Baker presses for traffic calming at speed limit hearing

Councillor Frank Baker. File photo/Chris Lovett

A wet day in Boston had hearing attendees shaking water from their umbrellas as Committee Chair Michelle Wu knocked her gavel to begin discussion of a proposal to drop the city speed limit from 25 miles per hour to 20.

Flanking Wu were City Councillors Frank Baker and Ed Flynn, who called for the hearing. Both are proponents of dropping the speed limit on most city streets. They were joined by residents and representatives from groups like WalkBoston, LivableStreets and Boston Cyclists Union, who directed questions mainly to Vineet Gupta, the Director of Planning for the city’s Transportation Department.

Baker, who represents Dorchester’s District 3 on the council, set the tone for the hearing with his opening remarks: “This discussion here today is as much about the speed limit as it is about what we’re doing to redesign safe streets.”

The proposal comes less than two years after the speed limit was reduced from 30mph to 25mph, and amidst complaints that the BTD has become too reactive to pedestrian safety rather than preventative. The discussion illuminated widespread public concern about street safety in a time of growing neighborhood populations, increased street traffic due to ride sharing, limitations of T coverage, and ever-growing cell phone-based distractions for drivers and pedestrians alike.

Exasperation with the state of the streets and the process by which it is being addressed was voiced early by Baker, who was irked to find that two city cabinet members were not in attendance— Public Works chief Chris Osgood and Gina Fiandaca, the chief of transportation.

“I’m taken aback that Chief Osgood and Gina [Fiandaca] aren’t here,” Baker said. “People want street-calming measures. This is a long, long conversation we’re having here.”

Baker insisted that quick solutions such as the laying of rubber speedbump strips should be pursued to improve villages in his Dorchester district while the greater discussion plays out.

“Something should be happening now,” Baker said.

Steve Jason, whio testified at the hearing as a resident, described “wild west” conditions caused by a lack of traffic enforcement.

“There’s no sign of police, there’s no ticketing”, said Jason, who suggested that automated enforcement such as traffic cameras might be the best solution to curb traffic violations.

Tony Lechuga of Livable Streets and Ford Cavallari from the Alliance of Downtown Civil Organizations lambasted a speed-limit reduction without further enforcement and street redesign as insufficient.

“Putting up new street signs is a measure of hope. You hope that people will follow them. We know that we can be implementing design that is better,” said Lechuga.

Cavallari echoed those sentiments and described a speed-reduction as “a feel-good measure.”

“Rather than focusing on the 20 miles per hour sugar high, lets focus on the real issue,” said Cavallari.

Gupta, from the BTD, listened to these concerns, reminding those in attendance that the hearing was only the first step in the discussion.

“I’m here as much to listen and learn as everybody else is,” said Gupta. “Safety on our streets is a combination of speed limit, plus making physical changes on the street, plus improving enforcement.”

Gupta went on to agree with Baker that there are measures to be taken to bring about quick results.

Baker responded: “I know you agree, and I’m told everyone agrees, but I still don’t see anything. People are looking for relief.”