ITHACA, N.Y. — Between 2008 and 2017, there were 182 serious injury crashes and five fatalities in the City of Ithaca. This week, the city embraced the “Vision Zero” strategy and set the goal to reduce traffic deaths and serious injuries to zero. One way the city is hoping to move toward that goal is by lowering speed limits.

Ithaca Common Council passed a resolution Wednesday embracing the internationally recognized Vision Zero strategy that follows the philosophy “that everyone has the right to move safely in their communities.” As Eric Hathaway, city transportation engineer, wrote in a letter to support the resolution, the strategy is a “non-traditional approach to safety that requires a shift in how communities approach decisions, actions, attitudes and safe mobility. … and focuses on influencing system-wide practices, policies, and designs to lessen the severity of crashes.”

The concept of Vision Zero originated in Sweden in 1997. Instead of faulting drivers, bicyclists or others who use the roads, it places responsibility on the overall system design, according to the Center for Active Design. It’s been considered successful as Sweden has one of the lowest annual rates of road deaths in the world. The concept has since spread far beyond Sweden and Europe and has been picked up by more and more cities. New York City adopted the strategy in 2013 and has successfully made some road safety changes. Recently, Mayor De Blasio announced by the end of 2019, the city will change traffic signals to discourage speeding and give pedestrians exclusive crossing time at 300 intersections.

What could this philosophy in action look like for Ithaca? So far, the city is pursuing one idea: lowering the area-wide speed limit from 30 miles per hour to 25 miles per hour. And in some places, to 20 miles per hour.

Lowering the speed limit wouldn’t necessarily affect many drivers because the engineering office said when it studied 20 locations, they found that on many streets, people already travel under the speed limit.

Streets Alive 2017

Though it would be a small reduction in speed, research by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety indicates that lowering the speed limit by even 5 miles per hour — which would add 24 seconds per mile for a commuter —can improve safety for drivers, pedestrians and bicyclists. The research was based on a study that focused on Boston, which lowered the speed limit on city streets from 30 miles per hour to 25 miles per hour.

The study found that lowering the default speed limit to 25 miles per hour reduced the estimated odds of a vehicle exceeding 35 mph by 29 percent; 30 mph by 8.5 percent; and 25 mph by 2.9 percent.

But, though local officials are in agreement about reducing the speed limit on city streets, enacting a change is not be as simple as passing a local resolution. New York law does not allow communities to establish city-wide speed limits under 30 miles per hour. In addition to giving the OK to the Vision Zero strategy, Common Council approved a resolution requesting New York to amend the law to allow communities to establish city-wide speed limits as low as 25 miles per hour.

Hathaway said as part of their next steps, they will reach out to other communities like Binghamton and Elmira that may be interested in joining the effort to lobby for power to lower speed limits.

Now that they are officially getting Vision Zero off the ground, Hathaway said one of the next steps will be to dig deeper into data about crash trends and traffic incidents. Though there is a statewide system with crash data, it’s not a complete picture, especially when it comes to pedestrians and bicyclists. To build a better picture of traffic safety, Hathaway said they hope to work with the public health community and police, as well as the general public to hear anecdotes and perceptions about traffic in the city.

“What I’d want the community to know is that our office and the whole city considers safety to be something important and that’s why we’re spending a lot of time on it and that they are going to be an important part of the solution because we’re going to be looking for their input,” Hathaway said.

Featured image: City speed limit sign in West Spencer Street in Ithaca. (Kelsey O’Connor/The Ithaca Voice)

Kelsey O'Connor

Kelsey O'Connor is the managing editor for the Ithaca Voice. Questions? Story tips? Contact her at koconnor@ithacavoice.com and follow her on Twitter @bykelseyoconnor.