The Secret to New York’s Happiness? Reduce the Speed Limit to 20 Miles Per Hour

Imagine a world in which the New York City speed limit was 20 miles per hour. Not just on the side streets or in the outerboroughs, but on every thoroughfare from the Avenue of the Americas to Eastern Parkway to the Grand Concourse. Not only would there be fewer traffic fatalities and less accidents, but people would be happier. It could even change our entire demeanor, the way we New Yorkers live our lives.

“What I learned was that in places where they have lower speed limits, it completely changes the livability of the streets,” Rod King, an evangelist from Britain who started the group 20’s Plenty, told The Observer Friday. “Everyone benefits, both in terms of stress and the need to keep up. And the secret is, speeding, we don’t actually get there any faster.”

King came to this realization when he traveled to Germany, to a small town where one in three people rode bikes as their primary means of transportation. He imagined there was some new-fangled bike lanes or sharing program in effect, something he could import to his hometown to improve cycling. But when he arrived, he found the answer was simply the speed limit, which had been set years earlier to 18 kilometers per hour.

King has implemented the idea in more than a dozen towns and cities throughout Britain, and Hoboken is about to become the first major municipality in the U.S. to attempt the transformation, with transit wonks saying a similar program could reasonably cross the Hudson to New York City.

Speaking to The Observer during a Transportation Alternatives conference hosted by NYU, King noted that the greatest misconception is that the faster we drive, the faster we arrive. “It’s a game of hurry up and wait,” he said, as drivers race from red light to red light, spending minutes at a standstill in between. King said the phenomena is plainly clear on any of Manhattan’s bustling avenues. “Round about any block, the avenues are empty, then it becomes full as everyone is getting up to speed, jostling about, and then they come to a stop a few blocks south,” he said. If everyone simply took their time getting there, assuming well-timed lights–and holding off on honking!–there would be a lot less idling, a lot less wasted gas and weary drivers.

And the beauty of such a system is that it is almost free to implement. Because it is essential that the speed limit everywhere be reduced to 20 miles per hour for the program to work, there is no need for new signs, it simply becomes the law of the land, er, road. Furthermore, because traffic is less manic, there is now more room for cyclists and pedestrians on the street, eliminating the need for expensive new bike lanes and other traffic calming measures. As speeds go down, reaction times go up, and everyone has more time to respond to those around them. The streets become a shared environment, a safer one and a money-saving proposition, too.

Impossible, right? At least in New York. Sure, Edinburgh and Cambridge have tried it, but they’re a fraction of our size. Still, King insists the answer is not to ignore his proposal but to interrogate it. “Once you really start to look at this, to look at the data and the evidence and the reality of it, it just becomes so obvious,” he said. “I challenge anyone to give me one good reason we shouldn’t slow down.”

Well? Let’s hear it.

mchaban [at] observer.com | @mc_nyo

The Secret to New York’s Happiness? Reduce the Speed Limit to 20 Miles Per Hour