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New 'Slow Zones' Make NYC Streets Safer and Greener

This week, New York City opened its first neighborhood slow zone, where slower speed limits make roads more accessible to anyone not in a car.

This week, New York City opened its first neighborhood slow zone, a six-block-square area of the Bronx where the speed limit is now 20 mph, compared to 30 in the rest of the city. Signs declaring the slow zone designation mark the entrances to this area, while "20 MPH" is painted in tall letters at regular intervals on the street as a reminder. Speed bumps help enforce the new rule.

The neighborhood is mostly residential, with a high concentration of schools and a history of injuries and fatalities. The city's transportation commission, Janette Sadik-Khan, spoke at the opening ceremony for slow zone about how it will make the streets safer. But it will also make them greener: slower speed limits make roads more accessible to anyone not in a car.

After the criticism she's endured for her support of bike lanes, Sadik-Khan may not be eager to talk about that advantage of slow zones. But the inspiration for the designation can be traced back to an interest in alternative forms of transportation. One of the most vocal groups advocating for the idea, 20’s Plenty For Us, is based in England, where cities including London have taken up slow zones. Rod King, the group's founder, started promoting the idea of 20-mph speed limit after visiting a German town famous for its bike friendliness. The town didn’t have any particularly fancy bike infrastructure, just a speed limit of 30 kilometers per hour (roughly equivalent to 20 mph).

The real triumph of slow zones is that they acknowledge that streets don't need to be reserved for cars. The more they're used for other forms for transportation, the more people will feel safe trading in one form of wheels for another. In New York, I see people biking, walking, running, skateboarding, scootering, and rollerblading, but mostly on the sidewalks or, now, in bike lanes. Green transportation advocates support measures like traffic calming and slow zones because they open up the streets and indirectly promote the use of alternative forms of transportation.

"You don't need any fancy new electric cars" in order to green transportation, says Mark Gorton, the creator of LimeWire and a transportation activist who’s backed projects like Streetsblog and Transportation Alternatives, the New York advocacy group. "We don’t really have pedestrian streets. We don’t really have tools that actually protect residential neighborhoods from traffic."

The slow zones are a step in that direction. The safer residents feel in their own neighborhoods, the more likely they are to use the streets for activities other than driving. London has 400 of these zones, while the one in the Bronx is the first of many New York City is planning: community boards, business districts, and other neighborhood groups can now apply for the designation. In March, the city will choose among the applications, and by July, the Department of Transportation intends to get to work on more.

Photo via (cc) Flickr user amandabhslater

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