The city is planning to reduce speed limits on Bainbridge Island. The biggest change will be cutting speed limits from 35 miles per hour to 30 mph on about 12 percent of the arterials and collectors. Overall, 82 percent of these roads will have limits of 30 mph or 25 mph. The purpose is to reduce the risk of injuries to non-motorized users.
These speed limit reductions will be a good step toward road safety for pedestrians and cyclists, especially if they are enforced. More is needed. On most roads, pedestrians and cyclists are in the auto lanes because there are no sidewalks or shoulders. Thirty mph is safer than 35 mph, and 25 mph is safer than 30 mph, but, as Public Works tells us, these speeds are still dangerous.
Shoulders are much safer for pedestrians and cyclists than auto lanes, and reducing speed limits makes them even safer. Shoulders also help auto drivers. Without shoulders, autos must cross the double-yellow center line to pass pedestrians and cyclists. That can be risky to the autos and is illegal. If the road has decent shoulders, autos can pass pedestrians and cyclists without breaking the law.
Five years ago, due to the declining safety for pedestrians and cyclists caused by increasing auto traffic, the city’s adopted transportation plan called for shoulders on many roads. Four years ago, city planners rejected this, arguing that trails would be more comfortable than shoulders, attract more cyclists and have a bigger impact on gas emissions.
So far, little has been done and little has worked. Auto traffic is still increasing and safety for pedestrians and cyclists is still declining.
Lower speed limits are an easy way to make shoulders more comfortable, mainly because they increase safety. Shoulders are much less expensive than trails. With new speed limits and the rapid growth in e-bikes, building inexpensive shoulders that make good transportation connections would greatly increase safety for cycling and its potential impact on gas emissions. They would also make auto driving easier and more legal. They may also meet state law by justifying speed limits higher than 25, which the city has not done so far.
Road safety is a core city responsibility. Keeping roads in good condition and making them safe is one of the city’s largest financial responsibilities. Seeking transportation improvements that reduce gas emissions is a wonderful new goal. Increasing road safety for pedestrians and cyclists is essential to achieving that goal anytime soon.
In the next month or so the city will adopt a budget for next year. It has a choice. It can promise expensive trails that may or may not be funded in the uncertain future and, as shown by the Sound to Olympics Trail, can have little or no impact on transportation cycling and gas emissions. Or, it can start building basic inexpensive shoulders now, increase safety for pedestrians and cyclists now, and have an impact on climate change now.
Peter Harris was a planner, budget analyst and legislative analyst for Seattle for 30 years. As such he was involved with transportation plans for environmental quality and public safety.