A Boston City Council committee heard public support for lowering the city’s speed limit to 20 mph Tuesday, and nearly all who testified said the measure should be welcomed alongside other mechanisms to enhance safety on increasingly congested city streets.
The proposed speed reduction, put forth by councilors Ed Flynn and Frank Baker, comes nearly two years after officials decreased the limit from 30 to 25 mph.
Flynn said Tuesday a 20 mph cap would reduce the chances of a pedestrian suffering a fatal or serious injury in a motor vehicle crash to 18 percent. Before the limit was lowered from 30 mph last year, that risk was significantly greater, at 50 percent, according to a study cited by city officials.
Vehicle traffic is still too fast, he said.
“Hardly a day goes by when my friends, neighbors, constituents, and even my elderly parents, often walking my special needs nephew, that they don’t tell me about speeding vehicles and close calls in a crosswalk,” Flynn said during the Committee on Planning, Development, and Transportation hearing. “We have more vehicles, more commuters, and more ride-share vehicles cutting through our neighborhoods. Unfortunately we still experience these and worse: tragic crashes in the city.”
Officials mulling the speed change said they saw Tuesday’s meeting as a first step. The conversation frequently diverged from the specific proposal toward broader issues of heavy traffic congestion, safe street design, and the city’s processes for identifying streets needing safety upgrades.
Some residents called on councilors to consider new ways to enforce traffic rules, such as installing red light and speed cameras — two tools adopted in other cities across the country but that are currently prohibited under Massachusetts state law.
“The increased rate of red-light running and speeding is astonishing,” said Steve Jonas, who lives near the Public Garden. “Crossing intersections has become a life-risking activity.”
Last year, 14 fatal crashes were recorded in Boston, according to city data — a decrease from 2015 and 2016, which saw 20 and 21 deaths, respectively.
Changing the rules again would require approval from the state Legislature. But current laws already allow the city to put in place a 20 mph limit in certain areas, according to Vineet Gupta, director of planning for the Boston Transportation Department.
Gupta said low speed zones are decided based upon several factors, including crash data and the number of nearby “vulnerable residents,” such as elderly citizens and children. Officials also target “priority corridors,” major streets with high crash rates, for safety improvements, he said.
“At the very outset, there are absolutely areas in the city, whether they’re school zones or neighborhood slow speed zones, that we can mark as 20 miles an hour,” he said. “There are streets that we can identify working with the community and with the City Council that we can mark at 20 miles an hour, but it has to be done hand-in-hand with the community.”
But Baker, who pushed for a 20 mph limit in 2016, lamented that the department is not acting fast enough to make quick safety improvements, such as installing more rubber speeding strips, even as residents are calling for change.
“You could make a lot of neighborhoods happy by doing a simple measure like that and then we can start talking about bringing the speed limit down and bumping sidewalks out and speed bumps,” he said. “But there should be something happening now. This is a long, long conversation going on here.”
Others expressed frustration that the city’s approach to traffic safety appears reactionary and delayed, including Councilor and committee Chairwoman Michelle Wu, who also took aim at the application process for the “Slow Streets” program.
For a neighborhood to be considered, residents must first gain the support of agencies like civic associations, schools, and police precincts in order to have an application that could be reviewed, according to the city’s website.
While Gupta said he thinks it’s important that communities embrace the idea of a slow speed zone, Wu said the process can be perceived as a time-consuming one that requires political connections rather than one based on merit and safety needs.
“If it is all based on data, we should be able to identify where the neediest areas are and … have more equity in different districts around the city without having to force residents to go through a process,” she said.
Among several residents and associations who spoke before councilors, Adi Nochur, project manager for WalkBoston, which works to make walking easier and safer in the state, said the proposed speed limit change is essentially about street design.
“It is about traffic calming, and it’s a fundamental matter of equity as well — how do we make sure all neighborhoods get traffic calming and how are we prioritizing areas that have been historically underinvested?” he said.
Flynn offered ideas about creating a city task force where different departments could discuss how to make streets safer and about using money from new development projects to go toward pedestrian safety issues.
Everything is part of an ongoing dialogue, he said.
“There’s more we have to do, more discussions we have to have, more data we have to look at, more input from the community, but again it’s a first step,” Flynn said. “Hopefully soon or maybe down the road we can get to that place where do reduce the speed limit from 25 to 20.”