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Austin Transportation proposes slowing some city streets to 25 mph limit

Monday, May 18, 2020 by Ryan Thornton

Despite a 50 percent decrease in driving as a result of the city’s Stay Home, Work Safe order, traffic fatalities are up nearly 26 percent this year compared to last year – which also saw a sharp increase (about 19 percent) in deaths compared to 2018.

The steady rise, according to Eric Bollich, assistant director at Austin Transportation, is due in part to the fact that the city has experienced decades of double-digit population growth, while the traffic engineers have continued to set road speeds using a traditional methodology that is poorly adapted to urban settings.

After a comprehensive, multi-year study of the street network using a more nuanced methodology from the Federal Highway Administration, the department is now recommending speed limits be reduced throughout downtown and on numerous neighborhood streets and arterials within the urban core (bound by U.S. Highway 183, State Highway 71, and MoPac Expressway).

At a glance, the proposal is to drop speeds to 25 mph on most residential streets and across the downtown street grid, with a number of noted exceptions for wider, high-traffic corridors. The proposal also includes plans to reduce speeds on seven arterial corridors inside the urban core by between 5 and 10 mph. The primary goal, Bollich explained to the Urban Transportation Commission during a virtual meeting Friday, is to make streets safer for everyone by acknowledging that traffic flow is continually reined in by drivers turning into driveways, traffic signals, delivery trucks, on-street parking, or people traveling by foot, wheelchair, scooter or bicycle.

Bollich noted that Texas transportation code sets urban streets at 30 mph by default, but allows a city to drop speeds to minimum of 25 mph if the road is less than four lanes wide.

The commission gave the proposal its unanimous support Friday, recommending that City Council approve the changes when they are presented for action on June 11.

“I think the comprehensive approach is great,” Commissioner Daniel Hennessey said. “This is impressive work and I would personally encourage you to just keep going further and make the city as safe as you guys can.”

Until now, city traffic engineers have primarily relied upon “Procedures for Establishing Speed Zones,” the Texas Department of Transportation’s speed limit guide, which encourages engineers to set speed limits based on how fast 85 percent of drivers naturally move on a given road. The metric, Bollich said, has catered to higher speeds and overshadowed traffic flow limitations and safety in dense, active environments.

The proposed speed limits were generated using the Federal Highway Administration’s USLIMITS2 system, a knowledge-based approach to speed that includes the comfort of drivers while incorporating additional factors like crash history, land use patterns and other modes of transportation.

“This finally gives us a methodology backed on the federal level to consistently evaluate our urban environment with these other considerations that were, frankly, always under state guidance,” Bollich said. “But now we have a consistent methodology.”

Lewis Leff, the city’s transportation safety officer, said limits of 25 or even 20 mph are becoming quite common in urban areas outside of Texas that have adopted a Vision Zero goal to eliminate traffic deaths and serious injuries.

“Everyone has been publishing reports on speeds and we need to fix them, so I think there’s broad support for what the city is doing,” said Jay Crossley of the nonprofit Farm&City. “The Texas Strategic Highway Safety Plan specifically calls for measures like what the city of Austin is doing now, so this is part of the safety plan to start solving our crisis.”

Data shows, however, that drivers tend to speed up and slow down, above and below posted speed limits, based on conditions on the road and perceived comfort levels. “Operators set speed limits deemed safe for the particular type of road; but drivers select their speed based on their individual perception of safety,” states the Federal Highway Administration’s “Speed Concepts” guide from 2009.

“We’ve started here with this broad-based approach and methodology and we certainly plan to continue to study and make progress on the rest of the network over time,” Leff said. “This is a great starting point for this approach.”

Proposed exceptions to the citywide 25 mph limit are individually noted in the department’s presentation.

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