Caltrans Working Hard to Speed Up Local Streets

6_30_09_zelzah_ave.jpgZelzah Avenue had it’s speed limits raised last month, despite an intense lobbying effort by the Neighborhood Council and cyclists. Photo: Daily News

Tomorrow, new rules governing how municipalities evaluate speed limits on local roads will go into effect.  Unfortunately, these rules allow municipalities even less room than before to resist speed limit changes.  The new rules maintain the backbone of the bad law, speed limits are set based on how fast the "eighty-fifth" percentile of drivers are speeding but still manage to make it harder for municipalities to resist faster streets for pesky reasons like pedestrians or cyclists want to use the street.

Why does Caltrans continue to push rules that sacrifice the safety and livability of communities to speeding cars?  In short, state law directs them to encourage roads efficient only when they are moving as many cars as possible.  A road with a slower than "necessary" speed limit is considered inefficient.  Those people walking or biking aren’t considered at all in these engineering surveys, mistakenly referred to as science by car-loving politicians.

The new language requires that speed limits be set at the closest five mile interval to the "eighty-fifth percentile."  Thus, if fifteen percent of all drivers are speeding by 6 miles per hour over the speed limit, the new limit would be ten miles per hour higher than the current one.  Thus, unsafe driving is it’s own reward.  The faster and more unsafe people drive, the higher the speed limit will be on their local streets. 

When the "eighty-fifth percentile" rule was
first put in place in the 1996 Manual, the rule asked municipalities to
set the limit at the first speed limit below the "eighty-fifth
percentile."  Thus, even if a driver were going thirty-nine miles per
hour, they could set the limit at thirty-five.  Today, that would not be the case.

There is still flexibility for local DOT’s to repress the speed limit by five miles per hour off the new speed; but under the new rules there is a new series of hoops that local officials will have to jump through to keep the speed limits lower.  So if the LADOT is willing to do the work, these new rules will have little impact on our streets as speed limit raises roll through the city in the coming years.

Unfortunately, legislative efforts to amend the laws that create the guides for organizations such as Caltrans; haven’t gone very well.  When Valley Assemblyman Paul Krekorian introduced and pushed legislation that would have given communities more leeway; it was stalled in committee thanks to the lobbying efforts of the auto lobby and Transportation Committee Chair Mike Eng (D-Pasadena).  Eng promised that he was very concerned about speed limits going up and vowed to hold hearings to find the best way to ammend the law requiring the eighty-fifth percentile; but that was on May 11 and Eng has yet to act on his promise.

  • Omri

    If I were stuck with this on my block, well, you know, I can’t be responsible for noticing if someone went around the road with a pickax and created some shallow potholes slowing down traffic.

  • Clearly, Caltrans wants to hurt cyclists and children…what a great step in the right direction towards their goal.

  • DJB

    The funny thing is roads actually hold more cars when speeds are lower, since higher speeds mean larger following distances, so this actually lowers road capacity for bikes AND cars, for different reasons.

  • DJB, I appreciate your attempt at logical commenting here but unfortunately Caltrans refuses to apply logic (or even good traffic engineering practices) to their projects…they are almost as bad as LADOT.

  • Dale

    I don’t understand the numbers in the 3rd paragraph. If the speed of the fastest 35% of drivers is what matters, what does that have to do with the 85th percentile?

  • limit

    I am all for ETS and the setting of speed in such a manner. That is not mutually exclusive of bicycle lanes or proper sharing of the road.

    Krekorian bill was far to extreme in that it gave no regard to studies of any kind and tyranny of the minority – local authorities when corrupt…

  • Traffic is one of the problem of most vehicle driver. You would be hurrying because you would be late for work. And then you would be caught in the middle of the head heating traffic! We would hit the accelerator to the fullest speed so we won’t be late. Then, if this “slowing policy” or what ever you call it would be implemented, what would road life be? Of course, the salary would be deducted because of your lates. Luckily, you can go to a payday lender for a short term personal loan, often with no faxing and some lenders let you apply online and use direct deposit.

  • Dale

    Another possible problem with that third paragraph: if 15% of drivers are driving 6 miles over the speed limit, then the “closest five mile interval” would be 5 miles over the speed limit, not 10 miles. Do you know which one it would be?

  • It would be ten miles above. It’s not the closest “5 mph” but automatically the next highest mph. There is a chance for municipalities to take 5 mph off the suggested speed limit, but it’s not a given anymore.

  • I’ve thought a bit about this, and this only matters if the local entity designs a roadway (As is typically done) for speeding. There are several steps (inexpensive steps) that can quickly calm traffic in an area, and prevent the triggering of a speed increase.

    Booting responsibility for this up to the State, and keeping pressure off of roadway engineering and planning at the local level, is not a recipe for successful protection of pedestrians and other slower moving modes in the right-of-way.

    Our roads are designed for speeding, and voila!, we get speeding.

  • Armen

    I think you misunderstand the way the math works. If 15% of people are driving 6mph over the limit (while the rest are doing the limit or below), the law does not allow for any speed limit change. That’s not how the 85th percentile calculation works.

    The speed limit gets set at whatever limit captures the behavior of 85% of motorists, not the other 15%. If 85% of drivers are driving no more than 35mph on a road, the limit will be 35mph.

    If no more than 15% of drivers on a road are driving 50mph, with let’s say the rest coming in at 47 or under, then the limit would be 45mph.

  • LA MapNerd

    It would be ten miles above. It’s not the closest “5 mph” but automatically the next highest mph.

    No, that’s not what the rule says.

    It says:

    >>>>
    When a speed limit is to be posted, it shall be established at the nearest 10km/h (5mph) increment of the 85th percentile speed of free-flowing traffic, except as shown in the Option below [emphasis added]
    <<<>>>
    An example of the application of this speed limit criteria is as follows:

    * If the 85th percentile speed in speed survey was 60 km/h (37 mph), then the speed limit would be posted at 35 mph or optionally reduced to 30 mph. However,

    * If the 85th percentile speed in speed survey was 61 km/h (38 mph), then the speed limit would be posted at 40 mph or optionally reduced to 35 mph.
    <<<<

    Further, Armen is correct. The behavior of the fastest 15% of drivers is irrelevant. It doesn’t matter how fast they go. What matters is how fast the slowest 85% go.

    So if 85% of the drivers are doing 37 mph or less, the limit can be set to 35 mph, or optionally, to 30 mph if an Engineering & Traffic Survey justifies the lower limit.

    And, contrary to the second paragraph of your post, where you say:

    Those people walking or biking aren’t considered at all in these engineering surveys, mistakingly referred to as science by car-loving politicians.

    …the definition of Engineering and Traffic Survey in CVC 627 specifically says:

    >>>>
    When conducting an engineering and traffic survey, local authorities […] may consider all of the following:

    (1) Residential density […]

    (2) Pedestrian and bicyclist safety.
    <<<<

    So you’re wrong on three counts here: it’s the nearest 5mph interval to the 85th percentile, not “automatically the next highest”; how fast the top 15% of speeders are going is utterly irrelevant, not what determines the limit; and local authorities can and do consider pedestrian and cyclist safety in the Engineering & Traffic Surveys that are used used to justify the optional 5 mph reduction.

  • LA MapNerd

    [Ack. The angle brackets confused the blog’s HTML parser, and it ate several pieces of that post. Here, let me try that again.]

    It would be ten miles above. It’s not the closest “5 mph” but automatically the next highest mph.

    No, that’s not what the rule says.

    It says:

    ******
    When a speed limit is to be posted, it shall be established at the nearest 10km/h (5mph) increment of the 85th percentile speed of free-flowing traffic, except as shown in the Option below [emphasis added]
    ******

    …and it gives specific examples:

    ******
    An example of the application of this speed limit criteria is as follows:

    * If the 85th percentile speed in speed survey was 60 km/h (37 mph), then the speed limit would be posted at 35 mph or optionally reduced to 30 mph. However,

    * If the 85th percentile speed in speed survey was 61 km/h (38 mph), then the speed limit would be posted at 40 mph or optionally reduced to 35 mph.
    ******

    Further, Armen is correct. The behavior of the fastest 15% of drivers is irrelevant. It doesn’t matter how fast they go. What matters is how fast the slowest 85% go.

    So if 85% of the drivers are doing 37 mph or less, the limit can be set to 35 mph, or optionally, to 30 mph if an Engineering & Traffic Survey justifies the lower limit.

    And, contrary to the second paragraph of your post, where you say:

    Those people walking or biking aren’t considered at all in these engineering surveys, mistakingly referred to as science by car-loving politicians.

    …the definition of Engineering and Traffic Survey in CVC 627 specifically says:

    ******
    When conducting an engineering and traffic survey, local authorities […] may consider all of the following:

    (1) Residential density […]

    (2) Pedestrian and bicyclist safety.
    ******

    So you’re wrong on three counts here: it’s the nearest 5mph interval to the 85th percentile, not “automatically the next highest”; how fast the top 15% of speeders are going is utterly irrelevant, not what determines the limit; and local authorities can and do consider pedestrian and cyclist safety in the Engineering & Traffic Surveys that are used used to justify the optional 5 mph reduction.

  • Mapnerd and Armen,

    I rechecked the document and I posted and you are correct. Reading it today, I’m not sure how I got the impression that the traffic engineers had to round up; but I’ve corrected the text and used the “crossout” function to that anyone reading the article will know why you were correcting me in the bottom. I regret the error.

    That being said, I think you’re splitting hairs with the distinction between “top fifteen percent” and “bottom 85 percent.” I guess you’re objecting to the language that the “fastest drivers will be setting the speed limit,” because you read that as me saying the cars at the very top, like the 1% of fastest drivers, are setting the limit. To me, cars that are in the top fifteen percent, if they’re breaking the speed limit are the “fastest and most dangerous drivers,” and that’s the point I was trying to make.

    Last, the CVC does allow for engineers to take into account bike/ped and other issues. That is what allows the optional 5 mile per hour reduction that local DOT’s can take. It does not allow municipalities to say things such as “this is a high pedestrian corridor, we need to keep the speed limit at 35 mph” even if cars race past it at 50 mph.

    Ultimately, I think Ubrayj is correct. What we really need is better designed streets and the speed limits will follow that. However, that being said the CVC and state law treat all roads the same and that leads to dangerous streets in L.A. and other cities that have wildly different circumstances than roads in smaller rural communities.

  • LA MapNerd

    I guess you’re objecting to the language that the “fastest drivers will be setting the speed limit” […] To me, cars that are in the top fifteen percent, if they’re breaking the speed limit are the “fastest and most dangerous drivers,” and that’s the point I was trying to make.

    Yes, those are the fastest and most dangerous drivers – but they’re not the ones setting the speed limit.

    If the slowest 85% of the traffic – the slower and less dangerous drivers – are all doing less than 38 mph, that’s what sets the speed limit to 35 (or, optionally, 30). How fast the fastest 15% are going isn’t a factor.

    They could all be doing 38 mph – or they could be doing 45, or 55, or 85 – it doesn’t matter. No matter how fast the top 15% goes, the speed limit is set by the speed of the botton 85%.

    And I don’t think that’s “splitting hairs.” The fastest drivers aren’t the ones setting the limit.

    As in your “pedestrian corridor” example, it doesn’t matter how many of the fastest 15% “race by at 50” – the limit can still be set at 35 mph if the slowest 85% of the traffic is doing 42 mph or less.

    And bear in mind that this rule only applies to “non-statutory” speed limits. All jurisdictions have statutory authority to set the speed limit as low as 25 mph in any “business or residential distict” (except on state highways), with no engineering survey whatsoever. (See CVC Sec. 22352, “Prima Facie Speed Limits”.)

    Since almost all “pedestrian corridors” are either business or residential districts, this rule really isn’t an issue in terms of pedestrian safety (except possibly on state highways).

    (And any state highway where more than 15% of the traffic is going 43 mph or faster probably does need to have a speed limit higher than 35 – even if there are pedestrians in the area.)

    This just isn’t the dire threat to pedestrian and cyclist safety you’re trying to make it out to be, IMO.

  • “Business district”, however, has a specific definition in CVC 235, which excludes most suburban-style shopping districts with parking in front of the business.

    “A “business district” is that portion of a highway and the
    property contiguous thereto (a) upon one side of which highway, for a
    distance of 600 feet, 50 percent or more of the contiguous property
    fronting thereon is occupied by buildings in use for business, or (b)
    upon both sides of which highway, collectively, for a distance of
    300 feet, 50 percent or more of the contiguous property fronting
    thereon is so occupied. A business district may be longer than the
    distances specified in this section if the above ratio of buildings
    in use for business to the length of the highway exists.”

    The other thing is that in order for radar enforcement to occur, an Engineering and Traffic Survey must be conducted, per the anti-speed trap law, CVC 40802. The only exception is for “local streets”, which are defined more narrowly than above. Otherwise, the only mechanism of enforcement is pacing or visual observation, which is more prone to error.

    The anti-speed trap law is a good thing. It prevents little corrupt towns like West Covina back in the early part of this century, or more recently new Rome, Ohio, from using commuters and visitors as revenue generators. (I, and transportation expert Tom Rubin, discuss the anti-speed trap law in more detail here: http://la.streetsblog.org/2008/08/20/explanation-of-rising-speed-limits-the-public-votes-with-the-gas-pedal/ ) If you want to lower travel speed, you need to lower design speed through traffic calming, not through the posting of arbitrary signs.

ALSO ON STREETSBLOG

Neighborhoods Want LADOT to Slow Down on Speed Limit Hikes

|
As local transportation commission officials continue to push for higher speed limits on local residential and commercial streets, some neighborhood activists aren’t ready to throw in the towel on the battle to keep their streets safe by keeping their speed limits slow.  A new batch of speed limit raises are being proposed by the city’s […]

Through the Cracks: Governor Signs Speed Limits Bill A.B. 529

|
Last Friday, Governor Jerry Brown signed A.B. 529, legislation authored by San Fernando Valley Assemblyman Mike Gatto that gives local government some discretion in setting speed limits on local roads. “I promised residents that I would do something about those who speed through our neighborhoods,” says Gatto, “I am proud to have delivered that promise today, […]

Imagine If People Really Drove the Speed Limit

|
It’s amazing how easy it is to be a radical when you talk about changing any aspect of car culture in the United States. Take today’s featured post from the Streetsblog Network, from Newton Streets and Sidewalks. It is aptly titled "A Modest Proposal": Photo by The Truth About via Flickr. For the last year […]