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Speed limits on Denver’s neighborhood streets could drop to 20 mph
October 25, 2021
Denver drivers could soon see speed limits on every neighborhood street drop from 25 mph to 20 mph if an upcoming City Council measure is successful.
The proposal, which Councilman Paul Kashmann plans to introduce in the next month, follows more than two years of campaigning by a local advocacy group to reduce speeds in Denver’s residential areas and an effort by the city to eliminate traffic deaths.
The change to thousands of Denver’s streets could be implemented as soon as next year.
“We get neverending calls from neighborhood residents that cars are going too fast,” Kashmann said. “Part of what we can do is encourage people to slow down.”
City data shows that the per-capita rate of traffic deaths has grown steadily from 5.7 deaths per 100,000 residents in 2012 to 8.4 deaths per 100,000 people n 2019.
Fewer people died or were seriously injured in traffic crashes last year than the previous year as people stayed home at the beginning of the pandemic, but the rates of injuries and deaths have rebounded in 2021, data published by the city shows.
Sixty-six people have died in traffic crashes so far in 2021 and 296 more people have been seriously injured. That’s an average of 36 people injured or killed every month, which exceeds the rate seen in 2019.
Reducing speed limits is a relatively easy, cheap and effective way to quickly prevent traffic injuries and deaths, said Jill Locantore, executive director of Denver Streets Partnership, which has pushed for the speed limit reduction since 2019. But the speed reductions need to be followed by additional infrastructure, like speed humps and raised intersections, she said.
“It’s a statement of values, saying we value safety and human life over the convenience of driving,” Locantore said.
The proposal comes four years into the Denver government’s five-year plan to eliminate traffic deaths in the city by 2030. The plan, Vision Zero, states reducing speed is a priority and cites a study that shows there is a 13% chance a pedestrian will be seriously injured or killed if struck by a car traveling 20 mph. That chance increases to 40% if the car is traveling at 40 mph.
If Kashmann’s proposal is successful, it will take the city between three and five years to swap out the more than 2,700 signs stating the speed limit is 25 mph, said Nancy Kuhn, spokeswoman for the Denver Department of Transportation and Infrastructure.
The department does not have an estimate on how much it will cost to replace the signs, nor does it have money earmarked to do that. Neighborhood streets are typically smaller streets without any yellow center lines.
Kashmann said reducing the speed limit is not a silver bullet and that further changes to street design are necessary.
Reducing speeds is the best way to reduce the risk and severity of injury on roads, said Wes Marshall, associate professor of civil engineering and affiliate professor in urban and regional planning at the University of Colorado Denver.
“Changing the speed limit is a baby step, but the reality is people drive the speed the road is designed for,” he said.
Factors like road width and whether there are cars parked along the street have a greater impact on how fast drivers go, Marshall said.
“We need to make it difficult to drive 20 or 25 mph, and that’s where we get the impacts,” he said.
The change in speed limit on neighborhood roads also would not affect the city’s most dangerous roadways — arterial streets like Federal Boulevard and Colfax Avenue. The city identified 123 miles of road on 27 corridors where 50% of traffic deaths occur, despite only comprising 5% of the city’s streets.
For Denver streets to be safer, the city needs to slow traffic on those roads, increase the number of protected bike lanes, improve sidewalks and make sure there are safe and convenient ways for pedestrians to cross roads, Marshall said.
That will take a cultural change that de-emphasizes vehicles and shifts traffic injuries and deaths from being seen as a cost of doing business to a significant health and safety concern that can be prevented, Marshall said.
“It comes down to our priorities,” he said. “We don’t feel like we can take away green time” — when vehicles are moving, not stopped — “from the cars, but that’s just a choice we make.”
Kashmann does not expect the change in the speed limit to lead to increased speed enforcement.
“It’s not going to be used as a trap to raise some money,” he said.
The proposal could be voted on by the City Council as early as January, Kashmann said.