Denver City Council votes to reduce speed limit on thousands of neighborhood streets

The speed limit on most of Denver’s neighborhood streets will be reset at 20 mph after the City Council voted Monday to reduce the city’s default limit from 25 mph.

The change, which will go into effect as soon as Mayor Michael Hancock signs the ordinance, is aimed not just at dampening danger and increasing pedestrian and cyclist comfort in residential parts of the city but also helping spur a “culture change” amid an increase in the number of traffic deaths in Denver this year.

“There’s no illusions that dropping neighborhood speeds from 25 to 20 is the single silver bullet needed to reduce the chaos on Denver streets,” City Councilman Paul Kashmann, the ordinance’s sponsor, said at a council safety committee hearing earlier this month. “It’s the beginning of a change of culture and way of thinking that we just need to slow down.”

As outlined in Kashmann’s research, a AAA study found that the risk of death for a pedestrian hit by a car going 32 mph is 150% higher than if the car were going 23 mph.

Kashmann said the change is not intended to give Denver police a “gotcha enforcement policy.” Ron Thomas, the Denver Police Department’s division chief for patrol, told the safety committee the department plans to focus on educating drivers.

The “20 is Plenty” campaign the resulted in Monday’s law change has been more than a year in the making. The council voted to amend the city’s 2021 budget to include $350,000 for a feasibility study to look at lowering speed limits on all types of city streets.

But Monday’s ordinance comes with an uncertain price tag and could take years to be put into effect uniformly across the city.

While the default speed limit on streets with no speed limit signs will immediately change with the mayor’s signature, there are between 2,700 and 3,500 signs reading 25 mph that the city’s Department of Transportation and Infrastructure will have to get rid of and, in some cases, replace, officials say.

That work, contingent on finding available contractors to make and install new signs and dispose of old ones, could cost between $1.2 million and $1.5 million, according to senior city planner Mike King. It could take between three and five years to complete. Overall, the total number of signs posted on neighborhood streets will be reduced to around 1,000 with a focus on putting signs in places where people get off arterial streets and enter neighborhoods.

The possible $1.5 million tab troubled Councilwoman Kendra Black, who said she routinely hears from residents that want to see safety improvement on thoroughfares like Colorado Boulevard and Quincy Avenue n her southeast Denver district. Those streets would not be impacted by the speed limit change.

Pointing to the limited funding available for city transportation projects, Black cast the lone no vote Monday. The ordinance passed 11-1.

At the safety committee hearing earlier this month, King said that the city’s traffic engineer is typically in charge of setting speed limits on streets but passing an ordinance to lower the city’s default speed limit (and also formally reduce the speed limit in city parks to 15 mph) is an important step in a broader plan to improve roadway safety.

“The next step following this is (looking at) collectors and arterials …” King told the safety committee. “Those are the streets like the Hampden (Avenues) and the areas where we do see those higher fatal crash rates.”

Denver Mayor Michael Hancock announced his Vision Zero roadway safety initiative in 2017. The goal is to eliminate traffic-related deaths on city streets by 2030. But after seeing a decrease in traffic-related fatalities amid COVID-19 lockdowns last year, there have been 80 such deaths in Denver so far this year, city data shows, by far the highest total since Vision Zero was launched.

While other council members voiced skepticism that lowering speeds on typically quiet neighborhood streets will make a dent in the city’s troubling traffic death trend, they agreed it is a step in the right direction. But it can’t be the last step.

Street design, in particular, is worrisome, Councilman Kevin Flynn said. In his southwest Denver district, wide streets invite drivers to go faster than 20 mph.

Jill Locantore, executive director of advocacy group the Denver Streets Partnership, urged the council to pass the speed limit reduction Monday but also spoke to the need for better infrastructure and street layouts to slow drivers.

“We know that street design is ultimately the best way to reinforce safety,” she said.

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