Here’s how PBOT will take advantage of new speed limit setting authority (and how you can too)

ODOT graphic on how the new process will work.

Now that the City of Portland has more authority to set its own speed limits, I was curious how it will play out inside the transportation bureau. So I fired off a few questions to Portland Bureau of Transportation (PBOT) Public Information Officer Dylan Rivera.

While I waited to hear back, I noticed that the Oregon Department of Transportation (ODOT) added a trove of information about the new process to their website about how city transportation staff must go about taking advantage of this new authority.

If you’re wonky enough to care about this type of stuff and/or an advocate who wants to better understand the new playbook when it comes to lowering speeds (which in my opinion is an important step regardless of enforcement), I think you’ll appreciate this Q & A.

BikePortland: Has PBOT prepared for this change? If so, how? 

Dylan Rivera, PBOT. (Photo: Jonathan Maus/BikePorltand)

Dylan Rivera, PBOT:  PBOT was engaged in developing ODOT’s rule for implementing this state law, which we had advocated for in the legislature.  

PBOT has played a leading role advocating for local authority to set speed limits on Portland streets for more than five years. Following passage of House Bill 2682 in 2017, which allowed for 20 mph residential speed limits in Portland, in 2018, the City of Portland began advocating in the legislature for local speed setting authority. It wasn’t until 2021 when local delegation finally passed as part of the omnibus transportation bill. In a separate process that ODOT initiated in 2018, PBOT participated in a speed zone roundtable to update the state’s speed setting rules. Speed setting previously was tied to 85th percentile travel speeds during free flow conditions. The updated rules, within cities, consider land use context, street classification and 50th percentile speeds.  

ODOT recently published an application form on their website for local speed setting control. PBOT is currently working on our application, which includes submitting a quality control plan. Our application must demonstrate that our staff are qualified, they’ve taken ODOT training and we have the capabilities to follow the required procedures.  

What type of staffing changes or internal systems will be created to deal with this need for engineering studies that must now be done at PBOT instead of ODOT? 

We’re trying to determine how much work this will entail for our planning and engineering staff. Currently, ODOT makes the decision about speed limit changes that require engineering studies. Sometimes, PBOT can propose a new speed limit and conduct its own study that justifies that request, which is followed by a decision by ODOT. Other times, PBOT can propose a new speed limit and ODOT performs the study, as well as making the decision. The ODOT studies were contingent on ODOT’s staff availability, so could take a year or more to complete. 

Under the new system, PBOT could make the decision about the speed limit change on city streets on its own, following state law. This new approach still requires a speed study, but all of them could be conducted by PBOT. 

It’s important to remember that the current process applies to any speed limit requests on city streets until PBOT is approved for the new authority. We are not sure how long that process will take. 

Will new speed limit requests be taken from anyone outside PBOT? 

Requests for speed limit changes can be made to 311 or 823-SAFE and will be evaluated by our staff. This is the longstanding customer intake process we have had. The difference with the new authority is that after PBOT considers the request, we will be able to make the speed limit change as long as we are acting within state law. We also have some PBOT guidance that helps us interpret the law. 

The new authority does not apply to state highways in the city limits, such as SE Powell Blvd or Interstate 5. 

Any general comment you’d like to make about why this is important and how PBOT will use this new law to make Portland roads safer?  

PBOT has long advocated for smarter criteria for setting speed limits. We believe that nationwide and in Oregon, traffic engineers have too often set the speed limit to accommodate the 85th percentile of free-flow traffic, rather than to support multimodal travel in urban environments. The existing criteria for setting speed limits accounts for the changes we have advocated for, including consideration of land use context.  

The new authority gives us more control over the timing of speed limit changes, which will help us be more nimble. For example — if we have a project that adds a bunch of new crosswalks, we can more easily combine that project with an adjustment to the speed limit that supports safe use of those new crosswalks. One good example is on NE 47th Avenue north of Columbia Blvd in the Cully neighborhood, funding from a Local Improvement District allowed us to rebuild and redesign the street, building sidewalks and multi-use paths on a street that previously had nothing but ditches by the side of the road.  We submitted a request on May 16 for a change from 40 to 30 mph to support this LID project that wrapped up construction a while ago. The street remains 40 mph while this request is being processed. In the future, we’d be more likely to adjust the speed limit closer to when we wrapped up construction on the project. 

We do not expect a single, large-scale change as we accomplished with our change of residential speed limits from 25 to 20 mph in 2019. This could help us adjust speed limits on streets in a timely way, as we complete new street redesigns, evaluate street eligibility using the new criteria, respond to requests from the public, and as staff identify opportunities for speed limit reductions throughout the city.  


— Check out ODOT’s new Delegated Authority for Speed Zones page to learn more.

Jonathan Maus (Publisher/Editor)

Jonathan Maus (Publisher/Editor)

If you have questions or feedback about this site or my work, feel free to contact me at @jonathan_maus on Twitter, via email at maus.jonathan@gmail.com, or phone/text at 503-706-8804. Also, if you read and appreciate this site, please become a supporter.

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blumdrew
blumdrew
5 months ago

I mean it’s so crazy that PBOT wasn’t able to set speed limits within the city, on streets that they own and maintain before very recently. And while this change is not a negative, it’s worth asking – do we really need to do a speed study at all? The speed limit on a street affects a lot more than just motor vehicles (if you believe the PBOT line about multi-modality and public space at least!), tying it to observed motor vehicle speed – even the 50th percentile – flies in the face of PBOT’s own goals and missions of centering pedestrians, cyclists, and transit.

PBOT won’t be able to make good on their promises if they only ever make small tweaks to the exisiting structures that got us into this car-centered transportation mess of a world.

Jimbo
Jimbo
5 months ago
Reply to  blumdrew

Don’t confuse what I am about to say as defending high speed limits, but I want to touch on the core issue that ODOT is probably trying to address by requiring a percentile study – a road that is designed for a high speed but has a much lower speed limit is entrapment for drivers. A road design that invites drivers to go 35-50 MPH but has a 25 MPH speed limit is dishonest from a governmental level. Installing traffic calming so that the 50th speed percentile is the desired speed limit is the correct solution.

I am newb at this, I am a computer engineer not a transportation planner so I do not know what the process here is. I will be finding out as I am on the Transportation Advisory Committee for my Portland Suburb and this is is a topic we will be covering extensively soon. I hope it will be the following:

  1. We can install traffic calming because it is our street
  2. We perform the 50th percentile speed study
  3. The rest of the flow chart

Most likely the traffic calming installation would include it’s own speed study(s) to make sure it is needed / working as intended. What I hope is that now that we have more control over speed limits, we can actually move forward with less resistance on the installation of traffic calming infrastructure. Before if we said we want a street to be 25 MPH but we know we can’t change it from 35 because ODOT effectively blocks us, then the project dies as we move onto stuff we can actually succeed at.

blumdrew
blumdrew
5 months ago
Reply to  Jimbo

I don’t agree that it’s entrapment if there is a “dishonest” speed limit based on the engineering standards. It’s perfectly reasonable to expect drivers to obey the posted speed limit rather than capitulation to how fast they “feel” they can go.

Any percentile speed limit setting is just asking drivers “how fast do you want to go?” and then implementing that. And I just don’t think that’s a good way to actually enact the change PBOT says they want to enact. If the street is being prioritized for people, bikes, and transit it makes absolutely no sense to set something like the speed limit only by observing car speeds.

The larger point is that it’s an incredibly car centric way to do things, and I think it needs to be rethought in a more holistic way

squareman
squareman
5 months ago
Reply to  Jimbo

Percentile speed surveys are so last century with regards to setting statutory speeds. They’ve led, over time, only to inching up the statutory speed limit where they are used. Most new engineers know they are bunk and many municipalities are starting to reject them.

Dave
Dave
5 months ago

Wthout increased enforcement it is nothing. How about starting bya drastic increase in fines–if it’s a hardship then you should thi k about it before you drive.

qqq
qqq
5 months ago

Yes to all of that. Another way to think of it–what would happen if the speed limit is raised on a street?

J_R
J_R
5 months ago

I regularly cycle with a group of friends and sometimes share car rides with three them. All three regularly exceed the speed limit by lots! For one, it’s just inattentiveness – he doesn’t notice when coming into a business area with a 20 mph limit, for example. The second simply drives fast – 30 on neighborhood streets! He even got a citation from photo radar this year. The third also just drives fast and said she doesn’t know what the speed limit is on most streets even though there are plenty of signs and her car’s navigation system shows the speed limit. Some of their speeding even occurs on the routes that we ride bicycles on! I’m astounded at this behavior by my cyclist friends. Besides being cyclists, they are kind, generous people who are or were professional people. Being a safe, careful driver seems not to be a priority. Maybe an occasional citation or seeing another motorist pulled over would change their priorities.

I agree that “not everyone drives like a selfish a’hole,” but the percentage who do is lots higher than it was before covid and before Portland eliminated traffic enforcement.

It’s great that you have family and friends who drive according to the number on the signs, but based on the number of people who tailgate me when I abide by the residential speed limit in Portland, I don’t think there are many of us.

Traffic fatalities are up in Portland even with the change in residential speeds. The big change is that there is zero enforcement. Maybe it’s a coincidence, but I don’t think so. Are we going to wait until we have 200 traffic fatalities per year before we start doing enforcement again?

Mauri Rocco
Mauri Rocco
5 months ago

LOL. The cultural norm in Portland is now: “you don’t need to follow the law, drive as fast as you want as there are unlikely to be any negative consequences”.

FDUP
FDUP
5 months ago
Reply to  Dave

I’d only agree to that when they dissociate fines for motorists from fines for cyclists. Right not if some cop decided you were speeding on your bike (which does happen, believe it or not!) you would pay the same fine as a motorist despite the vast disparity in risk.

J_R
J_R
5 months ago

Without enforcement, reducing the posted speed is meaningless.

rainbike
rainbike
5 months ago
Reply to  J_R

And a waste of tax payer dollars.

Jimbo
Jimbo
5 months ago
Reply to  J_R

If you need enforcement to get the majority of people to drive the posted speed limit, then the design of the road is wrong. It should not feel safe for drivers to go over the speed limit. For the small percentage that still speed, enforcement is critical but not nearly the daunting task that ticketing hundreds of people a week is (like there was in Tigard fairly recently).

TA
TA
5 months ago
Reply to  J_R

Hawthorne Blvd is a perfect example. Just got lowered to 20 and I get run over driving 25. So now I go 28 like the rest of traffic

FDUP
FDUP
5 months ago
Reply to  TA

Get out of your car maybe?

Fred
Fred
5 months ago

I agree with lowering speed limits generally, but I also agree with the posters who say that more enforcement is needed. Stop your bike and stand underneath any speed-reader board almost anywhere in Portland and watch how many cars zoom by and completely disregard the messages on the sign – like the fast-blinking “SLOW DOWN.”

We had a nice discussion under the article about “advisory bike lanes” and one theme that emerged for me was the HUGE inconsistency in street treatments in the Portland area. Likewise for speed limits – and here we are adding more. As a driver, I often have no idea what the speed limit is. I tend to drive conservatively anyway (so I have other cars on my tail about 70% of the time), so it’s not such an issue for me. But I can imagine that it’s just one more thing for drivers to be distracted by as they look at their GPS displays to find out the speed limit.

Nelson
Nelson
5 months ago

Just setting a speed limit isn’t enough. The streets need to be redesigned to make them safer with continuous sidewalks, speed bumps and traffic throttling. No one is going to pay any attention to just another sign on the street.

Mauri Rocco
Mauri Rocco
5 months ago

With near zero enforcement of speed limits in Portland does this really matter? PBOT could make the speed limit 5 mph, no one would follow it and speeds would stay the same. I always laugh that PBOT thinks they are doing something by lowering speed limits. They aren’t. No traffic enforcement = traffic violence

Scott Kocher
5 months ago

There is a lot good here, and I have several concerns including this: speeds will be set faster as you get further from the urban core. That perpetuates the 2x to 3x fatalities we see in East Portland etc. This came out of a “roundtable” that was behind closed doors and I’m not aware anyone was there except ODOT and PBOT and maybe a few other cities’ staff. Anyone know?

(b) The engineering study must recommend a speed for the highway which falls within the range of
recommended speeds, listed below by context / functional class:
(A) Urban Core /Arterial 20 mph – 25 mph
(B) Urban Core / Collector 20 mph – 25 mph
(C) Urban Core / Local 20 mph – 25 mph
(D) Urban Mix / Arterial 25 mph – 30 mph
(E) Urban Mix / Collector 25 mph – 30 mph
(F) Urban Mix / Local 20 mph – 25 mph
(G) Suburban Commercial or Residential / Arterial 30 mph – 35 mph
(H) Suburban Commercial or Residential / Collector 25 mph – 35 mph

Surly Ogre
anonymous
5 months ago

Speed Limits help some drivers make informed choices. When I see a 20 is plenty sign, I slow down to 20, even if I’m riding my bicycle. Signs work. They are not 100% complied with but that’s ok. If the person in front of you is driving the speed limit and you’re approaching their rear at 10+ over, you will soon be slowing down to the speed limit too. Enforcement is also important. People who speed must be cited and fined, your income level may deserve a break, but you get enough points and your privilege to drive gets revoked. The speed limit should be photo enforced, not PPB enforced until they earn back community trust. Other cities in other states set their own speed limits with approval by their city council. ODOT setting speed limits is sophomoric, we don’t need a state agency telling us how to run our city, let alone our streets. The sooner all orphan highways are out of ODOT’s control, the better. ODOT cares more about efficiency and convenience rather than safety and the lives of people walking and riding bicycles.

Surly Ogre
anonymous
5 months ago

There is a difference between design speed and operating speed. Imagine a straight road, with bleachers on the side. That’s a drag strip, you can go as fast as you want because there are no cues to slow down. Now in that 1/4 mile image a school, a crosswalk, some kids walking to school, a post office, a bus stop, a coffee shop, big trees with canopy… You’re gonna slow down because of the visual cues. you can’t see more that 100-200 feet in front of you. Streets can be designed to be slow and streets can be changed into slow streets. Lower speed limits are a start, but cues are also very important. Fewer car lanes help. More stop signs, more traffic signals, more bike lanes, more crosswalks, more speedhumps, more trees, more human activity help slow things down too. check out NACTO for more great stuff about urban bicycling, transit and street design. Design Speed | National Association of City Transportation Officials (nacto.org)