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Why can’t my street’s speed limit be changed?

We’ve been building a movement in support of Safe Streets For All — asking you to take action by adding your name to our Safe Streets For All petition calling for streets to be built for safety, for slower speeds, and for people and thriving communities. How does one slow down roads and improve the safety of people biking, walking and rolling in their neighborhoods?

In the League’s Winter 2022 magazine, we shared all of the ways the League and its partners are building momentum to slow roads and save lives. Read the following article, written by the League’s former policy specialist Austin Wu, to learn about the two biggest barriers to local governments setting safer speed limits, then flip through the pages of American Bicyclist below.

American Bicyclist is one of the many benefits of League membership. Not a member? Consider joining to receive the magazine and support our work.

Everyone can picture the road in their area: it’s four to six or more lanes across, it’s a straight line cutting through neighborhoods, its speed limit is set too high, and it rarely has a bike lane or comfortable crosswalk anywhere. It’s a road for cars, not for people. And in many cases, when people go to their city council about modifying these roads, the answer is: “we can’t”. That’s because in many cities and towns, these major thoroughfares are in fact controlled and maintained by the state. 

The laws in virtually every state have a provision to allow local governments — counties and municipalities — to set their own speed limits, at least in theory. However, in practice, there are two primary barriers to local governments setting safer speed limits: local control of streets, and how speed limits must be set, such as through methods like the 85th percentile rule. 

The first issue is whether a local government, such as a city, has control over its streets. Even if the road is contained within the city’s boundaries and is decidedly “urban” in character, such as by having a high number of intersections and volume of traffic, it may still be controlled by the state. In most cases, speed limits for roads under the jurisdiction of the state cannot be altered without approval from the state’s Department of Transportation (DOT) or secretary of transportation, which can be an insurmountable barrier. 

A second issue is mandates for how speed limits can be set by local governments, even if they otherwise control the streets. In states such as Maine, New Jersey, Washington, and Tennessee, state laws require that local governments make use of the Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices (MUTCD) in their processes for setting speed limits, which has been criticized in the way in which it “biases transportation behavior in dangerous and inequitable ways, prioritizing the speed of cars and the convenience of drivers over other modes and uses”.

Other states mandate the use of the 85th percentile speed rule in setting speed limits. The 85th percentile rule sets the speed limit so that only 15% percent of drivers are going faster than the speed limit, regardless of the context of the street. Until new legislation in California passed just this year, the mandate to use the 85th percentile in setting speed limits frequently resulted in even powerful cities like Los Angeles being forced to raise speed limits against their will. 

State legislators have been slow to embrace safer speed limits or allow more local control of speed limits. Progress can be found in Minnesota, where cities may now set speed limits below the statutory limits (30 mph in an urban district and 25 mph in exclusively residential areas) without a traffic study conducted by the state department of transportation. Similarly, local authorities in Washington state are allowed to use processes other than a traffic study to set local speed limits as low as 20 mph. Unfortunately, both of these laws remain constricted by where they can be applied—local roads—and do not address higher-speed roads such as arterials or state highways. 

While the League welcomes these state efforts to lower speed limits, we must note that they are limited and do not go as far as international policies that call for 20 mph speed limits for urban roads where people biking, walking, and driving mix. To most people using a road, the issue of state or local control is unlikely to cross their minds. However, if we want slower, safer, speeds, we need advocates to petition states for more local control and more state DOTs that are partners for safer speeds. the issue of state or local control is unlikely to cross their minds. However, if we want slower, safer, speeds, we need advocates to petition states for more local control and more state DOTs that are partners for safer speeds.