Seattle wants drivers to slow down — by 5 mph to be exact. City Council voted unanimously on Monday to reduce Seattle’s default arterial speed limit from 30 to 25 mph and the nonarterial speed limit from 25 to 20.
Thanks to the new ordinance, the speed limit will drop to 20 mph on 2,400 miles of nonarterial neighborhood streets. Downtown arterials will be the first to get reduced to 25 mph, along with a handful of other problem streets around the city. Because the ordinance refers to the default arterial speed limit, there will still be signed arterials with higher speed limits.
“This is a giant step forward to actually have this legislation on the books. It’s a good start,” says Cathy Tuttle, executive director of Seattle Neighborhood Greenways, a nonprofit streets advocacy group that’s been lobbying for the speed reduction for several years.
Seattle was the only city in King County without a default 25 mph arterial speed limit. New York dropped its default speed limit to 25 mph in 2014. In August, Boston Mayor Marty Walsh announced his plan to push a 25 mph default for his city.
The ordinance is part of Seattle’s Vision Zero goal to reduce serious injuries and fatalities on city streets by 2030. Annually, there are about 13,000 collisions in Seattle. Unsurprisingly given the higher speeds, over 9,800 of them are on arterial streets and result in 8,111 injuries, 144 serious injuries and 17 fatalities. And though collisions that involve pedestrians or bicycles only make up 7 percent of total crashes, they account for 47 percent of annual fatalities.
“Early on in my time here I realized we do play an important role in public safety. When I first got here there were a rash of serious and fatal crashes and it really brought home that point. It feels like it’s taken a little longer than we would’ve liked to get [to reducing the speed limits], but we wanted to make sure to do it in a data-driven way,” said Seattle Department of Transportation Director Scott Kubly at a Council Transportation Committee hearing last Tuesday.
Of course, posting new speed limit signs does little to actually slow drivers down, a fact brought up time and again in public testimony and by SDOT staff at the hearing.
“Our streets are designed for fast-moving vehicles with very little provision for people walking, biking or using transit,” said Merlin Rainwater, a Seattle Bike Advisory Board member, at the hearing. “As you pass this critical important law please also commit to street calming infrastructure as well as education and enforcement.”
Tuttle’s organization is advocating for the city to implement “road diets” on arterials that typically reduce car lanes from two lanes in each direction to one in each direction with a center turn lane. On residential streets they want to see the city install speed bumps and traffic diverters.
Tuttle also wants the city to enforce the new speed limits with speed cameras. She points to SDOT’s speed camera program at 15 schools, which generates revenue for Safe Routes to School infrastructure and programing.
“We’re not going to be able to re-engineer our streets immediately. But I think we could get a good amount of money and good amount of change by enforcing streets to the speed we need them to be. We don’t have the police force to do that so we need automated cameras,” says Tuttle.
The ordinance had fairly broad support from bicycle and pedestrian advocates and neighborhood and business groups. Seattle Neighborhood Greenways collected letters of support from 19 merchant associations, neighborhood councils, elderly advocates and other groups.
“These chambers recognize serious collisions and fatalities are going to drive away business. They want pleasant business nodes where people can bike, take transit, drive to, be able to walk from the coffee shop to the book store across the street,” says Tuttle.
Josh Cohen is a freelance writer in Seattle. His work has also appeared in The Nation, Pacific Standard, Vice and Crosscut.