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Speed limits going down on parts of Lamar and Parmer

Thursday, December 1, 2016 by Jack Craver

The Texas Department of Transportation is moving to reduce speed limits on sections of two busy roadways in Austin. At least one City Council member, however, is hoping the city can go further than what the state agency put forward in an effort to reduce driving speeds and traffic accidents.

The state agency is recommending that the speed limit on Lamar Boulevard between Braker Lane and U.S. Highway 183 be lowered from 50 to 45 miles per hour. It is also recommending that the limit on a section of Parmer Lane between Harris Glenn Drive and a point just east of the Interstate-35 northbound frontage road be lowered from 65 to 55 mph, and that the limit on the section of the road between Harris Glenn Drive and a point two-thirds of a mile east of Dessau Road be reduced from 65 to 60 mph.

During a Council work session Tuesday, however, Council Member Leslie Pool floated the idea of pushing for even greater reductions on certain parts of one or both roads.

Because the stretches of road in question are controlled by TxDOT, the state agency has the authority to change the speed limit on its own. Its practice, however, is to collaborate with the municipality in which the roads are located.

One of the problems with dramatically lowering speed limits, explained Transportation Department Director Robert Spillar, is that it doesn’t necessarily get drivers to slow down. Drivers will often go the speed they “feel” is safe, regardless of the legal limit, he said.

Indeed, TxDOT explains on its website the problem with limits that are set too low: “If reasonable drivers see an unreasonably low speed limit without seeing a need to drive that slowly, they tend to ignore the signs and develop disrespect for speed limits in general.”

As a result, state guidelines call for limits to be based in part on the speed at or below which 85 percent of drivers are driving. The 85th percentile method is determined by recording the speeds of drivers on a roadway for a certain period of time. In general, the speed limit will be set within five miles per hour of the 85th percentile speed.

There are other factors that allow a city to reduce speeds further, explained Austin Transportation Department Managing Engineer Eric Bollich, such as a large number of accidents and the curvature of the road.

Pool, who noted that she once worked at TxDOT herself, said that in general she is worried that basing speed limits on the 85th percentile measure would, in some instances, mean enshrining behavior that isn’t right to begin with.

“It endorses what most people are doing, and I’m not sure that’s the best public policy,” she said. She later added that she did not think reduced limits are a “panacea,” but are one way to improve safety.

Council Member Sheri Gallo also expressed concern about the inability of neighborhoods to get lower speed limits because traffic analyses show that drivers are already going much faster than the existing speed limit.

“We tell people that, if the speed limit is 30 and the traffic study shows that people are going 40, then we’re at risk for the speed limit going up,” she said.

Council Member Greg Casar said that while he is open to reducing speed limits, he wants to make sure the result wouldn’t be just that more people get tickets but that driving habits would change.

Spillar suggested there were more fundamental changes that need to be made to roads in order to reduce speeds.

“When we talk about changing the behavior of drivers, it really comes back to how we design the streets,” he said. An example of the city’s efforts on that front is the Complete Streets Program, which Spillar said is resulting in narrower lanes, as well as more sidewalks and designated bike lanes. Additionally, there are ongoing traffic-calming measures aimed at neighborhood streets, such as speed humps, roundabouts and other traffic devices aimed at slowing down drivers.

“The challenge,” he said, “is we as a community and as an industry are recovering from decades of building and designing higher-speed roadways, primarily focused on the automobile.”

Although Council is scheduled to take up two proposed ordinances to approve TxDOT’s recommendation on Thursday, Spillar suggested that Council may postpone the proposals until January to allow city staff time to consider whether the city could push for greater speed limit reductions.

Photo by Matthew Rutledge made available through a Creative Commons license.

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