City aims to improve safety by slowing cars

Vision Zero draft calls for speed limit reduction, automated enforcement

County public works crews conduct surveying at Lake & Lyndale in late July. A combination of reducing speed limits, improving street designs, targeting unsafe driving behaviors and automating traffic enforcement are the prescribed treatments for meeting Minneapolis’ Vision Zero goal of no traffic-related deaths by 2027. Photo by Andrew Hazzard

To accelerate Minneapolis goal of eliminating traffic-related deaths, city officials are asking drivers to slow down.

A combination of reducing speed limits, improving street designs, targeting unsafe driving behaviors and automating traffic enforcement are the prescribed treatments for meeting Minneapolis’ Vision Zero goal of no traffic-related deaths by 2027, according to a draft plan released Sept. 17.

If approved by the City Council, residents would start seeing changes to city streets quickly; the plan would be implemented between 2020 and 2022.

“We’re not waiting to do anything,” public works director Robin Hutcheson said.

Adjusting speed limits

This year, the state Legislature gave all cities in Minnesota authority to set speed limits on city streets.

Minneapolis is currently analyzing streets to determine proper speed limits, according to Vision Zero Coordinator Ethan Fawley. Public works is planning to announce those reductions early in 2020. Any speed limit changes will be based on engineering studies, Fawley said.

“Nationwide speed is in the top five as contributing factors for severe injury crashes and fatalities,” said Steve Mosing, Minneapolis’ traffic operations engineer.

He referenced a 2017 speed limit reduction from 30 to 25 mph on city streets in Boston. That reduction didn’t make everyone actually follow the speed limit, but it lowered the number of drivers going over 35 mph by 30%.

“That has a positive effect from the standpoint of reducing speeds,” Mosing said.

Safety officials emphasize speed reduction because the faster a vehicle is traveling the more likely a crash with that vehicle will result in major injury or death. A pedestrian struck at 20 mph has a 13% chance of dying or being severely injured, according to the study. That figure jumps to 40% at 30 mph and 73% at 40 mph.

Currently, most residential streets in the city have 30 mph speed limits. Arterial roadways will have higher limits but are still likely to see current speed limits reduced, officials said.

Speed limits alone don’t determine how fast drivers go; street design is extremely influential to traffic speed.

“The actual physics and the environment of the roadway plays a huge role in our study as it pertains to street reduction,” Mosing said.

Targeting trouble streets

After Minneapolis committed to embracing Vision Zero in 2017, the city released two crash studies that detailed when, where and how traffic-related accidents occur. Dangerous areas identified in the Pedestrian Crash Study and the Vision Zero Crash Study will be among the 114 miles of high-injury streets where city officials plan to make improvements quickly.

About 70% of crashes occur on 9% of streets in Minneapolis. In Southwest, Excelsior Boulevard, Hennepin Avenue South, West Lake Street, Lyndale Avenue South and Nicollet Avenue are all considered high-injury streets.

Intersections are the site of 88% of all traffic crashes in Minneapolis, according to the studies. The intersection of Lake & Lyndale led the city in pedestrians being struck by drivers from 2007–16, with 24 crashes, tied for second in cyclist-motorist crashes with 15 and came in 13th for vehicle-on-vehicle crashes with 123.

Improving traffic signals, adding bump-outs at corners to shorten crossing distances and narrow intersections and inserting pedestrian refuge islands that draw more walkers are among techniques officials will use to attempt to boost safety.

Four-to-3 lane conversions will be a key part of those design changes. Fawley said public works analyzed 11 4-to-3 lane conversions done by the city and Hennepin County and found a 36% reduction in injury crashes when examining the data from the three years before the change and the three years after.

“We feel really confident in the improvements we saw there,” he said.

Not all of Minneapolis’ high-injury streets are under city control. Hennepin County owns many of the larger thoroughfares through the city that are considered high injury streets, including Lake Street, Lyndale Avenue and Nicollet Avenue in Southwest. Mosing said he is confident the county shares the city’s goal.

To help implement those improvements, the city is currently in the process of hiring a Vision Zero engineer. That person will focus on looking at what types of short-term, quick-fix projects need to be put where and will also examine major capital projects to ensure new infrastructure is in line with safety goals.

Mosing said the city has been doing the quick-fix types of improvements using a dedicated pool of funding for the last five years. Hutcheson said she would be making a pitch to put new funding into Vision Zero projects on Sept. 26.

“We do really hope to address hundreds of intersections on those high-injury streets in the next three years,” Fawley said.

Enforcement strategies

In 2018, 17 people were killed in traffic crashes in Minneapolis.

The draft plan breaks down the five leading causes for crashes in the city: distracted driving, driving under the influence, red light running, speeding and unsafe turning.

Many people know that distracted and intoxicated driving is bad, but many don’t think about the safety implications of speeding, Fawley said.

To reduce those behaviors, the city is aiming for a mixture of education and enforcement.

Mayor Jacob Frey’s budget proposal calls for three new officers dedicated to traffic enforcement, but Vision Zero planners hope to get legislative permission to conduct automated enforcement, which officials hope will reduce racial disparities found in typical traffic policing.

Minneapolis previously attempted automatic enforcement for red light running, but in 2007 the Minnesota Supreme Court found the practice violated state law because the tickets automatically went to the registered owner of the vehicle, who was not necessarily the driver. Getting a new law passed to enable automatic enforcement is part of the city’s legislative agenda.

“We think the best system would likely require legislative change to authorize it,” Fawley said.

The exact strategy and cost of automated feed enforcement is currently unknown.