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Upper West Side Speed Limit Should be Lowered to 20 MPH, Advocates Say

Lincoln Center is busier than ever, with events like Fashion Week drawing thousands to the neighborhood.
Lincoln Center is busier than ever, with events like Fashion Week drawing thousands to the neighborhood.
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DNAinfo/Leslie Albrecht

UPPER WEST SIDE — Most New Yorkers only slow down to sleep — but a group of Upper West Side advocates is trying to lower the speed limit in their neighborhood to force motorists to drive at a leisurely 20 mph.

The street safety and cycling advocacy group Upper West Side Streets Renaissance is leading a grassroots effort to get the city to permanently lower the neighborhood's speed limit from 30 mph — the citywide standard — to 20 mph.

The movement comes as the Upper West Side's 20th Precinct saw a 14 percent increase in pedestrian accidents and injuries in 2011 compared to 2010, cops said recently. More recent data wasn't immediately available.

Putting the brakes on speeding cars could significantly improve safety, according to UWSSR director Lisa Sladkus. She was inspired to start the slow-down movement after the Department of Transportation rolled out its Slow Zone program, which creates 20 mph zones in small sections of specific neighborhoods, especially areas with schools, senior centers and daycare centers.

The DOT says that contrary to popular belief, slowing traffic doesn't cause more congestion, and forcing drivers to move at a more stately pace reduces the risk of injuries from traffic accidents.

Neighborhoods must apply for the Slow Zone program and must designate a five-block by five-block area for the Slow Zone. But Sladkus said she couldn't choose just one part of the Upper West Side to get the potentially life-saving improvement. "I felt sort of a moral obligation to not pick out a five block by five block area," Sladkus said.

Instead she decided to launch an effort to get the 20 mph zone installed across the entire Upper West Side. The movement's tag line, "20's Best for Upper West" was inspired in part by "20's Plenty," a similar effort in the United Kingdom that's been adopted in many towns.

Though she hasn't been able to find neighborhood-level data on speed-related accidents, Sladkus said her research on the effects of speeding has only bolstered her belief that a 20 mph zone would make the neighborhood much safer for kids and seniors.

Pedestrians who get hit by a car driving 20 mph have a 98 percent chance of survival, Sladkus said. At 30 mph, the chance of survival drops to 80 percent, and at 40 mph, there's a 30 percent of survival.

Getting hit by a car is the leading cause of death for New York City children between the ages of 1 and 14, Sladkus said. "That's astounding," Sladkus said. "Most parents wouldn't think that's the leading cause of death among children."

Speeding is also a bigger factor in car accidents than most people realize, Sladkus said.  Though many people assume texting or drunk driving is to blame, speeding is the primary cause of most fatal crashes, she said.

Sladkus' next step is to gather grassroots support for the 20 mph limit, starting with schools and senior centers. She's put together a fact sheet to spread the word. So far the Trinity School on West 91st between Columbus and Amsterdam avenues, P.S. 75 on West End Avenue and West 96th Street, and Metropolitan Montessori on West 85th Street and West End Avenue have joined the cause.

Community Board 7's Youth, Education and Libraries committee recently expressed support for the lower speed limit, too.

One Community Board 7 member at the committee meeting said he had doubts about the idea, because he often needs to drive fast when he's late for work in the morning. But so far Sladkus said she's gotten positive feedback from people she's approached.

Sladkus said a cab driver recently told her he always drives 20 mph because it's less stressful and it saves about $40 a shift in fuel costs. Sladkus is hoping to build momentum for the campaign and eventually get elected officials on board.

"When you talk about it, it's pretty universally accepted that in an urban environment, 30 mph is too fast," Sladkus said.

A Department of Transportation official declined to comment specifically on the 20 mph speed limit proposal, but noted that DOT recently completed a comprehensive study of traffic on the Upper West Side and is now making safety upgrades to remedy danger spots.

The safety improvements include shrinking the width of lanes in locations where cars are known to speed, extending curbs, shortening crosswalks and creating pedestrian islands.