Menlo Park could overhaul its speed limit system in favor of mandating slower speeds on city streets.
In a recent discussion by the City Council, a majority of members favored new speed restrictions on some streets and discussed the possibility of lowering speeds citywide to 25 mph.
The California Vehicle Code lays out certain procedures for setting speed limits, said Rene Baile, Menlo Park transportation engineer, in an Oct. 13 presentation to the council. While there are some basic speed limits when others are not posted – for instance, 25 mph around schools, residences and senior facilities – cities are required to regularly update speed limits using what's called an "Engineering and Traffic Survey" in order to be able to use radar or lidar for speed limit enforcement.
Menlo Park conducted its most recent study in 2019, after completing its previous one in 2012, according to staff. Such studies look at how fast vehicles travel on roads and identify the "85th percentile" speed – or the speed at or below which 85% of traffic usually travels, according to a staff report. Generally the number is rounded to the nearest 5 mph interval, but in some circumstances the number may be rounded down to the nearest 5 mile per hour interval, based on factors like the collision history of the street, home and business density and bike and pedestrian safety.
Based on the survey's finding, speed limit reductions were recommended along seven road segments, and the City Council voted 4-0, with Councilwoman Catherine Carlton abstaining, to adopt the following speed reductions:
• From 40 mph to 30 mph: Chilco Street from Constitution Drive to Terminal Avenue.
• From 35 mph to 30 mph: Constitution Drive from Independence Drive to Chilco Street and Valparaiso Avenue from the city limit to El Camino Real.
• From 30 mph to 25 mph: Middle Avenue from University Drive to El Camino Real, and Santa Cruz Avenue from Avy Avenue/Orange Street to University Drive.
The council also lowered speed limits on Olive Street, and on O'Brien Drive, at the request of Mayor Cecilia Taylor, to 25 mph and asked staff to look into expanding the areas that constitute "school zones" with mandatory 25 mph speed limits, to the maximum extent possible. In addition, they directed staff to bring back ideas for traffic-calming measures on Middle Avenue, where several community members in public comment said they felt that cars drive too fast as they pass homes, churches, parks and kids on bikes.
Citywide speed limit?
The council's Oct. 13 discussion expanded beyond adopting the recommended changes to specific streets into exploring a possible citywide speed limit of 25 mph. Menlo Park's Complete Streets Commission voted 8-0-1 in August to pursue lowering speed limits to 25 mph citywide, redesigning streets to lower vehicle speeds and supporting legislation to amend using the 85th percentile practice to determine acceptable vehicle speeds, according to staff.
City staffers said they didn't recommend those actions because slowing all roads citywide and increasing travel times could push commuters looking to get to their destinations faster onto residential streets; frustrated drivers might be more inclined to disrespect the posted limits; and the speed limits could not be enforced using radar under state statutes, among other reasons.
On the other hand, a compelling reason to consider lowering speed limits is safety, community traffic safety advocates argued. The risk of crashing into and fatally injuring someone while driving decreases dramatically when a vehicle is traveling 20 to 25 mph instead of 40, according to data staff presented to the council. Safety concerns align with the "Vision Zero" goal Menlo Park has adopted to eliminate traffic fatalities and reduce the number of non-fatal collisions by 50% by 2040, staff said.
In a public comment, Belle Haven resident and community activist Pam Jones called the 85th percentile rule an "archaic law that prevents us from making sure all of our streets are really safe."
However, one consequence of not following the California Vehicle Code's processes for lowering speed limits is that the police department would have to use more difficult and potentially less effective methods than radar or lidar for enforcement, said interim police Chief Dave Spiller.
Over the past three years, in 2017, 2018 and 2019, the police department issued 751 speeding citations combined. However, Menlo Park's traffic enforcement is expected to decline due to the City Council's actions earlier this year to eliminate the department's traffic unit, although it still has the means to conduct targeted speed limit enforcement, staff said.
"If we're going to deviate from the survey ... enforcement is going to be impacted pretty significantly," Spiller said.
Councilman Ray Mueller presented a map indicating that much of the neighboring city of Palo Alto already has speed limits of 25 mph, and said he favored doing the same for Menlo Park.
Council members discussed an alternative to simply posting 25 mph signs citywide that would be difficult to enforce: redesigning the streets so that they naturally slow down drivers.
Carlton was the most vocally opposed to the citywide speed limit, saying that at some times of the day, such as at night when no children are nearby, 25 mph could feel unnecessarily slow to travel down Santa Cruz or Valparaiso avenues, and frustrate drivers. Besides, she noted, speed limits are already assumed to be 25 mph unless otherwise posted.
Vice Mayor Drew Combs expressed some additional reservations, saying that picking and choosing specific streets for lower speeds without a clear methodology seemed "ad hoc" and he favored following the state procedure for setting speed limits, but ultimately supported the council's actions.
Councilwoman Betsy Nash, who also said that the process of selecting specific streets seemed random – and did not provide equal representation to the city's District 3, which does not currently have a district-elected council representative – instead proposed moving ahead with the 25 mph speed reduction citywide that night. "It doesn't feel right that we're doing some and not others," she said. However, Mueller, who was organizing the council's motion, said he was not immediately prepared to adopt that policy and favored bringing it back for consideration at a later date with a clearer plan from staff.