The default speed limit on Denver’s unposted streets will soon be lowered from 25 mph to 20 mph after the Denver City Council approved the change Monday.
The approved measure will reduce the default speed on city streets where no limit is posted, applying most specifically to neighborhood streets with no center line. The Department of Transportation said it will also decrease the speed limits of posted neighborhood streets to 20 mph beginning in 2022.
The change, aiming to make Denver’s streets safer, was passed in an 11 to 1 vote, with one council member absent and Councilwoman Kendra Black voting no. Black argued that the speed limit change would not be worth the cost of replacing signs.
“My problem with this bill is that it will trigger spending $1.5 million from our Vision Zero budget on new 20 mph signs,” Black said. “Our most dangerous streets by far are our arterial streets. … With finite resources, funds should be prioritized to address the issues on our arterials.”
Arterial streets — high-capacity urban roads — make up 16% of Denver streets but account for 80% of pedestrian fatalities, 69% of biker fatalities, 75% of pedestrian injuries and 71% of biker injuries, according to the Department of Transportation. In contrast, local streets make up 66% of Denver streets and account for 10% of bike and pedestrian incidents.
Black said high-injury streets like Federal Boulevard, Colorado Boulevard and Hampden Avenue need to be updated to enhance safety, but proposed projects for the streets lack funding.
The speed limit decrease 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.
This year has been Denver’s worst year for traffic fatalities since 2016, with approximately 80 people dying so far, according to the Denver Streets Partnership. The number of traffic fatalities in 2021 inspired many of the council members to support the speed limit decrease.
“What we’re doing isn’t working,” Councilman Paul Kashmann said. “We need that message to go out loud and clear: we need to slow down.”
Several council members said they supported the measure, though they doubted how effective it would be, saying the city also needs to focus on speed limit enforcement and engineering solutions, like curb extensions and roundabouts.
During a committee meeting, Denver Police Division Chief Ron Thomas said the agency supports the speed limit change but would not delegate resources to enforce it, saying police would instead focus on public education regarding the speed limit decrease.
“If we’re not enforcing the 25 mph default speed limit, we might as well not be enforcing the 20 mph speed limit,” Councilman Kevin Flynn said. “The most effective way to slow down traffic is to stop building our streets so that they induce higher speeds.”
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.
Monday’s vote will also reduce speed limits in city parks from 20 mph to 15 mph. This brings the city ordinance in line with existing policy as Denver Parks and Recreation established the 15 mph speed limit several years ago.