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Transportation and Mobility

After Years Of ‘Speed Creep,’ LA Is Lowering Speed Limits. Here’s Where And When

A speed feedback sign stationed on a street next to a police motorcycle shows a speed limit of 35 miles per hour and reads "slow down."
(Courtesy LAPD West Traffic via Twitter)
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Los Angeles drivers will soon see new reminders to slow down on some of the city's busiest roadways.

Mayor Eric Garcetti has signed an ordinance that will bring speed limits down by 5 miles per hour on about 177 miles of city streets.

"If you grew up in this city thinking that only cars are king and that we need to get wherever we need to get as fast as possible, we know the tragic human consequence of that," Garcetti said before signing the ordinance Monday. "But we know today that things are changing, where we understand that streets are to be shared."

The ordinance, passed by the City Council last month, marks a break from a decades-old policy set by a state rule that forced L.A. and other cities to raise speed limits in order to enforce them.

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That method, called the 85th percentile rule, dictates that a roadway’s speed limit should be based on the speed that 85% of people drive at or below, rounded to the nearest interval of five. Put another way, the 15% of drivers going the fastest get to set the pace on local streets.

Raising speed limits leads people to drive even faster, which means the next speed survey records higher speeds, which means the next speed limit is set even higher. This “speed creep” has created deadly conditions on city streets, said Dan Mitchell, chief engineer for the L.A. Department of Transportation:

“When people are traveling faster, the time they have to make decisions is less because they travel further in that reaction time [and] their vision is more narrow… the faster they go, the more significant impact it means and to put it simply, more people are seriously injured and killed when people are driving faster.”

An estimated 294 people were killed in traffic collisions on L.A. streets in 2021, according to preliminary city data. That’s the highest annual death toll since 2003. Nearly 1,480 people were seriously injured in crashes last year.

Traffic violence continues to grow despite the city’s Vision Zero program, which has a goal to eliminate traffic deaths by 2025. Community activists, safety experts and city leaders say the 85th percentile rule undermines efforts to make streets safer.

But AB 43, signed by Gov. Gavin Newsom, is now in effect, and it gives California cities more control to set speed limits based on safety concerns and other road users — not just the flow of car traffic.

A provision in the bill allows cities to reduce speed limits on streets where speeds were recently raised, but by no more than 5 mph. In the past several years, the city of L.A. raised speed limits on about 200 miles of its streets. The new provision will allow the city to revert to the previous speed limits on about 177 miles (the other street sections no longer qualify, due to travel lanes being added or inconsistencies in speed surveys).

The list of street sections where speed limits will go down, compiled by LADOT, includes major corridors throughout the city, including portions of Sepulveda Boulevard, Normandie Avenue, Olympic Boulevard, San Fernando Road, Reseda Boulevard, Broadway and Venice Boulevard.

It’ll be a few weeks before LADOT begins posting the new, reduced speed limit signage. With Garcetti's signature, the ordinance will take effect in about a month. Mitchell said the department is “going to hit it hard” as they begin working to post the new speed limits.

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Drivers have a grace period to adjust to lower speed limits. AB 43 says police can only issue warning citations for the first 30 days after the new speed limits are put in place.

The reductions account for a small portion of the city’s more than 7,500 miles of streets. According to LADOT, 37% of the streets with reduced speed limits are part of the High-Injury Network. That’s the small portion of L.A. street miles with the highest number of traffic deaths, particularly pedestrians and cyclists.

Speaking at the signing ceremony Monday, LADOT Director Seleta Reynolds acknowledged that some safety advocates have criticized the ordinance as "incrementalism" that doesn't go far enough to address the root causes of traffic violence.

"I would say that's true, but this is the type of incrementalism that sets off an absolute paradigm shift," Reynolds said, adding:

What it says is that people who live in a community, people who live in a neighborhood, people who experience the consequences of being near fast streets, they are the ones who ought to be consulted first. They are the experts who know best. And we now are able to — as professionals and leaders and practitioners — say yes, we agree with you. And we are going to keep the speed limits at levels where... when people make mistakes, when crashes occur, that the cost is not a human life.

For Yolanda Davis-Overstreet, vice president of the West Adams Neighborhood Council and chair of its public safety committee, bringing speed limits down is a key piece of the effort to save lives “predominantly in our Black and Brown and low-income communities.”

Davis-Overstreet, a longtime West Adams resident and advocate for mobility justice, said it’s also important to raise awareness in communities for the need to reduce speed limits.

"I think that would also be a great thing to do as the signs go up, to actually coordinate and organize events around it, because then it begins to explain what the signage and the speed change has to do with their lives,” she said. “At the end of the day, it could be your kids, it could be your son or your daughter, or your grandmother or father that is taken.”

Officials hope to bring speed limits down on more city streets, but that could take a while. The new law requires the state to develop a web portal to adjudicate the cost of a ticket for low-income drivers by the end of June 2024. Caltrans is also working to establish a standard for determining “safety corridors,” a standard that must be met to qualify for lower speed limits.

Is More Enforcement The Answer?

An LAPD police officer points a radar gun at oncoming traffic while standing behind his black-and-white, which is parked at the side of the road perpendicular to the road. A grey pickup truck has just driven past the officer.
Courtesy LAPD via Twitter

That’s where things gets murky.

Police traffic stops are a charged subject, and for plenty of historically valid reasons. We know Black and Brown motorists are more likely to be stopped and searched for traffic violations. Black pedestrians in L.A. are also cited at much higher rates for so-called “jaywalking” infractions. Policing movement has led to inequities that city leaders have said they want to rectify. Will increasing speeding enforcement work against that?

But if speeding goes unchecked, how will lowering the speed limits improve safety, especially in communities where people of color are disproportionately killed and injured in crashes?

For Davis-Overstreet, education and community engagement are key to improving street safety. She said police enforcement should be the “last resort,” but feels it’s necessary “for those that continue to speed and do hit and runs and take the lives of our children and our elders and our unhoused.”

Some U.S. cities have explored alternatives to police-based traffic enforcement, including posting more signage to make drivers more aware of speed limits. Some cities have also installed automated speed cameras to issue citations without the need for a traffic stop.

Streets are there for human beings, not just for cars... the practices that we have of educating and engineering and enforcing safety on our streets is something that we all must embrace.
— L.A. Mayor Eric Garcetti

Enforcement does have an effect on street safety, but according to safety advocates and LADOT officials, meaningful progress on traffic violence requires the city to rethink and redesign streets for all road users after decades of prioritizing driver convenience.

“The impact of trying to accommodate the way people want to drive has had deadly results,” Mitchell said, explaining that making streets wider and faster for drivers also made them “less and less livable” for people in communities along those streets.

“Our focus before was the peak hour traffic — those few hours when the most people want to drive, that we should have as many lanes as possible and try to accommodate that,” he said. "And instead we realized that the other 18 hours of the day, that creates a very hostile environment for everyone else.”

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