Greater Greater Washington


Bowser doesn't support higher speed limits

Councilmember Muriel Bowser (ward 4) briefly joined Monday's hearing on the Tommy Wells-Mary Cheh speed camera bill. DDOT is studying whether to modify some speed limits, but in her opening statement, Bowser said she doesn't support raising speed limits:

Here are a few key quotes:

I often ask [constituents] this question, I say, "What do you think is one issue that goes across every ward, every neighborhood, every street, every part of Ward 4?" And nobody can ever guess that it's speeding. It's literally speeding. We get requests for stop signs, for speed bumps, for traffic and parking enforcement. [It's] among one of the biggest type of requests that we get.

I hear a lot of people talking about DDOT reviewing the speed limits in the District, and all I hear is that DDOT may raise the speed limits in the District. And I'm not for raising the speed limits in the District. ... If this notion is that if we can raise the speed limit high enough, then we won't give anybody tickets. Or that if it's a big street with wide lanes, then it's not really a residential street so we shouldn't have to worry about people speeding down it.

But the fact is, even on my major arterials, people live there. ... 16th Street, as one of my constituents says, is not I-16th Street. It's a street a lot of commuters use, but people live there.

DDOT has promised to review speed limits in DC, and in some cases, possibly including some freeway segments and some non-residential arterials, I agree the speed limit is likely too low. Elsewhere, perhaps it is too high.

Many councilmembers and public witnesses called for a systematic, consistent process for setting speed limits. This makes a lot of sense, as long as the process is not the old traffic engineer practice to set speed limits at or above the speed of 80% of the cars.

The 80% rule doesn't give pedestrians or bicyclists a vote, and they're the more vulnerable road users. It doesn't give parents a vote about what lets them feel safe walking around with their children, or seniors a vote about what makes them safe navigating their neighborhood. Drivers' opinions matter, but so do everyone else's, and making streets safe must trump speed.

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David Alpert is the founder of Greater Greater Washington and its board president. He worked as a Product Manager for Google for six years and has lived in the Boston, San Francisco, and New York metro areas in addition to Washington, DC. He now lives with his wife and daughter in Dupont Circle. 


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by M.V. Jantzen on Nov 7, 2012 3:48 pm • linkreport

Yeah, sadly the DC Council video embed system uses that.

by David Alpert on Nov 7, 2012 3:55 pm • linkreport

I would make it clean and simple: 25 MPH on every single road in DC except the interstates, which should be 50 MPH. That way no local resident would ever have the excuse of not knowing what the speed limit was.

Anything higher than 25 MPH might seem attractive on those rare nights when the roads are empty, but try this experiment to simulate a driver who gets distracted by something unexpected on the road: drive 30 MPH, wait a full second after you spot a yellow light, and try to brake in time so that you don't run the red light. You might want to put on a neck brace first.

by Tom Veil on Nov 7, 2012 4:11 pm • linkreport

Tom's proposal sounds like a recipe for total disregard of speed limits.

How often is speeding a result of a lack of knowledge of speed limits, versus simply thinking the speed limit is too low?

The current "default" speed limit is 25 mph. Unfortunately, the default is all too common, in both directions.

by ah on Nov 7, 2012 4:32 pm • linkreport

"80% rule doesn't give pedestrians or bicyclists a vote, and they're the more vulnerable road users. "

Speed limits on city streets should certainly be set with pedestrians and bicycles in mind and 25 is pretty reasonable, except on major thoroughfares.

However, when it comes to freeways like 295 and 395 - and arguably the East Capitol Street 295 underpass and NY Avenue east of Blandenburgs Road, the pedestrian and bicycle concerns are irrleveant because they're prohibited from those roads.

The speed limits on those roads have been set for the purpose of maximizing speed camera revenue. The supposed "safety" of "more vulnerable road users" such as pedestrians and bicycles has absolutely nothing to do with the speed limits in those areas.

One thing I haven't seen in these discussions is any mention of the wasted fuel - and attendant air pollution - that's caused by the atrificially low DC highway speed limits and the slowing down and acceleration of vehicles reacting to the speed cameras. A vehicle traveling on a highway at a constant 50-55 mph burns fuel far more efficiently and pollutes much less than a vehicle traveling at intermitent low speeds, constantly slowing and accelerating in response to speed cameras. Cruising burns less fuel and pollutes less.

(Stupid Captcha: Since when is Deanwood NOT between Minn Ave and Cheverly on the Orange line? Who writes these things?)

by ceefer66 on Nov 7, 2012 4:48 pm • linkreport

@ceefer66--I don't believe bicyclists are actually prohibited from any of the roadways in DC. In other jurisdictions, there are signs on Interstate on-ramps that indicate that bicycles and usually scooters are prohibited; DC has none of these. As far as I can find, there is no section of DC law that prohibits bicycles from any specific roadway locations or types of roadways. (By contrast, there is a specific prohibition against bicycles being ridden on sidewalks in the Central Business District.)

by thm on Nov 7, 2012 5:35 pm • linkreport

@ceefer66--I don't believe that as a general principle that 55mph is inherently more fuel-efficient than, say, 25mph. I'm looking at tables 4-28 and 4-29 and Figure 4.2 of the current Transportation Energy Data Book. Some cars are more efficient at 55 and some are more efficient at 25 and overall the average is pretty flat between the two, and certainly falling off above 55 and below 25. I see no data that supports the claim that 55mph is "far more" efficient than 25mph.

Certainly, continuous travel is more efficient than intermittent, stop-and-go travel, but that is a different issue.

Looking to the future, however, the situation is completely different with electric cars. Because the factors that determine energy loss (e.g. aerodynamic drag, creation of turbulent eddies) don't scale linearly with speed, the energy use per unit distance is, as a rule, higher for higher speeds. With internal combustion engines, there is a certain amount of power needed to just keep the engine running and at low speeds this is higher than, say, the aerodyamic drag loss, so this constant energy loss makes low speeds much less efficient. This constant energy loss to keep the engine on basically doesn't exist with electric motors. With electric cars, the slower they go, the more efficient they are, period. So the energy conservation argument would reasonably put the speed limit at 15--20mph in the electric car future.

by thm on Nov 7, 2012 6:02 pm • linkreport

Love Bowser's comments. Excellent commentary.

I don't agree that speed limits are too high on freeways in DC. Frequent exit/entrance ramps, heavy traffic, inability to safely get a higher speed... they are set well as is.

by H Street LL on Nov 7, 2012 6:20 pm • linkreport

DDOT reviewing speed limits...they had a study performed by Brudis Associates in 2006/07 that did exactly was shelved.

@ceefer66 it isn't a matter of those speed limits being "set" to garner revenue, it is that they were never reviewed prior to camera installation to determine if the speed limit was appropriate for the roadway and traffic conditions. I would venture that no one had looked at the speed limits in some locations since they were originally posted (you know like in 1970).

by Some Ideas on Nov 7, 2012 6:24 pm • linkreport

Please slow traffic along East Capitol, which has been neglected by the council and reduces the quality of life for those that live near by.

by DC Resident on Nov 7, 2012 7:41 pm • linkreport

Thanks for covering the story. We should oppose raising speed limits. Remember speed kills. In urban places where we can expect to be sharing the public rights of way with walkers and bicyclists, we need to set safe speed standards. That really is 25 mph and no more than 30 mph, but maybe 25 mph is really best. For neighborhood streets, we should look at lower speeds of 20 mph. "Managing Speed" by TRB gives guidance on urban environments - says speed limits should consider more than the 85th percentile and can be lowered. We did a paper on pedestrian danger index which examines the leading role of speed in pedestrian fatalities.,174,528,0,html/Washington-Area-s-Mean-Streets

by Cheryl Cort on Nov 7, 2012 8:20 pm • linkreport

Speed doesn't kill. Speed differential kills.

The arguments in support of lower speed limits work well on the arterials and city streets (with perhaps 4 exceptions), but are moot and don't apply to the freeways. The freeways are the one place in town where the speed limit could stand to be increased, especially on 295 South, which DOESN'T have the frequency of exit/entrance ramps that H Street LL mentioned.

by Froggie on Nov 7, 2012 11:12 pm • linkreport

I have faith in DDOT to poop the bed and raise speed limits. They hate us all. See Dave Thomas Circle, Florida Ave, North/South/East Capitol, etc.

by Hess on Nov 7, 2012 11:43 pm • linkreport


You're wrong. Bikes and pedestrians are prohibited from 395 and 295. There are signs that say so.

They're also prohibited from the section of East Capitol Street that passes under 295 and leads to the bridge over the Anacostia towards RFK. There are signs there , too. I see them every day on my way to work.

Besides, what about common sense? What person in their right mind would try to ride a bicycle or take a stroll on a freeway unless they're shooting for a Darwin award?

by ceefer66 on Nov 8, 2012 6:21 am • linkreport

Please slow traffic along East Capitol, which has been neglected by the council and reduces the quality of life for those that live near by.

by DC Resident

You should lobby your Council to have the mobile speed camera under the East Capitol 295 underpass ("monitored" by a napping MPD police officer) moved to the area near Eastern High School where there are homes, schools, churches, and businesses.

But the current location is a better money-maker. So your "government" will insist the camera is located where it's "most needed" and "provides the most benefit".

I was being sarcastic, but given the District's REAL purpose for using speed cameras, that's probably correct.

by ceefer66 on Nov 8, 2012 6:34 am • linkreport

I'm glad to see Dave recogonizes that the speed limits on 295 are too low. However, Bowser has a point. Bump that up to 55, and the revenue will fall off a cliff. That set of cameras brought in $23M, or close to a third of the total revenue of the camera system.

The city has 46 cameras. Of the speed cameras, 10 are at fixed locations, 15 are portable and 21 are installed on police vehicles.

The top 10 cameras - the fixed locations -- brought in 40M. The other 30 only brought in another only 40M or so, or a little over a million a camera. I think the camera contract is 18M a year, not sure it is a multi-year contract or not, and whether it covers the ones on police vehicles.

by charlie on Nov 8, 2012 7:39 am • linkreport

Speed does kill (and speed differential matters as well). If I'm traveling in a car at 65 mph and simply lose control and get into a wreck, I have a higher likelihood of severe injury, even death, than if I was going 30 mph. This is because speed differential is always a factor. When you get into an accident, you collide with something, whether its another car going the same speed in the opposite direction, a slower moving object (cyclist or pedestrian), or something at a standstill (a light pole). The faster you're moving, the greater the likelihood of a high speed differential between you and the object with which you collide, which causes greater injury to you, the object, or both. So, yes, speed does kill.

by 7r3y3r on Nov 8, 2012 7:52 am • linkreport

Feel free to keep discussing the speed limits on 295, but if you listen to Bowser's statement it's clear she is talking about the non-freeway arterials like the many that go through her ward (16th, Georgia, New Hampshire, Piney Branch, etc.

DDOT is talking about doing a comprehensive study of speed limits not just on freeways. Some people are pushing for higher limits on arterials or smaller streets as well, and it looks like that's what Bowser was primarily responding to.

by David Alpert on Nov 8, 2012 7:57 am • linkreport

I'm frustrated by her comments. Not that I think she's wrong per se, but I think her focus on speed is a distraction, and it does things like focus this thread on speed. As a regular biker and walker, and very occasional driver, I feel quite strongly that speed isn't the problem. The problem is lack of enforcement of traffic laws. Start with cell phones and texting. Move on to failure to stop, passing on the right at stop lights, blocking the box, failure to signal, illegal u-turns, failure to yield to pedestrians, etc. You know, cabbie stuff.

I've been hit in crosswalks by left turners, buzzed by drivers passing way to close, etc. I had a car stop and then make a run at me in a crosswalk just to scare me --- he was mad that I stepped into traffic at an unsigned crosswalk. The car that hit me was with in sight of a cop. Hell, I once got pulled over --- on a bike --- by a cop for yelling too loudly at a driver that cut me off in a circle. The cop didn't hassle me, but still!

I biked up and down GA Ave during commuting hours almost every day for 6 months. But never once have I felt in danger just from speed. It's the other "common sense" traffic laws that need to be enforced much more than speeding.

It's just the wrong focus in my opinion. It distracts from these harder to solve traffic problems. I'd settle for just enforcing the cell phone laws and having the DC Taxi commission establish an ombudsman to receive and publicize complaints about cab's driving.

I also believe that strong enforcement of these other existing laws would help calm traffic and decrease speeding a little bit as a byproduct.

Well-signed light synchronization could also help.

by John on Nov 8, 2012 9:11 am • linkreport

But the fact is, even on my major arterials, people live there. ... 16th Street, as one of my constituents says, is not I-16th Street.

But, it is "I"-395 and DC295 is essentially I-295. Why not take a more sensible, moderate approach and adjust speed limits to conditions. Raise speed limits on 295, etc. and LOWER them in places like Cap Hill to 20mph. That seems like a reasonable compromise that everyone can agree on.

Let's get away from ideologically rigid lower/higher speed limits for all and do what's reasonable. Otherwise we're no better than politicians signing the Grover Norquist pledge against ever raising taxes for anyone ever.

by Falls Church on Nov 8, 2012 9:23 am • linkreport

John's comments above are eloquent and correct.

But a politician being mealy mouthed to protect a system of revenue? Who heard of such a thing.

Another good reform would be to force DC to publish the number of tickets written for each camera every month.

Chevy Chase also takes in an inordinate amount of money from the cameras on Connecticut Avenue. However, I can see the purpose there and also some of the benefits. There are certainly places where speed cameras to control speeding can be useful. However, the current system does seem more biased towards revenue generation than safety concerns.

by charlie on Nov 8, 2012 9:24 am • linkreport

Speed limits and red-light running are enforced to the near exclusion of all other traffic laws because they are so much easier to enforce--at least they do correlate to some extent with some related forms of aggressive driving. Most taxpayers simply don't want to spend alot of money on traffic enforcement, but they will go along with enforcement with no net cost or a revenue surplus.

Maybe some other infractions will be successfully enforced with cameras. Speeding is probably the only infraction that is so ubiquitous that it can pay to have a human being do the enforcing. By lowering the cost per enforcement, cameras may make it possible to enforce other laws--but some of the more important laws are very difficult to enforce automatically.

A few occasional stings for crosswalk violations, passing too closely, etc., can probably be afforded, and would have some impact, though I personally prefer designating some roads for zero tolerance and hoping that drivers who drive safely on a single road will eventually carry that behavior over.

Is there a cost-effective way to enforce the cell phone and texting rules? Personally, I'd like it if every new car were equipped with a flashing green light that would turn on when a mobile communication device was in use--but that will never happen.

by Jim T on Nov 8, 2012 10:10 am • linkreport

Speed limits on city streets should certainly be set with pedestrians and bicycles in mind and 25 is pretty reasonable, except on major thoroughfares.

25 is actually too high for most residential neighborhoods (e.g. Capitol Hill). The fact that we give drivers a "cushion" to let them exceed the posted speed limit means
the de facto legal limit is 30-35 mph. For residential neighborhoods, that's completely unacceptable.

You should lobby your Council to have the mobile speed camera under the East Capitol 295 underpass ("monitored" by a napping MPD police officer) moved to the area near Eastern High School where there are homes, schools, churches, and businesses.

There's no point in moving it at this time because most people drive under 35 mph on E Capitol. We need to either reduce the posted speed limit to take into account the "cushion" or eliminate the cushion altogether.

by oboe on Nov 8, 2012 10:21 am • linkreport

@oboe, the "cushion" exists with automated enforcement b/c it isn't worth ticketing people within 5 MPH of a posted limit. Lots of margin for error on both the car and the speed camera. DC decided it wasn't worth the number of appeals, and set it a bit higher. at 5-10, you get out that range but it awful hard for me to tell, for instance, if I am going 35 or 36 or 37 on an analog guage. Very easy to see if I am going 40.

@jimT, no feasibile enforcement on texting that I know of. Easy to throw the book at you if you cause a fatal accident while on the phone. I don't know how you prove texting. I also doubt texting is much worse than looking at your GPS, touch screen radio, looking for a coke, yelling at your kid....all are bad, some are illegal.

by charlie on Nov 8, 2012 10:42 am • linkreport

I don't agree with John's comments because he sets up an either-or condition when the proper condition is and-and-and. (1) speeds can be and are a problem (2) so is lack of enforcement (3) or more accurately, reckless driving in the urban context and lack of enforcement.

Reckless driving in the urban context is complicated by the fact that (1) speeds on the freeways are set "too low" but wouldn't be an issue if there weren't speed cameras; (2) in a suburban-dominated driving environment, most drivers aren't accustomed to have to drive slower in urbanized areas; (3) in most of DC, it's inappropriate to drive faster than 25mph (most residential streets and neighborhood commercial districts); and (4) there is almost no signage at the entrances to the city explaining prevailing speed limits (

While I think that the recent effort by CMs Bowser and Wells to lower the speed limit on residential streets to 15mph was misguided, in a way, it was the flip side of doing what John suggests, which is upping the enforcement on dangerous driving in the urban context.

Instead of doing that though, they proposed a speed limit that is mostly unenforceable and will be rampantly violated with little effect, thereby adding to problems rather than limiting them.

I didn't know about the TRB report, I'll check it out.

The guide I recommend a lot (but already needs updating) is Pennsylvania's Smart Transportation Guidebook, which recommends setting roadway, roadside, and desired speed characteristics according to land use context and whether or not the roadway serves local or regional traffic.

Basically, most of the city is best treated with 25mph or lower speeds. In Graz/Europe, they apply roughly a 20mph speed limit to these types of roads:

I have written before that some parts of Chevy Chase, MD have a 20mph limit, which is the only place I've seen a lower than 25mph posted limit (other than DC alleys, where the speed limit is 15mph).

Note that in the last couple weeks, I've also written about NYC's neighborhood slow zone program:

by Richard Layman on Nov 8, 2012 10:59 am • linkreport

the "cushion" exists with automated enforcement b/c it isn't worth ticketing people within 5 MPH of a posted limit. Lots of margin for error on both the car and the speed camera.
This is correct and I think most people are OK with 5MPH of leeway.

DC decided it wasn't worth the number of appeals, and set it a bit higher. at 5-10, you get out that range but it awful hard for me to tell, for instance, if I am going 35 or 36 or 37 on an analog guage. Very easy to see if I am going 40.

Yeah except then you're just tacking on another cushion to the 5MPH cushion we've already established. The initial cushion exists so you can drive the speed limit (30MPH) and you have some leeway with speedometer inaccuracy or whatever. But then you're just following what has now become protocol (EVERYONE drives the speed limit plus the enforcement cushion to start with) with an additional cushion! That doesn't make sense.

Sure it's hard for you to tell if you're going 35, or 36, or 37, but you should be driving no faster than 30 to begin with so I don't see why you're driving at any of those on purpose.

Speed "Limit" means "a prescribed maximum" speed, it doesn't mean "suggested speed to drive at."

by MLD on Nov 8, 2012 11:17 am • linkreport

@MLD; no, I'm explaining why they set these things at 10 MPH. Yes, if we have digital dashes it might be different but I am pretty sure you don't we starting at an analog guage trying to decide if I am at 34 or 36. My car at least it only marked every 10 MPH, with a special marking at 55 - yes, it is that old.

My point is it is very easy for speed cameras to be off 1-2 MPH, and it also very common for your speedometer to be off the same amount.

This reminds me of discussion on madatory helmets -- the ostensible argument is safety, the reality is trying to make an activiy so burdensome peole don't engage. Or hell, voter iD.

by charlie on Nov 8, 2012 11:26 am • linkreport

My point is it is very easy for speed cameras to be off 1-2 MPH, and it also very common for your speedometer to be off the same amount.

Right, so 1-2 plus 1-2 is 2-4MPH of error. So that easily fits within a 5MPH enforcement cushion.

What I am saying is that if the speed limit is 30, then enforcement starts at 35, and there is no reason you should ever be driving 36 accidentally, because you are supposed to be driving 30 or below.

If enforcement starts at 35, then you shouldn't be trying to drive exactly 35, you should be trying to drive the speed limit, which is 30.

by MLD on Nov 8, 2012 11:34 am • linkreport

Regarding the "cushion" -- drivers are responsible for the accuracy of their speedometers. As far as the law is concerned, all that is needed is that the uncertainty of the measurement puts it beyond doubt that a driver is exceeding the lawful speed limit. For a well calibrated radar gun the uncertainty is usually +2/-1 mph. So if the speed limit is 30, and a radar gun measures 33 mph, then there is no doubt that the driver was breaking the law -- and should get a ticket.

So the enforcement cushion should really be around 3 mph.

by goldfish on Nov 8, 2012 11:55 am • linkreport

@MLD; ok, got your point. Thanks.

in reply to both you and goldfish, it is a decion the police take on what percent of tickets would be contested on that cushion. At 1 MPH you're going to get more than at 10.

There is also the PR factor.

Another useful measure would be a one time warning on the speed camera; again you're looking at a revenue drop.

by charlie on Nov 8, 2012 12:19 pm • linkreport

@charlie: I thought the speed camera tickets were basically unbeatable. At least I have never heard of one being wiped out in a hearing.

by goldfish on Nov 8, 2012 12:25 pm • linkreport

@ceefer66--Do you have a link to a Google Street View image that shows such a prohibition sign? I've looked at several freeway entrances and haven't seen any. By contrast, Google Street View reveals all manner of other signs, prohibiting hazardous cargo, designating snow emergency routes, setting speed limits, and the like. I also can't recall seeing any while about in DC, and have generally been paying attention to this feature of DC traffic laws for several years. Do you have a citation to a section of the DC Code or DCMR that establishes these prohibitions?

I know of some signs (e.g. on the construction of the NY-Ave bridge over the Amtrak tracks) that prohibit pedestrians, but I'm talking about bicycles.

by thm on Nov 8, 2012 3:36 pm • linkreport


Tell me how to link to this page.

by ceefer66 on Nov 8, 2012 4:46 pm • linkreport

In the top right corner of streetview there is a paper clip looking button that allows you to link to a location.

Not sure how embed offhand

by Drumz on Nov 8, 2012 8:19 pm • linkreport

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