Boston Proposal to Lower Speed Limit Takes First Step

A city councilor wants to lower the speed limit on city streets from 30 mph to 20 mph.

On Monday, Boston took the first step toward slowing traffic on its streets when Dorchester City Councilor Frank Baker filed a home rule petition to give the city the power to set its own speed limit.

If a municipal street does not have a posted speed limit sign, the speed is automatically set at 30 miles per hour by state law and cannot be raised or lowered. Baker’s petition calls for giving Boston the authority to set the speed limit on city streets at 20 miles per hour where there is no sign and 15 miles per hour in school zones. The petition, if approved by the council and signed by the mayor, requires a vote on Beacon Hill before becoming law.

When presenting the proposal, Baker said the city does have the power to set speed limits on individual roads, but to do so requires extensive study and the posting of a sign, something that he deemed too tedious and burdensome to do on all of the city’s streets.

I believe this measure will complement the mayor’s adoption of Vision Zero and Complete Streets policies as it will reduce the overall speeds of vehicles, raise public safety, and improve the quality of life for residents,” said Baker in the council chambers.

Vision Zero and Complete Streets are urban planning policies Boston has adopted that aim to make city streets safer, more multi-modal, and less car-oriented. The city announced in December that it will lower the speed limit to 20 miles per hour and install traffic calming measures in sections of Dorchester and Jamaica Plain as a pilot launch of Vision Zero’s Neighborhood Slow Streets policy.

Several councilors joined Baker in support of the home rule petition, saying that the number one complaint they hear from residents is about cars driving too quickly on city streets.

Hyde Park City Councilor Tim McCarthy said that a police officer once demonstrated what 30 miles per hour is like when you’re a pedestrian on the side of the road. He said it was not a fun experience.

“If you’re standing on the edge of the road and an LTD Crown Vic flies by at 30 miles per hour, you might as well be at NASCAR,” McCarthy said.

He also pointed out that the last time they pushed for something like this on Beacon Hill, the committee chair they dealt with was from Ludlow, and, well, Ludlow is very different from Boston. The city, he said, should be able to set its own rules on speed limits because a universal approach doesn’t work.

“If you’re only going 20 miles per hour in Ludlow, it will probably take you a few days to get out of Ludlow. In our city, 20 miles per hour is plenty fast,” said McCarthy.

Roxbury City Councilor Tito Jackson suggested this proposal could lead to the creation of other traffic calming measures such as elevated sidewalks and improved crosswalks to deter drivers from traveling at high speed.

After the meeting, Baker echoed Jackson and said he hopes the proposal leads to physical changes on city streets because “people think they have a right to fly down our streets.”

“People are concerned more about their vehicle than they are about hitting somebody and killing somebody. Of course, if they hit somebody, they’re concerned then, but they don’t ever think they’re going to hit somebody,” Baker said.

He said the proposal is important, too, because this is something Boston should have control over, not the state.

“This is a thing we should be able to control on our own as the city of Boston, the main economic generator for the state. We should have more say in what we do here,” Baker said.

In a statement, Mayor Marty Walsh said he looks forward to reviewing the proposal.

“Lowering speed limits is one of many tools we are looking at through our Vision Zero action plan to create safer streets in Boston. I look forward to reviewing Councilor Baker’s proposal,” Walsh said.