We Vote With Our Gas Pedals

Photo by sanbeiji

It’s been my good luck to travel on business to many great cities in Northern Europe. And these cities–Copenhagen, Amsterdam, Brugge, Dusseldorf, and Hamburg–have one thing in common: people come first, cars come second. It’s a hassle to drive but a pleasure to walk, bike and take public transit. As a direct result they are desirable places to live and be a tourist. While we could throw many American cities into this list of livable cities–San Francisco, Buenos Aires, Portland, Davis, New York come to mind–I doubt anyone would include my hometown of Los Angeles. LA, while not the worst city in the world, is the poster child for car-centric planning and general ugliness. When I’m away I question the sanity of getting back on the plane to return.

But since I always return I feel compelled to at least try to make the place more livable. Last year I joined with bike activists Stephen Box and Josef Bray-Ali to speak at a Los Angeles City Council transportation subcommittee meeting to oppose a routine bunch of speed limit increases. Here’s how the whole sorry process plays out. First, Detroit sells (or used to sell) insanely over-powered cars that turn soccer moms into NASCAR drivers. To protect the rights of these speed addled motorists, many states, including California, have seen fit to pass “Speed Trap” laws requiring cities to establish a street’s speed limit based on the 85th percentile of average speed in order to use radar or laser enforcement. In other words, as one LA Department of Transportation engineer put it, “we vote with our gas pedals.” So we engineer cars for speed, engineer the streets for speed, and then raise the speed limits to match. If the 85th percentile is 50 mph on a residential street, the city raises the speed limit. If they don’t the cops can’t use radar. Or so they say. One LADOT official said that he’d “raise the limits anyways.”

Thankfully, those of you in California can help change this ridiculous situation.

1. Write a letter to your State representative and urge them to support Assistant Majority Leader Paul Krekorian’s AB766 “Safe Streets” bill which will reform our silly speed trap laws.

2. Box and his wife Enci will be traveling to Sacramento to lobby for this bill. They’d love to have your letters of support to take with them. Email your letter of support to: [email protected]

3. Follow Stephen and Enci’s journey on Twitter, on Facebook, on their blogs at illuminateLA and at SoapBoxLA.

Let’s make our streets safe for our children and senior citizens. Support AB766!

Leave a comment


  1. While this bill is obviously an improvement, studies have shown that enforcement alone is not sufficient to reduce driving speeds (there are just too many streets to be policed by the existing force, and the priority of this enforcement is low). The only way to get people to drive slower overall is to engineer the streets to be friendly to pedestrians and cyclists, and (gasp) unfriendly to drivers: speed humps, roundabounts, chicanes, etc. Unfortunately, those modifications are anathema to most traffic engineers and drivers, and actually cost money to implement. 🙁

  2. here’s another radical idea… include ALL road users in the average… cyclists and pedestrians are users too, and conveniently travel at much more sensible speeds. Find out what day they’re surveying the streets (good luck with that one) and mass up with a bunch of outliers!

    But seriously, this sucks… but as the previous commenter notes, a law is only as good as it’s enforcement. Here in Chicago, the speed limit on most roads is 25-35… but many wider major streets might as well be expressways. Can’t tell you how many times my heart has skipped a beat as some homacidal maniac roars past me with inches to spare (ignoring another of our laws, the vulnerable users bill mandating 3 feet of passing distance… often while breaking the unenforced cell-phone ban as well). Oh, sigh. Good luck with this one!

  3. I too live in this ugliness that’s called Los Angeles and I also would love to make this place into a “walking” city, I don’t think it’s right, however, to find fault in the cars we drive or even necessarily the roads. Much of the loveliness that gives you your pristine European town also gives you BMW, Mercedes, and the Autoban… Not claiming to know the solution, but just a word of caution as we search for the best option. Perhaps we up our competency requirements for obtaining a license like they do in most European countries???

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