Strong proposals from Mayor Bowser for safer, slower streets

Yesterday morning DC Mayor Muriel Bowser announced several big changes that affect how people get around as the District reopens, and beyond. 

Those changes are:

  1. Lowering the speed limit to 20 miles per hour on all local streets. This is a permanent change, and takes effect on Monday, June 1.
  2. Creating a network of “Slow Streets,” open to people and local traffic, with a 15mph speed limit, and marked with barriers and signs. The District Department of Transportation has been tasked with identifying which streets will be a part of this network. We’ll keep you posted as we learn more. 
  3. Allowing restaurants to expand outdoor seating options by widening sidewalks and closing parking or travel lanes. 

These changes are a big deal. A really big deal. Slower driving means safer streets, period.

Here at WABA we congratulate Mayor Bowser and the District Department of Transportation for taking these important steps toward a safer city. These measures, and more like them, are critical to keeping people safe as the city reopens.

As these changes go into effect, we call on the Mayor and her agency staff to make certain that they are implemented in ways that advance racial and socioeconomic equity, not hinder it. We see two components of this:

On Slow Streets: This program’s top priority must be safe transportation for our most vulnerable neighbors. If the primary outcome of these changes is to create leisure space for the District’s most privileged, least vulnerable residents, we will consider it a failure. Long-standing economic disparities in DC mean that black residents, in addition to being disproportionately impacted by our deadly transportation system, are also disproportionately impacted by COVID-19. Black residents make up 75% of DC’s COVID-19 fatalities. Residents of predominantly black neighborhoods have to travel farther to grocery stores, and fewer than one in five can work from home. The Slow Streets program must create safe transportation connections that serve the District’s most vulnerable communities first. 

On Speed Limits: Unequivocally: WABA does not want more police officers pulling people over. The racially disparate impacts of policing are well documented, and WABA opposes any program whose street safety improvements come at the expense of physical safety for people of color.

This speed limit change can only be successful if it is a precursor to changes to street design, and, in the interim, a program of automated enforcement whose exclusive goal is behavior change, rather than punitive fines or revenue.

More thoughts on Speed Limits:

The distinction between “local” and non-local streets presents a challenge. Many of DC’s most densely populated streets are arterial roads, which also serve as retail and transit hubs. We need slower speeds on these major corridors as well.

All that said, 20 MPH is still a really big deal:

Speed is a contributing factor in more than ⅓ of traffic crashes in DC and it is the single largest determining factor in crash survival and injury. We cannot eliminate fatal crashes without slowing down.

And, while it’s not a complete solution, changing speed limits alone does affect driving speeds. When Seattle lowered the speed limits from 30 to 25 mph on urban streets (without any engineering changes) they saw a 45-65% decline in the worst speeding (40+ mph) and substantial drops in crashes and injuries (link). When Alexandria lowered the speed limit on Seminary Road and Quaker Lane, average 85th percentile speeds dropped between 6-15%.

On Outdoor Cafes:

We hope this new policy brings more folks back to work safely, and see it as a positive step toward a long term shift in the District’s allocation of public space—one that prioritizes the mobility and comfort of people over the movement and storage of private automobiles.

Next Steps

We are still learning the details of this proposal, but stay tuned for ways to get involved in making sure these good ideas come to fruition. In the meantime, take a moment to say thank you to Mayor Bowser (@mayorbowser) and DDOT (@DDOTDC) on your preferred social media platform.