Lessons For St. Louis From the UK's "20's Plenty" Campaign

If you ever have the bad fortune to be involved in a collision as a pedestrian, your chances of survival hinge on one crucial factor: the speed the motorist was traveling.

If the driver was going 40 miles per hour, the victim has only a 15 percent chance of living. But at 20 miles per hour, the pedestrian’s odds jump to 95 percent, according to research by the United Kingdom Department for Transport.

Motorists are allowed to travel up to 35 miles per hour through St. Louis' 4th Street, a popular pedestrian thoroughfare in downtown. ##http://www.gatewaystreets.org/2010/12/speeding-through-downtown-at-35-mph.html## Gateway Streets##

We’ve reported before that communities across the UK have adopted a 20 mph speed limit in a campaign to protect pedestrians and cyclists called “20’s Plenty.” The concept could soon be tested in New York City.

Given the striking connection between driver speed and pedestrian safety, it’s surprising more cities haven’t followed suit. Network blog Gateway Streets examines how this concept might be applied in the city of St. Louis, where motorists are allowed to race through pedestrian-laden downtown streets at speeds as high as 35 miles per hour.

The speed limit on the majority of streets in the St. Louis CBD is 25 mph. Outside the CBD, but still within downtown, speed limits are commonly set at 30 mph. Some of the arterial roads through downtown, however, have 35 mph speed limits despite crossing major pedestrian corridors. Pedestrian safety, it seems, plays second fiddle to making sure vehicles get from one side of downtown to the other as quickly as possible.

Perhaps most baffling of all are 4th St and Memorial Drive. Thousands of tourist cross these two streets every year to access the Arch and Old Courthouse. Improved sidewalks to cross Memorial Drive and the I-70 trench were only just completed last year. Yet, the speed and volume of traffic on these streets still scream danger. The 35 mph speed limits on these streets are unacceptable. For comparison purposes, the 3-5 lane streets on either side of Fort Washington Way in downtown Cincinnati—very similar to I-70 and Memorial Drive, here—have 25 mph speed limits.

When 20 mile per hour speed limits were imposed in the UK, towns saw road fatalities drop by as much as 22 percent and safety was improved for both pedestrians and drivers. Their example provides a great framework for the city of St. Louis, as well as other cities.

Elsewhere on the Network today: Commute by Bike comments on ways employers are encouraging their employees to bike to work. The L.A. County Bicycle Coalition reports that a group of homeowners are threatening to disrupt an important Bus Rapid Transit line on Wilshire Boulevard. And Matt Yglesias argues that football stadiums belong on the outskirts of cities.

  • Bob Davis

    Brings to mind the stories from a hundred years ago about towns having their constables arrest “scorchers” who were driving their “gas buggies” (also known as “devil wagons”) down “Main St.” at a blazing 12 mph scaring the horses.
    I’ve read about a psychological effect of traveling at a certain speed and how going any slower feels like one is “creeping” along. I think one of the messages here is, if you’re in a big hurry, seek out streets that don’t have a lot of pedestrians and cyclists.

  • David

    I’d love to see a study that looks at how traffic lights affect motorist behavior. In particular, i’d love to see whether well-timed lights encourage safer driving. I’m a huge alternative transportation guy but i also own a car in Brooklyn and I’ve never ever seen worse traffic lights (i’ve driven extensively in Houston, Boston and Chicago). Eastern Parkway is especially atrocious, as are most of the streets that intersect with it going north to south. Bedford has well timed lights and so does 4th Avenue, and in my experience the drivers on those two roads tend to cruise along rather than stepping on the pedal to the next light. I never see this issue raised. But DOT has got to do better with the lights in Brooklyn. Surely it is in the interest of everybody if all modes of transport are working as efficiently as they can. In fact, i sometimes wonder whether DOT could offer well-timed lights as a quid pro quo to drivers in exchange for bike lanes and/or dedicated bus lanes. Ocean Ave would be a great place for that, as would New York Avenue or Rogers… Thoughts?

  • Joe R.

    Interesting comments. Yes, it’s very true that there is a psychological effect to creeping along under a certain speed. In fact, studies have shown that if speeds are too low ( as perceived by the driver ), then risk increases because the driver starts to think they can do other tasks while driver. Not helping matters is the fact that today’s cars are designed to insulate the occupants against any perception of speed. At the 30 mph speed limit you really do feel as if you’re crawling on the city’s wider arterial streets. On older cars where more wind noise and vibration crept in, 30 mph might actually feel reasonable.

    @ David ( post #2 ),

    What you describe is a city-wide problem in the outer boroughs, and if you’re cycling instead of driving it’s even worse. Not only has the city gone overboard adding traffic lights, even when many aren’t justified given the traffic volume, but it has made little attempt to synchronize them. The city could do much better. In the outer boroughs it can easily get rid of half the lights, if not more, with no effect on safety. And many of the others could be retimed. Also, why is the city so averse to using lights which use vehicle detectors at lightly traveled intersections? I’ve seen many lights which turn red but there’s almost never a vehicle waiting to proceed from the side street. These cases clearly call out for traffic lights which remain green on the main road except when a vehicle on the side block trips the detector. Same thing for lights stuck in the middle of streets whose only purpose seems to be to allow pedestrian crossings. Why do these lights go red on a regular cycle? Just have a push-to-cross button ( one which really works, not the fake ones which the city uses in some places ). And late nights have the lights on arterials go to blinking yellow ( with blinking red on the side streets ). Almost every other place does this. All these unnecessary, pointless red lights cause huge amounts of unnecessary pollution. They also make it pretty much necessary for any cyclist hoping to average greater than walking speed to pass the lights whenever they can.

    Besides poor engineering, much of the problem can be blamed on vocal community getting traffic lights which aren’t needed from a traffic engineering standpoint. Just in the last few months near me, two more traffic lights were installed at intersections where I rarely remember seeing any cross traffic. The existing stop signs on the side streets worked just fine. We really need a moratorium on any new traffic light installations. Most studies show traffic lights do little for safety. And like any other traffic control device, when used to excess, there ends up being a tendency among road users to ignore them.

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