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U.S. streets have long been designed with cars in mind, but a new campaign is calling on Salt Lake City leaders to make roads a friendlier place for walkers and cyclists, at least in neighborhoods.
“20 is Plenty” marks the first campaign for Sweet Streets Salt Lake City, a nonprofit focused on people-first design in public spaces. The movement — which drove change in cities like Seattle, Minneapolis and Washington, D.C. — has been around for at least a decade and aims to reduce speed limits to 20 mph.
The AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety found that the risk of death and injury increases exponentially when pedestrians are struck at speeds above that limit (ProPublica turned the AAA study into a handy interactive chart).
“Among some people, it seems like a radical idea,” said Taylor Anderson, a Sweet Streets organizer (and former Salt Lake Tribune reporter). “But when people start to kind of realize we’re not talking about every road in town, that this would have a negligible, if any, impact on commutes ... they’re open to making streets safer.”
Anderson has been handing out “20 is Plenty” yard signs to Salt Lake City residents to raise awareness about the campaign, and Sweet Streets has an online petition for supporters to sign. Anderson plans to deliver the petition to the City Council, which can change speed limits by ordinance, in the fall.
The current ordinance sets the citywide speed limit at 25 mph, unless otherwise posted, but it’s not entirely clear why 25 became the magic number.
“That’s kind of where we ended up with most speed limits that are out there today,” said Jon Larsen, director of the city’s transportation division. “It was probably set back decades ago. But there’s been a lot of discussion in the last three to five years about whether that’s the correct methodology.”
There’s a reason, Larsen noted, that there are 20 mph speed restrictions in school zones.
“At 20 mph and below, in the vast majority of pedestrian-vehicle crashes, the pedestrian survives,” he said. “By the time you get to 40 mph, nine out of 10 times, the person doesn’t survive.”
Speeding through residential areas is an issue in Salt Lake City, Larsen said, and one of the top complaints he receives.
“Not only is it a safety thing, it’s a major quality-of-life issue,” Larsen said. “When people see cars going fast in front of their house, it’s scary, it’s uncomfortable. It’s definitely something we care about, and we’re sensitive to.”
Dropping the citywide limit to 20 mph won’t miraculously stop drivers from speeding. That’s why the transportation division also is looking at reviving a traffic-calming program. The city nixed its past effort in the early 2000s due to resident complaints.
“The biggest thing was, it was street by street,” Larsen said. “If we relaunch, we recommend neighborhood by neighborhood.”
In the past, the city placed speed bumps on specific streets, which just pushed problematic traffic onto other streets nearby. But with a wholistic neighborhood approach, Larsen said, traffic calming could make a difference.
The transportation director said he plans to approach the City Council this summer with initial ideas for a traffic-calming program, and “20 is Plenty” could be part of the plan.
“If it’s coupled with a program to physically change the streets ... then I think it would be effective,” Larsen said. “It’s a combination of messaging and engineering.”
Anderson said the coronavirus pandemic helped some residents become more aware of the value of streets as public spaces, particularly when the city closed some roads to cars so people could use them for exercise and social distancing.
“People are spending more time at home,” Anderson said, “so they’re just more aware of the built environment.”
An ordinance that temporarily made Main Street a pedestrian zone to help downtown businesses was so popular it’s being reintroduced this summer, and could become permanent.
Said Anderson: “There’s going to be long-term change from the pandemic, for sure.”