Efforts to Raise Speed Limits Rebuffed by Council Transportation Committee

While this part of Chandler Boulevard was not up for limit increases, it speaks a lot to how safe cyclists feel in a bike lane when they ride to the right of it. Photo: ##http://laecovillage.wordpress.com/2012/01/03/new-bike-lanes-in-east-san-fernando-valley/##Joe Linton/Eco-Village##

A diverse team of advocates teamed up to beat back a proposal by the LADOT and LAPD to raise speed limits on five segments of streets in the San Fernando Valley.  Arguing that public outreach for the proposals had been inadequate and raising speed limits while the city is attempting to de-emphasize a dominant car culture in its planning was a great example of the left hand not knowing what the right hand is doing.

For a breakdown, and map, of the proposed changes, please visit this story previewing yesterdday’s meeting written earlier this week.  The proposed limit increases may come back to the Committee in ninety days after better crash data is analyzed and outreach is completed with the Los Angeles Unified School District.

“All future speed limit proposals should have a sign-on by L.A. Unified,” declared City Councilman Tom LaBonge, setting a new standard to earn his support for limit increases.

While a pair of assistant general managers for LADOT sat in the audience, it was transportation manager Brian Gallagher who explained the rationale for raising the limits.  Basically, state law requires that speed limits be set so that at the “prevailing speed” or “85th percentile” of drivers for the city to be allowed to use radar to enforce speed limits.  All of the road segments discussed at Wednesday’s meetings had been under discussion for so long that radar enforcement was no longer allowed.

While Gallagher pushed the “we have no choice” argument that has been a hallmark of the debate over limit increases, he also argued that setting limits at the prevailing speed makes the road safer.  “When we set a speed limit lower than the prevailing speed,we’re more likely to have accidents,” Gallager claimed.

Gallagher based his claim on a 1992 report by the Federal Highway Administration that showed that adjusting speed limits to the speed which people drives reduce “accidents.”

The Councilmen’s reactions to this argument represents how much the debate has changed in City Hall.  In 2009 and 2010 when limit increase proposals were common on the Transportation Committee, there was much wringing of hands and then the limits would pass.  This week, Councilman Bill Rosendahl muttered that he disagreed with the two-decade old study by the FHWA and Councilman Paul Koretz blasted holes in the argument that Chandler Boulevard, located in his district, should see higher limits.

Gallagher argued that there were no conditions on Chandler Boulevard that would cause LADOT to “artificially” deflate the speed.  When Koretz pushed Gallagher, noting that the stretch of Chandler in question has bike lanes, schools and Orthodox Jewish Synagogues; Gallagher responded that there wasn’t a lot of “accidents” on Chandler.  A flummoxed Koretz then asked, “If the stretch of road is safe, why do we want to change speed limits and change that?”

But the strongest opposition came from a parade of advocates representing the Los Angeles County Bicycle Coalition, Los Angeles Walks, The Safe Routes to Schools National Partnership, a handful of Neighborhood Councils and the Los Angeles Bicycle Advisory Committee.

Vice-Chair of the Los Angeles Bicycle Advisory Committee Glen Bailey picked apart the idea that Kester  street does not have the physical characteristics that would call for a lower limit.  Bailey noted that there are middle and high schools facing the street and a series of jut outs.  Bailey’s testimony, followed testimony by Los Angeles Walks’ Deborah Murphy who argued that increasing limits to 45 miles per hour on streets with schools is going to create crashes as “school zone” limits will drop the limit by 20 miles per hour all at once.

The parade of advocates continued to poke holes in the argument that faster streets are safer streets, but the testimony that stuck with the Councilmen was Murphy’s who presented a list of school officials who were not notified that the speed limits would be increased outside of their walls.

“I’m shocked that L.A. Unified wasn’t part of the discussion,” added LaBonge.

The proposals could come back to the Committee as soon as mid-May, but before the Committee will consider them they asked for crash data based on state SWITRS data and the approval of local LAUSD officials.

  • Anonymous

    It seems to me that the real criterium we should be using is the severity of collisions, not just the number of them that occur. Lowering the speed limit might reduce the number of collisions (although I have not seen the data and am not yet convinced) but surely raising it would increase the severity, especially for non-motorized road users. One would hope that a number of fender benders would be more acceptable than a few injuries or deaths.

    Also, does the current calculation for speed limit figure in the speed of bicycle and pedestrian traffic also using the same road? I imagine that would reduce the average significantly.

  • Dennis Hindman

    The arguments by LADOT and the police representatives were essentially that trying to control the speeds on these streets to the posted speed limits has been a abysmal failure. I mentioned at the meeting that I counted 36 requests for speed increases for the San Fernando Valley through the Transportation Committee since January of 2008. LADOT and the Police Department are requesting new higher speed limit signs that will reflect the average speeds that 85 percent of the motorists are choosing to drive at. The police simply wants to go after the 15% that are moving at a higher rate of speed. I don’t see how that will work when it didn’t in the past.

    Since signs and enforcement have not worked, I suggested that we try psychological traffic calming. This could be done by narrowing the lanes, putting in bike lanes, green bike lanes or buffers. The street will then appear to the drivers as narrower and they will travel slower. The right hand lane is usually wider due to Metro requirements to avoid car doors and hitting a cyclists heads with the bus mirror. However, by taking away some of this width with a buffer next to the bike lane, there is space created between the cyclist and the bus, reducing the odds of the bus hitting the cyclist and the bike lane will tend to keep the bus further away from the car doors or exiting vehicles from driveways. The narrower lanes will cause the motorists to want to travel at a slower speed which will decrease the severity of collisons with pedestrians and cyclists. Green bike lanes will create the appearance of a narrower road.

  • Ubrayj02

    Maybe I should have been there! All those advocates in the room give me some hope for the future.

  • Anonymous

    Given that this law(85 Percentile) was based on the “need” to “protect” “innocent motorists” from middle-of-nowhere small-town speed “traps”. how does the well-signed Chandler Ave. in Los Angeles constitute a “speed trap”?

    Speed enforcement cameras now!

  • Patrick

    I am always hung up on the issue of how the limits can be enforced.  Gallagher stated above that it was necessary to raise the speed “for the city to be allowed to use radar to enforce speed limits”.   Is radar really the only way to enforce the speed limit?  I received speeding tickets well before radar can into traffic enforcement.  Police were well trained to judge speed by (1) marking known distances and timing cars as the crossed them, (2) judging relative speed of cars vs. the flow of traffic, (3) trailing speeders and noting their own speed.
    Can’t speeding tickets be issued without the proof of radar data?  

  • James

    I’m not surprised Ladot spends public money advocating for speed limit increases on residential streets.  There is a serious cultural problem at Ladot.  Third rate minds who would be perfectly happy working in Orange County.  Ladot is still dedicated to the mid-century project of de-urbanizing this cities’ streets and turning LA  into network of highways and arterials.  It is a continuation of the same process that took away on street parking, removed trees, removed intersections and cross walks, waged war on pre-war commercial architecture and turned our commercial streets into highways and everything else into some form of high speed arterial.  Perhaps we should have just bulldozed everything adjacent to every major street and just gotten it over with.  In the future LA was supposed to resemble Brasillia, right?  It didn’t quite work out as they had hoped, the city isn’t quite the modernist autopia promised, but they are still working at it, apprently.

  • Ubrayj02

    This is exactly what is happening with the LADOT. Their influence on our city has destroyed millions of parcels of property by taking away their value, it has robbed billions of dollars from our tax base by ruining some of the most valuable real estate in Los Angeles’ communities.

    All other things aside, the LADOT’s speed limit increases are robbing these streets of their intrinsic value, and increasing the burden on our city to support infrastructure that cannot pay for itself.

    If the LADOT focused on planning to increase the tax base, and not car throughput, the city could re-coup the costs of servicing and maintaining the infrastructure and departments it currently loses millions on.

  • Dennis Hindman

    In this City Council Transportation Committee meeting, LADOT representative Brian Gallagher explained that a 1992 Federal Highway study showed that changing the posted speed limit, up or down, by as much as 15 miles an hour did not affect the 85 percentile average speed of drivers. In other words drivers do not even notice the posted speed limit signs, they are driving at the speed that they feel comfortable traveling at.

    Police officer Troy Williams stated that trying to keep people within the 35 speed limit is impracticle and the only way to get drivers to do that is to have an officer there 24/7.

    Car manufacturers have encouraged these greater speeds by increasingly isolating the drivers from road noise and vibration, which makes it more comfortable to drive at a higher rate of speed. Also, as ex CitiGroup CEO John Reed insightfully explains at 32:30 on a recent Bill Moyers & Co. program I link to below, brakes were put on cars not to stop them, but to enable you to drive fast. If you knew you didn’t have brakes, then how fast would you drive? Well, it turns out that better braking power has been another improvement that has been made to cars over the years.


    David Gallagher did not indicate in this meeting, or any previous one that I have listened to, that the LADOT has made any significant effort to try and decrease the average speed of motorists. LADOT needs to try methods that have been shown to have an affect on slowing drivers, such as psychological traffic calming, which can include green bike lanes, bike lanes, narrower lanes and replacing some of the required width for a bus lane with a buffer zone. In combination, these will likely have an affect on drivers perception of road width and they should lower the average roadway speeds.

  • Wanderer

    The concept of the 85th percentile speed at work here really amazes me. In no other arena of the law does mass misbehavior justify changing the law. If 85% of pedestrians on a given block jaywalked, would jaywalking become legal there? Of course not. If 85% of the attendees at a party smoked a controlled substance, would that be OK?

  • Fred Hanlin

    Maybe we should be encouraging the orthodox Jewish communities to spread out to all the other neighborhoods where ordinary people and their families live and walk about so every neighborhood is protected.

  • Roadblock

    Does anyone have a link to the audio from that day?

    I didn’t make the point clear enough in my public comments, but what I was trying to say is I have a hunch that increasing speed limits in urban areas far beyond the average commuting speed is what contributes to the bipolar disorder of drivers speeding from one redlight to another.

    You can not get from point A to point B in any urban area in the world without hitting redlights thus decreasing your average speed to 20-25 mph no matter how fast you are allowed to speed from one red light to another.

    There has to be a study with this finding somewhere.

  • Audio available, here: 

    I got your point, but I am familiar with that argument from you…

  • Ubrayj02
  • Its true that the death of cyclists from the last year has raised, though there has been separate lane for them too!


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