One of the hardest parts of making a significant life change is to first admit that you have a problem. In all substance abuse recovery programs, acknowledging the problem is the first step. Taking this initial step doesn't require a full awareness of all the life changes that need to happen to deal with it. It's simply enough to say: there is something deeply wrong and I want to work on it.

Two and a half years ago, I was in Springfield, Massachusetts, when a mother, daughter and another little girl were crossing State Street at the public library when they were struck by a vehicle, the daughter killed. There had been collisions in this location before and, prior to the evening I was there, local residents had gone to lengths to document how the design made a future tragedy inevitable. Indeed, the city has acknowledged the problem with some half-hearted measures that have proven ineffective.

In the 30+ months since that little girl was killed, residents have pushed for change, but the city has taken no action.

In the 30+ months since that little girl was killed, residents have pushed for change, but the city has taken no action. This past May, we wrote an open letter to the city and its residents indicating that we were prepared to work pro-bono as either (1) an expert witness against the city the next time someone is struck at this crossing or (2) an advisor to the city in making the changes necessary to make State Street safe. In a subsequent news report, city officials indicated that there was nothing that could be done, that it was people who chose to cross here that were "putting themselves in harm's way" and that they feared a lawsuit if they should vary from state highway design guidelines.

(Note: as we indicated in our open letter, there have been a number of recent lawsuits that have found cities liable -- to the tune of millions of dollars -- in situations exactly like the library crossing at State Street.)

Now, there may be some movement by the city to, at the very least, acknowledge that there is a systemic problem with their approach, one that is making Springfield's streets unsafe. Last Wednesday, the city council voted to reduce the default speed limit in the city from 30 mph to 25 mph. From MassLive:

"The hope is to make neighborhoods a little bit safer by reducing the speeding problem," Council President Orlando Ramos said Wednesday. [...]
"If we can get vehicles to slow down on many roads, they become safer," [Director of the Department of Public Works Christopher] Cignoli said. "This allows us to, kind of in a blanket way, through the city, to bring down the speed."

Yes, there is a speeding problem in Springfield's neighborhoods. That admission is a huge step forward. Slowing speeds makes the streets safer. That's also an important acknowledgement. If we all get on the same page that speeding is an issue—that the speed of traffic creates safety problems for everyone—then we can start to work on ways to address it. I think we need to look at this as an important first step.

In the same report, Director Cignoli indicates that the city has the ability to lower speed limits further by posting a "special safety zone," an act that requires—according to the article—an engineering study, as per state statute.

Before we look at the state's guideline for traffic studies, there is an important nuance here that needs to be understood. There is nothing that inhibits the city from designing a street where people drive slower than 25 mph, or even 20 mph. The city is free, on streets it controls, to implement a design—in places where safety dictates such an approach—where measured speeds would be as low as 15 mph or even 10 mph. What the city can't do, without an engineering study, is enforce a speed limit below 25 mph. In short, there is a difference between the speed we design for and the speed we can enforce. They should not be confused. The latter does not limit the former.

The Massachusetts Department of Transportation has released a guide book for conducting engineering studies and setting speed limits. The guide is called Procedures for Speed Zoning on State Highways and Municipal Roads. I could quote extensively from this book (it repeatedly contradicts the prior contentions of the city that nothing can be done) but I'll limit myself to a couple sections. First, from page 4:

To effectively reduce vehicle speeds, setting speed limits should be included only as a part of a broader strategy that includes geometric changes to the road and other educational and enforcement components. Studies have shown that arbitrarily raising or lowering posted speed limits alone will result in a difference of less than 2 mph in mean and 85th percentile speeds. This small change is not practically meaningful and it appears that “new posted speed limits alone, without some additional engineering, enforcement, or educational measures, [do] not have a major effect on driver behavior or encourage most drivers to comply with the posted speed limit.” There is also no evidence that shows arbitrarily lowering or raising the posted speed limit will have a statistically significant impact on crash reductions.
Arbitrarily lowering the speed limit is not going to have a significant impact. If the City is sincere about wanting speeds reduced, their own referenced guideline says that they need to change the design of the street.
Based upon this information, the purpose of creating a speed zone should not solely be based upon an anticipation of reducing speeds. Rather, the zone should be established to increase safety for all road users by setting a reasonable and proper speed that prudent drivers will follow. A speed limit that has been established in accordance to standard traffic engineering practices will diminish the likelihood of vehicles traveling unsafely at disparate rates, aids in driver expectancy, and assists in law enforcement’s ability to enforce.

The city of Springfield council and professional staff seem to be in agreement with us that speeds need to be reduced. The process they have adopted to do so clearly states that, in order for this to be done "effectively" they need a "broader strategy that includes geometric changes to the road," something they have publicly stated they are unwilling to consider. As the guidebook states, arbitrarily lowering the speed limit is not going to have a significant impact. If they are sincere about wanting speeds reduced, their own referenced guideline says that they need to change the design of the street.

This is because driver psychology is well understood, particularly by those in the traffic engineering profession. People drive the speed they feel comfortable driving, regardless of how it is posted. A speed limit posted too low for design conditions will be ignored by most, making the handful that obey it hazards to others. A speed limit posted too high for design conditions will also be ignored; people won't drive at a speed they don't feel safe operating a vehicle at. This is why the guide suggests that the correct speed is one that "prudent drivers will follow."

This is reinforced on page 7:

Specifically, when developing a Special Speed Regulation, it must “be established on the basis of an engineering study that has been performed in accordance with traffic engineering practices. The engineering study shall include an analysis of the current speed distribution of free-flowing vehicles.” The purpose of this study is to document the conditions that will justify a proposed speed limit that is safe, reasonable, and self-enforcing.

Safe, reasonable and self-enforcing. In other words, we want law enforcement to deal with deviants—the people who are not acting reasonably and prudently—so if most people are driving faster than is safe, that's not an enforcement problem, it's a design problem. 

All of this comes back to the facts as we presented them in May:

  • People are crossing the street at the library because it is a logical thing to do.
  • People do not walk hundreds of feet out of their way to cross the street in the same way that people don't drive hundreds of feet out of their way.
  • Based on this observable and well-documented behavior and the sheer volume of people coming from the library, the speed of the traffic on State Street is too fast—we all seem to agree on this point —and the only way to lower the speed that people drive is a broader strategy that includes geometric design.

Elected leaders of Springfield: you have to do what you've been told—erroneously—that you can't do. You have to order that State Street, in front of the library, be redesigned so that the traveled speeds are safe. You unquestionably have the authority to do this. If your professional advisers are unable to assist you in making these changes, know that there are many qualified professionals in Massachusetts doing this exact kind of work. I would be very happy to connect you with some of them. A redesign need not be expensive or time consuming.

I would suggest you target an 85th percentile speed of 15 mph, although I think 20 mph would be defensible.

Admitting that you have a speeding problem is an important first step. The next step is understanding why. It's not because your residents are deviants behind the wheel; it is because the way your streets have been designed signals to the typical driver that it is okay to drive fast.

It's not okay. We all know that, so let's get to work changing that design.

(Top photo by Alex Grichenko)

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