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.

27 thoughts on “Let’s Legalize Slow Streets

  1. Eric AnondsonEric Anondson

    I’m perfectly willing to shame Minnesota as being horribly backward and retrograde with regard to its concern for life of its least protected citizens over convenience of the most protected.

    It’s all about society’s values. Then we invent conversations to justify the retrograde laws like “sure, but the cyclist didn’t have a helmet, so …”

    Don’t want Minnesota drivers to feel bad about their participation in the carnage.

    1. Wayne

      The shaming is well deserved. The car-centricity of this place is on par with sprawling southwestern cities and the ‘bike-friendly’ thing is a fluke because they made some off-street trails out of old rail ROW before anyone else. The transit system is pathetic and underfunded. The sidewalks are atrocious. The car is king in Minnesota and no amount of PR BS to pretend otherwise is going to change the underlying facts. If this is magically the most bike-friendly city in the county, that’s more of an indictment of the rest of America than a compliment for Minnesota.

  2. Walker AngellWalker Angell

    I agree Scott. In most of Europe a residential street or shopping street is either 18 or 25 mph (40 kph) and there’s a push to lower those that are currently 25 down to 18.

    In The Netherlands and increasingly in other countries any roadway without a segregated physically protected bikeway has a maximum speed of 18 mph.

    Perhaps these contribute to why people walking and riding bicycles in the U.S. are about 5 to 9 times as likely to be killed by someone driving a car as those in Europe.

  3. Mike SonnMike Sonn

    Jefferson can’t get a reduced speed limit bcs of this which is crazy.

    Also, the only question I got wrong on my MN driver’s license test was about speed limits. I put 25 mph as the default residential speed limit, not 30 mph.

    But Grand would be perfect for 25 mph (or even 20), tons of bumpouts and parklets. We could really activate the street so much more than it already is. If people want to go A-B, they shouldn’t be on Grand anyway.

    1. Scott ShafferScott

      One of my friends on FB said she made the exact same “mistake” on her driver’s test.

      I spent about four years living on and around Grand. I totally agree that a lowered speed limit and more people-friendly treatments would make the most of one of St. Paul’s greatest assets.

      1. Alex SchieferdeckerAlex Schieferdecker

        It’s actually remarkable how unsafe Grand feels if you try to bike down it. There’s no reason that road should be so fast. The only safe feeling part for a bicyclist or pedestrian is where Macalester installed wide medians.

  4. Kele

    I am all for slower speeds on streets like Grand Ave. When apartment-hunting last year, I checked out a garden-level studio facing Grand and immediately disliked it because of the noise and speed of cars passing my window. Beautiful street, but I certainly wouldn’t want to live on it. (I think maybe what was worst was the number of semis and large trucks barreling down the street as well.)

    1. Kele

      A street that absolutely needs to be slowed down is Ford Pkwy between Cretin Ave (St. Paul) and 46th Ave (Minneapolis). It functions as a highway basically and the lack of lights between makes it a dangerous street to cross. I cross this street every day and don’t bother with the Cretin light (the cycle is way too slow) or the perfunctory cross-walk at Woodlawn — it’s safe to cross to the median first.

    2. Wayne

      I also take issue with the designation of pretty much every major street as a truck route around here. Semis don’t belong on commercial streets where there is heavy pedestrian traffic. We need to ban semis on all but a bare-bones network that leads from industrial parks directly to highways and force local deliveries to utilize smaller trucks that aren’t extremely dangerous to pedestrians and cyclists (see the hit&run semi in Boston recently, or any number of examples here over recent years).

  5. Sean Hayford OlearySean Hayford Oleary

    I think our law may be more flexible today than cities are willing to admit.

    > “Subd. 5.Bicycle lane. “Bicycle lane” means a portion of a roadway or shoulder designed for exclusive or preferential use by persons using bicycles. Bicycle lanes are to be distinguished from the portion of the roadway or shoulder used for motor vehicle traffic by physical barrier, striping, marking, or other similar device.”

    A route with sharrows, at least, is a route where a portion of the roadway is designed for the preferential use of persons using bicycles. I’m not sure that argument would hold for non-specific bike boulevards, though.

    1. Eric AnondsonEric Anondson

      I think you have a point. While county roads and state highways running down city streets are tougher, I recall froggie mentioning that cities can declare a street part of an “urban district”, which allows a city to post new speed limits without needing an engineering study. May still be limited to 30 though…

      1. Adam FroehligAdam Froehlig

        Correct. If the land use adjacent to a given street meets certain density requirements, and isn’t a state highway or county state-aid route, the city can designate it as an urban district and reduce the speed limit to 30 if it was higher beforehand.

        Otherwise, and excluding certain other limited exceptions mentioned elsewhere in the comments, ANY change in speed limit on any street or road in the state requires a traffic and engineering study to be done by MnDOT.

    2. Scott ShafferScott

      You must hold sharrows in higher esteem than I do.

      That would be funny to make that argument if only force engineers to explicitly state that no, sharrows are not designed for the preferential or exclusive use of persons using bicycles and they in fact do nothing at all.

  6. Keith Morris

    Traffic calming measures are a way around this backward law. Sure, you can go 30 on a bike boulevard with speed humps and traffic circles: see what happens when you don’t slow down. I vote for more of these even after the speed limit gets lowered.

    1. Adam FroehligAdam Froehlig

      IMO, speed humps are useless as speed reduction devices. To design them such to where they’d actually be useful in reducing speeds for most drivers would make them very difficult for larger vehicles (namely emergency vehicles and buses) to traverse.

      1. Joseph TottenJoseph Totten

        People also notice how much they slow for them, so they feel like they should make up lost time between them, similar to unwarranted stop signs. Slowing people down without their actually noticing it seems key (narrower lanes, shorter striping, neighborhood traffic circles, all seem to do this).

  7. UrbanDoofus

    Kind of sucks that state gov has to have a hand in every single thing. Makes it hard to self govern and make things work in your neck of the woods if you have to ask mommy or daddy governor for permission.

  8. Phil

    I’d really like to see state law changed to give cities complete control over speed limits on all roads, regardless of bike facility. New York City enacted a wholesale citywide speed limit change to 25MPH last year. I could see political will supporting that in Minneapolis, but it’s not gonna happen until the state law changes.

    Lower speed limits aren’t just about bikes. Crossing the street as a pedestrian is much easier when cars are going sub 25. Coming to a stop for a pedestrian that your more likely to see is much easier when you’re not going 30+.

    I’d also echo what Kele said about the overall character of streets with slower traffic. The feeling on Nicollet north of K-Mart is so humane and relaxing because of its lower traffic and speeds. Spending time shopping/walking/dining on Lyndale Ave is just unpleasant with the constant rush of 35+ MPH traffic.

    1. Wayne

      Not just speed limits, but road design as well. No more garbage county roads in the city limits designed like they’re in Bloomington.

  9. Pingback: The U.S. Made Cars Safer, and It’s Past Time to Do the Same for Streets | Streetsblog.net

  10. Keith Morris

    Just went down Ohio St in Downtown Indianapolis, the most car-centric big city in the Great Lakes region, ie the opposite of Minneapolis: just spotted a 25 MPH speed limit sign.

  11. Meg

    I just moved to suburban Minneapolis from a lifetime in WI and I was surprised by the 30 mph limit in residential areas, especially ones with no sidewalks like ours. MN takes pride in having an active population and being so bike friendly (which I love!) that it doesn’t make much sense to have these higher speed limits.

    1. Wayne

      The ‘bike-friendly’ thing is like 70% PR and 30% people actually trying to improve the situation. Most of it is hot air and garbage rankings with questionable methodology. Yes, more people bike here than almost anywhere else in America, but that doesn’t make it bike friendly, just slightly less bike hostile.

  12. Paul Nelson

    Thank you. I appreciate knowing better what the obstacles are to lowering street speeds. I am all for re-classifying *all* of the streets to a lower speed limit; 25 MPH on collector and through streets and 15 – 20 on residential streets. I think the interstate expense-ways should also have lowered speeds going through cities. For speed humps, they should be placed on residential and specific slow streets that we currently do not have. In Copenhagen Denmark they lowered the speeds on all of the streets and even have “pedestrian priority streets” where the speed limit is nine miles per hour. I think this issue is very current, and we should be lowering the speeds on all of our streets now. Thank you again for writing this.

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