Let’s Legalize Slow Streets

Downtown Appleton, WI. Shot from the back seat of a car moving 25 mph.

Downtown Appleton, WI. Shot from the back seat of a car moving 25 mph.

Every month or two, my wife and I visit her parents in Appleton, Wisconsin. It’s a nice college town with a strong bar scene set on the beautiful Fox River. Their downtown shares many characteristics of the busier stretches of Grand Avenue in St. Paul, except for the speed limit: in downtown Appleton, it’s 25 miles per hour.

Most urban streets in Minnesota have speed limits of 30 or 35 miles per hour. This is too bad, because as Bill pointed out a few months ago, if you’re hit by a car going 40 miles per hour, there’s an 85% chance you’ll die. If the car is going 20 miles per hour, the chance of death drops to 5%. By lowering speed limits and design speeds in populated areas, we can save lives. Appleton’s 25-mph downtown is an impressive, nationally-recognized commercial node that poses less of a threat to human life than the Twin Cities’ speedier corridors.

So why does Wisconsin get nice things and we don’t? There’s just one thing keeping a city in Minnesota from passing a resolution to lower the speed limits on its deadliest streets: state law.

State Aid “Safety” Standards

If you’re a city who wants the state to help pay for your streets (and you are), the state has rules about how those streets should look. One of these rules is about the posted speed limit. The standard minimum speed limit, according to state law, is 30 miles per hour. There are a few exceptions: if you have a bike lane on the street, you can lower it to 25 miles per hour. Or, you can put up a sign next to a school that begs drivers to slow down when children are present.

One sad effect of this law is that it’s illegal to use state funds to build neighborhood slow streets (the official jargon is “bicycle boulevard,” even though the benefits don’t accrue mainly to bicyclists, and the streets are narrower than boulevards). Take Bryant Avenue between Franklin Avenue and Lake Street in Minneapolis, for example. It’s a narrow residential street that’s decked out with speed bumps and bike stencils, but technically the speed limit is 30 miles per hour. The National Association of City Transportation Officials (NACTO) recommends that streets like Bryant Avenue have a speed limit of 25 miles per hour or less.

State law has the right idea in linking lower speed limits to the presence of vulnerable street users, but they need to update the law because it doesn’t allow cities to lower speed limits on streets that need it most. It would be OK to lower the speed limit to 25 miles per hour on streets with bike lanes, like Park and Portland avenues. But on narrower streets where there’s no room for bike lanes, and all modes have to share limited space, the speed limit is stuck at a dangerous 30 miles per hour.

A Quick Fix

Free legislative advice: a quick fix could be as simple as striking the word “lane” and replacing it with “facility,” and including bicycle boulevard in the definition of bicycle facility. This would be easy and would help quite a bit. A more thoughtful, well-crafted law would allow for speeds limits of 20mph or lower in certain circumstances (on Bryant, or on the upcoming shared street on 29th at Lyndale).

If Minnesota legislators value both the technical expertise of organizations like NACTO, and the local expertise of local safe streets advocates, then they’ll pass a law that legalizes neighborhood slow streets in Minnesota.

Scott Shaffer

About Scott Shaffer

Scott Shaffer works for a nonprofit community development corporation in Minneapolis. He has a master's degree in urban and regional planning from the University of Minnesota. He and his wife live in the Powderhorn Park neighborhood with their daughter and two Siamese cats.