Jeramey Jannene

Should 20 MPH Be Milwaukee’s Default Speed Limit?

City has money set aside to lower speed limits, particularly on side streets.

By - Dec 2nd, 2021 12:46 pm
Speed limit sign on W. North Ave. Photo by Jeramey Jannene.

Speed limit sign on W. North Ave. Photo by Jeramey Jannene.

Milwaukee could soon join a national movement to lower speed limits with the goal of reducing the severity of crashes, deterring reckless driving and saving lives.

The Department of Public Works secured approval to use $1.2 million from the city’s $197.2 million first tranche of American Rescue Plan Act grant funding on speed reduction efforts, including replacing speed limit signs and education. It’s part of a larger allocation to combat reckless driving.

“Twenty-five miles per hour is excessively fast on some of our most narrow streets,” said Public Works Commissioner Jeff Polenske to the Public Works Committee on Nov. 10. “We really do need to think about whether or not we reduce that speed to 20 miles per hour or even 15 miles per hour.”

The speed limit change would be made as part of the “20 is Plenty” movement. Milwaukee’s default speed limit, when no sign is present, is currently 25 mph. Severe injury risk for pedestrians jumps from 25% at 23 mph to 50% at 31 mph and 75% at 39 mph.

“I don’t really think there should be any street more than 30 mph, 35 mph,” said Polenske. “I know that street design has a lot to do with how people drive. We are collectively trying to change that as we do redesign our streets.”

The city adopted a Complete Streets policy in 2018 and has started making “rapid implementation” changes where it uses paint, flexible dividers, planters and other dividers to narrow streets. Those rapid projects have taken place on S. 13th St., N. 27th St., W. Villard Ave. and W. North Ave. Longer-term road reconstruction projects are also being designed with traffic calming measures.

“I don’t necessarily know what comes first, but I think consistency and that messaging around traffic speeds in general in our community is an important conversation to have,” he said.

Cities implementing 20 mph policies include Minneapolis and St. Paul. Madison has a test policy. The newly-elected mayor of Atlanta made speed limit reduction a point of his campaign.

“I think that’s a great idea, but it always struck me as ‘what are we putting up gold plated signs?'” said Ald. Robert Bauman of the cost.

City Engineer Jerrel Kruschke said given the 1,400 miles of city roadways, the signs, despite being printed in-house, would cost about $1 million to fabricate and install. He said the city would also need to invest in education.

“I don’t know how much education you need to say ‘I’m not supposed to go faster than 30.’ I’m not sure if there’s a class to take. A billboard. It just seems elementary,” said Ald. Mark Borkowski. “I hear education and it drives me crazy because it’s so damn simple.”

“My thoughts on this is education and outreach are not the only thing you do. Just like changing the speed limit isn’t going to work by itself, you have to be progressively changing the design of the streets,” said Polenske.

“Speed limit, we know how fast you can go, you’re not supposed to go faster. There is no magic there. Stop, again, no magic,” said Borkowski. “If we’re hanging our hat on education I don’t have faith in it, I just don’t.”

“A part of that is reaching new drivers,” said Polenske. “I think that’s part of the challenge we are in right now. We have a lot of new drivers or young drivers that haven’t been properly taught the skills of our driving on our roadways.”

“Why isn’t this like done?” asked Bauman of the change.

“There has been discussion of whether or not this is the proper use of the money,” said Polenske. “When we agreed on this initiative we agreed this was something we agreed to come back to the council to discuss.”

Bauman said it was an immediate concern. “Make it happen. Do it. Decide something.”

“We are,” said Polenske, but he said the council would need to adopt any speed limit change.

Ald. Jose G. Perez said the Milwaukee Police Department needs to be part of any discussion. “If this is a multi-faceted approach, all the players have to be at the table talking about their commitments,” said the alderman. He suggested the court system would also need to be part of a solution.

5 thoughts on “Transportation: Should 20 MPH Be Milwaukee’s Default Speed Limit?”

  1. Colin says:

    Nope. Lowering speed limits isn’t going to lower actual driven speed. Just result in more tickets going to POC or already poor.
    If you want to slow people down, lower the actual design speed of the road! That means narrower roads, speed tables and curb bumpouts at intersections and crosswalks, more trees lining the roads to make it feel tighter, convert 1-ways to 2-ways … all things that NATURALLY cause drivers to actually slow down.

  2. hillard says:

    Obviously all of those things are essential, but they’re also expensive and could take years to design and build. In the meantime, most drivers do try to adhere to the speed limit. If lowering the limit to 20 encourages a proportion of good drivers to slow down, then that could represent fewer injuries and fatalities even without road modifications. Extra tickets for POC are a valid concern, but I don’t think those risks outweigh the benefits of taking the first step towards changing the culture around driving, which until now has emphasized flow, speed and a disregard for non-drivers who are also using the road.

  3. NieWiederKrieg says:

    Every vehicle manufactured today is controlled by a computer. Why can’t computer technology be used to limit speed for public safety?

    Law enforcement would never have to chase reckless drivers going 100 mph on Milwaukee’s streets again.

  4. mkeumkenews09 says:

    The fact that schools no longer offer Driver’s Ed, classroom and behind the wheel, is a big, big issue.

    Private lessons run $300 to $1,000. Many high school students in Milwaukee cannot afford that. If all high school students went through Driver’s Ed, the reckless driving would be a much smaller problem.

    And yes, education of the drivers in the city and from outside the city will be required. Most people in Milwaukee are not spending their time reading, listening or watching the local news. For those not doing so, how is it expected that “everyone” will know of the change, especially if the speed limit across the city is reduced to 25 mph. And where will you put those billboards for all 600,000 citizens and out of town drivers to see and view. That won’t be cheap.

    It’s not so simple, that is what is elementary about this and most issues in the city. Unfortunately, some of our Common Council members seem to be getting a bit arrogant about the work and effort needed to accomplish change.

    It appears that it is becoming easier to abuse DPW and other departments (ie, people/employees), rather than attempt to understand the issues and offer constructive policies to help direct the city to resolve issues, and then provide the support to achieve them.

  5. btdn says:

    mkeumkenews09: DPW, along with engineers for decades and decades, have been designing local streets to be thoroughfares. There seems to be some signs of change at the department, but a great deal of the abuse is well-aimed.

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