Minneapolis and St. Paul lucked into extraordinarily good timing when they announced their new speed limits in mid-March. A state of emergency was being declared by the governor even as the state’s coronavirus caseload remained in single digits.
That confluence of events allowed the cities to phase in their new limits just as commuter pressure eased almost overnight. Suddenly workers weren’t jamming the roads in a rush to arrive at work before the boss. Parents weren’t franticly pushing yellow lights to ransom their kids from day care or schlepping them to music lessons or sports practices.
The changed circumstances gave motorists a chance to draw a collective deep breath just as the city was asking them to drive slower — 20 miles per hour on residential streets and 25 mph on most arterial and collector streets.
I was out of state when the new restrictions were announced and hadn’t read the fine print by the time I returned. I was a mile or so into the city, cruising down Lake Street (which, it turns out, remains at a limit of 30) when I slowed to 25. I expected to be hurriedly passed by impatient drivers. But no.
The next day, I drove Lyndale Avenue. I kept my speed at 25. Turns out that Lyndale is one of Southwest’s county roads, which means that its speed remains at 30, at least for now. After a few blocks of trailing me, one impatient driver pulled into the left-turn lane to buzz by me at the next green light.
But that’s been the exception in my experience. Instead of the honking and bumper-riding I expected, drivers seem willing to accommodate those following the new limit, at least in Southwest.
The lower speed limits represent a milestone for new urbanist thinking that gives foot and bike traffic priority over single-occupancy vehicles. That priority is embodied in the city’s Complete Streets plan, and also in its Vision Zero plan.
The lower speed limits aim to save lives and reduce the severity of injuries. Available data confirms the lower the vehicle speed, the less likely a fatality. A vehicle takes 85 fewer feet to stop at 20 mph than 30. That’s about five car lengths. A person hit at 35 mph is three times as likely to be killed than at 25 mph. On the flip side, the new limits will put a dent in the city’s climate goals, with EPA data clearly showing slower urban speeds consume more fuel.
The lower speed limit seems like the answer to prayers for those who have fought for safer traffic conditions on Lyndale Avenue. But the irony is that the new limits won’t apply on Lyndale, the Minneapolis street where tension between people and vehicles has reached an apotheosis. That’s because the city’s new limits don’t cover roads under county or state jurisdiction. In Southwest, that keeps the speed limit at 30 on most of Lake Street, Lagoon Avenue, Franklin Avenue, 46th Street east of Lyndale, 50th Street west of Lyndale, France Avenue, and Xerxes Avenue south of 50th Street. The speed limit also won’t decrease on the jointly owned 54th Street west of Xerxes unless Edina agrees.
The city hasn’t initiated any requests to the county for a MnDOT study that would be required to change the limits for any county roads in the city; the county is only in the early phases of its own Toward Zero Deaths roadway safety planning.
A speed of 25 can seem like a crawl at times, especially for a driver exiting the freeway. The perception of a crawl is exacerbated the wider the street and the less friction there is from parked cars and double-parked trucks. But it’s the default urban speed limit in Wisconsin and neighboring states.
There’s some evidence in previous city studies that the impact of the new limits on most people’s speeds may be negligible. The median speed on residential streets, which are narrower and have more parked cars that make the street seem narrower, was measured at 22 mph, only 2 over the new limit. Only 5% of vehicles exceeded 30 mph. Drivers on arterial streets averaged 27 mph (30 on what the city has defined as its high-injury streets), but 15% were averaging 35 or higher.
The city’s 2017 evaluation of a test limit of 25 on a section of 15th Avenue SE in Dinkytown also found “no substantial impact” on vehicle speeds, while the number of crashes actually rose slightly. It’s possible that pre-existing traffic congestion is the main reason that speeds weren’t much affected there. But if that alone were the case, then we’d see an epidemic of drivers flying down streets depleted of traffic by stay-at-home restrictions.
The new limits still aren’t fully in effect. The limits will change on individual arterial and collector streets when they’re posted. When all arterials get their new limits, signs announcing the new limits will be posted at key gateways on the city’s borders and at freeway exits, planned for the coming fall. That’s also when the new residential limits take effect. All this will be supplemented by changes in traffic signal timing to support the new speeds.
So we won’t really know until normal traffic resumes whether the new limits are working, at least for our arterial streets. More schoolkids driving to school, more parents headed for work, more ferrying of kids to lessons and games, more suburbanites headed for downtown — all could test driver patience.
But for now, let’s all remember to take a deep breath when we get behind the wheel.