When Santa Monica Takes Traffic Surveys, They Slow Streets Down

8_18_09_olympic.jpgPhoto of Olympic Blvd. in Santa Monica via Friends 4 Expo

Recently, the City of Santa Monica completed a series of speed surveys on it’s streets, as required by state law.  The result might be a surprise to people that have followed the inability of the City of Los Angeles to maintain lower speed limits when these surveys are done.  In Santa Monica, fourteen street locations are seeing their speed limits lowered while speeds will be increased in only two areas: on
Colorado Avenue between Ocean Avenue and Lincoln Boulevard and on
Second Street between Wilshire and Colorado.

So what’s the difference between Santa Monica and the Valley?  The main difference is that the road design is almost completely different.  When I’m traveling down streets such as Ocean or Main, I can’t help but notice that almost every intersection has a marked crosswalk.  Several of the streets that are being slowed down have bike lanes, or at least signage encouraging cyclists to use the road. 

It’s true that some streets are seeing an increase in some areas, but that’s not a bad sign when one looks at the entire picture.  Santa Monica is controlling traffic flow by the way they design their streets.  They slow down traffic in many places and speed it up in a few others which will encourage automobile traffic away from the more pedestrian friendly areas.

That’s a process that will lead to slower traffic speeds and slower speed limits when the time comes to do a state-mandated traffic survey.

In the Valley, we’ve seen almost no efforts to control traffic speeds and then a helpless shrug of the shoulder when the community is outraged that they’re local streets are being made less safe by faster speeding cars.  The community may succeed in stalling the increases, but when the LADOT enlists the aid of the local division of the LAPD, who can’t use radar to enforce limits unless they comply with the survey, eventually the City Council approves the speed limit increases.  Over a dozen Valley Streets have had their limits increased, with more on the way.

While the efforts of Assemblyman Krekorian to change the laws regarding speed limits are laudable, what would be better would be a culture change at LADOT to commit to designing roads that are built for all users.  A road designed for commuters, visitors and the local community will naturally see its speed limits maintained or lowered, even under the state’s somewhat inflexible law that allows speeders to set the speed limit.

As much as we can appreciate what the City of Santa Monica is doing, it’s not exactly a secret how to design safe streets.  Why just earlier today I read an op/ed in the Boston Globe that outlines such designs.  Maybe we should buy LADOT a subscription?

  • Winston

    The California law that mandates that speed be set at the nearest 5 MPH increment to the 85th percentile speed (with a couple of exceptions) is a very good law because it turns out that the speed limit doesn’t affect how fast people drive very much but the design of the road does. It is a much better idea to modify a street to encourage the kind of traffic flow you want than it is to post an artificially low speed limit and create dangerous differences in speed.

    Remember the problem isn’t the speed limit, it’s the design of the road.

  • jay

    The problem is light timing. If, for example, you are driving down Wilshire, the lights should be timed such that if you drive the speed limit, you almost never have to stop at a light, but if you drive faster you do. If that were combined with people actually following the “left lane is only for passing and turning” convention, traffic would flow much more easily.

  • NoHo Mom

    There is a huge speeding problem in the valley. That compounded with the red light running issue is making the streets very unsafe for pedestrian and bicycle traffic.

  • angle

    “It is a much better idea to modify a street to encourage the kind of traffic flow you want than it is to post an artificially low speed limit and create dangerous differences in speed.”

    So who is deciding what kind of traffic flow we want?

  • Reply to Winston

    Winston, you got it right. Studying traffic engineering and driving on both narrow and wide streets have taught me many things. One, if the street is wide, you’re more likely to drive fast. If the street is narrow, you’re very likely to slow down. I live in Valley Glen, in a neighborhood with streets of various widths. My neighborhood council is advocating for a street widening to accommodate just 80 vehicle trips from an infill apartment housing project. That project’s curb cut is on a narrow street that isn’t quite classified as a one-way so people have to show courtesy and yield. The point is, people are freaking out over traffic and noise. I pointed out that widening the street will make the fire chief happy and make it more appealing for people from that new building to drive, and drive faster. By keeping the street at its current width, cars will have to travel more slowly, which will also generate less noise, fewer fumes, and allow us to maintain the intimacy of that street.

    But the talk of a traffic engineer/urban planner probably didn’t sit with them very well.

  • angle,

    Who is deciding the speed limits we have?

    In LA it is the proviso of the LADOT’s operations staff. They design roads for higher than posted speeds and jump at the chance to increase speed limits when they do their surveys.

  • angle

    So the LADOT staff designs ever bigger and faster roads, planning for a future that has a growing population using more and more private automobiles. I think most people would say that this is a natural state of expansion, an unavoidable, self-evident condition of progress. What I wonder is… where does this mandate actually originate from?

  • There are many reasons for this mandate from God: cheap and abundant domestic oil in the early 20th century; the intention of spurring on consumerism (auto based areas spend a lot of cash); and generally just greed by land speculators and auto industry titans.

    I read through the Institute for Transportation Engineers self published history to understand where these folks come from with this car-centric bias to road design. It was quite informative:

    http://www.ite.org/aboutite/History.asp

    “The Early Years: Establishing an Identity” describes how this trade group has really built itself around making roads for cars. They are, I think, intentionally misleading us by calling themselves “transportation engineers”. Motoring psychologists would be a better term – since the medium they engineer is humans in motor cars.

    We would be well served to complement our “engineers” with a smattering of sociologists and anthropologists who can measure the direct impact (safety, community livability, quality of life, economic sustainability) much more efficiently and effectively.

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