Lowering speed limit to 20 mph is leap in the right direction

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category icon Editorials, Opinion

Washougal leaders may not have realized it, but with one simple vote — to reduce speed limits on the city’s downtown Main Street to 20 mph — they joined a growing global movement to make urban areas safer, healthier and greener.

This push for “20 is plenty” didn’t start in nearby Portland or Seattle, both of which have taken the movement to heart, recently decreasing speeds on residential streets. Rather, it began in 2007, in the United Kingdom (UK), with a nonprofit called “20’s Plenty For Us” that wanted to help community leaders make their streets more liveable.

Researchers found that reducing speeds to 20 mph on streets used by drivers, pedestrians, cyclists and even horse riders in some parts of the UK, reduced injuries by 20 percent and gave non-drivers a seven to 10 times greater chance of surviving being hit by a car. Portland’s Vision Zero campaign used a 2013 study showing that a pedestrian hit by a driver traveling at 25 mph is two times more likely to die compared to a pedestrian hit by a driver going just 5 mph slower at 20 mph.

The lower speed limits also have some impressive environmental benefits: When Germany introduced the program, it found that traffic ran smoother, drivers braked less and used less fuel. Researchers estimated that, thanks to the lower speed limit, emissions in residential areas decreased by about 12 percent.

Plus, the slower cars made walking and biking more attractive. According to the “20’s Plenty” organization, the city of Bristol found that walking increased by 23 percent and cycling by more than 20 percent after implementing the new 20 mph speed limits.

All city leaders should be trying to move away from an outdated model that emphasizes the automobile, individual driver and wide swaths of pavement over a more inclusive, healthier model that encourages people to walk, mingle, shop and get out of their cars.

After all, younger people are starting to shun the auto-focused mentality of their parents and grandparents. According to the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety, only about 44 percent of 16-year-olds are getting their driver’s license within that first year of eligibility, and only about half of all teens have a license by age 18. The number of cars purchased by people in their 20s and early 30s also has decreased by about 30 percent over past generations.

Some communities have decided that the pollution, noise and danger of cars does not mesh with their vision of a healthy urban center that puts people and the environment first. Oslo, Norway, plans to permanently ban cars from its downtown core by 2019, invest in eco-friendly public transportation options and add 35 miles of new bike lanes. Many major European cities have taken the leap: Madrid is banning cars from its city center by 2020, Paris has banned diesel-powered vehicles from its core streets and added miles of new bike lanes and, of course, Venice has long been famous for being a car-free city.

You can see a small taste of what shifting away from a car-obsessed culture might be like on the days when Camas and Washougal host festivals and celebrations, blocking off downtown streets to all car traffic and families flood the streets, with young children running free from the dangers of traffic.

Washougal’s move to reduce speed limits in its downtown core is definitely a move in the right direction. City leaders in Washougal and Camas should look to what other urban leaders throughout the world are doing to create healthier, safer and more environmentally friendly communities and consider expanding their “20 is plenty” zones to other residential and business districts throughout the area.