Experts aim to dispel low-speed zone myths, a key hurdle to safer cities

Experts aim to dispel low-speed zone myths, a key hurdle to safer cities

Traffic crashes are a leading cause of death globally, especially among people ages 5 through 29 years old, and claim about 1.35 million lives each year. Speed often plays a key role, and managing speed is taking on heightened importance among city leaders.

Many safety advocates consider establishing low-speed zones to be an effective safety enhancement strategy. The World Resources Institute and World Bank Global Road Safety Facility published a Low-Speed Zone Guide this month to help community decision-makers plan, design, construct and evaluate vehicle speed interventions to improve safety. A second guide for policymakers, the Global Speed Management Guide, will also be released soon.

Global subject matter experts came together during a webinar Thursday to discuss the low-speed zone strategies, initiatives and barriers as part of the 6th UN Global Road Safety Week. 

Implementing physical traffic calming measures — medians, traffic circles and raised pedestrian islands, for example — and reducing speeds to 30 kilometers per hour (about 18 miles per hour) or lower are two of the most proven changes to improve safety, speakers said. “The number of lives that can be saved with relatively small reductions in speed is just mind boggling,” said Pablo Fajnzylber, World Bank acting vice president and director of strategy and operations, infrastructure.

Much of the success of a low-speed zone is in proper planning and design. Location is also an important consideration. Pedestrian-heavy areas such as school zones, commercial districts, tourist districts and areas around places of worship are generally suitable low-speed zones. Analyzing street features, width and the typical street user is an important planning step. 

City leaders often face pushback when trying to implement traffic-slowing initiatives, webinar speakers said. Sometimes it’s just the natural human resistance to change, while in some instances people believe myths that low-speed zone advocates hope to dispel in the guide. 

For example, the public sometimes perceives that reducing speeds will increase urban congestion. 

“That is not true, actually. If you reduce speed… in a city space, actually congestion is reduced,” said Ani Dasgupta, global director of the WRI Ross Center for Sustainable Cities. “Not only [do] we need to figure out ways to change practices and regulations, but also we have a job to change perceptions.”

Another listed myth is the belief that vehicles operate less efficiently at lower speeds and therefore emissions and pollution increase in low-speed zones. In fact, urban areas with higher speed limits usually experience stop-and-start traffic patterns from drivers’ rapid acceleration and deceleration, which consumes more fuel than traveling at a consistent, slower, steadier speed. Thus, planners should consider the type and spacing of physical traffic calming measures to allow drivers to maintain a steady speed, the guide says.

Webinar speakers emphasized the importance of stakeholder engagement for the greatest chance of success with speed-lowering initiatives. Stakeholders include residents, local businesses and institutions that would be affected by a low-speed zone. A large number of successful speed-lowering projects grew from grass-roots efforts in neighborhoods where residents themselves called for change.

Stakeholder engagement helps planners understand the community’s needs and the impact of low-speed zones on users to devise the best project design. It also aids community buy-in and project acceptance.

“What are the community values? Do they have the appetite for change? Each specific context will require a certain combination of design measures and appropriate speed targets,” said Nikita Luke, senior project associate for health and road safety at the Ross Center. “By engaging stakeholders you can get feedback about your construction plan, and it gives them an opportunity to feel involved. It gives them a platform to ask questions and concerns… and they feel comfortable about your project.”

Instances of speeding and speed-related accidents increased during the pandemic when fewer vehicles were on the roads. Some people question whether low-speed zones should be a focus during a global health crisis, but advocates say the sustained volume of speed-related deaths is its own health crisis. 

“We cannot continue putting pressure on our family health system by sending people that are severely injured in traffic crashes… [W]e cannot allow humanity to continue losing that human capital,” said Claudia Adriazola-Steil, the Ross Center’s acting director of urban mobility. “Speed [reduction] can be an action that can be taken fairly quickly and can save lives by the hundreds, by the thousands, by the hundreds of thousands.”

Greater economic benefits also can result from speed-lowering initiatives. The report cites a near doubling of pedestrian flow and 150% increase in retail sales when Mexico City’s Madero Street transformed into a pedestrian street. Similar economic benefits occurred after speed-lowering features were added and the speed limit was set at 30 kilometers per hour during a street revitalization in Shanghai, China.

But just implementing measures isn’t enough to achieve maximum results, speakers said. Enforcement is a crucial element to get the idea to take hold. 

“We have to introduce speeding limits. We have to create infrastructure that slows people down. We have to enforce the speeding rules… It’s really down to us in government to set the ground rules,” said Matthew Baldwin, European Commission coordinator for road safety and sustainable urban mobility.

“It was the same with drinking and driving, which was deeply accepted and carried out until it started to be enforced, and it became a social stigma to drink and drive. We have to do the same with speed.”

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