Speed Limit 9 1/2

How to Frame the Urban Speed Limit Issue

Tuesday was a slow news day, so the Associated Press picked up a StarTribune story on the “bike lobby” (aka Bicycle Alliance of Minnesota) wanting to have the minimum speed limit law in Minnesota revised downward. Because of the way the article was written, it served as hate-bait for the worst kind of online commenters, and obscured most of the real issue.

The real issue is that speed limits in Minnesota are set by state statute. State rules provide a limited set of circumstances for local authorities to change speed limits.

Speed Limit Sign

When framed as something proposed by the “bike lobby,” knee-jerk response from many internet cave-dwellers will be immediate opposition. But it doesn’t have to be that way. There is a way to re-frame the whole debate so that it aligns strongly with their values.

  1. Speed limits throughout Minnesota are set by statute, not by local authorities.
  2. Save in specific cases, local authorities can only change local speed limits by engaging a MnDOT traffic study at taxpayer expense.
  3. St. Paul should not be involved in setting minimum speeds on county roads and local streets. Locals know their roads best and should be making these decisions.

We can review details of each point.

1. Speed limits throughout Minnesota are set by statute, not by local authorities.

Statutory speed limits are set in Minn. Stat. §§ 169.011; 169.14, subd. 2; 327.27, subd. 2:

  • 65 or 75 mph for interstates, depending on whether it is within or outside an urbanized area of at least 50,000 people. A 40 mph minimum applies for interstates.
  • 65 mph on divided highways with controlled access (ramps and stuff)
  • 30 mph in an urban district, defined as any segment of a city street or town road with structures spaced less than 100 feet apart for a minimum distance of a quarter-mile
  • 10 mph for alleyways and mobile home parks (maximum speed limits in these places is 30, set elsewhere in §§ 169)
  • 55 mph default for other roadways

There are some rules for specific vehicles mentioned in other parts of Stat.  §§ 169. Tractors and combines don’t have to go 45 mph, luckily for us all.

Speed Limit 9 1/22. Save in specific cases, local authorities can only change local speed limits by engaging a MnDOT traffic study at taxpayer expense.

Obviously, we all know of exceptions to the rules outlined above — like the I35E “parkway” in St. Paul, which is a 45 zone. While that one is special and specific in state law, other exception cases are also worked in:

  • MnDOT can set speed zones at rates other than those defined in statute following an engineering and traffic study of roadway design, traffic volume, crash history, typical speed, etc. etc.
  • Local authorities have limited powers to change their own speed zones, although they can request MnDOT studies. Which are probably not inexpensive! I am unsure who pays for these studies, but am comfortable with the phrase “at taxpayer expense.” It’s a state agency.There are a few codified areas where local authority can change speeds without MnDOT’s involvement, though:
    • If MnDOT sets a speed zone in an urban district above 30 mph, the local authority can bash it right back down to 30 mph, more or less. This explains a lot of small towns throughout Minnesota, where you’re at 55 mph going past the cornfields, then slow down for the half-mile stretch of town featuring a Kum n Go, a Dairy Queen and an American Legion hall.
    • A residential roadway, defined in Minn. Stat. § 169.011, subd. 64 as a city street or town road of less than one half mile total, can be reduced to 25 mph. This includes all the cul de sacs of the world, obviously, and many types of subdivisions.
    • Rural residential districts, which are the small towns where the run through town includes housing spaced less than 300 feet apart for at least a quarter mile, can reduce speed to 35 mph. (Which is more than the 30 mph allowed for the rural business district, which is goofy, right?)
    • School zones can be set at a minimum 15 mph, but no less than 30 mph below the surrounding speed limits (which can lead to 25-35 mph zones where schools are built as unwalkable islands).

There are a couple of other fun exceptions out there as well: If a street has a bike lane, speed can be set at 25 mph. Park roads can be set slower, although subject to a traffic study.

So for a lot of streets in places like Minneapolis, 30 mph is as low as you can set the speed limit. While many streets we think of as “through streets” are residential, they’re also over 1/4 mile long, thanks to the grid. And getting speed limits changed is expensive, thanks to the traffic study requirements.

3. St. Paul should not be involved in setting minimum speeds on county roads and local streets. Locals know their roads best and should be making these decisions.

If the phrase “bike lobby” tips some citizens into immediate opposition to whatever is proposed (even if it involves a holiday on which everyone eats tacos and skittles), the reverse is true of the idea about St. Paul involving itself in local affairs. That’s why you frame minimum speed limits for county and local roads as a matter of local control of local resources, allowing common-sense judgement calls without the expense of MnDOT traffic studies. Of course, MnDOT remains the controller of state and interstate highways, due to the nature of those roads.

This is the kind of argument that plays well in rural areas, who believe the legislators at the capitol don’t “get” them. It also plays well in more conservative metro counties — remember, Anoka County rejected the state wheelage tax as intrusive.

The main roadblock to a proposal like this is actually about the dictation of maximum speed requirements. Many rural authorities want to get rid of maximum speed requirements and bring more rural roadways up to 65/70 mph without the bother of going through MnDOT. The challenge there, obviously, is that study after study shows that going slower leads to fewer crashes and deaths. The reverse is not true with increased speed.

The “Bicycle Lobby”

Notice how we have not mentioned bicycles once? This doesn’t mean bike groups, or the city of Minneapolis, wouldn’t be in favor of these changes! They would certainly be willing to talk to legislators and send citizen-lobbyists to talk to representatives to see these changes occur. But the issue goes beyond the “bike lobby” and goes straight into factors of local control.

Should MnDOT be determining speed limits on every curved road over 1/4 mile long in a residential area? Maybe not! While I grew up outside of Minnesota, I grew up on a road to nowhere that had a north end, and an east end, both curving to the same through street. It was more than 1/4 mile long, and 30 mph would have been ridiculous as a speed on that street. No traffic study needed!

These are the stories that need to be told to legislators. We’re applying common-sense local control to local streets to protect everyone — motorists, pedestrians and cyclists. Phrased like that, and limited to county and local roads, reading the comments might still have moments of disgust and despair. But there would probably be a whole lot fewer of those moments, and a whole bunch more “MnDOT sucks! Get legislators from Lakeville offa my lawn!”

And that’s how change happens.

About Julie Kosbab

Julie Kosbab is an online marketing consultant and active transportation advocate living in Anoka County, Minnesota. She was one of Minnesota's only League of American Bicyclists Certified Instructors when certified in 2005, and is no longer lonely in that calling. A past member of the National Bicycle Tour Directors Association, she has 2 children and a garage full of bicycles. Find her on Twitter as @betweenstations, or read her (seldom updated) blog at Ride Boldly!