To save lives on city streets, Minneapolis wants drivers to hit the brakes.
The city is considering lowering speed limits on most, if not all, city-owned streets as one way to end deaths and injuries caused by car crashes by 2027, transportation officials said Tuesday. After years of having their speed limits set by state law, cities have new authority to rule their own roads.
The recommendations to the City Council were part of Vision Zero, a campaign launched in 2017 by the city under then-Mayor Betsy Hodges. Transportation officials hope to bolster both enforcement and safety measures across the city starting next year. “We ... have a culture where people routinely speed on our streets,” said Ethan Fawley, the city’s Vision Zero program coordinator. “People don’t necessarily know that that is such a big factor in crashes and the severity of crashes. So lowering the speed limits is a big opportunity for us to tell that story and let people know that this is a really big deal.”
According to Tuesday’s presentation, the top five behaviors leading to accidents on city streets are all related to driving: speeding, driving under the influence, distracted driving, running red lights and unsafe turning. Between 2007 and 2016, an average of 11 people died and 84 were severely injured each year in crashes.
The speed limit on most city streets is 30 miles per hour. City officials leading the safety-improvement work said they are still unsure where they will lower speed limits and by how much. They will conduct a “technical analysis” in order to make sure the changes are “defensible,” said Steve Mosing, traffic operations engineer for the city.
Other major cities have also lowered their speed limits, including New York City, Portland, Ore., and Seattle, Fawley said. Fewer drivers were cited for speeding after speed limits dropped in Boston, Mosing said.
This year, the Legislature granted Minnesota cities the authority to set their own speed limits for city streets. During his budget address last month, St. Paul Mayor Melvin Carter said he also wanted to take advantage of the new law, “a move that will immediately and quite literally make our streets safer for all of us.”
Minneapolis officials are also recommending increasing the number of safety improvements made to streets. Over the last few years, crews have painted zebra stripes in crosswalks, converted four-lane roads to three lanes and installed medians for pedestrians to cross intersections more safely.
“This is stuff we’ve always been doing. We’re just doing more of it,” Mosing said.
How specific streets would be improved will be released later on, Council President Lisa Bender said.
Transportation officials also recommended two strategies to enforce speed limits and safe driving: traffic cameras and reviving the city’s traffic-enforcement unit.
Traffic cameras would be “the most effective at addressing speed,” Fawley said, with over 400 cities across the country using them. Adding that or other forms of automated enforcement would take more time, as the city would first need to get legislative approval, he said.
In his budget address last month, Mayor Jacob Frey proposed spending $562,000 in 2020 to hire three officers to the traffic unit. Some council members, including Bender and Council Member Steve Fletcher, were skeptical more police would solve the problem. “It is a fairly significant investment to get three traffic-enforcement officers added to [the police department],” Fletcher said during Tuesday’s meeting. “If we’re talking about half a million dollars a year, a couple of new traffic signals at dangerous intersections might produce more safety.”
Yet, some whose districts encompass dangerous streets support the revival of the traffic unit. Last week, Council Member Phillipe Cunningham said road safety in his north Minneapolis ward is “a nightmare,” and that “there is no regard for life when there are some people who are behind the wheel.”
“If we are enforcing cars that are parked, we should be enforcing cars that are driving super fast through red lights,” he said.
Brandon Burbach, a former board member of the Webber-Camden Neighborhood Organization, agreed. He said the city should make even a bigger investment and add more officers to the unit.
Burbach has seen countless crashes in his 15 years in the neighborhood; cars have slammed into houses, others have flipped over in lawns. He said the city should take a balanced but aggressive approach to informing drivers about new speed limits, first by placing speed monitors on streets and later on by issuing warnings or tickets.
“I think the culture would just need to change,” he said. “Even on a road that you think is a thoroughfare, you need to keep the speed down.”
City officials are now seeking public feedback on the Vision Zero recommendations, and hope to come back to the City Council with a final plan in late 2019 or early 2020.