Why We’re Stuck at High Speed, and What We’re Going to Do About It

Sara Wright & Scott Bricker February 2012 I. Introduction Many people are concerned about the speed of automobiles in their community. Higher speeds create both a traffic safety hazard, and an environment in which people are uncomfortable walking. As driving speed increases, so does the likelihood of getting into a crash, and the likelihood of injury or death for the people involved in the crash. The risk is greater for people who are walking or biking, and thus more vulnerable to injury than vehicle passengers. When a vehicle traveling about 23 mph hits a pedestrian, the pedestrian has an 25% average risk of severe injury and a 10% average risk of death. When the vehicle is traveling about 32 mph, those average risks change to about 50% and 25%, and at 40 mph, they are about 75% and 50% (Tefft 2011). Speeds of 25 to 40 mph are standard in urban areas, where many people on the roads are walking and biking. The way our roads are planned and built puts lives at risk in our communities every day. For more than half a century, designing and building roads that maximize travel speed has been the central goal of transportation engineering. The first roads in the United States were built for slow-moving traffic - people and animals moving at walking speed. As the car became a popular way to travel, the road system was increasingly built for speed. Our modern transportation planning paradigm was born in the 1950s, when the National Highway System was launched, and the design standards and practices developed at that time were aimed at maximizing travel speed. Those standards and practices continue to inform the way we plan and build roads now, in spite of the dramatic societal changes over the intervening 60 years. Changing speeds on your street or in your community can be a difficult undertaking. When approaching transportation professionals and engineers, it is important to understand how they think about speed and speed limits, as well as the technical terms and practices that contribute to higher speeds. This paper describes the way that many transportation professionals continue to think about speed, outlines some of the challenges for changing the way we address speed in our communities, and identifies some areas where we can begin to shift the paradigm.

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II. How Do Transportation Professionals Think About Speed? Three Types of Speed From a traffic engineer’s perspective, there are three kinds of speed:

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Operating Speed - the speed at which people actually drive on the roadway under free-flow conditions. This is usually pegged at “the 85th percentile” - the speed that 85% of drivers are traveling at or under. Design Speed - the speed the road is designed to safely accommodate. Posted Speed - the speed limit posted for the roadway.

(The jargon of transportation engineering and planning can be daunting - helpful glossaries by the Federal Highway Administration and the Florida Department of Transportation can be found on their websites.) What Influences Operating Speed? Operating speed is what you experience on the roadway, the speed at which people drive their vehicles each day; this is typically measured by the 85th percentile driving speed. Transportation professionals generally agree that free-flow operating speed is a response to the design of the road (how much it curves, how far ahead you can see, its width, etc.) and its surrounding environment (pedestrians, street trees, parked vehicles), rather than to the posted speed limit. The

What is the 85th percentile rule, anyway? The 85th percentile rule is a way engineers determine a “reasonable” driving speed for a road. After collecting data on observed speed of drivers on a particular road, engineers identify the speed under which 85% of drivers are travelling. The underlying assumption is that most people drive at a safe speed, except for a few reckless outliers, and that speed is therefore appropriate for the road. Under the current engineering and transportation planning paradigm, this is considered to be a rational, pragmatic, and safe way to set operating speed. Many states use the 85th percentile as a standard for setting speed limits, and set high barriers to using any other factors.

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engineering consensus about operating speed is that people drive as fast as they think is safe, based on road and environmental conditions, and that’s often faster than the posted speed (Fitzpatrick et al. 2003). Therefore the design speed effectively dictates the operating speed, much more so than posted speed does. Education and enforcement efforts can also make a difference in operating speed, but they must be sustained (e.g., installation of speed cameras). How Are Design Speeds Set? When a road is to be built or rebuilt, the first step is to decide on the classification of the roadway. Roads are classified generally as arterials (fastest travel, least access to destinations), collectors, and local streets (slowest, most access to destinations), with a variety of subclassifications. The classification of the road then determines the range of design speed options, which are typically selected from a state manual or from the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials manual, A Policy on Geometric Design of Highways and Streets, which is referred to as “The Green Book.” (Fitzpatrick et al 2003). Unfortunately for people walking, roadway engineers and designers often choose the highest possible design speed from that range, based on the belief that a higher-speed roadway is also a higher-quality roadway (PPS 2008). This is backed by the fact that federal and state funding allocation often prioritizes construction and maintenance of higher order roadways, creating additional incentive to choose the “highest” possible roadway classification (Urgo et al 2010). The “higher” road classifications also have higher design speed ranges. How Are Posted Speed Limits Set and Enforced? Speed limits are set based on the ranges assigned by the state to each roadway classification. While states have a wide variety of legal guidelines about how speed limits are assigned, they generally hew to recommendations for specific types of streets, often based on the Green Book. Engineers usually have some flexibility in the speed limits they choose from the menu of options. Many transportation agencies subscribe to the idea articulated by the Oregon DOT that “most people are reasonable and laws exist to control the few who are unreasonable or inconsiderate” (ODOT website) Speed limits, therefore, are intended to guide the few “unreasonable” people and to set a threshold that can be enforced without stretching limited police budgets too far or making too many people angry. III. How Do We Get to Truly Reasonable Speeds? We find ourselves stuck in a transportation planning paradigm that was developed in an environment completely different than where we are now. We continue to build roads that encourage high driving speeds, at the expense of our health, our safety, and our government budgets. There are many factors that keep us stuck. America Walks identifies the following list as some of the key challenges to reasonable speeds.

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1. The gap between design speed and desired operating speed. Drivers usually make speed decisions based on the design speed of the road, not the posted speed. This is significant because design speed is almost always set higher than the desired operating speed, the speed that is appropriate to the road’s context. This is intended, under our current transportation planning paradigm, to be a kind of a safety allowance for vehicles; if the driver goes a little faster than is “reasonable,” the road can accommodate that. Engineers frequently set the design speed at 5 to 10 mph over the expected operating speed, which means they are designing the road to be safely driven at 5 mph faster than the speed at which 85% of users are expected to drive (PPS 2008). When the roadway is signaling drivers that they can safely drive faster than the posted speed, it is not surprising that drivers often choose to speed. Some jurisdictions are changing the way they address speed when they build roadways. The Smart Transportation Guidebook (2008) recommends that most types of roadways be designed with the goal of making the design speed, operating speed, and the posted speed all the same. The New Jersey DOT and Pennsylvania DOT require streets to be planned with design speeds equal to desired operating speeds, and the Vermont Agency of Transportation allows a roadway’s design speed to be equal to or less than the posted speed (PPS 2008). America Walks strongly recommends that American roads be designed and built with the explicit goal of setting design speed equal to posted speed and operating speed. This approach will allow for traffic flow while creating a safer, more welcoming environment for all road users. 2. Reliance on 85th percentile for evaluating changes to speed limits Many communities have issues with existing roadways where posted speeds are inappropriately high for the context, creating an unsafe environment for road users. When a roadway is under review for a possible speed limit change, many states require that the 85th percentile speed be a major factor in establishing posted speed. The problem with this is that drivers make choices that seem reasonable based on the cues they get from the roadway, rather than on what they would think to be reasonable if they spent some time in the community. This creates a feedback loop in which engineers create roads that cue drivers that they can safely go faster than the posted speed, and then engineers use

What about the Green Book? The Green Book is sometimes considered to be the last word in road design; its standards are often adopted wholesale by states, and the Federal Highway Administration has adopted parts of the Green Book as the standard for the National Highway System. However, it is worth noting that the Green Book was initially created as a design guideline for state DOTs designing federally funded highways, which are typically rural. It has only recently been adapted for urban considerations such as surrounding land use, and it remains weak on urban contexts. Furthermore, the Green Book is intended to provide guidance only, and is not a regulatory document. It is actually somewhat flexible on speed ranges, and many engineers have exercised professional discretion in designing new or redesign existing streets with traffic calming measures to reduce automobile speeds (often while maintaining or improving traffic flow).

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those drivers’ speed choices to indicate what is a “reasonable” speed to drive on that road. Many states allow the use of additional factors to determine an appropriate speed limit, though almost all weigh the 85th percentile most heavily. Other factors that may be considered include: ● Road type and condition ● Crash history ● Location and type of access points ● Existing traffic control devices ● Sight distances ● Traffic volumes ● Lane and shoulder width ● Test run speed ● Parking practices ● Pedestrian activity ● Land use In the interest of increasing traffic safety, state DOTs should be encouraged, to the extent possible, to weigh these other factors more heavily than the 85th percentile. 3. The assumption that higher design speed makes roads safer Road design elements that contribute to higher design speed include wide lanes, long sightlines, wide shoulders, and other factors that are intended to be “forgiving” in the case of random driver error. For example, many engineers believe that one way to make a road “safer” is to remove objects from the roadside to create a “clear zone” so that a car leaving the roadway is less likely to run into anything (Dumbaugh& Li 2011). The Green Book includes the statement that “every effort should be made to use as high a design speed as practical in the interests of safety” (AASHTO 2004, p. 67 as cited in Dunbaugh & Li, 2011). This emphasis on reducing the effects of a crash on the vehicle and its occupants does nothing to reduce the effects of the crash on people and things outside the car, and does nothing to prevent the crash from happening in the first place. Furthermore, in urban areas, crashes happen predictably more often in places where there are relatively higher traffic speeds, and more conflicts between roadway users (Dumbaugh& Li 2011). Road design should aim to prevent crashes through reduction of speed, particularly around intersections, rather than mitigating the effects of crashes on vehicle occupants. This approach is common in European cities, and there are many proven, effective tools available. 4. The prioritization of automobile mobility goals over other community goals The way our streets are currently designed prioritizes higher speeds over other community goals, such as the economic development of individual streets and neighborhoods, safe access for people walking to destinations and transit, activating public spaces, and children’s safety. In

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this paradigm, any delay for motor vehicles is a sign of failure. For example, “Level of Service,” a key measure of a roadway’s effectiveness, measures the level of congestion at peak times. This measure does not reflect considerations such as the ability of residents to get around (people on foot or bicycles are not as affected by motor vehicle congestion), freight movement, the ability of pedestrians to cross the street safely, or economic activity. In fact, traffic Do slower speeds mean longer travel times? For communities overall, the minimal added travel time associated with reducing speed is much outweighed by the reduced risk of crashes (Archer et al 2008). However, this is a difficult argument to make to people who are concerned only about their individual travel time. The fact is, though, that for many urban trips, speed limits and even maximum speed traveled do not have much impact on overall travel time. A car trip on urban streets is likely to be slowed by many factors, such as signal timing, number and type of intersections, or trouble finding parking, and travel times tend to be extremely variable. At rush hour in many cities, the average travel speed is significantly below speed limits, often hovering around 15 mph. Furthermore, lower speeds mean fewer crashes, and fewer crashes means less delay. Crashes are not only devastating for the people who are directly affected, and costly to society, they are a major cause of traffic jams (FHWA 2005). If a system is carefully designed to maintain a slow (20 mph), fairly steady driving speed, without a lot of stopping and starting, it can actually improve traffic flow, potentially reducing travel times (Archer et al, 2008). Improving intersection safety and function and adjusting signal timing are better ways to improve flow than increasing traffic speed. congestion can even be a positive indicator of a community’s economic vitality (Taylor, 2002.) We should prioritize safety, comfort, economic and social sustainability, and public health, and let motor vehicle mobility take its correct place as an element of the transportation system, rather than its primary goal. 5. Belief in design immunity While it is extremely unlikely that any liability issues will arise from traffic calming measures, liability issues are often cited as a reason not to pursue any engineering measures perceived as outside the standard practice. Many engineers feel that they are vulnerable to liability for roadway collisions if they stray from the Green Book’s guidance, which they perceive as a good way to get “design immunity” for roadway design. While this is by no means the only way for engineers and governments to protect themselves from liability, it is an easy, cheap way to design roads that are legally defensible. Creating original design solutions that are protected from liability requires substantial knowledge, time, and financial resources that many jurisdictions lack (Urgo et al 2010). As we advocate for lower speeds, we need to find ways to support engineers to explore and use a wider variety of design tools. What Next? Communities across the country are eager to move toward traffic speeds that promote safety, access, public health, and economic and social sustainability. We must address the perceptions and practices of transportation professionals that prevent implementation of lower speeds. A lot of work remains to be done on this issue, but America Walks has identified a few changes we can call for in the transportation profession:

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Broadly adopt the idea that design speed should be set equal to desired operating speed in all road design; Deprioritize the 85th percentile rule in setting speed limits; Change the language in the Green Book and other influential design documents that equate quality with high design speed; and Research the real impacts of implementing lower speeds on arterials and urban highways, with an emphasis on maximizing flow while minimizing crashes

These ideas are a starting point. America Walks welcomes ideas and feedback as we move forward. References American Association of State Highway and Transportation Official. 2004. A Policy on Geometric Design of Highways and Streets. Archer, Jeffery, Fotheringham, Nicola, Symmons, Mark, and Bruce Corben. 2008. The Impact of Lowered Speed Limits in Urban and Metropolitan Areas. Transport Accident Commission Report #276. Accessed 9/23/2011 at http://www.monash.edu.au/muarc/reports/muarc276.pdf Dumbaugh, Eric and Li, Wenhao. 2011. Designing for the Safety of Pedestrians, Cyclists, and Motorists in Urban Environments. Journal of the American Planning Association, 77: 1, 69 — 8 Federal Highway Administration. 2005. Traffic Congestion and Reliability: Trends and Advanced Strategies for Congestion Mitigation. Accessed 9/23/2011 at http://ops.fhwa.dot.gov/congestion_report/ Fitzpatrick Kay, Paul Carlson, Marcus Brewer, Mark Wooldridge, and Shaw-Pin Miaou. 2003. National Cooperative Highway Research Program Report 504: Design Speed, Operating Speed, and Posted Speed Practices. Transportation Research Board. Accessed 8/28/2011 at http://onlinepubs.trb.org/onlinepubs/nchrp/nchrp_rpt_504.pdf Institute of Transportation Engineers. 2006. Context Sensitive Solutions in Designing Major Urban Thoroughfares for Walkable Communities. Accessed 8/28/2011 at http://www.ite.org/bookstore/RP036.pdf Rosen, Erik, and Ulrich Sander. 2009. Pedestrian fatality risk as a function of car impact speed. Accident Analysis and Prevention 41 (2009) 536–542. Taylor, Brian. 2002. Rethinking Congestion. Access. Tefft, Brian. 2011. Impact Speed and a Pedestrian’s Risk of Severe Injury or Death. AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety. Accessed 10/2/2011 at http://www.aaafoundation.org/pdf/2011PedestrianRiskVsSpeed.pdf Toth, Gary, and Wilhelm Volk. 2008. A Citizen’s Guide to Better Streets: How to Engage Your Transportation Agency. Project for Public Spaces, Inc. Accessed 8/28/2011 at http://www.pps.org/pdf/bookstore/How_to_Engage_Your_Transportation_Agency_AARP .pdf Urgo, John, Meredith Wilensky, and Steven Weissman. 2010. Moving Beyond Prevailing Street Design Standards: Assessing Legal and Liability Barriers to More Efficient Street Design and Function. The Center for Law, Energy, and the Environment, Berkeley Law School, University of California. Accessed 8/28/2011 at

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http://crec.berkeley.edu/Moving%20Beyond%20Prevailing%20Standards.pdfhttp://crec.b erkeley.edu/Moving%20Beyond%20Prevailing%20Standards.pdf. Photos from Flickr Creative Commons: Credit to Stephen Mitchell, Arti Sandhu, Dylan Passmore, Petetr Meitzler

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