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Interview with Bill Kelly

You may have heard that the city of Houston has some legislative business to take care of this session. Most notably, the city wants to get a bill passed to implement its pension reform plans, which may or may not have been complicated by the news that a vote could be required for the city to float pension obligation bonds. The person who is on point for this, to work with legislators to lobby for city issues and get the legislation it wants passed while stopping the legislation it doesn’t want passed is Bill Kelly, the Director of Government Relations under Mayor Sylvester Turner. I spoke to Kelly about his work in Austin, on topics ranging from pensions and “sanctuary cities” to speed limits and pipe bombs – yes, pipe bombs – and what the city’s goals are for each. We referenced a few links in our conversation, which include:

The Kinder Institute study on pension funds.
The City of Houston Legislative Priorities and the City of Houston Legislative Principles for the 85th Legislature.

With all that said, here’s what Bill and I talked about:

I’ve got a few more of these interviews about issues in the Legislature to do. I hope you find them useful.

More speed bumps coming

Like ’em or not.

Houston officials are speeding up the process of slowing down residential street traffic.

A laborious process to improve traffic and safety by installing traffic calming devices such as speed humps is radically streamlined in a new method by the city’s public works department, unveiled Monday at a City Council committee meeting. Council members applauded the change.

“I am doing the happy dance here,” said District K Councilman Larry Green, whose southwest Houston area has some of the neighborhoods that have waited the longest for relief from speeding cars.

In the future, with demand for speed humps high in many areas, public works will no longer require traffic and speed analyses, Public Works Deputy Director Jeff Weatherford said.

“We believe all local neighborhood streets should automatically qualify for speed control if they want it,” Weatherford said, citing overwhelming evidence that pedestrians and bicyclists are safer with lower residential street speeds.

The change would only apply to residential streets, where speed humps are practical, and not thoroughfares that carry far higher volumes of traffic.

[…]

In the past, neighbors upset at a cumbersome city process left dissatisfied, especially when the analysis found they didn’t have a speeding issue. Residents would then frequently ask public works to assess the traffic volume, which would start the process over again.

When requests from residents come to public works in the future, staff will analyze the neighborhood and then deliver their recommendations to the district council member for the area.

Pending approval from the council member, public works will then coordinate construction of the speed humps. Plans are devised for entire neighborhoods, often a 10- to 20-square block area between two major streets. Public works will normally consider streets best suited for traffic calming, then locate humps, medians and other features where appropriate to control speed.

District D Councilman Dwight Boykins noted the city successfully dealt with fast-moving vehicles crashing in a curve in a residential area by placing the humps not at the curve, but leading to it.

Under the old way, however, that process often took nine months to complete. The new method that reduces studies decreases it to six to eight weeks, but it also puts a lot more responsibility in the hands of council members, [CM Ellen] Cohen said.

I confess, I hate these things. I hate driving over them, and will go out of my way to avoid them. But I understand why we have them, and I’ve seen more than enough jackwads doing in excess of 40 on residential streets to accept them without complaint. Well, OK, with a bit of whining, but without any expectation of sympathy. If we want safer streets and fewer traffic fatalities – and we do, or at least we should – then this is a part of that. I’ll just have to suck it up.

Houston Tomorrow presents its Vision Zero plan

Here you go.

Following other “vision zero” programs nationally, Houston Tomorrow encouraged officials – especially Houston lawmakers – to crack down on speeding and distracted driving while investing more in rebuilding streets so that vehicles can share them safely with pedestrians, cyclists and other users.

“Vision Zero does not discriminate based on how you choose to get around,” the report’s authors said. “We want people riding in cars to be safe. We want everyone to be able to ride their bike to work safely. We want people walking around town without risk of losing their life or someone they love.”

Among the 10 largest U.S. cities, Houston and other southern cities where car travel is more common have a far higher incidence of traffic fatalities – a figure that includes drivers, vehicle passengers, pedestrians and cyclists. In 2014, 227 people were killed in Houston in traffic-related incidents. New York, despite having 6.2 million more residents, reported 269 fatalities.

“Almost as many people die on the streets of the City of Houston as are murdered each year,” the report read. “Our response to this shocking statistic should be simple: We must treat traffic deaths in the Houston region as seriously as we treat homicide, as a major public health and security crisis.”

Here’s the full plan, here’s the executive summary, and here’s Houston Tomorrow’s announcement. I’ve written about Vision Zero, for here and elsewhere, several times. The figure Houston Tomorrow cites for the 13-county greater Houston area is 667 deaths for 2014; there were also 135,170 total crashes and 3,468 incapacitating injuries. For Houston, those 2014 numbers are 60,472 crashes, 1,222 injuries, and 227 deaths. They didn’t include a figure for all of Harris County, which I think would be useful, but at a guess I’d say 400 to 450 deaths. I’d bet that the total number of Harris County traffic fatalities exceeded the total number of Harris County homicide victims.

Some parts of what Houston Tomorrow is calling for is already in the works. Complete Streets, coupled with the ongoing work of ReBuild Houston, will accomplish a lot to improve road safety. Some of what they want will require changes to city ordinances and/or state laws, and some of those things, like texting-while-driving bans and reduced speed limits, will cause a fight. And some of what they want will involve more enforcement of existing laws – speeding, running red lights, the 3 foot rule for bikes, etc. Mostly, they emphasize the need for better metrics. You have to be able to measure something accurately to know how it is trending and whether any of the things you are trying to do about it are having an effect. Read the report and see what you think.

San Antonio implements Vision Zero

Good for them.

Tuesday marked the official launch of San Antonio’s Vision Zero, a multi-national awareness and educational initiative that calls for zero traffic fatalities. It’s a lofty goal, but proponents of the plan say these deaths, especially those of pedestrians, are preventable accidents that can be systematically addressed with infrastructure and safety education.

Last year 54 pedestrians were killed while walking in San Antonio, an average of one death per week. To pay tribute to those individuals, 54 people stood on the steps of City Hall as Mayor Ivy Taylor, Council members, and City staff launched the initiative.

“We suffer human losses because of culture and public policy decisions that have resulted in the built environment we have today,” said Councilmember Shirley Gonzales (D5), who has long advocated for more City investment in complete street, or multimodal, infrastructure and led the Council’s backing of Vision Zero.

According to the ethos of Vision Zero, individuals and roadway design should share the burden of ensuring safe passage. Priority is often given to vehicles, leaving pedestrians and cyclists to fend for themselves in an environment built for tires and steel.

“We have a high number of traffic fatality rates because we have a fundamentally dangerous environment,” Gonzales said.

Aside from infrastructure like better sidewalks and safer street crossings, the City is looking into reducing speed limits to create a safer environment for those walking and bicycling.

“We’ve made and continue to make policy decisions and direct City staff to construct projects that keep everyone and every mode of transportation in mind,” Mayor Taylor said.

See here, here, and here for some background, and here for the city’s official plan. The basic idea here is that the way our streets are constructed now, it’s dangerous for anyone who isn’t in a car, and this is reflected in the number of accidents and fatalities involving pedestrians and bicyclists. This doesn’t have to be the way things are, it’s the way we currently choose to do them. If we do them differently, and think in terms of everyone who uses the streets and not just the cars, we could have fewer accidents and fewer deaths. That seems like a worthy goal, no? I look forward to seeing what kind of results they get, because that is how this will ultimately be judged. The Current has more, and you can sign petitions to bring this to Houston and Austin if you are so inclined. Streetsblog has more.

Allen Parkway 2.0

Changes are a-comin’.

Lane closings are scheduled to start soon along Allen Parkway – slowing traffic – so workers can complete a redesign of the road – meant to slow traffic.

The long-planned overhaul, which will add parking along Buffalo Bayou’s popular trail system and improve connections between the parkway and intersecting streets, starts next Monday, officials with the Houston Downtown Redevelopment Authority said. Work on the $11 million redesign should conclude before the Free Press Summer Festival at Eleanor Tinsley Park in late May or early June.

In the interim, motorists on the parkway will have fewer lanes in some places and will lose access to certain streets for a few weeks. The payoff, eventually, will be a much better, slower parkway, officials said.

“For us this project has been about safe access and parking,” said Ryan Leach, executive director of the downtown redevelopment authority. “Safety was foremost in our minds and getting access to this great asset we have been building for the past few years.”

Joggers and cyclists now must make a mad dash from one side of the parkway to the other.

“It’s Frogger,” said Cliff Eason, 30, comparing the trip to a video game.

[…]

By the time thousands descend on the music festival – which downtown officials said will return to the bayou from its site this year at NRG Park – the parkway will be a parkway again. It will still have three traffic lanes in each direction, but with wider, tree-lined medians and improved pedestrian crossings at Taft, Gillette and Dunlavy. A special pedestrian crossing signal will be installed at Park Vista Drive, making it much easier to access Buffalo Bayou and the park and trail system from south of the parkway.

City officials say the changes are vital to make the most of the bayou park system and to return Allen Parkway to its intended purpose as a slow drive. As changes were made over the years to help facilitate automobile traffic, many drivers got into the habit of speeding up.

Drivers on the road commonly exceed the 40 mph posted limit. A number of high-profile crashes also have occurred on the road, including a 2009 crash that killed lawyer John O’Quinn. Investigators said O’Quinn was speeding on the rain-slicked street and he and a passenger, Johnny Lee Cutliff, were not wearing seat belts. Cutliff also died in the accident.

In addition to crossings and intersection changes, the project will add another critical component for access to the park: parking. By shifting the parkway south – eliminating a frontage road that runs along the eastbound lanes – officials are adding 149 diagonal parking spaces along the bayou trail.

See here for some background. Swapping the little-used service road for parking makes a lot of sense, given how much the trails and the dog park have become a destination. I’m never crazy about adding traffic lights in this town, but I can’t argue with the one at Dunlavy. I don’t know that lowering the posted speed from 40 to 35 will actually slow things down – I think there would need to be a steady presence of traffic cops writing tickets to make that happen – but again given the presence of a lot of non-car traffic, that makes sense. As the story notes, the total time added for a trip all the way from Kirby to downtown at 35 instead of 40 is less than a minute. Surely we can all live with that.

Pushing for Vision Zero

Jay Crossley opines in the Chron for a lower speed limit in Houston.

Texas law requires a 30 mph speed limit in the city of Houston on local residential streets unless a different speed limit is posted. If you are walking and are hit by a car traveling 30 mph, you have a 60 percent chance of survival, while at 20 mph, you have a 95 percent chance of survival. In the legislative session that just ended earlier this month, Houston Tomorrow worked on SB 1717 with the city of Houston Public Works and Engineering Department and Houston state Sen. Rodney Ellis to change the local street speed limit to 25 mph and allow the city to use 20 mph where appropriate. Unfortunately, the bill was never taken up for consideration by the Senate Transportation Committee.

[…]

We need streets and sidewalks designed for little boys doing what little boys do. Two urban road safety approaches address this need. The Complete Streets concept, which the city has embraced, is the idea that all Houstonians matter – whether they’re in cars, on two wheels or on foot. And it’s a crucial element of Vision Zero, a multinational road-safety project. Specifically, it is the idea that we should design, allocate funding and build our transportation system for the safety and comfort of all users, regardless of age, ability or mode of transport.

[…]

We must treat traffic deaths in the Houston region as the public health crisis it is.

Cities around the world are taking a comprehensive approach to bringing the number of people who die on the streets to zero. New York City, Seattle, Chicago, Los Angeles, Portland, San Francisco, Boston, San Jose and Austin are all committed to Vision Zero. While we have made progress on bicycle deaths with the Goal Zero bicycle safety program, Houston is now the largest city in America without a Vision Zero plan that would attempt to eliminate traffic deaths for people using all modes of travel.

The Houston region’s 134 mayors should commit to Vision Zero by the end of this year, starting with Houston Mayor Annise Parker. And every Houston mayoral candidate should commit to pursuing this vision and making serious progress over the next six years. This crisis will not be fixed overnight, but we can begin making progress immediately.

See here for some background on Vision Zero, whose goals were just approved by the US Conference of Mayors. Crossley is not the first person to call for this in Houston, though I couldn’t say how much traction the idea has gotten. Part of the Bike Plan that the city is currently working on includes Goal Zero Fatalities, which doesn’t specify a speed limit but does call for creating “streets that encourage safe speeds”.

You may be wondering what all the fuss is about. This would be the reason.

Crashes involving a motorist and a pedestrian or bicyclist have jumped 63 percent here since 2010, contributing to more than 220 related deaths, and Houston has the dubious distinction of leading the state in such accidents.

More than 4,000 wrecks between motorists and pedestrians or bicyclists were recorded in Houston city limits from 2010 to June 2015, according to data obtained from the Texas Department of Transportation. Austin places second with a little more than 2,580.

Motorist-pedestrian collisions saw the largest increase, according to the data, jumping 71 percent since 2010.

The string of fatal crashes here in the past month alone has motivated local enthusiasts to demand that city leaders fulfill their promises to provide safer roadways.

[…]

The recent uptick in fatal crashes is significant for Houston, which has reported an average of five fatal bicyclist accidents per year in city limits since 2010.

“It’s unusual, and that’s very concerning,” said Michael Payne, BikeHouston executive director. “These weren’t accidents caused by reckless cyclists or cyclists who were drinking. These were cyclists who were obeying the law.”

Payne says the city needs to get serious about reducing collisions for pedestrians and people who ride bicycles. In 2014, the city recognized a need for improved cyclist safety and partnered with Payne and BikeHouston to launch a major bike safety campaign designed to enforce road safety.

That’s an awful lot of death and injury to pedestrians and bicyclists. Yes, sometimes it is the fault of the pedestrian or bicyclist, but let’s be real here: The automobile always wins these collisions, and the person not in the vehicle pays a vastly disproportionate share of the price for it. Surely we can do better than this, and yes, it’s something the Mayoral candidates ought to be speaking about.

One way to lower speed limits

Purple City makes an interesting observation.

One of the quieter actions of the late Parker administration has been to slowly alter speed limits from 35 or 40mph to 30mph. These reductions aren’t based on an engineering study or field measurements, but on a creative interpretation of state law. Texas sets the default urban speed limit at 30mph in lieu of a study justifying higher speeds. The City is interpreting that to post 30 on roadways which were formerly determined to be safe at 35 or 40.

I first began to notice this about a year ago, and had it confirmed by sources within PWE last summer. Thus far, it seems to be restricted to thoroughfares inside the Loop. The existing signage is allowed to disappear (through collisions, failure, theft, etc). When most of the old 35/40 is gone, the road is re-signed at 30. This provides a more gradual transition period than simply changing the signs out overnight.

Recently, I noticed that all of the 35mph signage is missing between Allen Parkway and IH-10.

He’s got a Google Maps image with the various sections of Studemont/Montrose highlighted to show what the speed limit is on each. It’s signed for 35 between Allen Parkway and Westheimer, but either signed for 30 or not signed elsewhere. Unless the next Mayor changes direction, my guess is that at some point in the not too distant future, this road will have a 30 MPH speed limit all the way.

And you know what? That’s just fine. Twenty-five years ago, when there was little retail or residential development north of Westheimer, a 35 MPH speed limit was reasonable. Nowadays, with pedestrians and bikes and cars slowing down to turn into driveways and side streets, a slower speed makes a lot more sense. Slower speeds save lives, and the streets in Houston’s dense urban areas aren’t just for cars any more. We should be updating the speed limits on these streets to reflect that.

2015 Mayoral manifesto: Transportation

Preliminaries

Please note that I have called this part of my manifesto “Transportation” and not “Traffic”. I agree that traffic sucks and that the Mayoral candidates ought to have some ideas for how to deal with it. It’s my opinion that the best answers involve providing as many viable alternatives to getting into the car and contributing to the problem as possible. I believe a lot of progress on this has been made under Mayor Parker, but there’s a lot of unfinished business, a lot of business that’s just getting started, and a lot of business that hasn’t started or may not even be on the drawing board yet, but needs to be. I’ve got a lot of ground to cover, so let’s get started.

Metro

The reclamation and revitalization of Metro has been one of Mayor Parker’s greatest successes. That agency was a dumpster fire when she took office – I had no idea how far off track it had gotten. It was Mayor Parker’s appointment of a stellar Metro Board and their subsequent tabbing of George Greanias as CEO/general fix-it man that started the salvation process and got us to where we are now, on the cusp of the last two rail lines opening, the bus reimagining, the marginal sales tax revenue collection, and the generally restored trust in the agency by stakeholders and the public. All Mayors get to appoint their own Metro boards. It should be a priority for all of the Mayoral candidates to ensure they appoint a Board as good as this one has been, and to build on the good work they have done.

Rail

As noted, by the time the next Mayor is inaugurated, all of the current Metro rail construction (with the exception of the Harrisburg line overpass and extension) will be done. With the Universities line in limbo, you’d think that might be the end of rail construction for the foreseeable future, but that’s far from the case. The Uptown BRT line is expected to be operational by mid-2017. There are three commuter rail lines under discussion, one of which – the US90A Southwest Rail Corridor (SWRC) line – was included in the 2003 Metro referendum and which was moving forward as recently as 2012 before being put on hold while the other lines were being finished. Another proposed commuter rail line, along the 290 corridor, would connect to the Uptown BRT line and might wind up sharing space, if not tracks, with the proposed Houston to Dallas high-speed rail line. That privately-financed venture, which is undergoing environmental review and discussion with potentially affected communities, is still seeking a terminus in Houston, and while downtown is preferred it presents some big challenges. One possible solution to that might be to have it end at the Northwest Transit Center, and connect to a light rail line that would need to be built and which could be shared with that 290 corridor commuter line. It’s hard to know how much of this might happen – very little is set in stone, and much could change, or could just not come about – but the potential is there for a lot more rail to be built, and while the Mayor would not be directly involved in any of this, it’s fair to say that he could have an impact on the outcome if he wanted to. For that matter, who’s to say that the Universities line couldn’t move forward someday? I want a Mayor that’s willing and able to advocate for and abet these projects.

Bicycles

As has been noted several times, Houston is a much more bike-friendly city now than it was a few years ago. We have a growing bike share program, an extensive and also growing network of off-road bike trails, a pioneer dedicated on-road bike lane downtown to help connect one trail to another, a local safe passing ordinance with a more comprehensive plan for bike safety in the works, and we have tweaked parking requirement regulations to enable bike parking. But as with rail, with all that progress there is much to be done. Most of the bike trail work has yet to be done; for the work that has been enabled by the passage of a bill making CenterPoint rights of way available as bike paths, it’s still in the conceptual stage. B-Cycle has been a big success but some kiosks are more successful than others, and it’s all still within biking distance of downtown. Moving it farther out, and integrating it more tightly with existing and future transit should be on the to do list. And of course, better connecting people to the present and future bike infrastructure, perhaps via Neighborhood Greenways or something similar, needs to be on it as well. More people on bikes means fewer people in cars. Surely that will help ease traffic woes a bit.

Pedestrians and sidewalks

Again, there is progress here, with Complete Streets and a focus on making residential streets more residential. But Houston is a dangerous place to walk, and a lot of streets have no sidewalks or essentially useless sidewalks. Improving the pedestrian experience is key to making transit more attractive. Improving pedestrian safety may require lowering speed limits. What do our Mayoral hopefuls think about these things?

Roads

So, um, what’s going on with ReBuild Houston? It would be nice to get some clear direction, and a lot more regular information, on that. Beyond that, all I really care about is keeping an eye on TxDOT and making sure they don’t do anything too destructive to existing infrastructure and neighborhoods in their quest to do something with I-45. The next Mayor needs to stay on top of that and do whatever it takes to prevent anything bad from happening.

That’s my view of transportation issues. What would you add to this list?

How does a 25 MPH speed limit for downtown Houston grab you?

Christopher Andrews makes the case in Gray Matters:

Does anyone know the speed limit in downtown Houston? Probably not. Casual observation shows speeds there normally range anywhere from gridlock to Gran Prix.

I don’t believe there are any speed-limit signs. But there is a speed limit. And no, it’s not “however fast you can drive between lights.” According to Section 45-91 of the City of Houston Code of Ordinances, in the absence of speed-limit signs, the speed limit is 30 miles per hour, just like any other local street in our city.

Until recently, 30 mph was also the local speed limit in New York City. But on November 7, New York City’s speed limits dropped to 25 mph, unless posted otherwise. This was part of New York’s Vision Zero initiative aimed ending traffic deaths and injuries — including the deaths and injuries of pedestrians.

[…]

It’s easy to make the case that Houston needs to slow down. Recent studies show that among large cities, Houston ranks above average for bicycle and pedestrian deaths, and that our average number of such deaths has risen. As Houston grows denser, and as more people choose to walk or bike here, that danger will naturally grow. Complete Streets — those new-style streets built with pedestrian-friendly wide sidewalks, street trees and other amenities — are great. But they’re not safe when drivers speed right through them.

Andrews’ original post is here. He references this Vox post about New York City’s Vision Zero initiative and the experience of London, which has lowered speed limits in some parts of town and seen a significant drop in accidents and fatalities as a result. This idea of lower municipal speed limits has an advocate in San Antonio, which I noted here. Another idea that has been proposed here for increasing pedestrian and bicyclist safety is Neighborhood Greenways, which aims to leverage side streets as a way of connecting neighborhoods to off-road hike and bike trails. That idea would be a complement to lower speed limits, not an alternative to them, so doing both is an option as well. Yet a third idea is making lane widths narrower. Michael Skelly advocated for that in a recent op-ed.

Every few years, the city of Houston revises its “Infrastructure Design Manual” to make sure it’s up to date. Public Works is reviewing its current standard of 12 foot-wide lanes. It’s time to put to work the free lessons being learned around the country and reduce the standard lane width to 10 feet.

You’d think that there’s not a lot new in road design – but you’d be wrong. Over the past decade, cities have figured out that one of the smartest things we can do is narrow traffic lanes – often from 12 feet to 10 feet. Reducing lane width reduces road fatalities, makes cities more walkable, saves precious real estate and gets us more bang for our limited tax dollars.

Cities like Chicago have figured out that drivers don’t respond to posted speed limits, but rather to conditions around them. The most effective way to influence driver behavior is by modifying those conditions.

When faced with a wide-open road, even if it’s in urban Midtown, drivers hit the gas. When conditions are more complicated, as when other cars are close by, cars are parallel-parked and pedestrians are out and about, studies show that drivers naturally slow down. You can see this difference yourself next time you find yourself driving quickly down Travis through Midtown or easing off the gas on Heights Boulevard. The former is treated like a speedway by most drivers, and the latter has slower, more cautious traffic. Lower speeds mean fewer, less deadly accidents. Speed matters. Pedestrians hit by a car going 30 mph vs. 20 mph are seven to 10 times more likely to die. The severity of automobile accidents increases dramatically with increases in speed.

There is simply no need for outsized 12-foot lanes. The iconic Texas Suburban has actually shrunk from 79.6 inches in width in 1973 to 79.1 inches today. Buses are wide, but cities around the country manage just fine with 10-foot lanes. And let’s not forget that for a bus system to work, we need safe sidewalks and a walkable environment to allow folks to walk safely to the bus stop.

I can’t say that I’d expect any lower speed limit proposal to be popular in Houston, at least at first, but all of these ideas deserve consideration. There’s a petition in support of ten-foot lanes, if you want to sign it. What do you think?

Speed limits and pedestrian fatalities

Here’s a topic that won’t be the least bit controversial, I’m sure.

The New York City Vision Zero goal is simple and precise: to end traffic deaths and injuries on city streets. This is not a mere sound bite in New York City. Mayor Bill de Blasio launched his Vision Zero initiative before he took office and is moving the transportation safety work started by his predecessors, Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Transportation Commissioner Janette Sadik-Kahn.

Polly Trottenberg, the current New York City Transportation Commissioner, was an opening speaker at the inaugural Vision Zero for Cities Symposium in mid-November where she restated her commitment to safety for all transportation modes, including walking and cycling.

The symposium, organized by Transportation Alternatives, brought together 300 government and non-government participants from dozens of cities across the U.S. and the world. Transportation Alternatives is a grassroots organization that has worked for decades to improve cycling and walking safety in New York City. It reached a major milestone in 2013 when the city adopted the Vision Zero Action Plan. The 10-year plan sets a high bar through better street design and changing road user behavior. The details are as complex and comprehensive as you might expect for a plan that will create sweeping cultural and engineering changes to the nation’s largest city, but it is built on two fundamental principles: Reduce the chance of collisions and reduce injury by reducing speed.

The myths about New York City transportation safety defy the facts. A popular myth is that New York streets are dangerous, but the fact is their streets are far safer than San Antonio’s streets. In 2012, there were 268 deaths from traffic violence in New York City. Of those, 127 pedestrians and cyclists were killed. During the same period, San Antonio traffic fatalities per capita were 297% that of New York City, and pedestrian/cyclist fatalities per capita were 176% greater that of New York City, according to 2012 National Highway Traffic Safety Administration numbers.

New York City outperforms San Antonio, and almost every other city in the nation, in traffic safety. Yet, the overwhelming majority of New Yorkers share San Antonio’s culture of indifference to traffic deaths. However, a growing group of transportation safety activists throughout New York City steadily chipped away at that indifference and in the past 24 months made powerful breakthroughs. First was the adoption of Vision Zero, followed by establishment of Families for Safe Streets. Families for Safe Streets is a coalition of families who lost a child, parent, or spouse in a pedestrian or cycling collision with an automobile. Families for Safe Streets was a powerful, watershed organization, but one that no one wants membership in.

The establishment of Families for Safe Streets was a pivotal step. Their tragic stories, their conviction to ending this culture of indifference compelled the state legislature to pass a bill permitting New York City to set a city-wide default 25-mph speed limit. The Metropolitan Taxicab Board of Trade, a taxi trade association, has joined as partners. Major arterials are being converted to 25-mph speed zones. Streets and intersections throughout the city are being redesigned to reduce chaos, instill discipline, and convert automobile lanes to dedicated cycling and pedestrian uses.

It’s the citywide 25 MPH speed limit that I’m sure will give everyone reading this heartburn. Author Kevin Barton discussed that topic in an earlier post in which he notes that on military bases, in San Antonio and around the country, where speed limits in housing areas are 20 MPH and more rigorously enforced, there are essentially zero traffic fatalities. This Wired article goes into some detail:

“I’d estimate that a person is about 74 percent more likely to be killed if they’re struck by vehicles traveling at 30 mph than at 25 mph,” says Brian Tefft, a researcher with the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety who wrote a 2011 report on the subject. He looked at 549 vehicle-pedestrian accidents occurring across the US between 1994 and 1998, accounting for factors like vehicle size and pedestrian BMI. The risk of serious injury (defined as likely to result in long-term disability) for a pedestrian hit at 23 mph was about 25 percent. At 39 mph, it jumped to 75 percent. Analyzing his findings, Tefft says, “25 to 35 mph, they’re almost three times as likely to be killed.” 35 mph, he found, was the median impact speed for fatal pedestrian crashes.

A 2010 study in London had similar findings: “In all of the pedestrian datasets, the risk of fatality increases slowly until impact speeds of around 30 mph. Above this speed, risk increases rapidly – the increase is between 3.5 and 5.5 times from 30 mph to 40 mph,” the author, D.C. Richards, writes.

So why doesn’t a 20 percent change in speed just mean a 20 percent change in serious injuries? There are lots of variables at work here (is the car an Escalade or a Fiat? is it a direct hit or a side swipe?), but, it turns out, the 30 mph mark is something of a limit for what our bodies can live through. Above that speed, organs and the skull aren’t necessarily strong enough to withstand the kinetic impact of a bumper and windshield.

“It has to do with fracture forces,” says Dr. Peter Orner, a licensed physician and former engineering professor who consults on injury biomechanics in car crashes. “As velocity increases, you’re crossing thresholds.” Though he’s skeptical of the comprehensiveness of studies like Tefft’s, Orner also says that at higher speeds, “the car is going to scoop them up.” And when you’re talking about cars, what gets scooped up is usually smacked against a windshield or thrown onto the ground. That can easily lead to brain trauma.

This Smart Growth America report on how dangerous various cities are for pedestrians tells us that for the period of 2003 through 2012, there were 1,073 pedestrian fatalities in the Houston-Baytown-Sugar Land MSA. Granting that that’s a large population, it’s still a lot of dead people, and that doesn’t include bicyclists and passengers or drivers of motor vehicles. I feel reasonably sure if you put all that together the total would exceed the equivalent tally for homicides, yet somehow it gets much, much less attention. Lower speed limits in residential areas, combined with tighter enforcement, could have a large effect on that, and I say this as someone whose driving habits would most definitely be affected. It’s a subject that deserves some discussion. Here’s some further information about Vision Zero in New York, and an assessment of how the first year of it has gone. What do you think?

“Please don’t mow down the wildlife”

As we know, the new 85 MPH toll road is now open, and while it is largely free of traffic, there are other obstacles to watch out for.

“That is a known pig route,” said Caldwell County Precinct 1 Constable Victor “Smitty” Terrell, who heard one of the hog-vs.-vehicle crashes on his police radio Wednesday night.

Like Texas 130 has the highest speed limit, Texas claims the largest feral hog population in the U.S. — 2.6 million.

It is so problematic that the state agriculture department runs a feral hog abatement program, including a contest called the “Hog Out Challenge,” in which counties compete to take the most swine by killing them, or trapping, snaring or capturing them “for purposes of immediate slaughter,” the rules say.

Caldwell County is competing in the challenge.

It’s unclear if road kill counts. Lockhart police Capt. John Roescher spotted at least three dead hogs on the side of Texas 130 at U.S. 183 on Thursday morning.

I suppose that’s one way to deal with the feral hog problem. It’s probably cheaper and less dangerous to shoot them from a helicopter than take them out with the family car, however. If you drive on SH 130 now, you will see road signs warning you of this hazard.

The SH 130 Concession Co. announced the sign plan Tuesday morning on its Facebook page. The signs will go up as soon as they can be made, said spokesman Chris Lippincott.

[…]

Lippincott said the company decided, based on early driving experiences, that the signs were needed.

While everyone knows to take caution behind the wheel, Lippincott said, “there’s nothing wrong with reminding them from time to time.”

Here’s the Facebook post. Wisecracks aside, I would not want to meet up with a 400 pound hog at 85 MPH. TM Daily Post has video of hogs crossing SH 130 at night. It’s just a matter of time before this causes a fatality. I hope it’s not too frequent an occurrence.

The 85 MPH toll road is now open

So far, it seems like the only people on the newly-opened 85 MPH Texas 130 toll road are reporters writing about what it’s like to legally drive that fast.

About an hour after road workers removed the hundreds of bright orange cones blocking the entrances and exits to the new State Highway 130 toll road, I gave the fastest highway in the country a test drive.

From Austin to Seguin, the road has a posted speed limit of 85 mph, a number my speedometer doesn’t reach on a regular basis. On the occasions I have found myself driving that fast, it’s usually been unintentional. I would be moving along on an open stretch of some rural highway, glance down and see the needle higher than I had expected and slightly ease off the gas pedal.

Along with far too many references to a terrible Sammy Hagar song and not enough nods to the best line from Back to the Future, the new toll road has generated a vigorous debate over whether the 85 mph speed limit is just too fast.

A “terrible Sammy Hagar song”? Those are fighting words, my friend. Let’s see if this Chron story is less incendiary.

Within seconds of reaching 85 mph, I hit another milestone without even trying.

90 mph. Just like that.

I didn’t realize how fast 85 mph really is until I started passing everyone else on the road, or when I suddenly had to slow down. There’s not much wiggle room when a car travels those speeds.

[…]

For the next two weeks, drivers can test out the speeds for free. The tolls kick in on Nov. 11; rates will be based on the size of the vehicle, method of payment and how far the vehicle travels.

A Lockhart pastor who wouldn’t give his name because, he said, he didn’t want to make any enemies, described the two-week moratorium on tolls like a pretty woman or an illegal substance. Both lure you in. But a little taste of those high speeds, and you’re hooked:

“It’s gonna be like alcohol,” he said. Soon, you “can’t put that bottle down.”

Caldwell County Precinct 1 Constable Victor “Smitty” Terrell worries about vehicles coming off the toll road to feeder roads with 55 mph speeds.

And don’t get Terrell started on wild hogs and the hazard they pose as they travel in packs. Texas 130 was built in an area where there has been little or no development. That’s meant a lot of wildlife displacement.

He looked at my car and predicted the worst.

“If a couple hundred pound hog went underneath that Honda Civic, and it went on the corner and hit you just right,” he said, “it’d flip you.”

There’s a vivid image for you. Apparently, a couple of hogs have already been hit, but so far no humans have reported injuries as a result.

Finally, for a lighter look at the experience, the Statesman’s Ken Herman tried the new road out in a Smart car.

My car for opening day was a Smart microcar, less than half the length of a Suburban, rented from Car2Go. My dual mission was to be among the first on the nation’s fastest highway and to see whether a Smart could go 85. Perhaps this is a boy thing.

First, some safety notes. Though tiny, the Smart gets pretty good safety ratings from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. There was, however, a 2009 IIHS report noting the Smart and two other microcars were “poor performers in the frontal collisions with midsize cars.”

“These results,” we’re told, “reflect the laws of the physical universe.”

I’m thinking you’re going to pay a hefty hourly rate for a lawyer to get you around those laws.

As you can see, he lived to tell the tale. All three writers report zipping past the 85 MPH mark without realizing they had done so, which isn’t terribly surprising. I suspect that will be a common occurrence. I’d say I’m looking forward to seeing what the accident rate is on this highway, but I’m really not. Anyway, I suspect this road won’t be this empty for long, so take advantage now if you can.

85 MPH speed limit officially approved

Ladies and gentlemen, start your engines.

The Texas Department of Transportation has approved an 85 mph speed limit for an upcoming 40-mile stretch of Texas 130 from Austin to Seguin. Currently, no road in the country has a posted speed limit faster than 80 mph. An 85 mph designation would give the new toll road the fastest speed limit in the Western Hemisphere, according to some reports.

In 2011, the Legislature gave TxDOT the authority to grant an 85 mph speed limit to roads designed to accommodate that speed. Last week, following engineering and traffic studies conducted by TxDOT, the Transportation Commission authorized speed limits of up to 85 mph on the road.

The new stretch of Texas 130 (known officially as Segments 5 and 6) is being built by a private consortium led by Spanish-based toll road firm Cintra. The firm has spent $1.3 billion to design and build the road and collect the tolls on the road for 50 years, though TxDOT retains ownership of the road. Under TxDOT’s contract with the SH 130 Concession Company, the firm had to pay TxDOT an extra $67 million if the new road received an 80 mph speed limit. If the road received the coveted 85 mph speed limit, TxDOT’s bonus jumped to $100 million.

Wait, so by approving this higher speed limit TxDOT also approved a $100 million bonus for itself? Sweet. The road is officially scheduled to open November 11, but may actually do so sooner than that. See here for more.

I can drive 85

And so can you, on the right road.

State transportation officials are testing a new 41-mile segment of an Austin area toll road to see whether it would be safe to post the state’s first 85 mph maximum speed limit.

The Texas Department of Transportation is considering the move on a portion of state Highway 130 that would run north-south between Austin and Seguin, just east of San Antonio, spokesman Mark Cross said Thursday.

Cross said the agency is looking at the road’s topography, checking what speed most drivers are traveling on existing parts of the highway and ensuring the access points and cross-sections would still be safe with an 85 mph speed limit.

If Texas decides to go this route, that segment of road would have one of the highest posted speed limits in the country.

See here for some background. That speed limit wouldn’t just the highest in the country.

The 85 mph speed limit would be the fastest posted maximum in the Western Hemisphere and the second fastest in the world, according to Rhino Car Hire, a European car rental company. It said a speed of 140 kilometers per hour, or about 86 mph, is posted on some roads in Poland.

Missed it by that much. Show of hands, who thinks someone will introduce a bill to authorize an 87 MPH speed limit just to show those Poles a thing or two?

You can drive 75

Pedal to the metal, y’all.

Vroom vroom!

The Texas Transportation Commission approved 75 mph speed limits for nearly 1,500 miles of interstate in 60 counties.

The action follows a state law approved last year providing for the Texas Department of Transportation to see whether 70 mph speed limits safely can be raised to 75 mph, and to hike the speed as warranted.

Before passage of that law, higher speed limits were limited to rural counties and highways mostly in West Texas, according to TxDOT. Under the previous law, Texans could drive 75 mph on 1,445 miles of highway and 80 mph on other stretches.

You can see a full list of the affected highways here; click one of the PDF map links there, or look at the post above for a graphical guide. Note that this now includes I-10 from the Waller – Austin County Line all the way to Loop 410 in San Antonio and I-45 from the Montgomery – Walker County Line to the Navarro – Ellis County Line. Not that people weren’t already driving 75 out those ways, it’s just that now they won’t get ticketed for it. Well, once the new speed limit signs are up they won’t. The On The Move blog and Dallas Transportation have more. And because tradition demands it:

You’re always welcome in Texas, Sammy.

I can’t drive 75

If the Lege has its way, in addition to being able to drive 85 on the Interstates, you will also be able to drive 75 on some other highways.

Legislation that would eliminate lower nighttime speed limits in Texas, allow trucks to drive at the same speed as cars on all highways and authorize rural highway limits of 75 mph statewide was given initial approval by the Texas House on Friday . The so-called debate — no House member had questions or comments for the bill sponsor — lasted about three minutes, and House Bill 1353 passed on a voice vote without opposition.

The legislation by state Rep. Gary Elkins, R-Houston , will need one more House vote before moving to the Senate, where Elkins said that Transportation Committee chairman Sen. Tommy Williams, R-The Woodlands, has agreed to carry the bill.

The legislation would abolish the 5 mph differential between day and night limits on many Texas highways. And in the 150 or so Texas counties, most of them in the eastern half of the state, where the maximum speed limit on rural highways is now 70 mph , the Texas Department of Transportation would be allowed to up it to 75 mph, following traffic and engineering studies.

Large trucks, now limited to 60 mph on farm-to-market roads, would have the same speed limit as other vehicles. Advocates for Elkins’ bill say that the difference in speed among various vehicles sharing the road — rather than higher speeds — more often leads to accidents.

[…]

Elkins said his main interest was in getting rid of the nighttime lower limits. Texas, according to an analysis by the Legislature’s House Research Organization, is the only state that still has lower night speed limits. That analysis says that better headlights have made such a deduction an anachronism.

That final House vote will be today, according to the Chron story. I presume this would apply to US and state highways, so if it passes you may be able to (legally) crank it up to 75 on US 290 in the rural areas where the limit is now 70. I don’t really have anything to add to this, so let me play the video again, because really, you just can’t get too much Sammy Hagar:

That will never get old.

I can’t drive 85

Start your engines, y’all.

The Texas House approved a bill that would allow the speed limit on some highways to be raised to 85 mph, which would be the highest in the nation.

The measure passed Wednesday on a voice vote was part of a larger transportation bill. It would authorize the Texas Department of Transportation to raise the speed limit on designated lanes or entire stretches of roadway after doing engineering and traffic studies, the Dallas Morning News reported Thursday.

The Senate is considering a similar bill.

“They have high-speed roadways in Europe, and there could be some merit in having some of those highways in Texas,” said Rep. Lois Kolkhorst of Brenham, who introduced the bill. “Given the right engineering, we should consider it.”

The bill in question is HB1201, which is primarily about repealing the legislation that allowed the Trans Texas Corridor; the speed limit stuff is down in section 10 of the text. I don’t get out much to the parts of the state where this would be relevant, so I don’t have an opinion about whether or not the roads in question are suitable for such a change. I suppose there’s not that much difference between 80, the current limit on some of these roads, and 85, though one wonders why one bothers having a limit in the first place if it’s that high. (Answer: Because as Montana discovered, you can’t make a speeding ticket stick if you don’t specify a number.) At least this gives me an excuse to replay this old favorite, which in this context now seems almost quaint:

They will still write you up for 125. Of that you can be certain.