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Planning Musings, Uncategorized

Lower Boston’s Speed Limit and Redesign the Streets


Painted bulb out on Hancock Street in Somerville shows how much space could be reclaimed to make the crossing shorter, safer, and discourage high speed turns.


This is the text of a letter I sent on August 30, 2018 to Boston City Councilors Frank Baker and Ed Flynn. Both Councilors announced earlier that week that they would like to investigate a 20 mph default speed limit in Boston.

When a driver struck and killed Colin McGrath a little over a month ago, you witnessed the support for safer streets emerge from community members roused to demand better. The 20 mph default speed limit that you have committed to investigating is an essential, but only partial, step to achieving safer streets and Vision Zero.

The AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety has long found that small increases in speed leads to serious injury and death for people struck by drivers.[1] As the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety reported this week, lowering the speed limit in Boston to 25 mph encouraged many drivers to slow down.[2] Crashes may still happen, but crashes at slower speeds results in fewer families who have to grapple with the tragedy of losing a loved one. Drivers benefit through increased capacity since more cars traveling at a slower speed can fit on the same street.

However, a lower speed limit is not enough. Many drivers will continue to exceed the speed limit, because they will rightly perceive that most roads were designed for a higher speed and the risk of enforcement is low. Consequently, we must accompany lower speed limits with these design changes:

1. Narrow Travel Lanes. West Broadway Street is about 55-ft. wide from curb to curb. With parallel parking on each side, that leaves two travel lanes that are over 20-ft. wide. The likelihood that a driver will travel 30 mph—let alone 25 or 20—on a lane that wide is low, especially when drivers regularly exceed 65 mph on 12-ft. wide interstate highway lanes. Countless examples of similarly overly wide streets exist throughout the City. Wider sidewalks, street trees, bus-only lanes, protected bike lanes, and the conversion of streets to two-way travel can all repurpose the excess space from these wide lanes and increase safety.

2. Convert One-Way Roads to Two-Way. Multi-lane, one-way roads are unfortunately common in Boston. These roads encourage drivers to pass each other at speeds that regularly exceed the posted limits, leading to fatal crashes. My brother and sister-in-law lost two childhood friends because two drivers were drag racing on the three lanes of Beacon Street in the Back Bay and collided, sending one car careening onto the sidewalk where it struck and killed them both.[3] A two-way Beacon Street would have helped to prevent this deadly behavior.

3. Implement Traffic Calming Measures. Bulb outs, wider sidewalks, raised intersections, rougher surfaces, chicanes, protected cycle tracks, and more should be in the default arsenal of the Boston Transportation Department (BTD) for calming traffic. All streetscape and resurfacing projects should implement these types of design changes to prevent speeding.

4. Redesign Intersections to Prioritize People. Fewer crosswalks undoubtedly allow drivers to travel faster through intersections, but a plan to save lives must prioritize the comfort of people on foot. Head from City Hall to the intersection of North Washington and Cooper streets and you will see that the design favors drivers at the expense of pedestrians who must zig-zag across at least six car lanes. BTD must redesign these types of intersections to both give people on foot a safe and direct way to cross the street and help to calm traffic.

5. Reconfigure Traffic Signals. Currently, synchronized traffic lights prioritize drivers by letting them pass through consecutive intersections without stopping. However, consecutive green lights also enable drivers to achieve and maintain unsafe speeds. BTD should instead follow the lessons of London, which aims to be the world’s most walkable city in part by reconfiguring these signals to prioritize people. Already, many intersections extend the walk sign when the system detects pedestrians. The City also plans to make walk signals the default status of traffic lights at intersections with high foot traffic, changing to green only when a driver approaches.[4] Both these changes would interrupt consecutive green lights thereby discouraging speeding.

6. Reclaim Street Space for People. Support initiatives like the Tontine Crescent Tactical Plaza that repurpose excess road space into pedestrian plazas, the new bus only lane on Washington Street in Roslindale, and the protected bike lane on Beacon Street. Not only do these initiatives signal that other users have equal claim to the public space, they also narrow travel lanes and make speeding more difficult.

7. Add Curbside Parking. Parked cars are a lifesaving barrier between drivers and people walking, but unfortunately BTD often forgoes on-street parking for an extra travel lane. Congress Street by Post Office Square is a three-lane, one-way street with no on-street parking. Adding on-street parking will not only help to control drag racing, but will also provide a protective barrier to prevent drivers from jumping the curb and killing people on the sidewalk.

Making our streets safer will require both lowering the speed limit and implementing the changes listed above. The list may appear daunting, but I know that you are both serious about stopping the killing of adults and children on our streets. I am also sending this letter to my Councilor and the Councilors-at-Large to urge them to support you in this initiative.


[1] Tefft, B.C. “Impact speed and a pedestrian’s risk of severe injury or death,” AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety, 2011.

[2] Cicchino, J.B. “Lowering the speed limit from 30 to 25 mph in Boston: effects on vehicle speeds,” Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, August 2018.

[3] Jacques N. and Siddiqui F. “Crash kills couple on a stroll in Back Bay,” The Boston Globe, 22 June 2014.

[4] “Walking action plan: Making London the world’s most walkable city,” Mayor of London and Transport for London, July 2018.




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