Christopher Andrews makes the case in Gray Matters:
Does anyone know the speed limit in downtown Houston? Probably not. Casual observation shows speeds there normally range anywhere from gridlock to Gran Prix.
I don’t believe there are any speed-limit signs. But there is a speed limit. And no, it’s not “however fast you can drive between lights.” According to Section 45-91 of the City of Houston Code of Ordinances, in the absence of speed-limit signs, the speed limit is 30 miles per hour, just like any other local street in our city.
Until recently, 30 mph was also the local speed limit in New York City. But on November 7, New York City’s speed limits dropped to 25 mph, unless posted otherwise. This was part of New York’s Vision Zero initiative aimed ending traffic deaths and injuries — including the deaths and injuries of pedestrians.
It’s easy to make the case that Houston needs to slow down. Recent studies show that among large cities, Houston ranks above average for bicycle and pedestrian deaths, and that our average number of such deaths has risen. As Houston grows denser, and as more people choose to walk or bike here, that danger will naturally grow. Complete Streets — those new-style streets built with pedestrian-friendly wide sidewalks, street trees and other amenities — are great. But they’re not safe when drivers speed right through them.
Andrews’ original post is here. He references this Vox post about New York City’s Vision Zero initiative and the experience of London, which has lowered speed limits in some parts of town and seen a significant drop in accidents and fatalities as a result. This idea of lower municipal speed limits has an advocate in San Antonio, which I noted here. Another idea that has been proposed here for increasing pedestrian and bicyclist safety is Neighborhood Greenways, which aims to leverage side streets as a way of connecting neighborhoods to off-road hike and bike trails. That idea would be a complement to lower speed limits, not an alternative to them, so doing both is an option as well. Yet a third idea is making lane widths narrower. Michael Skelly advocated for that in a recent op-ed.
Every few years, the city of Houston revises its “Infrastructure Design Manual” to make sure it’s up to date. Public Works is reviewing its current standard of 12 foot-wide lanes. It’s time to put to work the free lessons being learned around the country and reduce the standard lane width to 10 feet.
You’d think that there’s not a lot new in road design – but you’d be wrong. Over the past decade, cities have figured out that one of the smartest things we can do is narrow traffic lanes – often from 12 feet to 10 feet. Reducing lane width reduces road fatalities, makes cities more walkable, saves precious real estate and gets us more bang for our limited tax dollars.
Cities like Chicago have figured out that drivers don’t respond to posted speed limits, but rather to conditions around them. The most effective way to influence driver behavior is by modifying those conditions.
When faced with a wide-open road, even if it’s in urban Midtown, drivers hit the gas. When conditions are more complicated, as when other cars are close by, cars are parallel-parked and pedestrians are out and about, studies show that drivers naturally slow down. You can see this difference yourself next time you find yourself driving quickly down Travis through Midtown or easing off the gas on Heights Boulevard. The former is treated like a speedway by most drivers, and the latter has slower, more cautious traffic. Lower speeds mean fewer, less deadly accidents. Speed matters. Pedestrians hit by a car going 30 mph vs. 20 mph are seven to 10 times more likely to die. The severity of automobile accidents increases dramatically with increases in speed.
There is simply no need for outsized 12-foot lanes. The iconic Texas Suburban has actually shrunk from 79.6 inches in width in 1973 to 79.1 inches today. Buses are wide, but cities around the country manage just fine with 10-foot lanes. And let’s not forget that for a bus system to work, we need safe sidewalks and a walkable environment to allow folks to walk safely to the bus stop.
I can’t say that I’d expect any lower speed limit proposal to be popular in Houston, at least at first, but all of these ideas deserve consideration. There’s a petition in support of ten-foot lanes, if you want to sign it. What do you think?