Speeding on De la Vina Street has become a problem, and to address it the city is going to … raise the speed limit?
Yes, it’s true.
In an effort to calm traffic, the Santa Barbara City Council on Tuesday voted 5-2 to lower the speed limit on a large stretch of Haley Street and — paradoxically — to raise the speed limit on De la Vina.
The changes mean that, in about a month, the speed limit on Haley between Chapala and Milpas will be lowered to 25 mph from the current 30 mph. The speed limit on De la Vina between Micheltorena and Haley streets will be raised to 30 mph from the current 25 mph.
The reason for the counterintuitive change on De la Vina has to do with the technicalities of how traffic laws are set up. It is also evidence that traffic on that street has gotten faster in the past few years.
By state law, police can use radar to enforce the speed limit of a street only if an official traffic survey has occurred within five years. This is to avoid the possibility that a city might set speed traps in an effort to raise money.
Since the studies for both De la Vina and Haley streets recently expired, police effectively stopped enforcing the speed limit on those streets. The city recently completed new studies for those streets, but police couldn’t resume radar enforcement until after the council weighed in. This is because the new studies indicated that the speed limits need to be changed, and changing the speed limit requires approval from the City Council.
In general, speed-limit studies attempt to determine a reasonable speed limit by establishing the average speed for drivers on a given street, excluding the fastest 15 percent of the drivers. Cities then usually round to the nearest five (25 mph, 30 mph, etc.) in establishing a baseline for the speed limit.
City staff members say the methodology is based on the premise that “a reasonable speed limit is one that conforms to the actual behavior of the majority of motorists.”
In other words, if a study finds that 85 percent of people on a given street drive 33 mph — as was discovered in the recent study for De la Vina — the city can establish a speed limit of 35 mph. By law, however, cities are also allowed to decrease the baseline amount by 5 mph (and no more) if elected officials agree such a move is warranted by certain conditions, such as density of the area and pedestrian activity.
Santa Barbara traffic engineers believed that this was warranted on De la Vina, and recommended a speed limit of 30 mph.
The council Tuesday could have opted to keep the speed limit at 25 mph, but then police would not be able to use radar to enforce the limit. This leaves officers with one unappealing enforcement option: tailing speeders and matching their speeds. The practice is not advisable because it is dangerous, a police sergeant told the council.
Francisco said he couldn’t get behind the idea of lowering the speed limit on Haley Street.
“Haley Street seems to be functioning well,” he said. “That one to me seems unreasonable, to reduce (the limit) by 5 mph, when it seems to be working fine.”
Horton said he was uncomfortable with how the formulaic approach to traffic calming doesn’t take into consideration other traffic hazards, such as visibility issues.
Mayor Marty Blum, too, expressed concern about lowering the speed limit on Haley.
“The Haley Street thing concerns me,” she said. “I’m over there a lot; it moves just fine. I think if it’s going to 30 along De la Vina, it’s going to be weird to turn onto Haley and have it turn into 25.”
However, she seemed to be satisfied with a staff member’s response that the accident rate on Haley Street is relatively high, by the standards of Caltrans, and that lowering the limit most likely would result in fewer accidents.
The council, at the suggestion of Councilwoman Helene Schneider, also decided to conduct another traffic study in three years instead of five. The idea is that enforcing De la Vina Street more vigorously might have the effect of decreasing the average speed of motorists, and thus could lead to a return to the 25 mph limit.
In addition, the staff will study the possibility of reclassifying some city streets as “local” streets, thus exempting the city from having to conduct traffic studies every five years in order to use radar enforcement. The flip side, however, is that the city could lose some federal street-improvement funding as a result. Also, the process of reclassifying city streets can take as long as a year.
By way of example, city transportation engineer Dru van Hengel said the city of Berkeley has reclassified many of its streets, and now the speed limit on the vast majority of city streets there is 25 mph.
Noozhawk staff writer Rob Kuznia can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.