumped in next to pedestrians. If the city builds grade separated limited access bikeways, go as fast as you want on them. But when you’re near pedestrians. Slow down.

    ‘Conversely, from a practical standpoint exempting cyclists from speed limits isn’t going to make things more dangerous given that most cyclists can rarely exceed even a 20 mph by all that much’

    If it affects almost no cyclists that’s a reason to enforce the limit on them as well as cars, though of course focus on cars since they are responsible for the most carnage, since you’re inconveniencing so few people.

    If you’re in a hurry, well guess what, so are people in cars. They need to slow down. So do you. It makes the streets safer and more pleasant for everyone on foot. If you can’t tell the difference between 20 and 21 mph, then get a speedometer that’s calibrated, or ride at 15 mph to be safe.

  • Joe R.

    You can get a speeding ticket in NYS if you are speeding with a broken speedometer. You’re still legally obligated to know how fast you’re going.

    Actually, you can get a ticket for driving a motor vehicle without a working speedometer. Motor vehicles are required/expected to have working, calibrated speedometers. That’s why they’re expected to obey legal speed limits.

    Trained officers with calibrated equipment have difficulty accurately assessing the speed of a vehicle with a margin of error of less than 5 mph. Therefore, you can’t reasonably expect a layperson on a bicycle, for which no type of training is required, to know their speed with any accuracy. That’s why numerical speed limits can’t be enforced on bicycles. They aren’t in Great Britain, for example ( http://www.cyclechat.net/threads/are-cyclists-exempt-from-speed-limits.134552/#post-2532238 ). You can still of course get cited for going dangerously fast for conditions, but I’ve never had an issue with that part of the law. Speed reasonable for conditions doesn’t require knowing your speed to within a small margin of error. Rather, it simply requires that you proceed at such a speed as to be able to avoid any reasonable obstacles you might encounter.

    You hear a car coming from far away, you don’t hear bikes. They’re worse than electric cars. It’s a problem, because people are conditioned to walk into the street when they don’t hear a car coming. Because you always hear if it is. That makes bikes dangerous.

    Aren’t cyclists supposed to watch out for crossing pedestrians at intersections and not the other way around (although it’s always prudent to look before stepping into the street)? That makes your argument about bicycles being silent moot. In fact, your entire argument is nonsense. It’s generally accepted by most cyclists, me included, that it’s their responsibility to watch out for pedestrians and adjust their speed accordingly. My concern here isn’t being ticketed for going dangerously fast around pedestrians. I can get a ticket for that now with a 30 mph speed limit. My concern is being ticketed when it’s safe to ride at speeds near or at the speed limit. If police allowed a defacto 5 to 10 mph margin before ticketing that’s OK as most cyclists can tell 30 mph from 20 mph. What will happen is tickets being issued for 1 mph over the speed limit even though police radar has a greater margin of error than that (i.e. you could actually have cyclists getting tickets while going 16 or 17 mph in a 20 mph zone).

    Playing it “safe” by going 15 mph in a 20 mph zone as you suggest is not a reasonable answer. That increases your travel time by 33%. It’s equivalent to asking motorists to go 45 mph in a 60 mph zone. What people usually do is sit on or slightly above a speed limit. Police enforcement, at least for motor vehicles, typically respects this. Based on what happened in Central Park last year, I’m not exactly confident that we could expect the same thing if police started enforcing speed limits on cyclists.

    If the city builds grade separated limited access bikeways, go as fast as you want on them.

    There’s a whole bunch of reasons besides those related to this topic why such bikeways should be built but for now none exist. I haven’t seen serious proposals for any, either, at least in NYC.

    If it affects almost no cyclists that’s a reason to enforce the limit on them as well as cars, though of course focus on cars since they are responsible for the most carnage, since you’re inconveniencing so few people.

    The current 30 mph rarely affects cyclists but 25 mph, or even worse 20 mph, speed limits will which is why I’m opposed to them except on narrow residential streets. Arterials should remain at 30 mph, but with the caveat that they be reengineered to bring the actual travel speed in line with the 30 mph limit. That’s not the case now.

    I should also point out that if/when velomobiles become less expensive and more popular, even the present 30 mph speed limit will affect a large percentage of riders. It’s actually easy for a cyclist in average condition to cruise at 30 mph in a decent velomobile. A fit cyclist can often reach 40-45 mph in such a machine. Looking towards the future of human power, if anything we need to think in those terms. On a practical level, such speeds will likely require some sort of grade separation. As we move towards an energy scarce future, we have to find ways of continuing to allow people to travel efficiently. That generally means having laws/infrastructure which are favorable towards self-powered transportation. Right now things seem to be the other way around.

    If you’re in a hurry, well guess what, so are people in cars. They need to slow down. So do you.

    You’re forgetting that motorists have the option of taking highways with higher legal speed limits (and no traffic signals) for some or most of their journey. They’re also able to travel fast enough on local streets to keep up with typical traffic signal timing. For now cyclists have no similar options. NYC has already done a bang up job making cycling ridiculously slow and inefficient with 12,000+ ill-timed signalized intersections, bike infrastructure which often doubles as sidewalk extensions, sharp curves on bike paths, “mixed use” paths where pedestrians freely wander into the path of bicycles, narrow paths where faster cyclists can’t safely pass slower ones, and so forth. A 20 mph citiwide speed limit, which I’ve little doubt will be enforced disproportionately, and with no leeway, on cyclists, will only add to this mess. NYC should be doing everything possible to make cycling (and walking) subject to as few restrictions or delays as possible.

  • qrt145

    Well, I’m not a lawyer, but I don’t find that defense convincing. All I can say is, “tell that to the judge”, and let me know how it works out.

  • JK

    Mark, the law (which I helped write) is vague on how far a 15mph limit around a traffic calming device can be set. In this case, I’d think on the SB block of Bway 97th to 96th that had a lane removed and maybe the whole intersection at 96th and Bway. Interestingly, AAA’s lawyers told TA years ago that NYC DOT already had the authority to impose a slow speed at any “dangerous location.” DOT disagreed and we got the law passed.

  • Mark Walker

    Thanks for your response (and for your public service).

  • Mark Walker

    By “controversial” I meant frightening, dangerous, vicious, and bloody. Perhaps euphemism got the better of me.

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