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Hampshire College changes speed limits to honor math professor

Retired professor David Kelly on the Hampshire College campus, and a new speed limit sign that honors him and his favorite number.
Retired professor David Kelly on the Hampshire College campus, and a new speed limit sign that honors him and his favorite number.Amanda Schwengel/Hampshire College

If you find yourself chuckling at the seemingly random speed limits of 17 miles per hour around Hampshire College, you can thank David Kelly.

When the longtime math professor retired this summer after more than 44 years, he said he didn't want a retirement party or ceremony.

Instead, he opted for something a bit quirkier: Changing the speed limit signs around the college from 15 miles per hour to 17 mile per hour.

Anyone who has taken his classes knows Kelly is a bit obsessed with the number 17. He does a lecture on the prime number, which Kelly says has fascinated mathematicians for centuries.


If you ask Kelly to name some of his favorite facts about 17, he can go on for hours: Did you know, for example, that Carl Friedrich Gauss, a famed German mathematician, learned that you could create a 17-sided shape with just a compass and ruler? Or that there are 17 columns on the long side of the Parthenon in Greece?

Kelly said he has been pushing for the speed limit change because it's a nice way of letting people know about the uniqueness of the college. He wants people to know the culture of the school as soon as they drive onto campus.

"When they see 17 miles per hour, that just alerts them to the fact that Hampshire is kind of special in a quirky sort of way," he said.

Kelly said he has been trying to get the college to change the speed limits for decades. This year, Elizabeth Conlisk, a professor of public health at Hampshire, and the college president, Jonathan Lash, teamed up to grant him his wish.

This summer, workers changed the signs overnight to surprise Kelly, who is usually on campus until 11 p.m. and back around 7 a.m.


What was his reaction when he saw one of the signs?

"Finally, it happened!" he recalled.

Kelly, who said his age is "between 68 and 85, which are both multiples of 17," still teaches summer classes to high-schoolers who are gifted at math — and he will surely continue to regale them with facts about the number 17.

Since this is a transportation column, I did ask him about some of his favorite transportation-related facts about the number. Without further ado:

It used to take 17 transfers to get from New York to Los Angeles via train.

Interstate 17 is one of the "interstate" highways that don't run through multiple states. It's located entirely within the state of Arizona.

 And since space travel is a form of transportation: Apollo 17 was the final mission of the United States "Apollo" program, which put humans on the moon.

Transportation’s future

What's transportation going to look like in 2045, when the country is expected to grow by 70 million more people — or in other words, more than the current populations of New York, Texas, and Florida?

US Department of Transportation officials say that if transportation leaders don't make the right plans, our future could hold a whole lot of gridlock.

This week, US Transportation Undersecretary Peter Rogoff brought together a group of local and regional officials — including Boston Mayor Martin J. Walsh — to discuss a new report called "Beyond Traffic."

In the draft report released this year, officials discuss the demographics and trends that affect transportation across the country. The report focuses in part on "megaregions," naming Boston, New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore, and Washington, D.C., as the Northeast "megaregion."


According to officials, by 2050, the population of this area is going to increase by more than 35 percent — and since the condition of roads and transit infrastructure is worsening, officials must make the right investments to be able to deal with the growth.

Some current transportation statistics show it won't be easy to accommodate that growth, according to the report:

Sixty-five percent of roads in the United States are rated in less than good condition;

 About one-quarter of bridges need significant repair;

 About 45 percent of Americans don't have a way to get to public transit.

The report also addresses ways that the government could encourage new technologies that could transform transportation in the future. For example, automated vehicles — or cars that don't need human drivers to steer — could revolutionize ground transportation. The advent of such cars could help significantly reduce crashes, improve transit access for young, older adults, and those with disabilities, and make it cheaper to deliver freight.

During Wednesday's forum at Boston University, local and regional transportation officials worked together to brainstorm possible solutions. The feedback from the sessions will help officials publish a new report in 2016.

Some local officials appeared to be somewhat optimistic that cities like Boston can help figure out the future of transportation. On one panel, Chris Osgood, the City of Boston's chief of streets, said he has been struck by the number of innovative transportation ideas he hears.

"If this region isn't the region that reinvents transportation, we haven't done something right," he said.


You can read the entire "Beyond Traffic" report at the US DOT site, located at transportation.gov.

Nicole Dungca can be reached at nicole.dungca@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @ndungca.