Could Chicago lower its citywide speed limit? Aldermen weigh drop from 30 mph to 25 mph

If one Northwest Side alderman has his way, Chicago drivers would soon face a slower citywide speed limit in a bid to cut traffic crashes and fatalities.

The effort got its first look in the City Council Wednesday during a Pedestrian and Traffic Safety Committee subject matter hearing where experts praised the potential shift. They lauded the impact small decreases in speed could have to reduce crash deaths.

No legislative effort to lower the limit has yet been made, and Ald. Daniel La Spata, the committee chair, promised there was no ordinance “sitting under the table.”

While La Spata champions the change, it would likely face fierce resistance in the council, where aldermen in the past have pushed back against what they see as efforts to fill city coffers by increasing traffic ticket revenue. But La Spata, 1st, told reporters after the hearing he hopes to work toward it this year, saying a 25-mph limit “could save hundreds of lives.”

“I’ve met too many folks who have lost their neighbors,” La Spata said. “When you know that doing this will save dozens of lives every year, hundreds of lives over a decade, if you don’t do it, you have surrendered your moral obligation to do the work.”

The prospect of slowing default speed limits drew measured support from Chicago Department of Transportation Commissioner Tom Carney. But the change “is not the be-all, end-all,” Carney added, flagging other increasingly used traffic control tools like street curb bump outs.

Around 134 traffic deaths occurred in the city last year, according to CDOT. Black people are far more likely to be victims of fatal Chicago crashes. As the city works to curb traffic fatalities, still at elevated levels since 2020, cars are becoming bigger and heavier, CDOT Managing Deputy Commissioner Vig Krishnamurthy said.

Pedestrians are far less likely to survive when hit by cars traveling over 25 mph, Krishnamurthy said. The 5-mph cut to speed limits would likely lead to lower speeds with or without enforcement changes, meaning fewer crashes and deaths, he said.

“A little bit can really go a long way when it comes to speed management,” Krishnamurthy said.

But doing so would be a policy and political minefield.

Former Mayor Lori Lightfoot faced strong blowback after she lowered the speed camera ticket threshold from 10 mph over the limit to 6 mph. For months, aldermen unsuccessfully pushed to restore the old higher limit and tried to publicly saddle her with blame for the new tickets sent to Chicagoans.

Lightfoot’s move to ticket drivers going 6 mph over the speed limit resulted in about 300,000 citations in its first two months. Those tickets racked up $11 million in fine revenue for the city.

A move to lower the citywide speed limit would be “revenue neutral” and focused on enhancing safety, city Comptroller Chasse Rehwinkel said. He flagged the city’s debt forgiveness program, which has forgiven over $35 million in penalties.

“Fines and fees are meant to change behavior. They are not meant to be a fiscal boon to the city,” Rehwinkel said. “We’re more interested in changing behavior, not so much in receiving revenue.”

La Spata said any ordinance to lower the speed limit would need to include enforcement changes to ensure fine revenue does not rise.

“I do not want the money,” he said. “I believe we can have less revenue and fewer traffic fatalities.”

Even amid the potential political headwinds, a legislative effort to lower Chicago’s speed limit could get strong backing from pedestrian, cyclist and commuter advocacy groups who are an important part of La Spata’s base. Their support was clear Wednesday as activists hailed the lower speed limit during public comment and advocacy group leaders testified.

Speeding causes lost lives for victims, lost wages and medical debt for survivors, strain on first responders and a lower quality of life in neighborhoods filled with zipping cars, said Amy Rynell, executive director of the Active Transportation Alliance.

“The toll that speeding is taking on our community is really tremendous,” she said. “No traffic-related death is acceptable when the tools exist to prevent these tragedies.”

The city has come to prioritize fast car travel, she said. Lowered speed limits could allow for more traffic-slowing features like bike lanes and raised crosswalks to be built, she added.

Urban planners also backed the lowered speed limit. Similar changes have already led to lower speeds and safer streets in New York, Seattle, San Francisco and Boston, said Audrey Wennick, senior director of the Metropolitan Planning Council.

If the shift occurs in Chicago too, revenue raised from tickets should go toward additional safe-street infrastructure, Wennick said. The main focus must be getting people to start following the rule, she said.

“Hopefully we will move forward with a change in this policy.” she said. “If we do, we must make education a central part.”