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

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.

“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.”

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.

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.

Comments (20)

  1. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 01/30/2020 - 10:33 am.

    I don’t think it’s realistic in MPLS. Oslo is NOT like any American city. But who’s gonna say they don’t support THAT goal?

    The question provokes cognitive dissonance. How can someone say they don’t support it without appearing to devalue human life? How can someone “support” it, but claim that it’s unrealistic, that looks irrational.

    In the end establishing that goal and working towards it is perfectly fine objective, but if MPLS ever attains that goal it be a very different city than the one we see today, and I’m not just talking about plowed sidewalks and bike lanes.

    • Submitted by Matthew Steele on 01/31/2020 - 10:18 am.

      “if MPLS ever attains that goal it be a very different city than the one we see today.”

      That’s the point. And it’s not unrealistic. Check out photos of Cophenhagen from the 60s-70s compared to photos now.

      And then check out photos of pre-war Minneapolis compared to now. We knew how to demolish a huge portion of our city, destroy walkability, separate neighborhoods with car sewers, and go all-in on an untested and ultimately failed auto-centric urban renewal/suburban experiment that completely changed the fabric of our city within a few short decades. We can undo these mistakes within a few short decades too.

      • Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 02/03/2020 - 09:12 am.

        Dude, people were getting killed all over the place back in the olden days before post war MPLS. Street cars and autos and people were colliding crushing people on a daily basis. Sure, people walked more, and used more public transport, but more than likely fewer people are actually getting killed now than then… it wasn’t a “safer” city back then.

        Even if you can transform the physical city, you’re not going to transform the American mentality into the Danish mentality. Americans walk, drive, and bike around with a unique sense of entitlement, privilege and ownership. You can design a crosswalk ten ways from Sunday but anyone who steps in front of a moving truck is going to get run over no matter how the crosswalk is designed.

        How many people have been killed by LRT? Why would adding more LRT eliminate fatalities? It’s not a design or transit mix problem, people drive, walk, and ride their bikes in front of moving trains and get run over.

  2. Submitted by Brian Simon on 01/30/2020 - 11:16 am.

    Great goal, but essentially impossible as long as we priotitize automobile traffic. Of course, cars aren’t the sole cause of fatalities; somehow we can’t keep pedestrians from being hit by trains either.

  3. Submitted by Sam Pingree on 01/30/2020 - 11:22 am.

    It’ll be more realistic if the County and State turn over their roads within City limits to the City. County roads, like Lyndale and Franklin Avenues, and State roads, like Hiawatha Avenue, represent a disproportionate share of traffic fatalities within the City, yet the City’s hands are tied when it comes to improvements.

    • Submitted by Matthew Steele on 01/31/2020 - 10:21 am.

      Why do we think the city would somehow do these streets any better? Are there any examples of slam-dunk Minneapolis street reconstructions recently? It seems like we’ve had lots of shoot-and-a-miss examples like Hennepin Ave between Lake and 31st, or turning 3rd Ave downtown into a four lane death road because of Downtown Council traffic fearmongering, or widening one-way 4th St S through Downtown East, or rebuilding Hennepin Avenue and 8th St S without dedicated bus lanes, or the first designs of the neighborhood street reconstruction program which don’t make meaningful changes.

    • Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 02/03/2020 - 09:25 am.

      Perhaps an interesting side note regarding Hiawatha/55: Back in the days when some of us were battling the reroute down by falls we looked at the Environmental Impact Statement. One of the more favorite claims that reroute-rebuild engineers and MNDOT liked to make at the time was that the “new” road would be soooooo much safer than the existing road. Long before the project finished the numbers of accidents and fatalities on Hiawatha started increasing rather than decreasing, and they are higher now than they were before.

  4. Submitted by Adam Miller on 01/30/2020 - 11:22 am.

    Unfortunately we just rebuilt 8th Street as a multi-lane one way with no bike facilities and a lot more car capacity than needed.

  5. Submitted by Malcolm Parker on 01/30/2020 - 11:44 am.

    We humans are not very good at risk assessment and management. Our skills are further clouded by rare events and self interest: “Slow down?” & “Stop at the STOP sign?” & “Stop at a red light before turning right?” I have been in the volunteer business of assessing and nudging traffic safety for multiple organizations. I see ignoring rules as part of our collective self-centered unraveling of a social contract.

  6. Submitted by David Markle on 01/30/2020 - 01:22 pm.

    One potential factor in statistics could be increasing density of population, as officially desired by Minneapolis government. This could have implications for more of some kinds of accidents and fewer of other kinds.

    As to adding bike lanes, is there clarity in regard to effect on number of traffic accidents?.

  7. Submitted by Pat Thompson on 01/30/2020 - 03:10 pm.

    Ah… as someone who has recently been PASSED two different times on relatively narrow two-lane St. Paul streets that have double yellow lines down the middle because I dared to go below the speed limit (around 25mph… likely the speed limit we will have by law in about 6 months), only to catch up to the speeding driver at the next light or stop sign… I’m not sure what I’m saying but there’s definitely a problem for some portion of our driving population in how they perceive the nature of city streets.

  8. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 01/31/2020 - 08:25 am.

    My answer to the column’s rhetorical question headline is: No. That said, Paul Udstrand comes closest to my more nuanced response. Abandoning the automobile would seem to be a no-brainer from both the environmental and the public health standpoint, but the Twin Cities don’t have a transit system that will work as a suitable replacement for the automobile (and even less so in “greater Minnesota”), at least not now, and probably not in the next decade, at least.

    There’s plenty of research to show that most people (the 85% rule) drive at speeds they regard as safe, even if cyclists and pedestrians don’t agree, and regardless of whether that speed is in sync with the posted limit. There’s also research to show that cyclists are no more considerate of pedestrians than drivers, and that pedestrians are often themselves distracted enough to behave in unsafe ways in environments where walking without considering the immediate transit environment is dangerous.

    Mostly, though the automobile provided a genuine revolution in personal transportation, and it won’t be going away unless / until we devise a truly suitable substitute or replacement for it. In the meantime, it’s worth noting that there are very few genuine traffic “accidents.” What more often happens is that someone incorrectly estimates speed, distance, road conditions, or expectations of another person’s behavior. We should call them what they are – “crashes” – rather than attributing them to some sort of random, totally unpredictable act inflicted by a mysterious higher power.

    • Submitted by Malcolm Parker on 01/31/2020 - 03:46 pm.

      Ray et al: the NHTSA 85th percentile is a good guideline, even though it acknowledges that 15% of drivers will drive faster. There is an outcome
      divide here. Those “speeders” are disproportionately involved in single
      vehicle crashes, largely harming their own property. (Similar outcome data for seizures and syncopal episodes) More injury interactions with others occur where interactions with others are concentrated: at intersections. At these points many are occasionally at fault:
      Pedestrians cross outside their window of dominant right of way.
      Bicycles cross both motor vehicle and pedestrian ROW, out of turn.
      Motor vehicle operators roll through stop signs and right turn on red protocols. Not everyone, not every time. But too often.
      I watch the flail of routine traffic with detached personal
      bemusement but with professional angst.
      I have told 39 drivers that they have killed another person in the course of attending to that driver/patient’s relatively minor injuries.
      The survivor never intended harm. MBP MD FACEP

  9. Submitted by Tony Kelly on 01/31/2020 - 10:46 am.

    YES it’s possible! The fact that this question is even framed like this seems self-defeating. If we had fair traffic enforcement, we would see a change. Red light cameras are hard to argue with. So are speed cameras. Why are we not advocating for their use? It’s insane to me that I can drive 35 mph down Lyndale – arguably too fast – and other drivers are slaloming trying to go 50. It reinforces a culture of danger and needs to change!

  10. Submitted by Larry Moran on 01/31/2020 - 10:48 am.

    It seems that to achieve the goal of fewer cars or lower VMT we need to significantly improve public, mass transportation. Have there been any plans describing what will be needed to compensate for the reduction of vehicular traffic within the city?

  11. Submitted by Mark Snyder on 01/31/2020 - 12:59 pm.

    I found the quote at the end from CM Reich pretty telling “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.”

    How do we encourage/make Public Works “get around to” doing the things needed to achieve Vision Zero faster?

    What resources/policy direction do they require?

  12. Submitted by Tom McCarey on 01/31/2020 - 03:32 pm.

    The Vision Zero Initiative seeks to reduce traffic deaths to zero–certainly a worthy goal. However, I looked throughout its web site and couldn’t find anything about how they propose to achieve that goal. Instead, there is a lot of mumbo jumbo along with a few poorly chosen statistics about how safe roads are in Sweden. The lack of specific recommendations combined with the misuse of data leads me to believe that this initiative is no better than a cult trying to get money out of gullible government officials with the promise that, if they pay enough, they’ll get a magic formula to safer streets.

    The statistic they most commonly use is number of traffic deaths per 100,000 residents. The problem with this is that this number is bound to be higher in countries where people drive the most. Considering that commercial fishing is one of the most dangerous jobs in the world, you could just as well argue that countries that have totally destroyed their fisheries due to overfishing have superior policies to ones that still have healthy fisheries. However, there are better ways of improving safety than destroying the utility of whatever it is that might be dangerous.

    Only by searching other web sites, including Wikipedia, do we learn Vision Zero’s secret: they make streets safer by slowing traffic down to a crawl. In other words, they greatly reduce the utility of the automobile. We know from various research that slower speeds means lower economic productivity.

    Yet there are better ways of making streets safer without reducing people’s mobility and income. The Vision Zero people brag that, since adopting the policy in 1997, fatality rates in Sweden have dramatically declined. Yet, in that same period, U.S. fatality rates per billion vehicle miles (a better measure than per 100,000 residents) declined by more than a third.

    Far from being some new Swedish discovery, safety has, in fact, been a high priority for traffic engineers ever since the profession began. Fatality rates in the United States fell by 50 percent between 1910 and 1922; another 50 percent by 1939; another 50 percent by 1958; another 50 percent by 1986; another 50 percent by 2008; and 15 percent more since then. There are many reasons for this steady decline, but slowing down traffic isn’t one of them. Instead, the reduction in fatalities is mainly attributable to safer road and automobile designs.

    There are many cases where faster is actually safer. The safest roads in our cities are the interstate freeways (4.1 deaths per billion vehicle miles), followed closely by other freeways (4.7), while the most dangerous are local streets where traffic is slowest (11.3). Despite faster average speeds, one-way streets are safer than two-way, even for pedestrians.

    One of the biggest one-year declines in traffic fatalities in American history was in 2008, when fatalities fell by 10 percent. One of the most important factors in this decline was the 1.9 percent decline in driving due to the recession. According to the Texas Transportation Institute, this resulted in 10 percent fewer hours of congested traffic per day and 15 percent less fuel wasted in traffic. Less congestion meant faster traffic speeds and fewer fatalities. (The other big declines were in 1932 and 1942 for similar reasons: less driving, less congestion, faster speeds, fewer fatalities.)

    Contrary to the hoopla, even slowing down cars is not going to reduce traffic deaths to zero unless, of course, cities reduce speed limits to zero. But the real point of the “Vision Zero” name is not to set a realistic goal but to silence potential opponents: “If you are not for Vision Zero, you must want to see people die in traffic.” While there’s nothing wrong with seeking to make roads safer, there is something wrong with following a cult that treats its prescription as a religious dogma and demonizes anyone who disagrees.

    Despite the questionable assumptions, the Vision Zero cult has attracted a lot of followers. Portland has joined, of course. So has Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles, New York, San Francisco, Seattle, and Washington. Officials in many of these cities spout off about the zero-fatality goal without mentioning that this goal is unattainable and the real effect of their policies will be to reduce people’s mobility.

    Let’s make roads safer. But let’s do it cost-effectively in a way that doesn’t reduce mobility.

  13. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 02/03/2020 - 10:26 am.

    The problem with these discussions in the US is that Americans always fracture into their silos of entitlement and start arguing about “ownership”, i.e. who “owns” the streets, sidewalks, and trails? Many Americans are almost allergic to the idea of sharing infrastructure.

    Cyclists are anti-car, drivers are anti-cyclists and pedestrians are anti-everyone. The shared interest of safety is almost always obliterated by personal interests and preferences. Instead of sharing space Americans compete for space. Is this the revenge of Ayn Rand?

    No matter what kind of cities we design; people like this will continue to collide with each other sometimes with fatal consequences. People argue about right of ways as if they expect them to create some kind physical force fields. The truth is that if everyone tried a little harder to avoid running into other people we would have fewer collisions, injuries, and fatalities. If people on the wrong side of physics tried a little harder to stay out of the path of things that can crush and kill, fewer people would be run over.

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