Fayette County

Council members ask: Should Lexington lower downtown speed limits from 35 to 25 mph?

The speed limit is 35 mph on East Third Street, one of the streets in question. The Urban County Council declined to vote on a change to 25 mph.
The speed limit is 35 mph on East Third Street, one of the streets in question. The Urban County Council declined to vote on a change to 25 mph. Herald-Leader

A proposal to lower the speed limit to 25 miles per hour on city streets in downtown Lexington hit a speed bump last week. But those backing the effort for pedestrian safety say they will continue to push for the change.

A committee of the Lexington Urban County Council declined to vote on the issue Tuesday after some council members said they were not convinced that slowing traffic will result in fewer pedestrian accidents downtown.

Dowell Hoskins-Squier, director of traffic engineering for Lexington, said she plans to return to the council in coming months with additional data about pedestrian accidents and the number of cities that have lowered speed limits.

"We are still going to move forward," Hoskins-Squier said.

The recommendation to lower the speed limit from 35 to 25 miles per hour on more than a dozen streets came out of a pedestrian safety work group that has been meeting since October, when the city saw an increase in the number of pedestrians hit by vehicles downtown.

The streets include Jefferson, Second, Third, Fourth, Upper, Limestone, Waller Avenue, Cooper Drive, Virginia Avenue and portions of High Street and Loudon Avenue. Streets that are also state highways — such as Main, Vine and Broadway — would not be included unless the state agrees.

According to information provided by the Lexington Police Department, there were 164 accidents involving pedestrians and vehicles in 2014, down slightly from 174 in 2013. But the five-year average shows a gradual increase in the number of pedestrians hit by vehicles, said Hoskins-Squier.

Moreover, the number of pedestrian-related fatalities has steadily increased nationwide, Hoskins-Squier said.

"Ped-vehicular fatalities are increasing as a total percentage of all fatalities nationwide," Hoskins-Squier told the Urban County Council's Environmental Quality and Public Works Committee on Tuesday.

Slower speeds increases stopping distance. The faster someone is driving, the longer it takes for them to stop. By decreasing speeds from 35 to 25 miles per hour, the chances of a pedestrian being hit and killed drops dramatically, Hoskins-Squier said.

Lexington Police Sgt. Ron Keaton explained it another way. A pedestrian takes on the speed of the vehicle that hits him or her. If a car is going 40 miles per hour, that speed is transferred to the pedestrian, which means they will be thrown at a speed of 40 miles per hour. That's why so many pedestrians die if they are hit at a high rate of speed, Keaton said.

The Lexington Police Department supports lowering the speed limits, Keaton said on Tuesday.

The Kentucky Transportation Cabinet has not agreed to lower the speed limit on the downtown streets it maintains, said Chuck Wolfe, a spokesman for the cabinet.

Broadway, Main, Vine and several other streets carry traffic for state-maintained roads such as U.S. 25, U.S. 27, U.S. 60, U.S. 68 and U.S. 421.

"No formal response yet, but our engineers have informally expressed doubts about it," Wolfe said. "The cabinet's speed studies for downtown Lexington all indicate the current speed limits are appropriate."

Hoskins-Squier said even if the state does not agree to lower those speed limits, the city should lower speed limits on the streets that it does control.

Louisville's downtown speed limits is 25 — even on state-controlled roads. That's largely because the city lowered the speed limit decades ago, Hoskins-Squier said.

Many on council said during Tuesday's meeting that they were concerned the city is pushing the proposed change through the council, when neighborhoods that want to decrease speed limits must jump through several hoops, including gathering signatures of people who support the change.

But Hoskins-Squier said neighborhood traffic management and downtown pedestrian safety are two different issues. "We have a lot more pedestrians walking downtown than we do in the suburbs," she said.

Others said that they weren't convinced that speed was a factor in all pedestrian-related traffic accidents. Councilman Russ Hensley said the accident data shows that many of the pedestrian versus car accidents were on Broadway. Does the city know that speed was a factor in all of those accidents? Perhaps the city should consider looking at the pedestrian crossing patterns on Broadway before it tries to decrease speeds on all city-owned streets downtown, Hensley said.

"I think you're throwing out the baby with the bath water," Hensley said.

Hoskins-Squier said officials have looked at the pedestrian crossing patterns on Broadway, and there could be improvements. However, that road is controlled by the state. There are other city-owned streets that also need pedestrian crossing improvements, she said.

Hensley, who has worked downtown for 17 years, said downtown office workers he had spoken to about the proposal are opposed to it. Hensley and other council members said Tuesday they were not comfortable voting on the proposal because there has not been enough public input or comment.

The University of Kentucky, however, supports the idea and has already agreed to decrease speed limits on streets it controls — University Drive and Hilltop Avenue, Hoskins-Squier said.

Some on council said Tuesday they support the proposal — including two councilmen whose districts include several streets that would be affected.

Councilman James Brown, who represents the north side, said some of his constituents complain that in neighborhoods the speed limit on some streets is 25 miles per hour but then switches to 35 miles per hour closer to downtown. Brown asked that North Limestone between Loudon Avenue and New Circle Road and portions of Bryan Avenue also be included in the move to lower speed limits.

Councilman Jake Gibbs, whose district includes much of central downtown and many nearby neighborhoods, said he, too, supports the efforts to slow traffic. Gibbs, who walks from his home to city hall and to his job at Bluegrass Community and Technical College, said slowing traffic not only benefits pedestrians, but also the city itself.

"Safety is the primary concern here," Gibbs said. But businesses could also benefit, he said.

"If we lower the speed limit, I think people are more willing to sit at an outdoor cafe. It improves the feel of an area."