Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Lowering Houston's Speed Limit; Pedestrian Safety in Houston

Does anyone really know the speed limit in Downtown Houston? Probably not. I don't believe there are any posted speed limit signs. But there is a speed limit. And no, it's not "however fast you can drive between lights." With any non-scientific observation, one can see that speeds in Downtown Houston normally range anywhere from gridlock to Gran Prix.

Speed limits in Downtown Houston are not posted, so, as found in Section 45-91 of the City of Houston Code of Ordinances, the speed limit is actually 30 miles per hour, just like any other local street in our city. 30 miles per hour had also been the local speed limit in New York City until a few weeks ago. On November 7th, New York City's speed limits became 25 miles per hour, unless posted otherwise. This was part of the city's Vision Zero initiative, aimed at reducing pedestrian deaths and injuries. Of course, there were skeptics.

As included in a recent Vox article, researchers have shown that reducing the speed of a car involved in an accident reduces the risk of death in an accident. Researchers found that:
For drivers, pedestrians, and cyclists, casualties (a category that includes both deaths and injuries) dropped by 41.9 percent in the new speed zones compared to other areas, with all the new zones leading to 203 fewer annually in total. Deaths declined by 35.1 percent, with 27 fewer annually.
How can we argue with slowing down for safety? When we have lower speeds, there are simply fewer accidents, and even if there are accidents, they're not as damaging or injurious. And, don't think I'm foolish. We cannot legislate ourselves so that all drivers behave. Many "accidents" are not accidents at all, and are instead negligent acts committed by dangerous drivers. In 2011 a Houston Chronicle story noted that between 2008 and June of 2011, there were 174 pedestrians killed in Houston. Officials from Houston's Public Works and Engineering department have admitted that "Overall we've got walkability issues, we're missing sidewalks and things like that, but we're comparable to other big cities". For a city that prides itself on being a leader, why do we continue to let "comparable" be our best?

Additional reports earlier this year, and at the beginning of 2013, found that Houston ranked above average among other big cities for bicycle and pedestrian deaths, and that our average number of deaths has risen as a whole. This is what happens when our region's streets are designed for speed, not safety.

Many other cities have become concerned about pedestrian safety. Even sunbelt peer Phoenix has recently talked about lowering their speed limits downtown. And in comparison with New York City, Houston certainly doesn't have the density that NYC has. Because of that, we've probably had less pedestrian causalities. But Houston is getting more dense. We're adding people to Downtown Houston. Neighborhoods all around the city are densifying and adding people. Midtown, The Heights and Montrose are seeing many more apartment complexes. And, along with this, as a whole, people are preferring to walk or bike more of their city. Most downtowns and business districts aren't places you can drive through easily. They're designed that way for a reason.

Many parts of our city are relatively inhospitable to pedestrians and bicyclists. The Houston Downtown Management District is leading some changes in streetscape that will help conditions in Downtown Houston. But the problem is a larger systemic view that cities are best traversed in a car, going as fast as possible. While that may seem like a harsh judgement, it's hard to deny the fact that many of the features of our streets and rights-of-way are designed not for people, but for cars.

While we're building Complete Streets here in Houston, and looking for ways to get more people biking and walking, let's consider lowering the speed limit a few miles per hour. It doesn't do much good to have complete streets when people speed right through them. Can we bring down the limit to 25 miles per hour? It is certainly feasible in many areas of our city. It can be done. Instead of simply being "comparable", let's set an example. We really could use some slowing down in life too. Let's be safe, and enjoy our city.