fb-pixel Skip to main content

Can Bostonians really drive as slowly as 20 miles per hour? Intentionally, I mean.

To find out, a colleague and I tried it Tuesday, making ourselves two of the most-hated people in South Boston. You’re welcome!

Last week, the City Council unanimously approved a proposal to lower the speed limit to 20 on many city streets. Advocates correctly note that motorists now zip along at speeds that make a mockery of the 30-mile-per-hour limit, endangering pedestrians, cyclists, and one another. Lower the limit to 20, they argue, and there just might be a chance drivers will think twice about going 40.


I’ve been around here long enough — and had enough near misses with the maniacs who somehow get drivers’ licenses — to know the chances of this are pretty slim. Still, it’s a worthy experiment. I think.

Obviously, we move along at 20, or slower, all the time — stuck in traffic that moves like sludge, crawling along between infuriatingly ill-timed traffic lights, trapped behind fools yammering on cellphones. It takes forever to get anywhere in this city.

But it’s one thing to be forced into these frustrations by circumstances we can’t control, and quite another to be legally required to travel glacially. Could we actually do it on purpose?

Reporter David Filipov and I gave it a shot. We jumped into his car and proceeded to creep along city streets, careful to stay below the proposed speed limit.

Boy, was it annoying — to us, sure, but especially to our fellow motorists.

We compounded the trouble by doing this in a smart car — a 2009 “smart fortwo,” to be precise — a cross between a washing machine and a golf cart, so replete with self-satisfied fuel efficiency that it courts derision.

The only thing more infuriating than a smart car is a slow smart car. Insult, meet injury.


And my, it was slow. For the first few minutes it was difficult to tell whether we were moving at all. I had to fight the urge to get out and speedwalk alongside the poor thing, just to feel like I was getting somewhere.

David Filipov and Yvonne Abraham navigated the streets of Boston at 20 miles per hour on Tuesday to see, and feel, the effects of the City Council’s proposal.
David Filipov and Yvonne Abraham navigated the streets of Boston at 20 miles per hour on Tuesday to see, and feel, the effects of the City Council’s proposal.John Tlumacki/Globe Staff

A full block or two of clear road stretched out tantalizingly ahead of us, but instead of racing into the gorgeous breach, we just moseyed along as if we had all day, holding up a lengthening column of cars behind us. A couple of times that afternoon, we inched up a hill on East Broadway, a couple of clicks above stalled, thwarting the hopes and dreams and schedules of the poor sods trapped in the clotted mass of vehicles at our rear.

Middle fingers were raised. We were tailgated, natch. Mystified drivers wove back and forth behind us, as if trying to work out if our tiny hunk of metal was obscuring some unseen traffic obstacle. Nope! Just being safe! Those who could, barreled by us. Guilt washed over me.

So did humiliation. While we waited at one intersection, a man in sunglasses pulled up on our right, holding his cigarette out the window, waiting for the light to turn green so he could leave us in the dust. Ordinarily in such situations, my pride kicks in and I like to put up a little bit of a fight. Nothing dangerous, mind, just enough to lessen the ignominy. But there’s no gunning it when your top speed is 20.


Traveling that sedately also seems to confuse people. Right-turners have what is surely the profoundly disorienting impression that you’re letting them go on their way (rather than accelerating to head them off, per local custom). Pedestrians gingerly step out onto crosswalks. “It’s my pleasure to share the streets with you,” says a smart car set to molasses. It’s so civilized, like Scandinavia on wheels.

But we are no Finland. We’re mean-streets Boston, our drivers proudly among the worst in the nation (though the science on that is hinky). We deride blinkers, slam on brakes, floor it whenever we can.

Driving around in a pokey laundry appliance, you have to wonder how this 20-mile-per-hour thing is going to work (should state legislators approve) without lots of police enforcement (currently all but nonexistent). Or a massive cultural transformation.

Are we up to it? Really? Experience says — nah.

Globe columnist Yvonne Abraham can be reached at yvonne.abraham@globe.com