New York Fights to Set Its Own Speed Limits

Right now, the city can't reduce speeds on pedestrian-heavy roads. But advocates are hoping to change that.

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Courtesy of Liz Patek/Flickr

One of the strangest quirks of New York law is that city officials can't actually regulate speed on the city's streets. The right to set the speed limit rests almost entirely in Albany with the state legislature, a stubborn reality that has long blocked efforts to slow traffic on pedestrian-filled thoroughfares.

Now, advocates and elected officials are mounting a serious push to change that. New bills introduced in the state Assembly and Senate would give the New York City Council the power to reduce the speed limit by 10 mph on residential streets.

Currently, the limit on these streets is 30 mph, except where marked. It can't be lowered by more than five mph, except in school zones or with physical traffic-calming measures like speed bumps (the city has also designated a couple of special "slow zones").

Advocates gathered in Brooklyn’s Grand Army Plaza over the weekend to show their support for the bills, with signs saying "20 Is Plenty." Among the protesters was the family of Sammy Cohen Eckstein, a 12-year-old boy killed by a driver just a few blocks away on Prospect Park West. His parents, Amy Cohen and Gary Eckstein, are vocal advocates for lower speed limits. Their son was one of 18 children killed on New York streets last year.

Research has shown that lower speeds dramatically decrease injuries to pedestrians hit by drivers. According to a review of the scientific literature by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, "only 5 percent of pedestrians would die when struck by a vehicle traveling at 20 miles per hour or less. This compares with fatality rates of 40, 80, and nearly 100 percent for striking speeds of 30, 40, and 50 miles per hour or more respectively."

How fast are drivers actually traveling? New Yorkers recently got some idea, thanks to six speed cameras deployed near city schools. The cameras are part of a pilot program to issue tickets to motorists traveling more than 10 mph over the limit. The enforcement effort resulted in 900 tickets in just two weeks. Near one Staten Island high school, 97 percent of drivers were speeding.

Many European cities have already lowered speed limits to 20 mph (or 30 kilometers per hour) in urban areas. And yet in New York, the 30 mph mark has remained in place, controlled by legislators in the capital, many of whom live in communities where a car is the sole viable mode of transportation. So far, every time New York City lawmakers have tried to change that, they have been stymied by the political realities in Albany.

But newly elected Mayor Bill de Blasio has shown strong support for reducing traffic fatalities, articulating a "Vision Zero" plan to reduce traffic fatalities to none in the city within 10 years, using lower speeds and better speed enforcement.

Longtime advocates of lower speed limits say that unprecedented coordinated support from the Mayor's Office, the City Council, and the DOT mean that the city has a unique opportunity to take control of its own streets.

"I think the voices coming from New York City are more unified than ever and louder than ever," says Keegan Stephan, an organizer with street safety group Right of Way, which helped to organize the weekend rally. "I think it would be pretty hard for the state to deny us now."

Top image courtesy of Flickr user Liz Patek.

About the Author

  • Sarah Goodyear has written about cities for a variety of publications, including Grist and Streetsblog. She lives in Brooklyn.