Key State Senator Tony Avella Opposed to 20 MPH Speed Limit Bill

State Senator Tony Avella is opposed to legislation that would lower the default speed limit in NYC to 20 miles per hour.

Tony Avella believes some NYC neighborhoods prefer faster, more dangerous traffic.
Tony Avella believes some NYC neighborhoods prefer faster, more dangerous traffic.

He’s also against lowering the speed limit to 25 mph on Northern Boulevard — where drivers have killed at least seven pedestrians, including two young kids, since 2010. That’s supposed to happen this month as part of DOT’s arterial slow zone program. Avella sent a letter to Mayor de Blasio and other electeds asking that the city refrain from making any changes on Northern Boulevard until there is “community input,” a spokesperson said.

As a member of the Independent Democratic Conference that, along with Republicans, controls the Senate, Avella could help get the 20 mph bill passed. Streetsblog spoke with Avella today. Here’s what he had to say.

We’re calling to see what your position is on 6496, the bill that would make the default speed limit in New York City 20 miles per hour.

I certainly agree with the intention of the bill. I’ve actually been fighting with the Department of Transportation to make the streets and city of New York much safer going back to my days in the City Council, when I actually had a piece of legislation to try and reform the way the agency approves street lights and all four-way stop signs.

The concern I have about the way the current bill is constituted is making it the default 20 miles per hour across the entire city, and making communities then have to petition the city to raise the speed limit in certain areas, whether it’s Northern Boulevard or Queens Boulevard, back to 30 miles per hour. I actually met with [Families for Safe Streets, which went to Albany last week], and I basically told them the same thing. It’s so difficult to get the Department of Transportation to approve anything these days, I can’t see making communities go back to them to get a speed limit which they already have on major thoroughfares. I’m in total agreement of lowering the speed limit around schools, on quiet residential streets, but I think this is not a cure-all to the problem itself, and I think we need to have a much more comprehensive approach.

And there has to be community input. You cannot just make this across the board without community input. And I think that’s what’s going on. I’ve always been a community person, and I think that this has to be something that people really want to do. And I don’t think because the mayor likes this that we should do it.

Well the effort to do it is pretty much ground-up. The City Council didn’t take this up until they were contacted by people who had lost family members to drivers.

Forgive me for saying this — I’m not in any way deterring from the message that they have — but in all the years I’ve been in office, not one person has ever asked me to lower the speed limit to 20 miles per hour. What they’ve asked for is traffic lights, stop signs, speed bumps, changing the direction of traffic from two-way to one-way streets. Not one person has ever asked me for a 20 miles per hour speed limit.

So my experience in all my years in government is different from the focus of this bill, based upon what people tell me. So to say this is a grassroots effort, an effort from the bottom up, I don’t necessarily agree with that. What I’m saying is, there really has to be community input before we do anything like this. And I don’t think you can make it across the board. I mean we’ve had a law on the books for safety for years, it’s called jaywalking. Everybody does it. I’m just worried if you — plus the fact there’s no community input — I don’t know that we should require communities to petition its own city and its own agency, the Department of Transportation, to get back something they already have, when the agency has been so bad at approving traffic-calming measures.

I just don’t see it at this point, but I’m willing to talk. I’m willing to go along with the core message, which is make streets safer, especially in the residential areas. But I can’t support a bill that makes it across the board. I just think that’s the wrong approach.

And I think that even if it gets close to passing — which I don’t think it is — I think you’re going to hear a huge community outcry. And I think that if it does get passed, I think there’s going to be a lot of civil disobedience. The police department can’t be out there all the time. People at 30 miles per hour they’re speeding at 40 miles per hour, 50 miles per hour. I just don’t think it’s something that the public in general is going to accept, and therefore they’re just going to abuse it across the board.

And what about Northern Boulevard — are you opposed to lowering the speed limit to 25 on Northern?

I’m opposed to lowering it to 25 on Northern. Do you know how slow 20 miles per hour, 25 miles per hour is? What about the businesses in the city of New York that have to get from one place to the other? And for the most part they have to use local streets because they’re not permitted on every highway or expressway. So are you in effect maybe doubling the amount of time that it’s going to take businesses to get their deliveries done? This is way too complicated just to say ‘Let’s just lower the speed limit to 20 miles per hour.’

When you say 25 miles per hour on Northern Boulevard, I don’t think that’s in the bill. What I see is 20 miles per hour across the board.

No, it says the City Council can set speeds higher where they find appropriate.

Yeah, but again, you’re making communities then go back and legislate every major thoroughfare in the city of New York. This is convoluted.

What would you say to these parents who’ve lost their little kids on Northern Boulevard to people who were driving too fast?

Again, they’re driving beyond the 30 miles per hour speed limit. There’s a difference here. This is not what I consider to be a comprehensive solution. It’s a knee-jerk reaction, ‘Let’s just lower the speed limit.’ I’ve seen this too many times as a civic activist, as a person who’s worked in government, as an elected official. There’s a knee-jerk reaction to an immediate problem, but the knee-jerk reaction doesn’t necessarily solve the problem. But it makes for good press. I want to solve the problem. So let’s have a real discussion. I’m not seeing a real discussion. What I’m seeing is ‘Let’s make it 20 miles per hour.’ That’s not a real discussion.

If you could impose a solution, what would it be?

I would like to see a much more easier process, whether it’s lowering the speed limit, with community input, easier to get all-way stops at traffic lights, an appeals process when the Department of Transportation denies those community requests. That would be a very good start. I think there’s more we could discuss, but let’s have a real discussion.

One more question. Research shows that the risk of death drops dramatically if you’re hit by a car going 20 miles versus going 30 …

And I don’t disagree with that. I don’t disagree with that. But you’re making a generalization now for the entire city. Why not look at neighborhoods that really want the 20 miles per hour, and where it’s appropriate. I’m not against that. I’m just saying across the board I don’t think is good government.

  • Brooklyn Man

    I could deal with that, as long as there’s enforcement.

  • Brooklyn Man

    This is true. When I drive in Virginia, though, I don’t really go over, because they’re tough there. In Georgia, people will go like 20-30 over. (This is on the highway, I mean. 30 over in residential is ridiculous.)

  • Mark Seaman

    It’s not work if the street is engineered for 20 mph. Then it feels natural. Getting slower speeds passed into law is step 1; then we need to design the streets so driving fast feels unsafe to the drivers, not just illegal.

  • JK

    Senator Avella is deeply confused. Speeding is not a form of civil disobedience. Civil disobedience is rooted in non-violence, per Thoreau, Gandhi and MLK jr. Speeding on city streets is an inherently selfish, disregard for the safety and well being of other human beings.

  • qrt145

    I don’t see why lowering the legal speed limit is a necessary “step 1” for engineering. Is there a law that says the city can’t engineer a street for a speed lower than the posted speed limit?

  • That sounds a lot more reasonable than the impression one gets from reading the above. Perhaps some of the advocates are concentrating on the wrong message. The battle cry should be home rule for NYC, not “lower all of NYC to 20 MPH”.

  • That sounds like a great argument for roundabouts over stop signs, but I don’t see that being part of this legislation. Your argument does not seem to apply to just lowering the speed limit without removing stop signs.

  • Current law already allows for speed limits to be lowered to 20 MPH in conjunction with a street redesign. This legislation seeks to remove that barrier.

  • carma

    i agree. i never stay on the right lane if i know there is a merger ramp upcoming. too bad most people lost this commonsense.

    same as, never stay on the left lane as it is a passing lane.

  • I can has driving

    Can we make it more difficult to earn (and keep) driving privileges? There are so many yahoos out there who simply are not qualified to be behind the wheel of an automobile. There should be extra requirements to be allow to drive drive an SUV.

  • Aunt Bike

    I don’t doubt that 20 feels unnatural in a world where hardly anybody does it even where the limit is marked thus. But you can baby the gas pedal and ride the brake (which I see people doing at higher speeds than 20), and then even automatic transmissions have low gears. (L1, L2).

    I don’t deny that there is some truth to the statement that slow speeds seem unnatural, but I think it’s about time we start demanding that drivers control their cars, not the other way around.

  • Kevin Love

    One way of restricting car traffic volume is to make the Island of Manhattan car-free. As far as I am aware, that does not require Albany’s approval, as I see streets being made temporarily car-free for a large variety of reasons.

  • Kevin Love

    Also, it is violent. Violent in two ways. 1. It poses a threat of crushing and killing people. 2. It is launching a lethal cancer poison attack upon people.

  • lop

    I was under the impression the city can’t lower the speed limit below 25 mph in the absence of traffic calming measures, with some disagreement about what those measures would have to entail to justify lowering the speed limit below 25 if there isn’t a school on the street. But they could lower it to 25 on any street they want right now. And they don’t.

  • lop

    High traffic levels mean the right lane isn’t used as a merge lane, and the left lane isn’t used as a passing lane. A lot of the country has extended ramps on highways because trucks need them. You don’t have room to install those on a lot of roads in NYC though, like all the entrance ramps with stop signs on the parkways. Sometimes these are near enough to a blind bend that taking 15 seconds to reach 50 mph would be somewhat dangerous since you don’t know what’s coming.

  • Joe R.

    As silly as it might sound, the reason this isn’t done might simply be the cost of installing signs. If you made all quiet residential streets and streets near school zones 25 mph, you would literally be talking about installing tens of thousands of signs. That’s a huge amount of money.

    In fact, I think the impetus behind this bill is partly to get around the issue of needing to install a lot of signs. If the default speed limit becomes 20 mph instead of 30 mph, then you only need to sign streets were the limit is higher than 20 mph. In the absence of a speed limit sign under the proposal, a driver will (or is supposed to) know that the speed limit is 20 mph. The vast majority of streets which we want to keep at 30 mph already have speed limit signs, so there wouldn’t be much extra money needed there, either.

    Saving money isn’t the primary purpose of this bill, but I think in the end it’s the most cost efficient way to add 20 mph zones to the city.

  • Joe R.

    I’m totally aware of instances like that but remember a lot of NYC highways with the problems you mentioned were built in the 1940s and 1950s when the vast majority of cars were hard pressed to get to 60 mph in under 20 seconds. And yet somehow they managed. As much as I’m not a fan of traffic signals, they might help with highway merging. You have sensors which scan the right lane approaching an entrance ramp for vehicles. If any vehicles are so close that you can’t safely merge, the entrance ramp gets a red signal. I think we’re already doing that in a few places not so much for safety, but to control the number of vehicles entering an expressway. It might merit looking at for blind entrances.

    Also, like I said, if power levels dropped, drivers will adjust in the same way they adjusted when power levels rose. Let’s face it-the real reason cars today are overpowered has nothing to do with safety. We passed the point about 3 decades ago when a significant percentage of the fleet might have been underpowered relative to what is needed for safe highway merging. Nowadays it’s simply that car buyers look at 0-60 mph numbers, the auto companies know it, and as a result they use it to sell cars.

  • Joe R.

    The problem is twofold actually. As you and others have mentioned, there’s a very real problem keeping most modern cars at 20 mph or less. It quickly becomes a tedious, attention-intensive task which distracts from the other things you need to do. Second, most modern cars are heavily sound-proofed, so there are few external speed ques. If the vehicle is high, has a long hood or small windows, then you only see the ground from a distance where it appears to be moving slower. In most cases, because of these factors you feel like you’re going much slower than you are. We need to make vehicles which have less power to start with, and also which feel faster at a given speed. That means less soundproofing, and preferably the driver shouldn’t have much, if any, hood in front of them, so they see the road rushing by.

    All that said, even from a cyclist’s standpoint I can relate somewhat to this issue. A strong rider on a fast bike trying to keep their speed to 10 mph is in an analogous position to a motorist trying to do 20 mph. You often have to ride the brakes. You need to continually check the speedometer. It quickly becomes tedious and tiresome. Also, 10 mph feels rather slow on a bike even though you’re not in an insulated metal box. On the flip side of that, unlike in a car any speed much above 20 mph feels adequately fast on most streets. To me 20 mph on a bike feels like highway speed in most cars.

  • Joe R.

    #2 merits far greater attention than we’re currently giving it. Auto emissions indirectly kill as many as ten times the number of people cars kill directly. Moreover, they’re a byproduct of driving no matter how safe the driver is.

  • Joe R.

    I would be all for that. Based on my anecdotal observations, I’d say at a bare minimum 25% of the population is incapable of safely operating a motor vehicle regardless of the amount of training they receive. They either lack the coordination, judgement, or intelligence to do so. The number might even be as high as 75%. Regardless, you’re 100% correct-it should be a lot harder to get and keep a driver’s license.

  • lop

    ‘ You have sensors which scan the right lane approaching an entrance ramp for vehicles. If any vehicles are so close that you can’t safely merge, the entrance ramp gets a red signal. I think we’re already doing that in a few places not so much for safety, but to control the number of vehicles entering an expressway’

    The only highway entrance lights I see are the ones that allow one car through per green to make merging a little neater, I really don’t think they scan the highway to see if there’s room, just the entrance ramp. Where do they have the ones you are talking about?

  • Joe R.

    No, they don’t currently scan the highway but that might be an interesting thing to do if we can do it with just cameras (i.e. no huge cost to install buried cables to detect vehicles). Anyway, I should have been clearer on that. The ones we have do only exactly what you mentioned-control the flow of vehicles entering the highway.

  • Aunt Bike

    “…there’s a very real problem keeping most modern cars at 20 mph or less. It quickly becomes a tedious, attention-intensive task which distracts from the other things you need to do”.

    What are these other things you need to do while driving a car?

    “You need to continually check the speedometer. It quickly becomes tedious and tiresome”.

    Come on, Joe, you can do better than that.

  • qrt145

    If you are looking at the speedometer, you are not looking at the road, which is far more important to look at.

  • Joe R.

    I’m mainly talking about urban driving where most of your attention should be focused on real and potential conflicts on the street, rather than continually looking at a speedometer. The hard reality is most of today’s cars don’t really come into their own until highway speeds. Below that, the driver is fighting their engineered tendencies to go faster. Of course, we can and should engineer cars differently, or perhaps have mainly “city cars” on our streets which are expressly designed for slow cruising, but that’s another topic.

    I should also note that electric cars might be a real boon in the urban environment. Most use three-phase AC traction motors. The neat thing about these is you can neatly cap the speed by capping the frequency of the driving electronics. Or put in layman’s terms, it would be really easy to engineer the vehicle so speed ends up proportional to pedal position. If 100% is 100 mph, then 20% would be 20 mph, and so forth. Instead of controlling power, which is what current throttles do, the pedal would control both top speed and acceleration rate. 20% could be 20% of maximum acceleration rate up to 20 mph, at which point acceleration immediately drops to zero. This would be perfect for urban driving, and it would make it much easier to control vehicles at low speeds. The issue right now is power is more or less proportional to speed cubed. You need only a few percent of the power to cruise at 20 mph as you do at highway speeds. That’s why cars are so difficult to control at low speeds. It’s because the accelerator controls power, not speed. It’s hard to modulate a pedal at 2% plus or minus a few tenths of a percent. It’s really easy to modulate a pedal at 20% plus or minus one or two percent.

  • Aunt Bike

    I honestly don’t feel that one has to constantly check the speedometer. If the speed limit is 20, and drivers obey the speed limit, you just keep apace and you’re going 20. (You will not be ticketed for going a wee bit over, either by a camera or a cop with a speed gun).

    If you want to argue that nobody follows the speed limit, I’d say that was a case for better enforcement and education, not keeping the status quo. Simply put, everybody should follow the rules .

    They won’t? I don’t buy that, I’ve been in communities where they do. We have a culture of disregard for law? We need to change that culture.

    We can’t? If we can add tens of thousands of bicyclists to Manhattan traffic and see traffic deaths and injuries go down, that’s proof that we can.

  • nycbikecommuter

    I actually don’t feel comfortable driving at 30mph on most streets in NYC. They’re narrow, there are people and bikes everywhere, cars inching out from sides roads, etc. My comfort zone is 20-25mph. Maybe because I have a different perspective as a cyclist and a a driver so I see things differently. IMHO anything above that is plain reckless and yet people do it. On main roads like Queens or Northern Blvd 30mph might be more suitable as long as it’s enforced. Right now 50mph is common on those. Changing the limit will be pointless without stronger enforcement. But we can’t really count on NYPD for this. NYPD needs to be reformed before changes to traffic laws are implemented.

    Also, I don’t care if someone drives for a living. Just because it’s someone’s job it doesn’t mean the rules should be lightened. Quite the opposite: rules need to be tighter for professional drivers.

  • A better idea would be make retaining driving privileges more difficult or be more heavy handed with punishing drivers.

  • StepUpAndSaySomething

    Avella couldn’t be more out of touch with what is happening in NYC. It makes sense, I’m sure everyone he meets is rich enough and old enough to like things just the way they are. But neighborhoods change and old people die (often by speeding drivers) and we need progressive politicians to helps us build the NYC of the future, one better then the past, and better for everyone, not just those on top. Lower speed limits, more enforcement and a reformed NYPD is what our neighborhoods deserve. Avella is going to regret picking this outdated fight, forgetting about the huge number of constituents in his area don’t have cars.

  • Jim

    Well if 20 is safe, why not 15 mph ? Less people would die. In fact why not make it 10 mph ? Better still, why not remove all cars from the city ? The ultimate in safety !!

  • StepUpAndSaySomething

    To use that logic in reverse, then why do we need to have a speed limit at 30, instead of letting people drive at 70 down our neighborhood streets?

    Also, you seem to fail to realize that most New Yorkers use alternative transportation more then cars, even many who live in Avella’s district. If we got rid of passengers cars, most of New York world be relativity unaffected. Adding more busses and subways and most people (other then those too prissy to use public transportation) would be better off.

  • Bob F

    As a commuter and citizen of NYC who drives to work on Northern Blvd, Union Turnpike and Queens Blvd. I am in favor on a 30 mile an hour speed limit city wide with a higher limit on the above streets. I would say to pedestrians to follow the lights and no crossing regulations and stop blaming drivers for lack of care in crossing. I would say to parents of small children they should have been taught to exercise more care. Some issues are drivers faults but stetting speed limits low as to make life inconvenient for all driving residents is unfair and will continue to push the middle class out of NYC. I will be voting against anyone who lowered the speed limit to 25. At 20 I will have to move out of the city. I expect much of the tax base to leave. I would like to start a movement to reverse this bill. NEW YORKERS Stand up against stupidity – including traffic cameras.

  • Ian Turner

    Please do move out of the city. You are in the minority; New Yorkers do not even have cars, let alone use them for commuting.

    Also worth noting that drivers are culpable in the majority of pedestrian deaths. http://www.cars-suck.org/research/kba_text.pdf

  • Maggie

    I would urge you to look at Streetsblog’s In Memoriam columns for 2013. And prior years, if you want. Just google, they’ll come right up. Please take a look. Then please consider why you would call people who want to save the lives of scores of New Yorkers “stupid” and why you are blaming each of the victims for their own death – while also saying they were also totally unpreventable and no big deal.

    From my perspective, I hear you don’t want to slow down on your commute and don’t care who dies, bloody, in the street or in the emergency room, to save you a couple minutes or two. This sounds AWFUL. Would you threaten to move out of the city if you couldn’t blow cigar smoke in a pregnant woman’s face? Or dump your turpentine in someone’s water supply? Why is any one’s convenience at driving, measured against hundreds of lives being lost, any different?

  • Joe R.

    Bob,

    I might be personally sympathetic here if we were talking about dramatically reducing speed limits on limited access highways. I feel most highway speed limits are well below the design speed of the road. Unlike driving on urban surface streets, higher speeds translate into proportional trip time savings on highways.

    However, you’re way off-base on the effect of a lower speed limit on your travel time on surface streets. As a cyclist, I see motorists rush past me all the time, only to sit there at the next bottleneck. I often get through the next intersection the same time as they do, without going much over 20 mph the entire time. At night you may realize slightly greater travel time savings from higher speeds, but it’s still by no means proportional. During most of the day, going 35 or 40 mph instead of 25 mph translates into little or no time savings, but it makes the consequences of a collision much more deadly.

    Just once or twice, try driving your usual routes at 25 mph instead of whatever speed you normally drive at. Let us know how much longer it takes you. You may be surprised yourself. High speeds may make motorists feel like they’re getting to their destination faster, but the mind also conveniently ignores the huge amount of time spent sitting at red lights. If you arrive at a red light while it’s still red, you wasted energy and wore out your brakes needlessly. Look at what’s ahead. If you see red lights or other reasons you’ll need to stop in the next few blocks, just coast. It makes no sense to reach high speeds only to have to slam on the brakes two blocks later. I see drivers do this all the time. All they’re doing is wearing out their brakes and making the oil companies richer.

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