To kick off the month of May, the Chicago City Council's Committee on Pedestrian and Traffic Safety held a hearing about whether the city should consider dropping its current arterial street speed limit.

At the time of writing, it's currently set at 30 miles per hour within city limits. In more and more neighborhoods, particularly in higher-income residential areas on the North Side, you'll most definitely feel it if you're going too fast. Why? The speed humps there seem to be multiplying. Some are so big that if you hit them with a car or bike that you've lowered (or worse still, has an underslung exhaust), you'd best be operating at crawling speed.

Now, if you're on a bike and the parked cars and other traffic on the street you're on allow it, you might be able to swerve around the speed humps and miss them entirely. Even if you do, they've still had the intended effect of slowing traffic. That is, after all, their stated reason for existence.

But What's This About Lowering The City-Wide Speed Limit?

To be clear, the talks amongst the Chicago City Council are preliminary at this point. No ordinance has been introduced for consideration yet. But Alderman Daniel La Spata of the first ward is heading up a group of city council members who want their colleagues to seriously consider adopting legislation to support it.

Considerations mentioned include five times greater survival odds for pedestrians if a car hits them at 25 mph versus 35 mph, as well as reaction times (for drivers, cyclists, and pedestrians) being improved at lower speeds. 

Metropolitan Planning Council senior director Audrey Wennink also told the Chicago Sun-Times that "if cars are operating at 20 to 25 mph, it takes 85 feet to stop the vehicle. But at 30 mph, it's 120 feet." 

While there are a number of other factors at play in this example (How good/well maintained are the brakes? Are the tires in decent shape?), the example still holds. Concrete numbers are nice to have, but deep down, most people can probably wrap their heads around the idea that it's easier to react to something in a timely fashion when you have adequate time to react. It's something that the US National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has been arguing in favor of for a long time.

It's Not The First Major City To Consider This Move, And It Won't Be The Last

Multiple transportation researchers and organizations have long discussed the benefits of lowering urban speed limits. When population density is high, you have more people out and about, moving themselves around the area in multiple ways. In less populated areas where both homes and businesses are further apart, you're much less likely to encounter other folks in the roadway, so going faster is usually possible to do safely.

A couple of years ago, Vice Motherboard's senior editor Aaron Gordon made a powerful persuasive argument in favor of lowering city speed limits to 20 miles per hour. He cited examples of cities that have already done this, including New York City and Edinburgh.

To be completely transparent, I didn't go into reading this piece expecting to agree. But as I've mentioned previously, I also grew up in Chicago. More specifically, I grew up as a pedestrian, public transit user, and graduated to being an occasional bicycle commuter when I got a little older. I didn't learn to drive or ride motorbikes until I was an adult.

When you spend most (or all) of your time in a city walking, taking public transit, and maybe riding the occasional bicycle, you get a much different sense of things than you do as a driver or rider on the same roads. Once I learned to drive, and was doing so in the city, I began to understand why city driving is so frustrating. That is, unless you do it during off hours, when most of the city is asleep or working third shift. 

Traffic congestion, stop signs every block or every other block, increasingly massive speed bumps, unexpected potholes, random pedestrians suddenly wandering out in front of you, cyclists that can't make up their mind which way they want to go (and don't consistently make hand signals to tell you), and more are just some of the frustrations that go hand in hand with city driving or motorcycle riding. 

Where Gordon's argument works well is in its consideration of the situation as a whole. It's not only about changing speed limit signs, in his view. If you can go 30 mph for five seconds, but then you have to slam on your brakes and crawl for the next 15 minutes because you hit a nasty traffic snarl, what good does it do?

Urban engineering and road design choices of the past work with the fantastic capabilities of our cars (and bikes) to inspire us to go faster than we maybe should, given the current context of the roads that we're on.

One way that city planners can encourage drivers to adhere to the posted speed limit is by timing street lights accordingly, so that good behavior is rewarded with maximum green lights and smoothest traffic flow. That won't always work if things get too congested, but isn't a smoother, less stop-and-go flow of traffic at 20 mph infinitely preferable to going 40 for two blocks and then barely getting into the double digits for the next half hour?

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What about human nature, you might ask? The University of Minnesota's Center for Transportation Studies conducted a study in St. Louis Park to evaluate and document driver behavior before and after a speed limit change. 

In what is probably not a surprising bit of news, the analysis showed that drivers didn't immediately adapt their behavior to the newly posted reduced speed limits. Multiple possible reasons were cited, not the least of which is road familiarity. If you're used to going X speed on a street you've been traveling for years, you may not even notice the new signs right away.

Nevertheless, proponents of proposals like the one currently under consideration in Chicago say that every MPH slowed counts for something. That even if the speed limit drops aren't done perfectly by everyone (which they won't be, because we're humans), they'll still ultimately result in a positive change.

Speeding will still happen, but if that speeding is decreased because the speed limit is decreased, that could still result in potentially safer outcomes, as well as fewer injuries, deaths, and overall crashes.

That seems like an outcome that most people should be able to get behind.

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