Gov Signs 25 MPH Law — Here’s How Albany and NYC Can Make the Most of It

The new 25 mph default speed limit, combined with a significant increase in speed cameras, should lower the risk of injury and death on city streets. There’s still a lot more work to do to address NYC’s speeding problem. Graphs: AAA

On Saturday, Governor Andrew Cuomo signed a bill lowering the default speed limit in New York City from 30 mph to 25 mph, a significant milestone for Mayor de Blasio’s Vision Zero initiative and a major accomplishment for victims’ families, street safety advocates, and their legislative allies in Albany. Here’s what to keep an eye on as the city tries to save lives by getting motorists to drive at safer speeds.

The new speed limit will take effect 90 days after Cuomo’s signature. After the first week of November, the speed limit on all surface streets in New York City will be 25 mph unless otherwise marked.

As AMNY reported last month, DOT will have its hands full in the near term, putting up 25 mph signs and adjusting traffic signals to synch up with the lower speed limit. The agency will continue to roll out these changes as part of its Arterial Slow Zone program, which will be targeting a batch of new streets this fall.

The 25 mph bill will have some teeth thanks to the increasing prevalence of automated speed enforcement in NYC. Another bill that cleared Albany this session authorized the city to use 140 speed cameras. The previous allotment of 20 cameras were already nabbing more speeders than all of NYPD’s conventional enforcement, so once all 140 cameras are deployed, the overall level of speeding deterrence in the city should increase substantially.

While the 25 mph bill will strengthen the city’s automated speeding enforcement, several weaknesses in Albany’s speed camera legislation remain and will have to be addressed in future sessions. One problem is that 140 cameras are simply not enough to safely monitor the city’s 6,000 miles of streets. NYC needs more cameras to get speeding under control throughout the city.

Another problem is that current state law severely constrains where and when the city can use speed cams. They can only be deployed on streets near a school entrance, and only during school hours, restricting the city’s ability to prevent injuries and deaths using automated speeding enforcement. Albany will have to fix these shortcomings to get the most out of the 25 mph law.

Then there’s the 11 mph “buffer” written into the current law — speed cams will only issue tickets to drivers traveling 36 mph or faster in a 25 mph zone. That’s a significant improvement over the 41 mph threshold that went with the old 30 mph speed limit, but state lawmakers have to do better. In Chicago, for instance, speed cams issue fines to drivers clocked exceeding the limit by 6 mph, and the fines increase for violations of 11 mph or more.

On the city side, it will be up to DOT and Transportation Commissioner Polly Trottenberg to continue overhauling streets so that design makes the new speed limit as self-enforcing as possible. The city still has far too many wide streets where traffic moves at deadly speeds during off-peak hours. The Arterial Slow Zone program is a useful short-term improvement, but it’s no substitute for thorough redesigns that give more space to walking, biking, and transit.

The new law says NYC drivers should slow down and save lives. City streets should send the same message.

  • J

    In DC, speed cameras issue fines for drivers going 1 mph over the limit. It’s amazing how effective this is.
    http://mpdc.dc.gov/node/403192

    A few key findings from a report evaluating the effectiveness of the camera program:
    “The number of traffic fatalities in DC has dropped from 68 in 2003 to 19 in 2012. The rate of speeding over 10 mph above the speed limit has dropped from one in three drivers to just one in 40.”
    http://hria.org/uploads/catalogerfiles/2013-speed-reduction-resources/DCCaseStudy_120313.pdf

  • Andy

    I hate speed limit vagueness. Set the limit to be a LIMIT, and anything over is ticketable. It’s crazy that people say “but I was only going 10 over” as a defense to speeding.

  • Mark Walker

    If there is going to be an 11 mph buffer, and we really want to keep injuries down to the amount occurring at 25 mph, it would make more sense to set the official speed limit at 15 mph. Either that or, as Andy suggests, make the limit a real limit.

  • Joe R.

    There’s vagueness for two reasons. One is inaccuracy of the speed measuring equipment used by law enforcement. The second more important reason is inaccuracy of the speed measuring equipment in motor vehicles. You can’t expect a driver to adhere accurately to a speed limit if they don’t know their speed accurately. Moreover, even if they did, the amount of attention focused on keeping exactly at the speed limit would detract from more important driving tasks. Exact speed limits will have to wait until motor vehicle are no longer human controlled. Even then, we’ll need some way for the vehicle to know its speed accurately-perhaps via GPS along with a vehicle driven speedometer for times when GPS isn’t available. The onboard speedometer can be regularly recalibrated via GPS. For now something like a 5 mph buffer at typical urban speeds and a 10 mph buffer at highway speeds is pretty much the norm. I don’t know why Albany passed a law with an 10 mph buffer. Car speedometers aren’t that inaccurate, and a driver can easily keep their speed to within 5 mph over the limit or less.

    All that said, it has been the norm on railways to do exactly what you say. However, this is only practical for two reasons. One, train speedometers are generally required to be very accurate, often to better than 1 mph. Two, trains change speeds slowly, so its easy for a human operator to keep a train pegged right on the speed limit (I’ve done this myself in train simulators, even on undulating terrain).

  • Andy

    I think you miss the point. People assume they should always be able to go “the speed limit” or 10 above. I wish it was that the limit was a true limit, and to be safe, you’d WANT to stay below it. I know people still wouldn’t, but at least it would be clear. “I stopped you because you were going 26 in a 25” instead of “I’m giving you a warning for going 35 in a 25”.

    When I drive through cities, I don’t expect to drive the speed limit. Usually I stay around 15-20mph anyway, especially if it’s a place with frequent ped crossings. As slow as that may sound, the reality of urban traffic is that we all end up at the same red light or queued stop sign. Going 35+ mph is just inefficient, because you waste gas acceleration, just to stop at the next light anyway.

    All cities could use more of the speed controlled lights too. If you speed in the block, the light turns red and makes your trip take longer – but if you stay within the limit, you can get green lights all day. No ticketing, no enforcement, no whining to police or wasting time fighting tickets in court. Just instant feedback.

  • Joe R.

    The speed limit is supposed to define the maximum speed that it’s safe to drive at under good conditions. Obviously obstacles will sometimes slow you to well under the speed limit, but it’s not realistic to think you should have to drive under the speed limit all the time, which is what you would need to do in order to avoid a speeding ticket if there was no buffer.

    I totally agree however at people who just gun it the second the light turns green, with no thought at all given to what’s ahead. After you drive or ride a bike on a street enough times, you have some idea of the light timing. It makes no sense to speed if doing so only gets you to the next red light faster. Now I’m obviously not a fan of traffic signals at all, but I feel if we have them, then they should be timed at around the speed limit as an incentive to keep drivers from speeding. At the same time, we should also give drivers the tools they need to keep up with the green wave. You might have something similar to the string of LEDs used in some bike lanes in Copenhagen, for example, to do that. This would keep drivers at or near the speed limit with minimal distraction. Another tool is to put something similar to a pedestrian countdown timer where drivers can see it. Drivers might not speed to make lights so much if they knew exactly how much time was left in the green cycle.

    The idea of speed controlled lights doesn’t make any sense. It penalizes everyone else who might have been on the same block as the speeding driver. And without sensors, you would have no guarantee of green lights even if you didn’t speed. In fact, I strongly favor sensor controlled traffic signals. A traffic signal on an arterial should never go red unless something is on the cross street. We have pedestrian and vehicle sensors which could easily make this a reality. Combined with speed cameras to keep drivers from speeding when they have an endless string of green lights, this idea would make streets safer while also avoiding needless delays for much of the day. You may still need the traffic signals on regular timed cycles during busier times, but maybe from about 8 PM through 6 or 7 AM they could be on sensors only.

    All that said, remember the only reason drivers speed is because we have legislated speed limits. If speed limits were set at the 85th percentile on urban streets, we wouldn’t have much speeding. If the 85th percentile turns out to be higher than we want, we would need to redesign the street to get it down to whatever speed we felt was more appropriate.

  • Andy

    “but it’s not realistic to think you should have to drive under the speed limit all the time”

    This is why I wish the limit was actually a limit. You seem to like the idea of a limit being vague. I don’t.

  • Larry Littlefield

    “In Chicago, for instance, speed cams issue fines to drivers clocked exceeding the limit by 6 mph, and the fines increase for violations of 11 mph or more.”

    To me, that’s a fair system. Giving someone a ticket because at one point they are going 27 mph on an arterial – the way tickets are given for one tenth of a second past a red light — undermines support for the law.

    I would suggest that those driving 3-5 miles per hour over the speed limit be sent a letter asking them to slow down, with a possible fine after three violations — and after three more violations, etc.. And beyond 11 mph, the higher the speed the greater the fine.

  • Joe R.

    The limit isn’t vague. The problem is we lack the tools to enforce it accurately, so in practice we give a cushion.

    I personally think many people here at Streetsblog are too focused on speed and speed limits when we should be focusing on other things. The biggest cause of accidents bar none is distracted driving. The second biggest cause is aggressive driving. There are many actions which constitute aggressive driving. They don’t necessarily include speeding (unless we’re talking extreme speeding, like 60+ mph on urban streets). Jockeying around for position, quick lane changes, quick turning, passing vehicles too closely, changing speeds quickly, etc. all are far more dangerous than just going 5 to 10 mph over the speed limit. Sure, speed makes crashes worse, but chances are nearly 100% that someone crashing was engaged in one of the actions I mentioned in addition to speeding. This is where our attention should be focused. Remember it’s possible to drive dangerously even at 20 or 25 mph. This is why I feel we’re going to be sorely disappointed at the results of these speed limit reductions unless they’re accompanied by serious street redesigns, combined with much better enforcement of aggressive driving and distracted driving.

  • lop

    Speed

    21% of all pedestrian KSI crashes were attributed by responding officers to speed-related contributing factors: speeding (8.3%), slippery pavement (i.e. driving too fast to stop under prevailing weather conditions, 3.8%), limited sight distance (i.e. driving too fast for specific geometric conditions, 5.2%), aggressive driving (3.8%), and following too closely (0.5%). These numbers are likely to underestimate the importance of speeding, since NYSDOT contributing factor data does not account for all crashes, and only two contributing factors may be reported for each crash. Many DWI crashes (4.8%) and driver inattention crashes (36%) are also suspected to involve speeding or unsafe speeds.

    http://www.nyc.gov/html/dot/downloads/pdf/nyc_ped_safety_study_action_plan_technical_supplement.pdf

    Getting people to pay attention to how fast they go, hardly a burdensome activity even in an urban environment, will go a long way towards making the streets safer, both by reducing the frequency of accidents and lessening their severity. That travel times may increase slightly in some cases is a necessary price to pay for safety. For those for whom the difference is burdensome they can switch modes, move, or get new destinations.

  • Joe R.

    Speeding may be involved in crashes without being the primary cause. What I’m getting at is if a driver only going 5-10 mph above what is most a legislated speed limit (as opposed to a properly set one) and doing nothing else wrong, the chances of them getting in a crash are probably close to nil. Don’t conflate this with “driving too fast for conditions” which is often a bigger cause of crashes than driving slightly over the speed limit.

    What we really need to do is train drivers to drive at speeds appropriate for the conditions, without regard to the number posted on a sign. In fact, for this reason I feel speed limits in general are a horrible idea. Without them, drivers would most likely be doing exactly what you want them to do-paying attention to their speed. However, they wouldn’t be paying attention to a number, but rather to whether or not they’re going too fast for the conditions. Indeed, in my book cars shouldn’t even need speedometers in order to be driven safely. The NYC subway didn’t have speedometers on its trains until the 1990s, yet it had a great safety record due to well-trained operators.

    It all boils down to speed limits being set improperly due to being legislated. The current 30 mph is widely ignored. Why? Because it’s a legislated speed limit, as opposed to one set by proper traffic engineering practices. And the fix is what, another legislated speed limit, this time a lower one? You know what they say-the very definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over but expecting different results. We’ve now had 40 years of experience with legislated speed limits, starting with the 55 mph national speed limit in the early 1970s. The consensus is they don’t work and aren’t obeyed unless by chance the legislated speed limit happens to match the design speed of the road. It’s time to try something different, like maybe redesigning streets with the goal of lowering the design speed. Yes, it’s a more expensive, long term solution but why are we here in the US always focused on quick fixes, even when there are none?

    Want a quick fix? Here’s one-ban private cars and every other type of non-essential motor vehicle in the five boroughs. Sure, it’s sort of a throwing out the baby with the bathwater solution but it would most likely drastically reduce traffic deaths.

  • Andy

    Your answer is turning city streets into an autobahn or banning all drivers? Both are awful ideas.

  • lop

    85th percentile speed limits are not in any way a viable solution for local streets. Legislated speed limits work well when pared with enforcement.

    http://hria.org/uploads/catalogerfiles/2013-speed-reduction-resources/DCCaseStudy_120313.pdf

    DC’s Automated Enforcement program has demonstrated significant public health and safety benefits. The number of traffic fatalities in DC has dropped from 68 in 2003 to 19 in 2012. Average speeds among all vehicles in DC have been reduced, and the rate of speeding over 10 mph above the speed limit has dropped from one in three drivers to just one in 40.

  • Joe R.

    Why do you assume in the absence of posted speed limits that drivers will drive at autobahn speeds? Drivers drive above posted speed limits only when those speed limits are set too low for the design of the street. The converse of that is without speed limits people won’t be driving any faster than they’re already driving. Yes, it’s reasonable to assume given the lack of speed limit enforcement that for all intents and purposes the speeds we’re seeing now reflect the speeds we would see if we removed posted limits entirely.

    Want to get drivers to slow down? The biggest reason why drivers speed in NYC is traffic signals. They speed to make lights. They also speed in the knowledge that a green light lets them pass intersections with little chance of a collision due to the concept of legal right-of-way. Get rid of traffic signals and drivers won’t speed as much. Better yet, have uncontrolled intersections and chances are good they will rarely drive above about 20 mph because that’s the maximum speed you can approach an uncontrolled intersection at while still being able to stop in time to avoid potential collisions.

    There are plenty of reasons why people drive fast, but the number on a sign actually has very little to do with it.

    And as I wrote earlier, let’s focus on things besides speeding. People in this city are horrible at driving. Better driving training might be a good start, including periodic retesting. Aggressive/distracted/incompetent driving is the biggest problem from where I stand, not speeding. If speed were the only cause of injury/death, then we would need to reduce speed limits to 5 mph in order to reach Vision Zero. That’s the only speed where the risk of injury/death is close to zero.

  • Joe R.

    You need saturation enforcement to keep people at legislated speed limits if the speed limit is lower than the design speed of the road. This was demonstrated repeatedly during the 55 mph era. You actually had to have 55 mph patrol cars blocking all the lanes in order to get everyone to adhere to the limit. NYC doesn’t have the manpower for saturation enforcement. Thanks to the watered down speed cam legislation, that’s not an answer, either.

    Redesign the streets, starting with removing most of the traffic signals and stop signs. That will get drivers to slow down for sure just out of self-interest.

  • lop

    >Redesign the streets, starting with removing most of the traffic signals and stop signs. That will get drivers to slow down for sure just out of self-interest.

    No it will not. Cars will go 40-50 in the peak direction. Trying to cross union tpke and similar roads without traffic control devices will be damn challenging, on foot or in a car, because if you are close enough to the car in front of you then you won’t have to slow down. Local streets are not highways. It doesn’t matter how fast it feels comfortable to drive. If you don’t want a long commute, then move or get a new job.

    Getting better camera legislation will be easier and faster than redesigning every street in the city over the next few decades.

  • Joe R.

    On the city side, it will be up to DOT and Transportation Commissioner Polly Trottenberg to continue overhauling streets so that design makes the new speed limit as self-enforcing as possible. The city still has far too many wide streets where traffic moves at deadly speeds during off-peak hours. The Arterial Slow Zone program is a useful short-term improvement, but it’s no substitute for thorough redesigns that give more space to walking, biking, and transit.

    Thank you, Ben. This is really the most salient point in your article. As both a pedestrian and a cyclist, I want people driving slower in NYC. At the same time, I’m also aware of the reasons why speeds are currently too high. Just slapping a lower number on a sign won’t change a thing without the redesigns you mention. This is especially relevant given that speed cams will be inactive during the late night hours when high speeds, combined with darkness, result in the highest number of pedestrian fatalities. We can hope the speed cam legislation will be changed but in the end you hit the nail on the head-a lower speed limit should be largely self-enforcing. If it isn’t, we’ve failed. If it is, it means drivers have bought into it.

    Semi-related to all this is the fact NYC will finish installing LED streetlights by 2017. I feel this will trump all other safety improvements by letting drivers see things much better. Perhaps we should try to get the timeline moved up?

  • Joe R.

    No it will not. Cars will go 40-50 in the peak direction.

    Yeah, right. So they’ll be going 50 mph when they cross a major arterial like 164th Street, and the cars on 164th will be going the same speed? I actually hope that’s the case at first because it will make for some really great news footage. It won’t take long for drivers to get the message that driving more than 20 mph through uncontrolled intersections will make them DEAD, not allow them to reach their destination faster.

    Local streets are not highways. It doesn’t matter how fast it feels comfortable to drive. If you don’t want a long commute, then move or get a new job.

    This isn’t about travel time here. Most drivers who care about travel time already stick to highways for as much of their journey as they can. Rather, it’s about doing something which I can say with 100% certainty will fail miserably unless accompanied by street redesigns. Uncontrolled intersections have been shown to work exactly as I say elsewhere. Why won’t they work in NYC? We’re no different than anywhere else. Besides, uncontrolled intersections are but one tool in the book to design streets for lower speeds. Narrower lanes work. Roundabouts work beautifully to keep speeds down where you want them the lowest, namely at intersections. What doesn’t work is just slapping a lower number on a sign.

    Crossing Union Turnpike and other similar streets is just about impossible now for much of the day, so what makes you think anything I propose will make it worse? I’ve even wrote my legislators suggesting we install pedestrian bridges over major arterials as there seems to be no other way to get across them in a timely manner. Don’t bother mentioning walk signals. They’re not at every crossing and no, I absolutely refuse to wait sometimes upwards of a minute for a walk signal to cross a street. That’s f-ing insulting. I can walk a block, or even two, during the red cycle of many walk signals. I cross a street whenever I get to it, walk signal or not, but if the cars have the green they never stop for me. What happens if I have a red light when a bus I want to take is right across the street? I shouldn’t have to miss my bus to wait for cars to pass.

    Getting better camera legislation will be easier and faster than redesigning every street in the city over the next few decades.

    No, it won’t. The minute there are enough cameras that many people start getting fines there will be political support to have them ALL removed. Speed cameras are a great tool when used in spots where high speeds are particularly inappropriate, but they’re not a blanket solution for the reason I mentioned. In the end slow speeds must be mainly enforced through street design. It won’t take decades, either. We could do this in 5 years if we went at it 100%, perhaps even less. The vast majority of NYC streets at this point need at least a repaving, if not a complete rebuild. At the same time we do that we could reconfigure them for slower speeds.

  • Joe Enoch

    Banning all drivers you say? Now that’s an idea I can get behind!

  • Joe R.

    That makes two of us. Seriously, I’m not saying ban all drivers, just nonessential ones. That basically means everything except buses, emergency vehicles, delivery vehicles, sanitation trucks, maintenance vehicles, and paratransit. Private cars and for-hire cars by definition are nonessential. They also constitute the bulk of traffic by far.

  • Andy

    As much as I may whine about transportation engineers, I am so glad that they exist, and that our transportation systems aren’t designed by Joe!

  • Joe R.

    Funny but most transportation engineers suggest a lot of the same things I do. And guess what? These things actually work for the most part. When transportation engineers fail, quite often it’s because laypeople gummed up the works by insisting on inappropriate solutions. For example, NYC Community Boards are great at insisting traffic signals or stop signs be installed, even when in most cases better solutions to the problem exist, even when more often than not they create more problems than they solve. Of course you have legislators who think they’re better at setting speed limits than qualified traffic engineers. Then again, legislators think they’re better at doing nearly anything than experts.

    I took a traffic engineering course in college. I’m also an experienced electronics engineer, meaning I’m familiar with using a scientific, rational, data-driven approach to solve problems. In the end what we have here is just another system. It’s no different than the circuit boards I design in that the components generally behave in well-documented, fairly predictable ways. And just as I design my circuits to behave properly with known component tolerances, we can design our streets to function properly with known behavioral differences among users. I don’t see legislators telling me what components or layouts I should use in my circuits. It’s just as inappropriate for them to micromanage traffic engineers.

    I’ll make a good bet after the photo-ops are over NYC DOT won’t get funding to redesign the streets so the lower speed limit is largely self-enforcing. The end result will of course be a monumental failure. The traffic engineers will of course be blamed, but if their hands are tied due to lack of funding, plus legislative interference, how could the outcome be any different?

    Finally, it also bears mentioning that no matter how well we engineer the streets, if the vast majority of drivers are incompetent due to our really low licensing standards, the streets might be safer but still dangerous. Or getting back to my circuit board analogy, I can’t design a really great circuit if I have mostly marginal components to work with. For example, if someone tells me they want specs within 0.1%, but forces me to use 5% tolerance components, sorry, but it ain’t happening no matter what I do. Low licensing standards is one area where legislators can and should take action. So is permanently removing the licenses of drivers who continually kill or injure. Sadly, it’s the one area they won’t touch for fear of not getting reelected.

  • walks bikes drives

    Maybe we can develop a system in cats simalar to cruise control, but a self setting governor. Set a maximum speed that is set based on radio signals from the streetlights.

    Someone design that!

  • walks bikes drives

    Street design is very important. I consider myself a very competent and safe driver, but I still found myself doing 40mph on Riverside Drive in the 150’s a couple weeks ago, as were the cars in front and behind me. The street should be severely narrower, especially since is is a passenger vehicle only street.

    (It annoyed the car behind me when I slowed down)

  • walks bikes drives

    Bike lanes in both directions would do nicely here, since the Greenway at this point has too few access points to be viable for local commuting.

  • Joe R.

    We can do that right now-GPS determines your location, and then governs the car’s maximum speed to no more than the speed limit at that location. Unfortunately, trying to legislate something like that into new cars, never mind retrofitting it into existing vehicles, would be a political nonstarter. We can’t even get legislation to force the driver to allow access to a vehicle’s black box.

    Really, the problem here is more political than technological. Any engineering solution will be met with opposition from drivers who don’t want to give up their “freedom”, which I presume also means freedom to drive any way they want, no matter how dangerous.

    P.S. I know you meant “cars” when you wrote “Maybe we can develop a system in cats similar to cruise control, but a self setting governor.”

    Nevertheless, a self setting governor for cats would sometimes be nice as well!

  • Nathanael

    Please notice that following too closely, driving too fast for specific geometric conditions, and driving too fast for prevailing weather conditions, are all examples of *reckless driving*, as is aggressive driving.

  • Nathanael

    Narrow, twisty lanes are the way to go. Almost everyone slows down. The remainder are reckless drivers and need to have their licenses revoked.

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