Washington State Passes Neighborhood Safe Streets Bill

By Mary Lauran Hall on May 30, 2013

An innovative new law in Washington State helps cities and towns get down to business on making neighborhood streets safer without getting tangled in red tape.

Previously, Washington state law stipulated that a city or town that wanted to set a 20 mile per hour speed limit on a neighborhood street would need to undergo an engineering and traffic study first — a costly road block that could cost local governments thousands of dollars and slow down projects. The new Neighborhood Safe Streets Bill, which passed the state legislature earlier this month and was just recently signed by the governor, empowers cities and towns to set lower maximum speed limits without going through the costly study.

The new law is a win for local control and reducing regulation, said Blake Trask, Statewide Policy Director at the Bicycle Alliance of Washington.

Supporters gather around Washington governor Jay Inslee as he signs the Neighborhood Safe Streets Bill. The Bicycle Alliance of Washington formed a diverse coalition to support the bill. Image: Bicycle Alliance of Washington

“Studies can cost anywhere from $1,000 to $10,000 dollars — money we think can be better used to let cities and towns get down to business with actual physical street safety improvements,” he noted.

Under the new law, cities and towns will be free to develop their own procedures for lowering local speed limits, creating an additional safety tool for local governments’ toolboxes to build safer, more livable communities.

“Especially for the elderly and for children, speed is a big issue,” Blake said. “If you get hit by a car traveling at 20 miles per hour, your changes of survival are much higher than if you get hit at 40 miles per hour.” The law will also help neighborhoods calm local streets and reduce cut-through traffic between major arterials.

Washington advocates found many allies in the push to pass the bill. Over 30 cities, towns and organizations supported the efforts, including state chapters of AAA and AARP.

“We can say that this is a bill that really appeals to most everyone,” Blake said. “I think in the bicycling community we often fail to recognize that our issues and the things we’re advocating for can case a much wider net of support so long as we’re not focused on the benefits to bikes.” 

At first, advocates had emphasized the legislation’s benefits for bicycling — lower-speed local streets would make better corridors for safe cycling. But Blake and his colleagues realized that the bill was about much more than that.

For instance, Republican state legislators supported the bill’s streamlining measures. “It’s conservative legislation,” Blake said. “We got a lot of traction because it removes additional study costs and removes red tape. And it’s a local control bill — it puts the local governments in control and gets the state out of the way.”

Blake noted that helping local governments improve street safety has important implications for everybody’s safety — not just bicyclists. “It helps elderly people who want to age in place and want to get around safely, it helps walkers who don’t want to get hit by cars,” he said.

Broadening messaging on the bill helped build a more powerful coalition of support that included health advocates, local government associations, and motorist groups.

“Discussing concerns about wanting to create more active environments and encourage active living helped mobilize public health departments and a child obesity prevention coalition,” recalled Blake. Emphasizing the bill’s health benefits also helped the Bicycle Alliance gain support from Seattle Children’s Hospital. 

Even the Washington chapter of the American Automobile Association was on board. “We were able to pitch it to AAA by saying that the bill was another opportunity to give bicyclists options other than busy streets,” Blake recalled. “We have a mutual interest in growing safety for everybody who gets around on the roadway.”

“That odd coalition really spoke a lot to legislators,” said Blake. “AAA’s with this, so it must be OK!”

Bicycle Alliance of Washington advocates worked on the bill over the course of several years. After working through the House for two years and meeting some obstacles in the state Senate, the bill was passed as the senate’s “4:59 bill” — the final bill to be voted on in that session. It passed with a vote of 45 to 2.

The bill goes into effect this summer. In the meantime, Bicycle Alliance of Washington advocates are excited to create a toolbox to help cities and towns implement the new law.

See below for Bicycle Alliance of Washington’s leave-behind explaining the bill, or download it here.



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