City Council Holds Hearing Regarding Pedestrian Safety; Hopes to Lower Speed Limit to 20 mph

The City Council Committee on Planning, Development, and Transportation held a hearing on November 13 regarding the Boston speed limit and pedestrian safety. Councilor Ed Flynn sponsored the hearing.

“I believe pedestrian safety is the top issue in my district and one of the most important in our city,” Flynn said. Flynn’s goal is to lower the citywide speed limit to 20 miles per hour. The speed limit has already been lowered to 25 miles per hour last January.

“Despite the significant progress, hardly a day goes by when my friends, neighbors, constituents—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.

Flynn said that if the citywide speed limit cannot be lowered to 20 miles per hour, he would like to see at the very least 20 miles per hour speed zones at “relevant locations that make sense and that work for the city.”

Councilor Frank Baker said that bringing the speed limit from 30 to 25 was a good first step. “I’m more than taken aback that Chief Osgood and Gina [Fiandaca] aren’t here because this is Vision Zero, this is talking Bout how we make people slow down on our side streets,” he said.

He added that he would like to see things like raised crosswalks and speed humps along with the lowering of the speed limit.

Councilor Wu allows periods of public testimony throughout her hearings, so downtown resident Steve Jonas spoke before the presentation from Boston Transportation Department Director of Planning Vineet Gupta.

Jonas said that he walks through the city everyday, and the “increased rate of red light running and speeding is astonishing.”

“Crossing intersections has become a life risking activity,” he added. “And I know the speed limits are an important component here, but I feel really strongly that automated enforcement is really a crucial element in looking at this.” He said that while he understands that Massachusetts state law currently prohibits camera systems for speeding and running red lights, he believes it’s something the city should really consider.

Councilor Matt O’Malley said that “I think it is an incredibly important conversation to have and certainly I think we ought to be looking at a piloted program of that in the city of Boston.”

Vineet Gupta, Director of Planning for the Boston Transportation Department, said that this hearing is just the first step in the process of looking at a 20 mph speed limit as the default speed limit. “We will continue to meet with the city council and with our community and representatives from our apartment to make sure that this issue is addressed thoroughly,” he added.

He said that safety on the streets of Boston is a combination of regulating the speed limit plus making design-based physical changes on streets, along with improving enforcement.

Gupta discussed a number of ongoing programs that BTD has in place, including looking at priority corridors, slow street zones, and improving speed safety through street design with every new project.

There have also been over 60 speed feedback signs installed throughout the city, Gupta said, which flash if the driver is exceeding the speed limit. “Many communities have asked us for those and we are installing them as quickly as we can; we know that they have been effective,” he said.

Gupta said that as BTD continues to work with the City Council to look at the 20 mph speed limit proposal, it is something that would need to be taken up with the state legislature and all the signs would have to be changed to read “20 mph.”

“But at the very outset there are absolutely areas in the city, whether they are school zones or neighborhood slow speed zones, that we can mark as 20 mph,” Gupta said. “There are streets that we can identify working with the community and with the City Council that we can mark at 20 mph but it has to be done hand in hand with the community.”

He added that enforcement is a “critical” piece in this equation, and they are working with the police department to improve enforcement.

Councilor Flynn wanted to know what type of PSA program the city could offer to let people know the rules of the road and how they can be safer, especially with the increased number of distracted drivers and pedestrians.

“People should be looking at their speedometers and not at their phones,” Gupta said. He added that  having a PSA program is “a key component of this initiative,” and there are several different ways of launching a campaign. They could work with the RMV to educate people who are being given licenses, and they can also create educational materials for neighborhood residents. He said that when the speed limit was lowered from 30 mph to 25 mph, there was a good PSA campaign that could be used as a model.

Eliza Parad, Director of Organizing for the Boston Cyclists Union, offered testimony from the viewpoint of a cyclist in the city of Boston.

“When someone is killed riding their bike, we are scared because all these wonderful things it brings to our lives—we feel that they are threatened,” she said. “We know that like Vision Zero says, traffic deaths are preventable, and we know how to prevent them.”

She also said that there are serious injuries occurring but they are unbeknownst to people because the only way data is collected about crashes is from EMS calls. She said that better data collection is crucial, and she supports the 20 mph speed limit but it must come paired with improvements to infrastructure.

Councilor Flynn finished out the hearing by saying that this is the first step and they will continue to talk with BTD and other organizations about this issue. He said he would like to see a city task force or working group made up of organizations like the elderly commission, the school department, and Boston Housing Authority where everyone would come together periodically to discuss safety issues and how streets can be made safer for everyone.

He added that he would like to see some funding coming from the large amount of development happening in the city be put towards pedestrian safety issues in the neighborhoods.

Councilor Baker closed out by saying, “hopefully we can start doing what we want to do; building these streets out and really seeing some results.”

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