At City Council Hearing, Impassioned Appeals for Lower Speed Limits

City Council reps and members of the public spoke unanimously today in support of a bill to lower speed limits to a life-saving 20 miles per hour in neighborhoods citywide. But if the council adopts the measure, it will do so over the objection of DOT, which said the proposal would create conflicts with state law.

The family of Samuel Cohen Eckstein testified at today's hearing. Photo: @bradlander

During an emotional two-hour hearing, council members on the transportation committee heard from advocates, neighborhood groups, and individual citizens, virtually all of whom implored lawmakers to see the bill passed.

Proposed by Council Member David Greenfield, Intro 535 would require DOT to set speed limits no higher than 20 miles per hour, down from the current citywide 30 mph limit, “on all streets fewer than sixty feet wide in areas zoned for residential purposes.”

Kate Slevin, assistant commissioner for intergovernmental affairs, and Ryan Russo, assistant commissioner for traffic management, testified on behalf of DOT. Slevin said 20 mph speeds in tandem with other traffic-calming measures is not only “a common sense approach to saving lives,” it’s a required combination under state law. State traffic code allows New York City to set speeds from 15 to 24 miles per hour, Slevin said, only if other physical traffic-calming treatments are also implemented, or the street in question is within a quarter-mile of a school.

“Unfortunately, not every residential street is appropriate for speed bumps, roadway narrowing, or other traffic calming treatments,” said Slevin. “As such, DOT would be unable to comply with Intro 535 as currently drafted.” Slevin and Russo did not specify how DOT or state law define “other traffic calming treatments” — whether they include paint, for instance, or other low-cost improvements.

Slevin said that, instead of passing the Greenfield bill, the council might consider lobbying the state for permission to lower the speed limit citywide.

Committee Chair James Vacca told Slevin and Russo he is frustrated by the gradual pace of the Slow Zone rollout — the timetable for currently approved zones now stretches to 2016 — the limited number of approved zones, and the backlog of requested speed bumps. He pledged to push the next mayor to accelerate the implementation of Slow Zones, but in the meantime, Vacca asked if DOT could lower speeds on certain streets to 25 miles per hour. Slevin replied that DOT could do that, but said the department prefers a more holistic approach. Slevin said DOT meets frequently with other agencies, including the Department of Education, the Department of Health, and especially NYPD, to address traffic safety — a process Vacca said should be formalized.

Council Member Brad Lander requested that DOT provide information on what could be done to lower speeds under current law, including an analysis of streets that are now eligible for 20 miles per hour speeds.

Vacca and Lander acknowledged that NYPD, which did not send anyone to the hearing, does not prioritize traffic enforcement. Lander complained that offenses including speeding, red-light running, and failure to yield are rampant. Of NYPD’s enforcement stats, Lander said, “Anyone who took street safety seriously and believed in data would be appalled.”

“What you’re doing is good,” Vacca told Slevin and Russo, “but we want to expedite this citywide.”

Several times, Russo cited speed bumps as the most effective tool for slowing drivers. But Paul Steely White, executive director of Transportation Alternatives, said data from London and Portsmouth, England, show that lowering speed limits alone reduces crashes. White said that cities in Wyoming and South Carolina have default speed limits that are lower than that of New York City. “While we wait for enforcement,” said White, “we should get signage.”

Rather than lobbying Albany for permission to advance piecemeal measures such as speed cameras, red light cameras, and lower speed limits, White called for a blanket home rule that would allow NYC to set its own regulations to make streets safer. Vacca said he would support such a home rule — which, of course, would have to be approved by Albany.

The mother, father, and sister of Sammy Cohen Eckstein, who earlier this month was killed by the driver of a van in front of their home on Prospect Park West, spoke in favor of the bill. Amy Cohen said that from what the family knows, on the afternoon of October 8, Sammy went into the street, with the light in his favor, to retrieve a soccer ball. But the light changed before he could get back to the sidewalk, Sammy fell, and he was hit by the driver, who entered the crossing at full speed. “Our family has suffered an unspeakable loss,” said Cohen.

Gary Eckstein said that even with successful safety measures implemented by DOT, which include a protected bike lane, motorists routinely speed on Prospect Park West. During testimony that brought many in the room to tears, Eckstein and Cohen said that, while they don’t know if the driver who struck their son was speeding, data prove that lower speed limits reduce crashes and dramatically improve survival rates. Eckstein also called on NYPD and the mayor to prioritize speed enforcement.

“Please do whatever is necessary to bring this legislation to the full council, and pass it,” said Eckstein. “Soon.”

Advocates from Park Slope Neighbors, the Brooklyn Heights Association, and CHEKPEDS also testified for the bill.

Other than DOT staff, the only person to speak in opposition to Intro 535 was David Pollack, executive director of a taxi medallion leasing organization called the Committee for Taxi Safety. After paying his respects to the family of Sammy Cohen Eckstein, Pollack said lower speed limits on residential streets would “create confusion” for cab drivers. Lower speeds make streets less safe, Pollack said, warning that cab drivers would be distracted by new signage, rather than keeping their eyes on the road. Pollack said NYC speed enforcement is a revenue spigot, and that traffic tickets threaten cabbies’ licenses and livelihoods.

Under questioning from Greenfield, Pollack admitted he didn’t really know the particulars of the bill — he feared, for instance, that the speed limit on Second Avenue would be lowered, though that corridor would not meet the bill’s parameters. Greenfield noted that slower speeds would improve safety for cab drivers, their clients, and other street users — a point Pollack seemed to concede.

“It’s obvious the slower you go, the safer it’s going to be,” Pollack said.