The default speed limit on Denver’s unposted streets may soon be lowered after the City Council safety committee advanced the change Wednesday.
If passed, the measure would reduce the default speed on unposted city streets from 25 mph to 20 mph. This would apply most specifically to neighborhood streets with no center line. The full council will hold two final votes on the proposal in the coming weeks.
The proposal comes five years after Mayor Michael Hancock declared Denver’s commitment to Vision Zero in 2016, aiming to end fatalities and serious injuries on city streets. Since the declaration, about 380 people have died in traffic crashes in Denver.
“We know that the faster a vehicle is moving, the more serious injuries are when a crash occurs,” said Councilman Paul Kashmann, who sponsored the proposal. “We’re moving in the wrong direction.”
This year has been Denver’s worst year for traffic fatalities since 2016, with 77 people dying so far, according to the Denver Streets Partnership.
The proposal received unanimous support Wednesday from council members and community members during the public hearing; however, many raised concerns about whether the speed limit decrease would be effective.
During the meeting, Ron Thomas, a division chief with the Denver Police Department, said the agency supports the proposal but would not delegate resources to enforce it, saying police would instead focus on public education regarding the speed limit decrease.
“Our streets are still built for higher speeds than 20 mph, especially local streets, and with Chief Thomas saying we’re going to concentrate on education rather than enforcement, I’m concerned,” said Councilman Kevin Flynn. "What’s our expectation that drivers will comply?”
Kashmann said the proposal would only be a first step in Denver's solutions to speeding and unsafe traffic conditions. He said engineering solutions, like curb extensions and roundabouts, could come soon after.
“There’s no illusion that dropping neighborhood speeds from 25 to 20 is the single silver bullet needed to reduce the chaos on Denver streets,” Kashmann said. “It’s the beginning in a change of culture and way of thinking that we need to slow down.”
While the proposal would only apply to unposted city streets, the Denver Department of Transportation said it would also decrease the speed limits of posted neighborhood streets from 25 mph to 20 mph if the proposal passes.
The Department of Transportation has the power to lower posted speed limits itself, but only the City Council can change default speed limits for unposted streets.
Other council members questioned whether the new speed limits could cause issues by creating inconsistency between the posted speed limits in neighborhoods, especially in underserved neighborhoods and communities of color.
“We don’t even have consistency now in our signage on our streets,” said Council President Stacie Gilmore. “In Montbello, you’re going down the east side and it says one speed limit, and you’re going down the west side and it says another speed limit.”
The Department of Transportation said it would work to update all signage and it plans to move many speed limit signs to the entrance of neighborhoods instead of inside. If the proposal passes, the sign transition would begin in 2022 and cost between $1.2 million and $1.5 million.
Other council members spoke about the difficulty of maintaining 20 mph while driving on Denver’s wide roads and concerns that the speed limit decrease would slow down delivery trucks or be used by police to target people in neighborhoods of color.
If passed, the proposal would also reduce speed limits in city parks from 20 mph to 15 mph. This change would bring the ordinance in line with existing policy as Denver Parks and Recreation established the 15 mph speed limit several years ago.