I reserve judgment on DC Councilperson Muriel Bowser’s attempt at a pedestrian-friendly law only because I don’t know what impact slower residential streets would have on people who currently don’t walk or cycle.
Bowser has proposed reducing the speed limit on the Federal City’s residential streets from 25 miles per hour to 15 miles per hour. Maybe a lot of people would walk or ride bikes if the cars went 40 percent slower on residential streets. I don’t know.
I don’t think the councilperson knows either. According to the article, Bowser says “concerns over speeding in residential neighborhoods has [sic] discouraged residents from walking and cycling.” But I’ve lived in DC and walked to work every day for years, and that doesn’t square with the reality I saw.
Additionally, the graph (which seems to be the one Bowser cited) shows that the significant payoff in terms of reducing “the probability of pedestrian fatality” comes at about 45 kilometers per hour, which is almost 28 miles per hour, which is already faster than the speed limit on those residential streets.
If the speed limit on those streets were 65 KPH (40.3 mph), and the proposed reduction were to 40 KPH (24.8 mph, which is almost identical to the current limit) then we’d be talking about a significant payoff. That change would reduce the likelihood of pedestrian fatality from about 30 percent down to less than 5 percent.
But the payoff in the Bowser proposal (can we call it that?) would be a reduction in the probability of pedestrian fatality from less than 5 percent down to maybe 3 percent. It’s a whole lot of change for not much benefit.
Further, I certainly don’t have the impression that 25 mile-per-hour motor vehicle traffic has much impact on the decision to walk on the sidewalk. Neither do I believe cars traveling at 25 mph have much impact on the decision to ride a bike. Residential streets at 25 miles per hour are a pretty friendly environment.
Such a significant change, from 25 mph to 15, could even exacerbate the tension between motorists and other modes. A 40% reduction of the speed limit is huge. Motorists will blame it on cyclists, and it will increase the perception of them as a special interest group.
But my real concern is about unintended consequences. Bicycles have to obey laws, too. A significant appeal of bicycling—and I would say a defining characteristic of the experience—is that you get out what you put in.
Cycling is satisfying because it rewards effort. If you want to get there faster, you push a little harder. Speed is earned not only in the moment by that pushing, either: the ability to go fast is built over time—weeks, months, and years. And for a whole lot of cyclists, easy cruising speed is faster than 15 miles per hour. This proposed law flies in the face of that hard-won capacity for speed, and at a very low threshold.
When a group of people is motivated by the intrinsic result of their effort, a law putting that kind of limit on their reward invites problems, including scofflaw cyclists, and the righteous indignation of the same people the law would seem to be trying to help. It creates a new way to levy fines on a group of people who already feel marginalized.
In brief: I just don’t like it. But hey, I’m open. Persuade me.