Vroom! Speed Limit Increases Head Back to City Council, But Do They Have To?


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A trio of speed limit proposals head to the City Council Transportation Committee tomorrow.  The proposals total 5.4 miles of city streets that would see a limit increase. Half of those miles would see a dramatic increase from 35 miles per hour to 45 miles per hour. The areas due for an increase are:

A team of advocates including representatives from Los Angeles Walks, the Los Angeles County Bicycle Coalition and Ridazz, an online general assembly of concerned cyclists, is planning to lobby the Committee to hold back the limit increases.  Councilmen have begrudgingly passed similar increases in the past in an effort to support LAPD traffic enforcement.

“In order for Los Angeles to truly become a bicycle friendly city, the city needs put a moratorium on speed limit increases and address managing speeds by evaluating how our roadways are engineered. Roadway design & engineering influence travel speeds and we need to implement solutions on our roadways that are going to create safer streets that encourage good driving behavior instead of rewarding speeding by constantly increasing the speed limit,” argues Alexis Lantz with the LACBC.
State law requires that speed limits be set to the 85th percentile of free flowing traffic in order for police to use radar to enforce the limits.  Efforts to overhaul the law have consistently run into roadblocks for speeding traffic advocates such as the AAA and California Highway Patrol.   However, a law passed last year allows cities to “round down” if they believe that increased limits would create a dangerous environment.  All of these proposals were authored in 2010, a full year before A.B. 529 was signed into law.

Until 2004, speed limits were set at the 85th percentile of driver speed on a section of road rounded to the nearest 5 mile increment.  A.B. 529, authored by San Gabriel Valley Democrat Mike Gatto and passed last year,  allows municipalities to round the posted speed limit down no matter how the 85th percentile is to a higher limit.  For example, if the 85th percentile of drivers is driving at 39 miles per hour, and the municipality considers a 40 miles per hour speed limit too high for that stretch of road, it can “round down” to a 35 miles per hour limit.

This new law seems especially relevant for Chandler Boulevard, where a ten miles per hour increase is planned for the street running next to the Orange Line busway and a set of bike lanes.  However, it’s possible if the city reviewed all of the increases under A.B. 529 that it could eliminate some of the increases and roll the other ones down to “just” five mile increases.  The Chandler Boulevard increase was slated for approval two years ago, but the Council rejected the proposal asking for “more study.”
While Lantz applauds this change, she believes L.A. can take the lead on reforming state law.  ”While  the City of LA needs to dedicate resources in Sacramento to amend or better yet dismantle the 85th percentile rule that affects how speed limits are set in our communities in this state. While the work of Assemblymember Mark Gatto has helped in some regards it does not go far enough. Councilmember Krekorian also tried to tackle this issue when he was in the assembly,” she writes.  ”While addressing this issue will make our streets safer for cycling and walking – it will also help to improve the safety of our roads for motorists as well. Too many collisions happen every day as result of speeding – raising speed limits doesn’t make our road safer for any user.”

Don Ward, one of the organizers of Ridazz, writes a personal story explaining why drivers shouldn’t be allowed to set speed limits based on their driving over what is safest for all users, a process Councilman Tom LaBonge referred to as “voting with their pedal.”

“When I think of the lunacy of setting 45mph speed limits on streets like Chandler or Kester or any of the other residential streets of LA I think fondly of my pops, a depression era man and pure fiscal conservative – may he rest in peace. He refused to drive more than about 25 miles per hour any where in LA. This would drive me absolutely bonkers,” writes Ward.

“To which he would chuckle and go into his spiel about the fact that he had carefully crafted his driving style in order to conserve gas, brakes and engine wear… In fact he was a scientist about it…. citing the Burbank traffic grid as the best suited for his methods. And it was true… I would see car after car race ahead of us at 40-50mph only to slam on the brakes for a red light that he eventually floated through on the green, passing those same impatient drivers who now revved their cars back up to speed only to repeat the same mistake again at the next light. “Those people are idiots” he would quip. “They’re wasting their money. Learn to time the lights sonny.” I miss my old man.”