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Traffic fatalities: Can ‘Vision Zero’ be a realistic goal for Minneapolis?

The average annual number of fatal and severe crashes in the city has bounced around 100 for a decade, and that’s even with a lot of recent safety improvements.

It comes as a bit of a surprise, to me anyway, that so many people say “yes” when you ask them the following question: Can Minneapolis actually achieve its goal of reducing traffic fatalities to zero?

At first glance, the goal seems highly optimistic. The average annual number of fatal and severe crashes in the city has bounced around 100 for a decade, and that’s even with a lot of recent safety improvements.

City of Minneapolis
But with Minneapolis’s new plan officially adopted — see the key takeaways from the Minneapolis’ safety plan, and check out Jessica Lee’s handy primer on the main points — and with a similar efforts on the books with the state’s “Toward Zero Deaths” program, it might be time to take transportation planners at their word. For Minneapolis, as MinnPost explained, the plan includes elements like reducing speed limits, redesigning intersections, and rethinking traffic enforcement in the MPD.

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“We committed to a vision zero statement in 2017,” stated Council President Lisa Bender when the plan was passed last December. “I think this is an achievable goal. Our streets are like our water systems, places where our government has a lot of direct control over what happens. We have control over the design of the streets, we have control over the speed limits, and the traffic signals.”

If Minneapolis actually reduced deaths and severe injuries to zero, it would be the first big city in North America to achieve it, and yet the optimism from policy makers and transportation officials makes it seem like a real possibility. That said, how realistic is it? And what would have to be done?

“We will get to there eventually, it’s how fast we get there that’s my task,” replied Mike Hanson, when I asked him about the “zero deaths” goal. “In Minnesota we are on the right track for the second year in a row we’re the second safest state in the nation according to info from the NHSTA (National Highway Traffic Safety Administration).”

Hanson heads the Office of Traffic Safety for the state Department of Public Safety. He pointed out that, statewide, the last 15 years have seen a 45% reduction in fatalities. That said, there were still more than 380 deaths on Minnesota roads last year. Hanson admits that even one is too many, but remains proud of the progress. He points to a complex mix of factors, including impairment, distraction, seat belts, and (the stickiest of wickets), speed.

When adjusted for age, Minnesota actually ranks sixth nationally for lowest traffic fatally rate.
American Council on Science and Health
When adjusted for age, Minnesota actually ranks sixth nationally for lowest traffic fatally rate.
“Speed is one of those cultural things where we really are searching for an answer,” explained Hanson. “Engineers do a great job of designing roadways, [but] we put humans in charge of motor vehicles, and our tendency — we tend to push the limits.”

Hanson has been overseeing a combination of state agencies that work together to, as he puts it, “make that cultural change about what we think we’re doing when we get behind the wheel.”

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The Oslo example

In urban planning, as in most things, there’s often a huge gap between rhetoric and reality. (See for example, New York City’s half-hearted attempts to end parking placard corruption.) But when you look around the world, especially in Western and Northern European cities, examples of meaningful progress are not hard to find.

Most notably, last year, Oslo, Norway (population 670,000), made headlines when it achieved a full calendar year with zero traffic deaths. The city had recently restricted driving in the city center and made other ambitious safety changes. Seeing it done, in real life, made the “vision zero” slogans more concrete for many advocates.

“Having been to Oslo for an extended period, the drivers are very respectful of pedestrians,” explained Eric Ecklund, a Minneapolis transportation advocate. “And their transit system makes it possible to go almost anywhere with ease.”

Others are less sanguine about whether “zero” is a realistic goal, given the status quo on the city’s streets.

“A good place to start would be prioritizing bike and pedestrian safety by properly removing snow from bike lanes, curb cuts, and sidewalks,” said Samuel Jacob Doten, a Minneapolis safety advocate. “If a road becomes too narrow due to snow accumulation, then Vision Zero means removing parking instead plowing snow into the bike lane. The city cannot claim to pursue Vision Zero if it does not prioritize the safety of vulnerable road users. Otherwise it’s ‘Vision Somewhat Fewer Homicides.’”

For other Minneapolis leaders, the “zero deaths” goal serves as a needed rallying cry. “I certainly think it’s attainable,” said Sam Rockwell, who recently took over as executive director of Move Minnesota, the state’s largest transportation advocacy nonprofit.

“Achieving real Vision Zero is going to take more than behavior change and some select infrastructure change. It’s going to take a real system-wide rethinking of how our transportation network operates,” he said.

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Rockwell places the goal of reducing cars on the streets of Minneapolis as the key objective, along with corresponding investments in transit to move people around more humanely. He points out that safer streets have the added benefits of tackling both systematic inequality and climate change.

“We spent decades investing in infrastructure that hurts people and hurts our climate and we need to change those systems and the decision-making criteria about infrastructure to prioritize safety,” said Rockwell.

Along with Oslo, he points to Paris as a great international role model, where Mayor Anne Hildalgo has helped cut car ownership almost in half since 2001.

That’s a vision that sits well with Ashwat Narayanan, the head of Our Streets Minneapolis, an advocacy group focused on nonmotorized mobility.

‘The question comes down to priorities’

“The answer is yes, a true Vision Zero is possible,” said Narayanan. “The question comes down to priorities and what we decide to prioritize on our streets.”

Our Streets has been around for 10 years; it began as the Minneapolis Bicycle Coalition before expanding its mission to include more emphasis on people walking and living with disabilities.

Franklin Avenue
City of Minneapolis
If Minneapolis actually reduced deaths and severe injuries to zero, it would be the first big city in North America to achieve it.
“The number one thing in my opinion is to reduce driving in the city of Minneapolis,” Narayanan explained. “We know that, as VMT [vehicle miles traveled] goes up, the more people drive, the more severe injuries and fatalities there are. Even just small reductions in overall driving have outsized effects on safety. A 2008 study shows that a 3% reduction in driving had an orders of magnitude reduction in severe injurers and congestion.”

Our Streets Minneapolis’ latest push has been a campaign to call attention to the dangerous track record of Hennepin County roads, which represent a huge percentage of fatalities and crashes within the city. The efforts point to how difficult systematic change is in Minneapolis, with so many different agencies and jurisdictions making controlling street design and other key factors.

With “Vision Zero” officially on the books, the test will be weather Minneapolis sees concrete changes.

“The proof will be in how we execute,” admitted Council Member Kevin Reich, the long-time chair of the Transportation and Public Works Committee, during the passage of the plan. “I have a fair amount of confidence in taking on those challenges and having effective implementation. We have an award-winning, nationally recognized [Public Works] Department. Not only is it bold in what it tries to do, it’s very effective when it gets around to doing it.”

Despite the optimism of the policymakers and advocates, the track record suggests that Minneapolis still has a long way to go if it wants to achieve anything approaching European levels of street safety.