Twin Cities lower residential speed limits, improving community safety

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By Matt Doll, Minnesota Environmental Partnership

Last week, the cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul announced a major policy change to increase safety for pedestrians, drivers, and cyclists in both cities: the vast majority of road miles within the two cities will have speed limits decreased from 30 mph to 20 mph, while arterial street speeds will be pegged at 25 mph. This change will be implemented over the course of several months, and street signs changes are scheduled to be completed this fall.

The 20 mph streets include most of those in residential neighborhoods, while 25-mph arterial roads include many transit routes and the downtown areas of both cities. This change does not affect county or state-owned roads, such University Avenue, which will remain at 30 mph or other posted speeds, but it impacts the vast majority of the hundreds of miles of roadway within the two cities.

On the surface, this change may appear a simple step. To be sure, it requires signage updates, traffic light changes, enforcement, and public education, but it doesn’t require the building of major new infrastructure or road repaving to have positive safety impacts.

Granted, many people currently drive over the speed limit by as much as 10 mph. But what may seem like a minor reduction in the speed limit can make a major difference in the rate of accidents and their survivability.

For starters, driving 20 mph rather than 30 or 40 simply gives a driver more time to react to people and objects around them – and for others to respond to the driver’s actions. In addition, the laws of physics mean that there is a steep curve relating speed to injuries and fatalities in a collision. When a car traveling 20 mph hits a pedestrian, the average pedestrian has less than a 1 in 10 chance of being killed. At 30 mph, the odds double to 1 in 5. At 40 mph, the average fatality rate is nearly 1 in 2. Every mile per hour reduction from lethal speeds can save lives.

Overall, we’ve seen an increase in pedestrian crashes in Minnesota over the past decade – in 2018, there were more than 1000 such collisions reported. Minnesota’s pedestrian crash fatality rate is lower than the US as a whole, but hasn’t improved on average in the last decade.

How this change can improve the Twin Cities’ environment

Obviously, a neighborhood in which people can be less afraid of being injured or killed in a vehicle collision is a healthier environment for everyone involved. But what about the air pollution and carbon impact of lower city speeds?

In Energy News, Frank Jossi writes that on their own, it’s not clear that lower residential speeds make much direct difference in overall vehicle emissions, because cars operate most efficiently at low highway speeds, around 55 mph. It’s also worth noting that the design of roads and land use in neighborhoods are also major factors in both actual speeds driven and overall vehicle pollution.

We know that one of the most needed climate solutions is to reduce vehicle miles traveled (while electrifying the miles that remain.) Using speed limits to make it safer for people to bike and walk on residential streets (especially those without sidewalks or bike lanes) is therefore an efficient way to help individuals take action for the climate. It will take more work and investment to make these modes more accessible for Minnesotans, but it’s a great step in the right direction toward centering people over individual vehicles.

Legislative action paved the way

It’s worth noting that this policy change was only possible because of a law the Legislature passed last year to give a city authority to pass safer speed limits than the statewide standard. Like many issues ranging from plastics bags to pesticides, state lawmakers formerly preempted communities from taking local action to improve health and safety, and we’re encouraged by this step in the right direction.

We look forward to observing and enjoying the safety brought by this local action, which may help lead other Minnesota cities to similarly shift to safer speeds. Our communities and the environments we live in will be better off if we drive less overall and drive more safely when we do.

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