A turn off the busy lanes of Southern Boulevard in the Bronx promptly takes a driver off that roadway onto the mostly residential streets of Claremont. Two months ago, drivers barely took their feet off the gas pedal as they made the turn. Now, however, they are greeted by hard-to-miss 20 mph signs and large white numbers painted on the street’s asphalt. If those signs don’t catch drivers’ attention, the speed bumps will.
The New York City Department of Transportation (DOT) launched a Neighborhood Slow Zone program this fall that reduces speed limits from 30 mph to 20 mph and adds safety measures, such as speed bumps, within a select area. The first and currently only existing Slow Zone in the city was created in the Claremont section of the Bronx in late November. A 20 mph zone program in London has already proven to reduce vehicle speeds and accidents by as much as 40 percent. Now several neighborhoods in Brooklyn are applying for their own Neighborhood Slow Zones, hoping for the same results.
“Apparently there is a practice among drivers to drive more than the speed limit suggests is legal. One of the ideas is that if we lower the speed limit to 20 then maybe people will adhere to that or at least recognize that they’re in a residential area,” says Ben Petok, communications director for Brooklyn Councilman Stephen Levin, who is supporting the Slow Zone applications of three Brooklyn neighborhoods—Boerum Hill, Park Slope and Brooklyn Heights.
The New York City speed limit is 30 mph, but reduced speed zones exist directly in front of schools. The Slow Zone program, however, creates a whole area, around a quarter of a mile (approximately five by five blocks), where the speed limit is 20.
Drivers know they are entering a Slow Zone with standard speed limit signs, as well as gateways. Speed bumps also decrease vehicle speed, calm traffic and remind drivers that they are in a 20 mph zone, says DOT press secretary Scott Gastel.
New York City has reduced the number of traffic fatalities by 35 percent compared to 2001, according to the August 2010 New York City Pedestrian Safety Study & Action Plan. But the city wants to lower them even more.
In order to make its streets even safer city officials looked towards another major international city, London. A study that measures the effect of 20 mph traffic speed zones on road injuries in London from 1986 to 2006 found that 20 mph zones led to approximately a 40 percent reduction in road accidents and fatalities, and the number of serious injuries or deaths in children were reduced by half.
Using the British program as a model, the DOT selected an area in the South Bronx as its first Slow Zone because of its crash statistics, community interest and easily definable borders, says Gastel. He adds that at this time it’s still in an evaluation period.
But in a little over two months, residents are already seeing its impact.
Joanne Morales, who has a young daughter and lives in a building just inside the zone, says the Slow Zone is definitely making a big difference, and now cars slow down and stop instead of speeding.
“It helps since we’ve got kids crossing and coming out of schools,” says Ruben Cadet, who also lives in the Claremont Slow Zone. But he adds that the speed bumps are the measure that is really slowing down drivers rather than the 20 mph signs.
Anna Rivera, a driver who resides in the Slow Zone, admits that she is now driving slower because of the speed bumps, and notices that there are fewer accidents and speeding cars.
Her friend Jimmy DeJesus agrees with her, but adds that the zone hasn’t stopped every driver from speeding. Still, he is happy with the results.
Other areas in the city, including four in Brooklyn, submitted applications last week for their own Slow Zones. Any neighborhood can apply, and the DOT will consider factors such as crash data, proposed borders, presence of schools, senior centers, daycare centers and small parks in the zone, and letters of support.
“Why these specific neighborhoods would be good homes for Slow Zones is really because they are family neighborhoods with a lot of parents with small children, with school-aged children who walk to their local schools and it’s a safety hazard to have cars speeding through,” says Petok.
The aim of Slow Zones, in addition to lowering the number of accidents, is to reduce noise and traffic in residential neighborhoods, says Gastel. Cut through traffic—cars taking short cuts to avoid busier streets—have plagued some Brooklyn neighborhoods, such as Prospect Heights, which are near major Brooklyn roadways and the Atlantic Yards construction site, the future home of the Barclays Center.
“Given our location surrounded by major arterial roads, Prospect Heights experiences substantial cut-through traffic and, with our long blocks, drivers often speed in order to make it through the next traffic light before it turns to red,” says Tom Boast, vice president of the Prospect Heights Neighborhood Development Council and head of the Prospect Heights Neighborhood Slow Zone Application Committee.
Strong support for these zones from residents, community groups and local politicians was evident at a January 21 informational meeting held in Park Slope ahead of the DOT’s Feb. 3 Slow Zone application deadline.
Eric McClure, president of Park Slope Neighbors, one of the community groups that sponsored the meeting, says that “overwhelming the people [at the meeting] who thought it was a good idea felt that it would make the streets safer and that they consider vehicle speeds an issue of concern in the community.”
The Brooklyn Paper recently reported that some residents in Greenwood Heights are against a Park Slope Slow Zone because they believe once vehicles leave the 20 mph area and enter their neighborhood they will start speeding. But the earlier mentioned study on London’s 20 mph zones found that no evidence of road fatalities migrating to adjacent areas, and that traffic deaths in those places fell by an average of 8 percent.
McClure has encouraged Greenwood Heights to apply for their own 20 mph area. “It would be nice if we were just on big contiguous neighborhood Slow Zone,” he says.