How To Frame the Urban Speed Limit Issue

Speed Limit SignTuesday was a slow news day, so the Associated Press picked up a Star-Tribune 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.

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!

43 thoughts on “How To Frame the Urban Speed Limit Issue

  1. Eric AnondsonEric Anondson

    I’ve yet to talk to anyone who hasn’t complained about people driving too fast down their street. Ever. It is as universal as can be.

    Absolutely nobody thinks 30 is reasonable to drive on THEIR street in front of THEIR house where THEIR kids play

    But people just don’t make the connection with driving 30 down the streets a quarter mile away. Brains shut off.

    1. Wayne

      This is so incredibly true. I don’t know if humans are just stupid, if our education system has completed failed them in the basic logic department, or if getting in a car has some magical negative impact on cognitive faculties. I’m leaning towards the last option, but the first two are pretty plausible too.

  2. Nicole

    How do other states deal with this? Is there a precedent for changing the law to give local authorities more control?

    1. Julie Kosbab Post author

      Most states have some form of minimum and maximum speed limit laws.

      Not a date on this crude chart, but you can see a range here, based on “no other posted limit,” with minimums and maximums when defined:

      I’m not sure, though, about how one sets exceptions. Everyone will have an “in the absence of signage this is the speed limit!” law. The question is, how easily is that limit reduced if you post signage?

  3. Sean Hayford OlearySean Hayford Oleary

    I like this article a lot — but I think the only real issue is that the campaign, as I understand it, is simply to lower the state standard speed. It would still be a default mandate from St. Paul, so it doesn’t address the libertarian issues that can be made in the current argument.

    And maybe that’s not a bad thing. It would be pretty maddening if some cities posted a street at 35, and the next city over posted it at 10.

    But in general, I really agree with lowering the standard speed to 25. Cities can still do speed studies to determine a higher speed for arterials — perhaps 30 or even 35 is still more appropriate. But our default speed within a neighborhood should be less.

    1. John Charles Wilson

      LOL about the idea of one city posting 35 and the next one post 10 for the same street! However, is it realistic that *any* city would post anything wider than an alley 10 MPH?

      However, this reminds me of another absurdity: street names and addresses. Highway 120 on the Ramsey/Washington County line is called Century Avenue on the Ramsey County side and Geneva Avenue on the Washington County side! In addition, the house numbering systems differ in the two counties so (for cross streets) Century is 2740 East and Geneva is 6000 East! And 3500 North Geneva is across from 1920 North Century (these are theoretical based on the respective grid systems, not actual existing buildings, but the concept is still accurate).

      1. Julie Kosbab Post author

        Where I grew up, it wasn’t only common that you crossed a municipal line and the speed limit changed, but very often the street name changed as well. Happens in a lot of places, really.

    2. Julie Kosbab Post author

      Well, if you make the campaign “no minimum speed” it becomes a removal of edict, not a new edict. The key is that you have to say “in the absence of a posted speed limit, the default equals X, but local jurisdictions may set appropriate speed limits on local, county and residential streets.” You pretty much have to have a default speed in the absence of signage; you don’t have to force every street to that standard if a municipality wants/needs it to be less.

      Consider me your mole who knows what plays well at PTA meetings in Anoka County!

  4. Sean Hayford OlearySean Hayford Oleary

    Also a question, for anyone who might know. An engineer told me that if a speed has a given design speed at the time of construction, that speed can be posted as is, without any speed study needed, even when the speed differs from statutory speed. Can anyone confirm this?

    I’m thinking in particular of E 77th St, posted at 40 mph with no speed study.

    1. Julie Kosbab Post author

      Could be. It might be a subset of the required MnDOT traffic study, if traffic study can be encompassed by “design study.”

      Most of the statute is about minimum speed and default speed, not that something higher but below the maximum isn’t allowed, so that may also be part of it. I am not a lawyer, etc. etc., I just read 169 and various other crap. 🙂

    2. Monte Castleman

      It makes sense to me. It would be silly to post something at a statutory speed when it’s obviously designed for something more just because there’s no data available from a speed study.

      1. Joe T

        Yes, for higher speed limits. For lower you must sign those curves, other features designed below 30 mph.

  5. Casey

    This whole issue is pointless. If they enforced the current laws there would be less of a problem in the first place.

      1. Sean Hayford OlearySean Hayford Oleary

        Agreed. It’s actually quite noticeable to see a car going a full 30 in front of your house. (Unless you live on a collector or arterial, in which case you’re probably used to it, for better or for worse.)

        1. Casey

          Sure, go to all the trouble and expense of changing the law with no enforcement. I live near Franklin and Bryant and see cars speeding down Bryant which is supposed to be a bike boulevard. I see cars taking a right around a bus stopped to pick up people. (Biggest pet peeve!) Cars that don’t stop at stop signs. Drivers that turn on red with signs all over when it is illegal. Then there are the idiots driving the wrong way on a one way. No need to enforce laws, right?

          1. Julie Kosbab Post author

            Not sure there’s a ton of expense, save the legislative time, in changing the law at that level. Much as speed limit minimums would then be set locally, traffic is enforced locally as well. It would still boil down to issues of local control, the way I’ve framed this up.

  6. Julie Kosbab Post author

    This is true, but at the same time, I’ve lived in neighborhoods where the street is not conducive to 30 mph by design, and people do it anyway. So I think both are needed measure — design and edict, with enforcement.

    1. Justin

      Although MANY people speed, I’d say just as many or more do not. And people absolutely feel pressure from other drivers to go at least the speed limit if not faster.

  7. Monte Castleman

    I think what’s getting muddled in this whole debate is what exactly people are advocating for (and different people are in fact probably advocating for different things).

    Do we want to set a different statutory speed? Of those states that have them, it’s true that all the surrounding states all of them are 25 mph, but there’s a lot of other states with 30 mph, with no pattern. Montana is 25 mph and Massachusetts is 30 mph.

    Do we want all non-freeways to be have a speed limit of 25 mph? Maybe this would make sense in Minneapolis where one street isn’t that much different from another, but in the suburbs there’s more differentiation in design, up to and including roads like MN 13, 36 and MN 252, which function like freeways except we haven’t gotten funding to remove the stoplights yet. How well would a 25 mph speed limit on MN 252 be received and obeyed?

    Do we want to just not have a default city speed limit? Despite my advocacy for consistent traffic laws, other states don’t, and it seems to work out.

    1. Sean Hayford OlearySean Hayford Oleary

      I want a different statutory speed. But maybe I should be more open to the idea of simply letting cities decide what to do themselves.

      I do not want a maximum speed — or at least, I wouldn’t want it to be 25. Even if we only looked at Minneapolis and St. Paul, they still have a small handful of suburban-style surface streets/highways, like Hiawatha Ave, Olson Memorial Hwy, or New Brighton Blvd. (Or Shepard Rd and others in St. Paul.)

      There’s an argument to be made that we should design for 25 on streets like Cedar Avenue, which have immediate frontage and lots of crossing points. But I can’t imagine anyone here is arguing that the same standard should apply to New Brighton Blvd.

    2. Julie Kosbab

      Monte, the way I framed it up would leave speed determination for STATE highways (your Mn13 and MN252s of the world) and Interstates straight on MnDOT, because they are state highways and thus are definitionally outside of “local control.”

      1. Monte Castleman

        Yes, I did understand your point in the article. I was referring to the larger context with the other article here, the Strib article, and the comments for all three of them; there doesn’t appear to be a single viewpoint even among those that want slower speeds,

    3. Rosa

      I want every single driver to be achingly aware that choosing to go 30 when they could have gone 25 significantly increases the chance that they will kill someone. That’s what I want.

      Oh and for drivers to feel safe stopping to let a pedestrian cross the road, without worrying they will get rear-ended for it.

      The tactics for how to achieve that are pretty up for grabs, but that’s the goal. Fewer pedestrian deaths and more awareness of drivers’ responsibility to not kill other people.

      1. Sean Hayford OlearySean Hayford Oleary

        “Oh and for drivers to feel safe stopping to let a pedestrian cross the road, without worrying they will get rear-ended for it.”

        This. But design of streets makes a big difference. I have zero problem stopping for pedestrians on Minnehaha Parkway, but I’ve had too many negative experiences stopping for pedestrians on Cedar (especially at 47th). I’ll stop for them, and then the car behind me zooms around at full speed on the shoulder, coming just a foot or so from the pedestrian who was about to step out.

        Other wide streets without bumpouts seem to have similar problems. I almost feel like this shoulder-passing habit is more dangerous to crossing pedestrians than a straight-up four-lane road would be.

          1. Sean Hayford OlearySean Hayford Oleary

            I think speed makes it worse, but the shoulder-passing itself is the most dangerous. I feel much more comfortable (although not perfectly comfortable) stopping for pedestrians on 77th St in Richfield, even though that has a higher speed limit. (Actual speed is probably pretty similar.) It is four lanes, but it feels more orderly and predictable with clearly marked crosswalks, no shoulder, and a wide refuge area.

      2. Julie Kosbab Post author

        In the road? ANYWHERE.

        Last week, I was in a Costco parking lot on one of those -10 days (hey, when you need salami, you NEED salami), and stopped to let someone push a cart into my path.

        Guy behind me honked and attempted to go around me, because he didn’t like waiting.

        (Justice was served that the parking spot he was after? Driver refused to move until he pulled away, and waved me in.)

        But this is also why in bicycle safety courses, we always caution against the wave on multi-lane roads. The car that goes around the car giving you the wave will kill you.

  8. Jake Krohn

    Between what has been written here and in Chuck’s take on the Strong Towns website, the analysis of this issue has been fascinating (but not so much in the comments section of newspapers). I trust that Bicycle Alliance is keeping an eye on the chatter. Lots of good ideas.

  9. Ray Marshall

    If you want slow speeds on residential streets, the streets should be no wider than 27 feet with only one sided parking (or maybe two sided parking using the 60 foot right of way at a different elevation or with traffic bumps to discourage high speed diving.

      1. Eric AnondsonEric Anondson

        Don’t. I made a showing but it’s as bad as before. It felt like the follow up was the reporter’s sheepish attempt at a fig leaf of balance the first article didn’t have.

        People aren’t able to see this rationally when cyclists want anything.

  10. Joe T

    So… confusion… saying that speeds may not be set below 25 mph does not mean that all speeds will be reduced, does it? Or even that is will become the default. Does it? I present as evidence that most surface streets would remain 30 mph as Fairview, Summit, Park, Portland, 26th, 28th, etc. These are still 30 mph roads even though they can be reduced to 25 mph under state law because they have bike lanes. So lowering the speed limit floor does not even change the norm, just allows it to be lowered within your city, no?

    1. Julie Kosbab Post author

      That is my understanding, yes. Essentially, my understanding:

      • In the absence of signage, default speed would be in effect
      • Cities could reduce speed on defined urban streets without traffic study, down to the new statutory minimum
  11. GlowBoy

    By the way, we had a very similar issue in Portland, where Oregon law is much like Minnesota’s in dictating uniform speed limits across the state.

    The issue was that on Neighborhood Greenways (aka Bike Boulevards) the city wanted to set the speed limit to 20 mph, instead of the 25 mph limit mandated for residential streets. Nope, not allowed under state law. But a year or two ago legislation passed that allowed cities to set a 20 mph limit under certain conditions. The legislation was not heavily or initiated from the Bicycle Transportation Alliance (Portland’s “bike lobby” bogeyman), but by the city itself. That made it a lot more benign politically, and even in a state where the urban-rural divide is much more pronounced than in Minnesota, people recognized that the state’s largest city had needs that current state law wasn’t meeting.

    So now Portland has a number of bike boulevards with 20 mph speed limits. One critical one, though – Clinton Street – is still stuck at 25. One element of the new law is that conditions have to be met, including that the traffic counts on the road have to be under a certain threshold (I think something like 2500 cars/day). Unfortunately Clinton has been carrying a higher volume than that, partly due to massive nearby retail and residential construction temporarily disrupting a nearby commercial street – while simultaneously attracting lots of new visitors.

    The rise in traffic on the bike boulevard, and rampant resulting conflicts, was a big impetus for lowering the speed, and precisely why it could not be lowered. A few weeks ago, after *much* tail-dragging, the city has finally installed a couple of diverters on Clinton that should reduce volume and conflicts, while also (after some time) allowing a reduction in the speed limit.

    So there’s an example where a change in state minimum speeds got pulled off, though it was done with a lot more political caution.

    I’d say that if this effort fails, it might be worth going after the state law about roads over half a mile long. That’s one of the more bizarre things I’ve heard of, and pushing for a change would sound too arcane in the media to garner the same kind of political opposition.

    1. GlowBoy

      “The legislation was not heavily or initiated from the Bicycle Transportation Alliance ”

      I meant to say, “the legislation was not heavily promoted by the Bicycle Transportation Alliance.” Sorry for the error.

      1. GlowBoy

        Well, I get that. And the same thing is true in Oregon, where the urban-rural divide really is much worse than in Minnesota, and rural Oregonians very strongly resent Portland “dictating” things to the rest of the state. Portland is unequivocally at least as much a lightning rod for Oregon’s divide as Minneapolis is for Minnesota’s.

        But even so, the tactic worked. I think the reason is that the legislation has little effect in rural Oregon, so non-Portland area legislators wouldn’t work up much effort into opposing it, but having it come from the city instead of “the bike lobby” garnered less opposition from legislators within the metro area.

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