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.


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.


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.



44 thoughts on “Local Control Over Speed Limits: Slow Cars and Save Lives

  1. Nate

    I forgot about the helmet. Future versions of this will be revised.

    Mike, you summed up my entire post in five words. And, your quote is what’s messed up about our system. Clearly the driver was going faster than he should, but was breaking the law.

  2. Monte Castleman

    If we want to reduce the speed limit to say 25, like a lot of other states do, we can talk, but I’m totally against local control of speed limits unless we require a sign on every block of every street. I’m in St. Louis Park and there’s no sign. Is the speed limit 20? or 25? or 30? Or have I really crossed the border to Golden Valley and the speed limit is now 25 and not 30.

    We can argue about what value the law should be set at, but it’s there for a reason. As a driver there’s nothing I want more is an understanding and consistency as to how to behave.

    1. Scott

      Sort of a point, but maybe not too much.

      I’ve worked in cities and towns across the US, and in some state out east there’s a sign as you enter every town that says, “speed limit XX unless otherwise posted.” Most seem to pick 25, a few at 30. I’ve never seen a 20. I can’t remember where it was. Might have been in upstate New York?

      That seems like a reasonable accommodation.

      Most of the streets, even the commercial arterials, in Saint Paul, “feel” like slower than 30 streets to me. Selby and Grand are great examples. Flying down Grand Avenue at 30 MPH is basically acting like a Death Race 2000 driver.

      30 on the residential side streets is WAY too fast.

      At least the double parked cars and really only having one traffic lane actually does a pretty good job of slowing down most traffic most of the time – until you get that one guy who just has to do 31 in a 30 because he can.

      That said, I think a statewide law to reduce in-town speed from 30 to 25 is a great start, and then a reduction from 25 to 20 on all complete streets/bikeways would be an excellent next step. I don’t understand why Saint Paul hasn’t already done so on Charles, Griggs, and the other bikeway streets.

      1. Matt Brillhart

        Agreed. Statewide reduction of the local speed limit to 25MPH would be an enormous win.

        25MPH local speed limits and Sunday liquor sales are two things for which I deeply envy Wisconsin. Probably just those two things though.

    2. Sean Hayford OlearySean Hayford Oleary

      Actually, can any speed limit be enforced without a sign now, if it’s not one of the standard state 55/30 limits?

      A common example now in the suburban fringe is an urbanizing area surrounding what was once a 55 mph highway — the speed limit may be lowered to 50 or 45 because of added intersections or the changed context. As far as I know, that speed limit cannot be enforced unless signed.

      I agree with you in general about local speed limits, but the enforcement/inconsistency issue doesn’t concern me as much.

    3. Nathaniel

      Monte – I think this issue is very easily resolved. We don’t want local agencies intentionally being deceiving by setting speed traps. But, limiting locals to not set their own streets, which they control and have say in their design, is something I think is very important. I think a good solution to this was posted already.

  3. Monica Millsap RasmussenMonica Rasmussen

    I grew up on an acreage that was next to a highway. Growing up, I road my bike on the wide shoulders of the highway where drivers of cars, grain trucks, semi trucks, and other vehicles were traveling 55+ mph, so my perceptions may be skewed. But, even if the speed limit were reduced here to 20 mph, I don’t think I could feel comfortable biking with the way streets are being designed here. As the author points out here, “The tree-lined median makes for a tight space, so I was hugging the right curb and weaving around the occasional parked car.” That is the very reason that I don’t bike around the city. Why would I want to be *squeezed* between a concrete curb and a heavy moving object? Give both me and the drivers space to make occasional, unintentional small weaves without bothering each other and I might feel more comfortable.

  4. Sean Hayford OlearySean Hayford Oleary

    I’d like to see a lower standard for neighborhood streets (and some arterials) as well — but I would be really concerned about complete local control over speed limits. Mainly because I think the changes would be largely politically motivated, and may not realistically reflect the context of the street.

    Examples abound in Minneapolis on major streets: Park/Portland was changed to 30 mph a couple of years ago, I believe under state law that allows cities to designate speeds on streets with bike lanes, without an engineering justification for the speed. However, speed studies conducted since then show that the 85th percentile speed is closer to 40. I am sometimes driving a car on these streets, and I will say 35-38 mph feels like the more natural speed. Cedar Avenue north of Minnehaha Parkway is also 30, but 35-40 mph traffic is more typical. Richfield also has a more residential portion of 76th Street that’s 30 mph (versus 35 mph in the more commercial area), and traffic rarely complies with that speed.

    I think the more important consideration is the design, not the law. If a car feels safe driving 30 mph on a residential street today, we’ve failed, regardless of what the law theoretically allows. In Richfield, where most streets are 36 feet wide and most folks park off the street, cars often hit 30 or in some cases 35-40 when there’s a longer stretch without stop signs. On my block, parents almost never let their kids play in the street, but feel perfectly safe letting them ride bikes, scooters, play hopscotch, etc in the alley — despite having worse sightlines and probably more traffic. They feel safe because the design requires cars to go slowly.

    If we built more of our streets the way we built alleys, I think speed limit signs would be a nonissue!

    1. Nathaniel

      We should be designing our streets for slower moving vehicles. This is true. But, in the meantime, I think lowering residential speed limits would be a great win.

  5. David LevinsonDavid Levinson

    This is informative: http://www.house.leg.state.mn.us/hrd/pubs/ss/ssspdlt.pdf

    Subject to various requirements, adjusted speed limits can be set on other roadways, including: (1) park roads (at not less than 15 m.p.h., or more than 20 m.p.h. below the surrounding limit); (2) on streets that have a designated bicycle lane (at not less than 25 m.p.h.); (3) in alleys; and (4) in mobile home parks (at over 10 but no more than 30 m.p.h.). Minn. Stat. §§ 160.263, subd. 4; 169.14, subds. 5c and 5e; 327.27.

    Just designate a bike lane. Easy, peasy.

    1. Nathaniel

      Thank you David. It’s a great document written in plain English.

      I wish St. Paul had a little more political will and would start designating more bike lanes.

  6. Walker AngellWalker Angell

    Great post Nate.

    “The good news is that there are exemptions for school zones, parks, and streets with bike lanes. “

    The Netherlands and others are just the opposite. A street without a bike facility is limited to 18 mph. There must be a bikeway (and often a protected bikeway) before the speed can be increased above 18 mph.

  7. Wayne

    Local control of speed limits is meaningless without local control of street design too. You can sign a 13′ lane as 25 and people will still drive faster. Let the cities narrow the lanes, add curb outs and medians, and reduce corner radus and you might get somewhere.

    1. Nathaniel

      Good point. I believe we do have control over residential streets. It’s the County / State roads where that power is limited. I think we should start (as an obtainable goal) of starting small: our residential streets.

      1. Stacy

        The fire code requirements are often the deciding factor for the design and construction of wide streets. This is not up to local government.

        1. Wayne

          And as many have pointed out you can use smaller fire trucks that can navigate calmed streets. Europe is full of fire trucks that can navigate their narrow little medieval roads. It’s a bit of a red herring to point to fire codes and say that calmed streets mean your house will burn down or that your hands are tied because fire trucks *must* have giant corner radii and wide lanes.

          Plus you could still build a far narrower and calmer street than most of what we have now while still meeting those requirements for current monster trucks the fire department uses. It’s a weak excuse.

          1. Sean Hayford OlearySean Hayford Oleary

            You can also cut parking and narrow out that space where it’s underutilized. If there are cars consistently parked on both sides of the street — great, that’s a decent use of space, and a great way to calm traffic. But many blocks are mostly empty, leading to a wide open space that encourages high speeds. Those could consider going down to one-side parking (and removing 8′-ish of space) when reconstructed.

            1. Wayne

              I disagree that it’s a good use of space. Free parking is a terrible use of public space. If those spots aren’t metered or otherwise paid for in full by users via a permit system, it’s a subsidy of an unsustainable lifestyle and no city should be encouraging it.

              1. Sean Hayford OlearySean Hayford Oleary

                Well, maybe I overstated it. I think no matter what your view of free neighborhood parking is, you would probably agree it’s a worse use of space to provide two 8′ parking lanes for an entire block, only to be used by two or three cars.

                That seems like the lowest-hanging fruit if we wanted to narrow streets without impacting parking (where it’s used more) or making emergency response folks worried about being able to get through safely.

            2. Eric AnondsonEric Anondson

              An example: I grew up in a neighborhood in SLP called Brookside. For an example of what could be build, check out Xenwood or Zarthan south of Excelsior Blvd. parking on one side and only room for a single car in the drive lane. Been like that for 100 years.

              Where I live in Hopkins we rebuilt our streets 2 years ago to keep its vastly underused street parking in both side, destroying 8o trees in order to keep curbs near where they were, spending vastly more than is necessary. People drive Xenwood in SLP very slowly. People drive Jackson Ave S in Hopkins faster than 35 some days.

              1. Sean Hayford OlearySean Hayford Oleary

                Yup, looking at 41XX Xenwood, that’s the alternative — although I do wish the sidewalks could be a bit farther out to provide a more substantial boulevard. This is similar to the streets in Tangletown, which are a similar width and generally have parking on only one side.

                It’s maybe a little harder of a sell when you have front driveways (that take up a lot of possible parking spots). But there doesn’t seem to be any shortage of available spots in this particular street.

                Richfield also has an interesting comparison — almost all the streets in the city are 36′ wide, but one area (north of 66th, west of 35W, east of Penn) has 26′-28′ streets. Some — but not all — are restricted to one-side parking. I live on one of the typical 36′ streets, but really envy the more intimate neighborhood feel of that 10′-narrower street.

  8. Rosa

    The idea that the limit – which legally is an UPWARD limit – is a mandatory minimum, will be a problem regardless of what the formal limit is.

    That driver was free to drive 20 or 25 if that was what felt safe to them, but it’s really hard to do because we’re trained to always drive at or above the speed limit.

    1. Alex

      I’ve encountered a great deal of hostility when attempting to drive below 30mph in Minneapolis anyway. I don’t mind people honking at me, but a lot of times people pass me on the left when I’m at 20 or 25mph. That’s unsafe, and counter to my strategy in driving under 30mph.

      On a related note, I’ve lived in Iowa and Oregon since moving away from MN over a year ago, and typically feel much safer on their streets, where the standard speed limit is 25mph with lower limits allowed where warranted (often in downtown areas or residential areas with narrow streets). Keep plugging away at this issue, streets.mn, it’s a huge deal for livable cities in Minnesota.

      1. Rosa

        Yep. I encounter a lot of hostility and unsafe other-driver behavior just from trying to stick with 30 on most streets, which is something I’ve really been trying to do the last 4 years. I don’t even try it on the interstate – I typically run about 10 miles over the limit on the interstate when traffic allows, and even then people blow past me on both sides all the time. We really do treat the limit as a minimum.

        1. Jeff

          Doesn’t that practice (treating the limit as a minimum) defeat the purpose of the 85th percentile rule? If the limit is set such that only 15% of the population is supposed to be exceeding it, but in practice the vast majority exceed it, mostly by at least 5 MPH, why do we maintain allegiance to it? Also, what good is a lower limit if no one pays attention to the current limit and there’s no enforcement mechanism?

            1. Rosa

              I don’t think atypically so, though. Places that are more dense may have less speeding just due to cars being in the way of each other, but I’ve driven a lot in the rural West and Southwest and Minnesota actually runs a lot slower than, say, Texas or South Dakota.

            2. Wayne

              American drivers are bad. You won’t find an American city where the drivers aren’t awful murderous charlatans. This whole “drivers in (insert state/city/whatever) are so bad!” is silly provincialism–drivers have been terrible everywhere I’ve ever been. Everyone has an inflated sense of how good a driver they are personally and thinks everyone else is the problem. But everyone is the problem. A good driver that obeys the rules and drives safely and has regard for the life of pedestrians and cyclists is a minority in the driving population.

          1. Sean Hayford OlearySean Hayford Oleary

            Yes, but I think engineers would say the reason why people treat it as a minimum is that the posted limits are too low.

            I agree, to some extent, on freeways. The 55 mph limit inside the 494/694 beltway is arbitrary, as is the 60 mph speed limit on the beltway itself. (Why would you have the same speed limit in Minnetonka — modern freeway with wide clear zones and shoulders, exits only ever few miles — as you do on the Richfield/Bloomington strip, a narrow freeway with retaining walls and a high number of access points?)

            MnDOT has started to lessen this. Hwy 100, 35W and 94 have gone up to 60 mph north of downtown. Supposedly, the higher speed limit makes it a more “realistic” limit and thus easier to enforce against outliers.

            On surface streets, including busy CSAH routes, it’s hard for me to want a higher speed limit. There, as I said earlier, I really hope the focus can be making design changes to bring down to a limit that’s agreeable to the community and safe for all users.

            1. Rosa

              I think it’s criminal for any residential street to have a limit over 25, given that we know the risk of death for pedestrians and cyclists is so much higher at 30 than at 25.

      2. Nathaniel

        Thank you Alex. Frankly I’m shocked that some people seem to object to the notion that cars slow down while on residential streets. I did not think it would be controversial.

  9. Ray Marshall

    Don’t forget the bicyclists who don’t observe the laws either. Sometimes they consider themselves to be pedestrians, sometimes, automobiles.

    1. Jeff

      Point being? This post was about the idea that slower speed limits save lives and that current posted limits in residential areas still result in lots of death and injury. Please point out what behavior change you’d effect in bicyclists that would result in a reduction in death/injury that’s on a par with the benefit of lower speed limits for cars.

  10. Keith Morris

    On Highland Pkwy you have long stretches where it’s wide enough for two cars to fit side by side. In this scenario I have no issue sharing the space and bearing right to let faster traffic pass. If there’s a bunch of parked cars up ahead and you’re way the hell back: too bad. You’ll have to wait until the coast us clear or the next intersection. When there are parked cars and only room for one car then you need to ride in the middle to communicate that it’s not OK to pass. Hugging the curb/parked cars says, “yes, it’s OK to pass me” even if that’s a bad idea.

    Now, I see nothing to prevent speed humps being installed here. They have them on streets that are technically 30 MPH like Aldrich and 25th on the edge of Uptown. And on Irving south of 27th you have speed humps and even a 10MPH sign. Cars aren’t going 30 on these streets, so let’s put them elsewhere.

      1. Keith Morris

        They’re on a number of streets, but I think they’d be most effective right off of high speed stroads like Lake St. A good candidate is Bryant just south of there which has none despite being a designated bike boulevard and that there are some north of Lake.

  11. Eric AnondsonEric Anondson

    Regarding the feasibility of cities posting at their borders signs alerting people. Many cities are currently allowed to—and do!—post signs alerting people about citywide parking restrictions to their streets. You enter Hopkins or Minneapolis, for example, you are greeted with signs telling you this city does it differently.

    Adding speed limits to the city street restrictions is really NBD if we let cities have their own parking limits.

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