Portland Will Reduce Residential Speed Limits to 20 MPH

Graphic:  City of Portland
Graphic: City of Portland

To improve traffic safety and make streets more welcoming for walking and biking, Portland will lower speed limits on nearly all of its residential streets to 20 miles per hour, in most cases replacing a 25 mph limit.

The change was approved unanimously Wednesday by the Portland City Council. About 70 percent of the city’s street mileage will have the new 20 mph limit.

Portland Bureau of Transportation Director Leah Treat Photo: City of Portland
Portland Bureau of Transportation Director Leah Treat. Photo: City of Portland

“The severity of a crash is largely tied to speed,” Portland Bureau of Transportation Director Leah Treat told Streetsblog. “Someone who reduces their speed from 25 to 20 miles per hour, that means a pedestrian is twice as likely to survive.”

Reducing residential speed limits is one of 32 actions in Portland’s Vision Zero plan to eliminate traffic fatalities by 2025. The city won permission from the state legislature to change its speed limits last year.

In addition to the safety benefits, Treat says the change will offer a variety of quality-of-life benefits to residents as well.

“It’s going to help kids get to school,” she said. “Lots of kids walk and bike to school, this will help kids get to school safely.”

By April 1, Portland will have 2,000 signs in place informing drivers of the 20 mph limit. The city is also planning a large-scale public awareness campaign, with radio and television ads.

Portland will continue to enforce traffic speeds, but police are going to be encouraged to remain focused on the most dangerous corridors in the city, and those are primarily arterial streets that won’t be affected by the change.

Treat says she expects the ordinance to gradually influence street design, as well.

“Lowering of the speed is going to have an impact on how the engineer assesses how a street works, when residents request things like speed bumps,” she said.

Portland has to reverse a recent increase in traffic fatalities. Last year, 45 people were killed in traffic collisions, up from 37 in 2015.

23 thoughts on Portland Will Reduce Residential Speed Limits to 20 MPH

  1. This is awesome! I’ve been wanting my city to do this for a long time.

    Hopefully this move will help other cities to push lowered speed limits through.

  2. Chicago’s default is unfortunately 30 mph, which is completely insane. Glad to see Portland showing some smart leadership.

  3. Applies to residential streets only. Since most serious or fatal crashes happen on arterials, this change won’t do much to improve safety. It’s primarily symbolic in nature.

  4. A better approach is to quit the “one limit fits all” myth and instead make limits dependent upon the specific highway or road. A six-lane artery deserves a higher limit than a quiet residential street.

    Or better yet, do what I have seen in Europe and have variable limits that depend on things like weather, light, congestion, time of day etc.

    Sometimes 20 is too fast and at other times 40 is fine, even on the same road. All you need is electronic signs and a central location using CCTV to make decisions.

  5. Vision Zero Plan? In truth it’s a Zero Vision Plan. Just a bunch of feel good window dressing, that doesn’t address actual pressing issues for the city. This 20mph forced crawl doesn’t address dangerous arterials, it only makes residential streets harder to get around on. It doesn’t address an inadequate bus system that shuts down before bars close, so thousands of service industry people don’t even have the option to use public transit for work. It ignores how all these “trying to get people out of their cars” leads to making it harder for disabled people to get around. But, it’s a perfect example of how large important decisions are handled autocratically and on the sly by the city counsel.

  6. So instead of driving 5 mph over the speed limit through residential areas, now people will drive 10 mph over the speed limit. This is nothing more than a feel good act.

    A real solution would be to just enforce the 25 mph speed limit.

  7. We don’t have a one limit fits all, we have a default – meaning, if you don’t see a sign displaying otherwise, you assume it’s 30. Which is too fast, as people take that as a suggestion and will routinely go above that speed, which just results in motorists racing along for a block or two only to hit a red light or squeal out at a stop sign.

    Chicago has plenty of variability, expressways are obviously much faster, schools and parks have lowered speed limits, etc. But the kicker is the enforcement, which at the moment is largely null and void outside of a limited (and highly contested) number of speed cameras.

    The cost to retrofit a city the size of Chicago’s street grid with street-specific electronic signs would be astronomical. It would be a colossal waste of energy, and also a serious contributor to urban light pollution IMO. We just need people to slow down and stop putting their convenience ahead of everyone else’s safety.

  8. A better idea is to redesign the streets to make fast driving more difficult. It’s cheap and easy, a few buckets of paint and some flower pots is all you need.

    For example replace parallel parking with slanted parking on one side of the street, and switch sides once a block. That slows traffic down.

  9. I lived in Portland for 15 years. 20mph is the going speed limit on many residential streets. Locals do not tend to speed AT ALL even on main drags. People who do are usually new to town. It is normal to see traffic crawling along at 20-25 mph in 30 mph zones. It is very dark when it rains at night and visibility is bad with all of the glare.

  10. Most traffic is going 5mph over the speed limit. And I regularly see cars go down my street at around 40mph. Changing speed limits is a waste of city council time if no one is following the speed limit. I don’t like speed humps, but they are very effective at their intended purpose.

    It’s not just a safety issue. Speeding cars make a lot of noise.

  11. I don’t actually see it improving things, but it sounds like this is a done deal and our opinions don’t matter. I guess we’ll see what happens.
    Hmmmm…. I wonder what they’ll say IF accidents, and especially fatalities, go up.

  12. Easier for disabled people to get around; slowing cars down, aside from making the streets safer for everybody else, will get people out of them and leave extra room for those who need to drive.

  13. This is so typically Portland. We have a problem. So studies are done, speed limits are reduced on a few problem streets for a few years and the results are monitored. Zero effect. The accident and fatality rate stay the same. Oh well, it feels good and looks like we are helping. Lets ignore all of the public input, opposition, and other studies that disagree. Lets just do it anyway. But let’s not forget to ignore the actual problems.

  14. Well, 20mph is hardly a crawl; I can cruise around nicely on my bike at 15mph. It may take an extra minute or two to get where you are going, but does that REALLY matter?

  15. But lowering the speed limit on residential streets does nothing to reduce traffic deaths. It does nothing to make congested intersections safer. The city counsel lied to us, because this lowering of speed limit on residential streets will have no effect on their stated goal to lower traffic deaths. It will only waste valuable tax money, replacing perfectly good signs all over the city, when better street projects, that could actually save lives, aren’t happening for lack of funding.

    Who is going to pay for all these new street signs? We the tax payers, that’s who. How much will it cost and to what better purpose could that money be used? That money could go to improve the dangerous arterials, and poorly marked congested intersections, or even terrible pot holes, all street issues that cause accidents, injuries and fatalities on a regular basis. Unfortunately the city counsel would rather do the feel good window dressing action of lowering speed limits where there isn’t a problem, and forcing tax payers to foot the bill for unneeded sign replacement, when there are too many other pressing needs in the city more deserving of those tax dollars.

  16. I wouldn’t call a step in the right direction primarily symbolic.

    While most serious or fatal car accidents happen on arterial roads, vehicle/pedestrian collisions is something like the 3rd highest cause of death for children. Now, I don’t know exactly where these occur on average. But I would wager that it would mostly be on residential streets, because that’s where I tend to see kids playing.

    It also sets a precedent for arterial road speeds to be dropped.

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