Boston Wants to Lower Its Speed Limit to 20 MPH — But Can’t

Twenty is plenty in Boston, according to its elected officials. The City Council voted unanimously this week to lower the default speed limit on most residential streets to 20 mph — and not for the first time.

By Boston at English Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=10540340
Photo: John Stephen Dwyer/Wikipedia

Speeding is the number one complaint council members hear from residents. And on Boston’s narrow streets, packed with pedestrians, driving 40 mph — as people regularly do — is especially dangerous.

The current speed limit is 30 mph, and, unfortunately, changing it isn’t as easy as passing a City Council rule. The state of Massachusetts sets default speed limits, and when Boston tried to lower its speed limit before, state law prevailed.

“In the past the state has been reticent to change the prevailing speed limit because of the way it would affect so many towns,” says Walk Boston’s Brendan Kearney. “Potentially every single little city or town would have a different speed limit.”

Jackie DeWolfe at Livable Streets Boston says advocates are hopeful this time will be different, but it won’t be easy.

Boston launched a Vision Zero task force last year, and that is raising awareness of the speeding problem. One encouraging sign of progress was that during this round of City Council discussions, Boston Police testified in support of lowering the speed limit.

“It’s a really important symbolic thing that can be done to tell residents and visitors the kind of community we’re trying to create here” said DeWolfe told Streetsblog.

State Representative Denise Provost, of Somerville, says winning statewide approval for such a change is a difficult political task. She’s tried unsuccessfully in previous sessions to pass legislation enabling cities to lower speed limits.

Provost said it’s probably too late for a bill authorizing Boston to lower its speed limit to pass before the legislative session ends in July.

Perhaps a revised approach may help, she says. Provost was inspired by New York City’s successful bid to lower its default speed limit to 25 miles per hour, which also required state approval. She said perhaps if a handful of Boston-area cities, like Boston, Somerville and Cambridge, sought a combined regional speed limit, they might prevail.

“If they could agree on an urban core speed limit then maybe we could get this legislature to do what [New York] did,” she said. “The regional approach is a way that has not been tried yet, but it will need the agreement of probably at least three municipalities”

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