Lessons from the Netherlands: Speed Kills

One of the fascinating things about cycling here in Amsterdam and the rest of the country is that they have this incredible volume of cycling yet very low accident counts compared to our country.

The planners believe there are several factors involved (wearing helmets is not one of them – nobody does for city riding). I’ll discuss other factors in future posts, but today’s topic is speed.


30 kph zones portlandtransport’s 30 kph zones photoset

One of the fascinating things about cycling here in Amsterdam and the rest of the country is that they have this incredible volume of cycling yet very low accident counts compared to our country.

The planners believe there are several factors involved (wearing helmets is not one of them – nobody does for city riding). I’ll discuss other factors in future posts, but today’s topic is speed.

A primary safety tool has been the establishment of 30 kilometer-per-hour zones (30 kph) for cars. That’s about 18 miles-per-hour. You can pretty much figure that in an environment where bikes are expected to share a lane with cars, the speed will be no higher than 30 kph.

This is important, because at 30 kph, the chances of surviving a bike/car collision (ditto ped/car collisions) are MUCH better than at 25 or 30 mph, the U.S. norm for neighborhood streets. Also, at the lower speed drivers, bikes and peds have more reaction time to avoid a collision.

These zones are so prevalent in city centers that they are often not even signed with a number (I had to hunt for one for a photo). More often there is a physical or visual transition like the slight ramp shown here. The space is very well delineated by bollards or differing paving.

I find this very interesting compared to my experience as a neighborhood transportation chair in Portland. Neighbors would often complain to me that a street was too fast to be safe. PDOT would come out and do speed checks and report that it was fine. But this missed two points:

1) 25 mph is NOT safe enough. 18 mph would be MUCH safer.
2) Traffic operations folks look for the 85 percentile speed. That means they say the street is OK when 15% of the folks are going over the limit.

Couple this with the fact that the police won’t ticket you unless you’re going at least 10 mph over the limit, and no wonder parents don’t think streets are safe for their kids.

I have been told (perhaps some reader can confirm this) that the City except in specific circumstances is prohibited from marking streets for lower than 25 mph by state law.

Maybe it’s time to lobby Salem for some changes in that law!

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22 responses to “Lessons from the Netherlands: Speed Kills”

  1. The speed limit on my street is 30 mph. The street is about a half mile long, and it has two parks and an elementary school on it. When I asked the City to lower the speed limit to 25 mph, they said there was no point in lowering the speed limit because statistically people drive whatever speed they’re going to drive. The City even sent me copies of studies that supported their assertion.

    If the City doesn’t think there’s value in lowering the speed limit, why should drivers think there’s value in driving at a speed that’s safe for pedestrians and bicyclists?

  2. Creating “Low Speed Zone” into our towncenters could be a another major way to return the streets to the locals instead of giving the streets to the “ships in the night”. ;-)

    Safety would be the major selling point and insurance companies should push it as a discount for living within the LSZ.

    I live on a street close to Old Town Gresham and the individuals that use our street as a bypass really does concern me for the speed reason. Someone going 40 to 50 miles will not be able to stop in time when the ball bounces in front of them.

    I’d go for 20 MPH in a heartbeat. We do it at school zones right now. Aren’t our neighborhoods and towncenters worth the same protections.

    Ray Whitford

  3. “If the City doesn’t think there’s value in lowering the speed limit, why should drivers think there’s value in driving at a speed that’s safe for pedestrians and bicyclists?”

    The problem is that it is not clear that lowering the speed limit will lower traffic speeds. You need to re-engineer the road to get a slower speed. That is what a lot of traffic calming measures are about. The problem is the city can’t or won’t institute those measures unless people are speeding. So if you lower the speed limit to 20 mph and a lot of people continue to drive 25 then they will agree to start making changes to the street itself to actually achieve the desired speed.

    I once hit someone while driving. I didn’t know they were there until they were rolling across the hood of my car so I didn’t even take my foot off the gas before I hit them. I didn’t run over him he rolled all the way across the car.

    It was winter, in Minnesota and it had been snowing. I have no idea how fast I was going. But after the police came and while I was sitting in a squad car telling the police what happened, he apparently got up off the street told the police he would be fine and walked off. (He had come out of a bar and apparently had been drinking quite heavily.) There is little doubt that the slick streets that caused me to slow down saved his life.

  4. Ross is exactly right that you can’t just post speed limits, you have to engineer the roadway to make people want to slow down to feel safe. That little ramp is one way they do that in Amsterdam. Lots of textured surfaces are another (e.g., cobblestones). Any making lanes narrower (which frees up more right-of-way for peds and bikes) is also key.

  5. It is very clear that high neighborhood speeds are a huge cause of injury and death. See this chart produced by PDOT’s traffic safety team:

    Yet, the police willingly allow a cushion of at least 10-15 miles before they actually issue tickets. It’s almost a matter of policy. Even the undercover photo-camera machines don’t issue tickets unless the person is driving 12 mph over the speed limit.

    10-15 mph is the difference between life and death. Why do the police choose to let people speed?

  6. When people complain about traffic calming…bumps, circles, etc., I point out that, at least in my neighborhood, if you are going the posted speed (25mph) these things have NO effect.
    But 25mph is still too high for neighborhood streets. 20 should be our goal, and unfortunately, it is a state matter.
    In the Interstate Corridor URA we have had requests for calming where residents are concerned about traffic speeds, but then the City does its analysis and “no deal” as per Chris’ post. So its OK to have 1 out of 5 cars going 30 mph! which pretty much means its “cars only!”
    Even something as simple as a center line can speed up traffic. I bike on Shaver; between MLK and Vancouver it picks up a center line and the difference in speeds and driver behavior is night and day.

  7. Everything about re-engineering our town centers to reduce the speed is what is needed. I would hope for safety concerns our School Zone/Town Center/Neighborhood Zone Street Design criteria would be acted on in 2007 at the state level. Only the School Zone would be mandatory and each jurisdiction could move to the 20 MPH Design or not through local control.

    But, also look at Lake Oswego, they are very strict on their posted speed limits and the City does quite well in the coffers department because they take the posted speed limits seriously.

    Locals know this “rule of the road” in the city limits of Lake Oswego.

    Ray Whitford

  8. I very much hope we can eventually get neighborhood and city center street speeds lowered to a safer speed. If it can be done somewhere (Europe) it can be done here as well. This would definitely make people feel more comfortable biking and walking here.

    And if Portland can do it, maybe other cities and eventually, hopefully, maybe, suburban neighborhoods could too (like those in Beaverton and Hillsboro). The big problem I see with this in suburbia is that because everything is so bloody far away everything else, people feel like even 30-35 is too slow to get where their going within quickly. I live in a neighborhood on a street that is about a half mile between either of the nearest streets and people seem to want to go 45 on it (its marked 25).

  9. One of the lessons learned is that it’s not the speed you mark on the sign, it’s the speed you engineer the street for. The 30 kph limits gets violated here too if drivers feel comfortable driving faster.

    We meet with some enforcement people later today.

  10. Lucky, for most Eastsiders in the “grid” the distant between you home in a 20 MPH Zone and the nearest 35 MPH “feeder” street isn’t going to be a half mile. I know what you are saying about other parts of the metro region though. There are neighborhoods with two entrances/exits and if you live in the middle it takes time to leave your own ‘hood’.


  11. “One of the lessons learned is that it’s not the speed you mark on the sign, it’s the speed you engineer the street for.”

    Then why bother posting speed limits? I’m serious.

    It’s one thing to force drivers to slow down with engineering. It’s another to remove implied permission to drive at unsafe speeds for pedestrians and bicyclists by posting (and hopefully enforcing) appropriate speed limits.

    Engineering is expensive. Removing permission is inexpensive. Shouldn’t safe speed limits be the starting point?

  12. I would be very interested in your observations of how well traffic signals are obeyed by bikes, pedestrians, and motorists.

    My top safety issue is anyone running red lights, but in particular motorists as I have been nearly hit too many times by these reckless idiots.

  13. One way to “engineer in” this idea of lowering the speed limits and reducing the “red light runners” is to include the ramping (or bumps) feature at interchanges. If this is noted in another thread, my apologized.


  14. We met with the chief of the traffic enforcement unit for the county of Utrecht today. I’ll have a post on the meeting later in the weekend. For the moment let’s just say that red-light-running cyclists are an international phenomenon.

    And I’m not saying we shouldn’t post speed limits. Just that it’s not nearly as effective as engineering the street for a given speed.

  15. “Then why bother posting speed limits? I’m serious.”

    I think the primary purpose of speed limits is to alert drivers to the designed safe speed of the road. Without them, traffic engineers would insist on improving the street to make it safe at whatever speed the traffic drove.

    The idea of engineering streets to slow down traffic is a difficult one for traffic engineers to accept. Traffic calming is really a non-engineer’s solution to a road that was over-engineered to begin with. Its often seen as cheaper than narrowing lanes, adding street trees,curb extensions, etc.

    “Engineering is expensive. Removing permission is inexpensive. Shouldn’t safe speed limits be the starting point?”

    I think that is correct. Once the speed limit in neighborhoods is reduced to 15 mph the engineers can start designing streets to that standard. But until it is, they will insist on making it safe to drive 25 – safe for the driver that is.

  16. 2 out of 3 E’s not enough!
    So far the discussion has turned on Enforcement (lower the speed limit, then sic the cops on ’em) vs. Engineering (make the street uncomfortable to drive over __ mph). Unfortunately, neither will solve the problem independently, or even in tandem.
    The 3d E – Education (or Encouragement) must be factored in.
    Already noted – engineering is expensive, and not always popular. I’ve heard plenty of complaints about speed bumps.
    Jonathan points to cops letting cars go 10+ mph over the limit before ticketing. But cops must contend with overburdened courts, and a kind of judicial triage mandates that “less than egregious” speeding takes lower priority. If the cop has to sit in the courtroom for a case where the driver contests (for example) a 5-mph-over ticket, then sees the judge give the benefit of the doubt to the driver (“my speedometer was faulty”), then that’s one less cop out enforcing the traffic laws for a good chunk of his/her shift.
    We as a community must change our view of speeding from a necessary evil, occasionally (“I was late for my kid’s daycare…”), to that of a public health epidemic, akin to drunk driving circa 15 years ago. If the community is not up in arms that people are speeding – as in, you talk to your neighbors, you *always* model correct speed for the kids in your car, and you *never* speed yourself – then how can we expect the courts to follow?
    In the bike community we are trying to reach a consensus to cajole each other to respect stop lights, etc. The car community has a similar burden to take up.

  17. I remember a visit to New Mexico a few years back when I was warned by a local that folks there like to drive slowly, and it was not wise to tail-gate or otherwise harass such leisurely motorists.
    It was a vacation for us, so we just went with the flow…what a great idea…a kind of “paseo” on wheels through the beautiful NM countryside. I like to do that as much as possible even now; slow driving is much less stressful and lots more fun. Driving slowly is COOL….pass it along.

  18. Maybe let’s just leave all the roads gravel… Cars won’t drive as fast, mountain bikes get the advantage, and provide a paved sidewalk for pedestrians… there is also the permeability aspect that lets rainwater inflitrate into the ground naturally.

    I only said this half-jokingly… who knows? Something like this might be a good solution to unimproved parts of Portland, and more expensive cobbled (texturized) roadways might help slow vehicles down.

    Of course, so would narrower lanes.

  19. We could just start by agreeing that lower speeds are needed. 20th avenue in SE Portland is signed at 30 mph. I suppose that is because it is classified as a neighborhood collector, but it really shouldn’t be over 25 and probably 15 mph. But as long as the agreed on speed is 30 mph none of the three solutions, engineering, enforcement or education is going to happen.

    So it all goes back to winning political support for changing the state law on speed limits.

  20. What a great blog and great comments. So glad I found this. Working to lower speed limits in the Midwest is about as popular as seaweed soup. People here will fight to the death for their cars and for going as fast as they possibly can–even though our city has become known for all the students killed on campus by vehicles. It’s just great to know that others are thinking about these issues, even if they are 2000 miles away. Many, many thanks!

  21. Maybe a partial answer is cutting back on maintenance. I grew up on an unpaved street in SW Portland…gravel, sort of, pot holes, etc.. We played in the street; our dog slept in the potholes waiting for cars to chase…he was an addict. Every so often we would buy a load of gravel and spread it ourselves; once in a while someone would speed….leaving a muffler or bumper behind. The LID idea came up from time to time…my mother would say “all that money for what? to get more runoff into the basement, to loose the Maple tree, to get more and faster traffic? No thanks!”
    I think a lot of folks in SW recognize this and are not crazy to get their streets “improved.”
    Potholes are random, unmarked speed bumps.

  22. As someone who now lives on an unimproved street, I have to disagree. Maybe it is because the street is paved up to my intersection and they are caught unaware by the end of the pavement, but cars still fly down the street at far too fast speeds, gravel and mud flying … Then they swerve into our yards trying to avoid the potholes … (this reminds me that I have to buy a load of gravel today and do some pothole filling). Non-maintenance of streets as not a good way to reduce speeding, in my view!

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