Local Control Over Speed Limits: Slow Cars and Save Lives

On my bike. About 5:30pm. St. Paul.

I was traveling down Highland Parkway westbound towards the river at what I thought was a good downhill pace. The tree-lined median makes for a tight space, so I was hugging the right curb and weaving around the occasional parked car.

From behind, I hear a rumbling muffler. It was a car headed in the same direction. The vehicle whizzed past me at such a speed that I could feel the breeze. For a brief second, I feared for my life.

That jerk! He nearly hit me! And for what? He risked my well-being so he could arrive at a stop sign three seconds faster?

This is an occurrence that happens too often. Not just on Highland Parkway, but across the country. In other words, as upsetting as these may be, it’s not noteworthy. But, there was something uniquely different about this occurrence.

A slow neighborhood street. At least, it was designed to be.

As the driver moved down the tight street at the unsafe speed, I noticed that a “speed trailer” was capturing and reporting in real-time. The flashing number below the speed limit sign brought me to a halt.

31 in a 30.

The driver wasn’t even speeding! He was obeying the law (give or take 1 mph). The small group of cyclists, vehicles parked on-street, neighborhood feel, and stop sign ahead should have signaled that the driver slow down. The design was telling him to do one thing, but the law was telling him to do another.

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Saving lives is a benefit of traveling slow.

This is a problem.

The State of Minnesota mandates speeds in local neighborhoods. You can read about it here (PDF). To save you the time, here’s the gist of it all:

“If MnDOT sets a speed zone for a city street or town road in an “urban district” that is at least a quarter-mile long, the city or town can lower the limit to 30 mph.”

That is what St. Paul has done. They’ve lowered the speed limit to the minimum allowed by state law. The good news is that there are exemptions for school zones, parks, and streets with bike lanes. The bad news is that most streets don’t qualify.

If St. Paul wants to lower speed limits in neighborhoods, they would need to get DOT approval. To do this, each roadway would need to be studied and meet the 85th Percentile Standard. Conducting these studies on each residential road is cost prohibitive. In other words, it’s not going to happen.

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Better visibility: another benefit of driving slow

One relatively small tweak we can make to our state law that would have a big safety improvement is to allow cities and towns to set their own neighborhood speed limits. Our city governments aren’t set up to go through a State department’s bureaucratic process to make relatively minor tweaks to local streets. It’s time-prohibitive and, if studies are required, cost-prohibitive.

Let’s bring these decisions to the local government. We likely won’t bring every residential street down to 20 mph, but we can certainly try. Most residential streets in our cities and towns don’t need to be 30 mph. In fact, many cities across the country (and world) are enacting “20 is Plenty” speed limits and to save lives and make our streets safer for all users.

What’s a cyclist to do?

The driver who almost hit me; I met him briefly at the next stop sign where he was waiting for an opportunity to turn left. The driver was clueless; looking in oblivion. It was as if they had no idea they almost paralyzed a human being. In their mind and according to the legal system, they had done nothing wrong.

The newspaper would call it an accident. 5:30pm. Man was struck on his bike. Highland Parkway. No alcohol was involved. Police are investigating the crash. Then nothing more. No mention of our mandated speed minimums or reckless driving culture. Just another statistic.