Putting the Brakes on Speed Humps

By Jerry Markon
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, September 25, 2008

They are the ultimate suburban battleground, small sections of roadway that can pit neighbor against neighbor and, more often, resident against motorist.

Speed humps -- short humps placed on neighborhood streets to discourage speeding -- have long been a volatile issue in Arlington County. There has been shouting at community meetings, fliers and counter-fliers, and even allegations of "class warfare" between supporters and opponents.

Now, the County Board, after reviewing Arlington's speed hump program for more than two years, has taken steps that might make it harder for neighborhoods to get them. On Sept. 13, the board raised from 60 to 70 percent the number of residents who must sign a petition supporting a speed hump before county officials will consider it. The county will now mail residents a postcard explaining the project, with an option for them to say no, before supporters can seek signatures.

And the board directed staff members to develop a procedure for neighborhoods where the county's 250 speed humps and other traffic-calming devices are located to try to get a hump removed.

"The message we were trying to send is that we still are very much about controlling speed on our streets, but there was definitely an acknowledgment that speed humps perhaps should not be the first solution," said Barbara A. Favola (D), the board's vice chairman.

Favola added, however, that she expects that most neighborhoods that want the traffic-calming devices will meet the 70 percent threshold. "The vast majority of neighborhoods get well beyond 70 percent on petitions anyway," she said. "This by no means is going to be stopping the bulk of the requests."

It is also unclear how vigorously the board will pursue a policy on removing speed humps. "I'm not sure what we're going to do with that," Favola said. "We put it on the table, but neither myself nor my colleagues were really anxious to pursue it. The fact is, the problem of speeding will probably come back if a speed hump is removed."

Although Favola stressed that the board is seeking "harmony more than divisiveness," the changes failed to satisfy either side of the emotional debate. Proponents of speed humps, many of whom are parents, say they make streets safer by forcing drivers to slow down. But many drivers hate the devices, and opponents fear they slow the response times of ambulances and firetrucks.

"Speed humps have been our most effective traffic-calming measure. They really work," said Randy Swart, who lives near six speed humps in the Barcroft section of South Arlington. "They have just changed the atmosphere here entirely for pedestrians and bicyclists, made it so much nicer to walk around."

Swart said he was disappointed by the board's action and added, "If you want to see people on the warpath, just talk about taking away their speed humps."

Ray Messina, part of an informal group of about 100 Arlington residents who oppose speed humps, used remarkably similar terminology in describing the board's actions. "We're very disappointed in the way the board handled this," said Messina, who questioned whether the county would really develop a procedure for humps to be removed.

"We think there's too many of them, and we really question whether they're effective in reducing speed," he said.

On that question, at least, the evidence is clear, county officials said. Their analysis showed that Arlington's speed humps have reduced average driving speed about 9 mph. "Basically, they have dropped speeds from significantly above the speed limit to about the speed limit itself," said Mark Kellogg, the county's chief of transportation planning. The county's speed limit is 25 mph on neighborhood streets that are not major arteries.

Speed humps are a key part of the "traffic-calming program" Arlington began in 2000 in response to complaints about speeding drivers. Most of the devices, which are spread throughout the county, were installed between 2003 and 2006, when the County Board began a review of the program. The average speed hump costs about $7,500, and the county has spent about $10 million on speed humps and other traffic-calming devices.

"I think people feel that the projects we've done already have been successful and have addressed the most severe speeding problems," Kellogg said. "Now that we've achieved this level of success . . . I think there's a desire to slow the pace."

With feelings on both sides as strong as ever, county officials are trying to change the basic terms of the debate. They are using a variety of names for devices of a speed hump nature, including raised crosswalks (speed humps with a crosswalk on top); speed cushions (speed humps with gaps so emergency vehicles can straddle the center line and stay at normal speed); and speed tables.

Kellogg said the newer terminology is more accurate because recently installed speed humps have a smoother and less jarring incline. "We think part of the controversy is because it's misinterpreted," he said. "The word 'hump' sounds abrupt, and the device we use is not abrupt. It's gradual."

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