Council approves lower speed limits, but the work isn’t done

presentationThe City Council approved new default speed limits across Seattle Monday, likely clearing the final major hurdle for the changes.

“It’s been something that’s very near and dear to my heart,” said Councilmember Sally Bagshaw, who wrote about the issue on her blog over the weekend. Councilmembers Tim Burgess and Mike O’Brien lead the effort on the Council in conjunction with SDOT’s Vision Zero leaders.

Safe streets advocates — especially Seattle Neighborhood Greenways — have been pushing for this change since a 2013 state law (passed with heavy support from Washington Bikes) allowed municipalities to lower speed limits to 20 mph on non-arterial (mostly residential) streets without conducting expensive and time-consuming traffic studies.

Seattle’s 30 mph default limit for busier arterial streets makes the city an outlier among other King County communities, so lowering that to 25 really just puts the city in line with the rest of the region. Streets with posted speed limits (nearly all busy streets outside the city center) will not be affected by this change.

The city initially signaled that they preferred to make the residential speed limit changes on a street-by-street basis, rolling out small 20 mph zones in various neighborhoods. But those efforts attracted very little attention, and it’s not clear how effective they were. Initial results showed little change in speed in these areas, according to the Seattle Times.

So will this change have an immediate effect on speeds? Perhaps. Certainly some people will adjust their driving habits, especially if the city does a good job advertising the change.

But more importantly, the change sets a new expectation for driving speeds in the city and makes it easier for the city to install traffic calming or make design changes to help behavior match the new limits. So the work is not finished. People still need to pressure the city to make actual, physical changes to dangerous and uncomfortable streets. And that busy street in your neighborhood isn’t going to drop to 25 without a serious push for safety changes. But at least now the city’s intention is clear.

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26 Responses to Council approves lower speed limits, but the work isn’t done

  1. Andres Salomon says:


  2. Kirk says:

    When would this change become law?

  3. David F says:

    I’ve been disappointed with the city’s commitment to safer streets, but this is great news. Another benefit of the new speed limits is that it allows stronger enforcement against reckless drivers. If a driver was going 45 in a 30 mph zone before, they were 15 miles over the limit, and punished accordingly. Now that same driver will be 20 miles over the limit, with a larger penalty. (Not to mention the fact that cops often write a ticket speed as something less than what the driver was actually going).

    Although some naysayors have said this won’t change driver’s behavior, it’ll make it easier for cops to punish those who speed.

    • Law Abider says:

      15th Ave, south of the Ballard Bridge, is a prime example of how this WON’T change driver’s behavior. There are more examples that I could give (Aurora near Greenlake, Admiral Way, etc) that prove my point. It’s a freaking fantasy of the ignorant and a way for the council to pat themselves on the back as they go flying at 55 MPH (in a 30 MPH zone) towards their Zero Vision 2030.

      Disclaimer: I 100% support lowering the speed limit, but feel that this is nothing more than an empty gesture without increasing (or beginning depending on who you ask) enforcement.

      • Joseph Singer says:

        You yammer on about how ineffective it is but you fail to offer *anything* to improve the situation..

      • Law Abider says:

        And I quote:

        “Disclaimer: I 100% support lowering the speed limit, but feel that this is nothing more than an empty gesture without increasing (or beginning depending on who you ask) enforcement.”

        Without enforcement, you can put all the well wishing speed limit signs, all the traffic calming measures or anything other measure you can think of, but it won’t do squat. Let me repeat: you need enforcement. I wrote my council person to stress this; I can only hope all the well wishers on here did too.

        This reminds me of the Simpsons episodes where Bart falls down a well. The town, after rescuing Bart, feels the need to ensure that nobody ever falls down that well ever again. The episode ends with Willy hammering down a small sign that reads “Caution: Well”.

  4. Curi says:

    This won’t make a bit of difference unless physical traffic calming changes are made. The last paragraph in this entry is spot-on.

  5. Ints says:

    Some reports on this say that the council voted for new speed limits which only cover the city center/downtown and adjacent neighborhoods. Other neighborhoods will be reviewed over time and implemented on a case by case basis. Apparently this was done because the majority of accidents and injuries/fatalities are in the city center.
    Looking into it, I can’t find out exactly which areas are or are not included. I assume this means areas like Capitol Hill, First Hill, Queen Anne, CD, Int. District and SLU are in while areas like West Seattle, Beacon Hill, Rainier Valley and everything north of the ship Canal is out.
    Depending on where you live and work, this vote is meaningful or relatively meaningless.

    • (Another) Tom says:

      What reports?

      • Al Dimond says:

        I think this is referring to the fact that most of the streets without speed-limit signs are in and around downtown. Streets with speed-limit signs are still, of course, governed by those signs, and changes would require review.

      • Peri Hartman says:

        I believe the proposal is to lower *all* residential streets to 20 mph and to lower downtown and nearby arterials to 25 mph. Other arterials may be targeted in the future but would remain 30 for now.

      • daihard says:

        Peri, the proposal will lower the default speed limit of arterials to 25 MPH. It will apply to any arterial in the city that doesn’t have posted speed limits. The maps shown at the council meeting on Monday had 5th Ave NE as one of the affected arterials, if I’m not mistaken.

    • Ints says:

      not that the Seattle Times is the gospel on this but they report that
      “Arterial speeds will also be reduced from 30 mph to 25 mph nearby in Belltown, Uptown, South Lake Union, south Capitol Hill, First Hill and the Chinatown International District.
      The ordinance also lowers residential roads to 20 mph. The initial cost is $375,000 for sign changes and education.”
      I can’t find anything from the city on this so from this report it looks like all redisential streets are changing and the changes to arterials will be limited to downtown and surrounding neighborhoods initially.

    • Kirk says:

      I’ve read a few articles now, and this is what I’ve gathered. Apparently they will be posting the above signs at the city borders. Unsigned arterials throughout the city will be 25 MPH. Signed arterials in the areas in and around downtown would be resigned to 25 MPH. The outlying arterials wouldn’t be resigned for now. All residential streets, which typically don’t have speed limit signs, would be 20 MPH. But I haven’t found an implementation time line. When would this happen?

  6. Joseph Singer says:

    A typical trip from Broadway E and E John to Lowe’s at 2700 Rainier Ave S is approximately 4 miles (per google maps.) Just taking the calculation of the difference between traveling at 25 MPH vs. 30 MPH for five miles gives a net gain of two minutes.

  7. Seattle Neighborhood Greenways is now working hard to ensure there is adequate funding to calm our neighborhood streets and fix our dangerous arterials.

    The shout out to Washington Bikes for setting the stage for this is well deserved! I hope our statewide partners can encourage other municipalities to adopt similar policies.

    Thanks everyone who made this possible.

  8. Peri Hartman says:

    I am pleased to see this change coming and hope it goes into effect. Yet, I do believe it would be much more effective when coupled with traffic calming.

    What I’d like to know is how to do traffic calming on residential streets which are wide enough for two way traffic (such as the street I live on). The fire dept uses my street as a major access route and wants the extra width so they can get around garbage trucks or vehicles going the other way. But, of course, it makes it easy to 30.

  9. asdf2 says:

    With the advent of apps like Waze, I’ve become convinced that the only way to prevent people from speeding through neighborhoods to avoid traffic jams on the arterials is to make the residential streets not physically go through (at least for cars). Capitol Hill has some excellent examples of intersections where car drivers are forced to turn, but bikes and pedestrians are allowed to go straight. For emergency vehicles, the solution is to equip emergency responders with transponders to allow them to open gates or lower bollards that would normally serve to keep cut-through traffic out.

    I’ve also seen a few intersections that attempt to do something similar with signage (cars must turn, bikes/pedestrians can either turn or go straight; without physical barriers, these signs don’t work; drivers violate them left and right. See Bell St. for an example.

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  12. Josh says:

    Actual language of the Ordinance — stuff in (( )) is being deleted, stuff that’s underlined is new:

    11.52.060 Twenty ((five)) m.p.h. speed limits ((.))
    Subject to Section 11.52.020, and ((E))except in those instances where a different maximum lawful speed is provided by this ((subtitle)) Subtitle I or otherwise, no person shall operate any vehicle at speed in excess of ((twenty-five (25))) twenty (20) miles per hour on any non-arterial street. (((RCW 46.61.415(3))))

    Section 3. Section 11.52.080 of the Seattle Municipal Code, enacted by Ordinance 108200, is amended as follows:
    11.52.080 ((Thirty)) Twenty-five m.p.h. speed limits ((.))
    Subject to Section 11.52.020, and except in those instances where a different maximum lawful speed is provided by this ((subtitle)) Subtitle I or otherwise, no person shall operate any vehicle at a speed in excess of ((thirty (30))) twenty five (25) miles per hour on arterial streets.

    Section 4. SDOT will report on the status of implementing this legislation to the Sustainability and Transportation Committee by March 31, 2017. Council anticipates that the report will describe how arterial streets outside of the Center City will be evaluated for implementation of reduced arterial speed limits.

    Section 5. This ordinance shall take effect and be in force 30 days after its approval by the Mayor, but if not approved and returned by the Mayor within ten days after presentation, it shall take effect as provided by Seattle Municipal Code Section 1.04.020.

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