History Repeats

While it wasn't until May 21, 1901, that Connecticut became the first state to pass a law regulating motor vehicle traffic, the protection of pedestrians and street life has long been woven into the fabric of urban America.

Speed limits in the US are almost as old as the streets they aim to order: in 1652, horse-drawn wagons, carts and sleighs were not permitted to reach a gallop through the streets of New Amsterdam. Fines started at “two pounds Flemish,” or about $150 today.

Traffic has always been a contentious issue. Old New York’s elite would often insist that their carriage drivers trot too fast and motorists have been pushing the speed limit for as long as limits have been in place. During those early days, each pedestrian struck was newsworthy and each car crash was another reason for the walking public to stand up against this new-fangled four-wheel threat and its encroachment on the city’s public space. As car-ownership rates increased, public outcry transformed into organized advocacy for better vehicles, tighter regulations and safer streets. In 1927, the Death-o-Meter came to Brooklyn’s Grand Army Plaza. The tally-based sign was installed by the Brooklyn Safety Council, and made a direct correlation between vehicle speed and fatalities on the dangerous traffic circle. By the mid-1920s, organized vehicle-safety lobbies became a sizable threat to the automobile industry, pushing costly modifications to vehicle design such as turn indicators and speed governors. In response, the automobile industry formed its own organizations and began to produce its own research on what was necessary to improve traffic safety. The fight has raged on ever since.

The latest round of the debate just reached New York City in earnest. While traffic engineers and livable streets advocates have long known that slower speeds save lives, now even the Bloomberg administration is catching up. The NYC DOT has recently started running TV ads to remind New Yorkers that the city’s default speed limit is 30mph. The agency has also announced that in 2011 it will begin a pilot program for a neighborhood 20mph speed zone. Though that’s a good start, it’s not enough to combat the city’s number one cause of traffic fatalities.

Despite seeming insignificant, the difference between 30mph and 20mph is statistically enormous. What the DOT’s ad campaign doesn’t say – but the agency knows − is that while a pedestrian struck by a car traveling at 30mph has an 80 percent chance of survival, at 20mph the survival rate jumps to 98 percent. T.A. believes that that the truly safe default urban traveling speed is 20mph. Public space is our playground and in New York the streets and sidewalks are where we get together, socialize, smile and live our lives. A pilot program and an education campaign are sensible opening salvos, but heavier artillery is in order if the City wishes to win the deadly war waged each day on its streets.

As the city searches for an acceptable balance between mobility and safety, speed limits and their enforcement will ultimately set the pace that determines the quality of New York street life. In a city that values alacrity, we’ll be continuing the battle and taking up the rhetoric of centuries of safe-street campaigners. They knew just as well as we do that trading human life for the movement of traffic isn’t just immoral but anathema to everything that makes a city great. Our advocacy forebearers were well aware that urban life is best experienced at a trot.