Portland’s Neighborhood Greenways Shift to 20 MPH

By Margaux Mennesson, BTA Communication Director

Yesterday I was riding my bike to work when I heard a voice behind me say something about “25 miles an hour.”

I looked behind me and realized the voice was coming from a man on a motorcycle approaching on my left. Was he telling me to slow down? I wasn’t riding very fast.

“The speed limit is 25 miles an hour. You’re obstructing traffic.”

The man had plenty of room to pass me on the left, and there was no other traffic in sight. On top of that, he really was only driving at 25 miles an hour — faster than me, but not by much. I caught up to him at the stop sign three blocks later, then again at the next traffic light. We didn’t exchange any more words, but it left me thinking.

The creation of an innovative and calming traffic feature can look like this.  Photo courtesy of Greg Raisman Photo courtesy of Greg Raisman

The creation of an innovative and calming traffic feature can look like this.

The street was one of Portland’s neighborhood greenways, which is a network of residential streets where active transportation is the top priority. They keep pedestrians, bicyclists and families safe by providing alternatives to busy streets. Thanks to speed bumps, diverters, and flipped stopped signs, there are relatively few cars — mostly for residential access — so it’s absolutely a breeze to cruise down them on a bike.

It’s perfectly legal for a bicyclist to ride on streets with higher speed limits. I know how to share the road courteously by moving to the right when it’s safe to allow faster traffic to pass on the left. But the glorious thing about neighborhood greenways is being able to ride at my own pace and not have to worry about angering other people. I know that the street is designed to make people feel comfortable riding bikes, and most bike traffic is traveling at speeds lower than 25 mph. It’s the natural order of things on neighborhood greenways.

In 2011, the Oregon State Legislature passed a law that allows the City of Portland to implement 20 mph speed limits on its neighborhood greenways. In August of 2012, Portland City Council approved a 70-mile network of greenways that will have their speed limit changed from 25 mph to 20 mph.

The goal of implementing 20 mph speed limits is not to cause drivers more inconvenience or give police another law to enforce. The goal is to create safe, healthy neighborhoods that are gateways for people to explore their communities on foot or by bike.

In the ordinance approving the network of new 20 mph streets, Portland City Council wrote:

“On residential streets, creating 20 mile per hour speed limits is an international best practice for improving safety and livability. The City of London has had 20 mph residential zones for more than 20 years, which has led to a 40% reduction in traffic injuries and death attributable to the slower speed designation and networks of traffic calmed streets.”

The physics of 20 mph are real. In a crash, the likelihood of serious injury or death rises exponentially as speeds increase above this speed. A pedestrian struck at 20 has a 95% chance of survival, at 30 mph it is only 60%.

Planners and engineers know that you won’t get people to slow down just by posting the new speed limit on a sign. The law empowers the city to engineer slower speeds with speed bumps, diverters, islands, and other innovative traffic calming features, like intersection paintings.

Too many families today live on streets that are simply not safe for bicycling and some kids might live miles from the nearest bike path or park. As a result, fewer kids are walking and biking to school than ever before and inactivity is becoming the norm. The next generation of riders — those who could go on to become captain of their high school cycling team, local cyclocross stars, or even Olympic cyclists — aren’t allowed to ride their bikes because it’s too dangerous.

Our neighborhoods are gateways to our communities. If we are going to be effective in building safe, healthy communities where people feel confident getting around by foot or by bike, we need to start that change right outside our front door.

Margaux Mennesson directs communications at the Bicycle Transportation Alliance in Portland, Oregon.

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