A new transportation study by the city of Minneapolis has revealed a startling fact: The city has had more traffic fatalities per capita than New York City in recent years.
According to the recently study, “Vision Zero Crash Study,” an average of 95 people have died or suffered serious injuries on Minneapolis streets annually over roughly the past decade. That equates to about four deaths per every 100,000 people. (Minneapolis has a population of about 422,000.)
Meanwhile, St. Paul, Hennepin County and even New York — where traffic deaths have declined after a renewed focus on improving safety — have had fewer severe crashes by the same measurement. In fact, the country’s largest and most densely populated city tallied roughly two deaths for every 100,000 people in 2017.
Minneapolis’ 76-page study compiles crash data that researchers analyzed over a year and a half to guide policy work to curb fatalities and injuries among pedestrians, bicyclists and drivers. The data shows areas of Minneapolis that have the highest concentration of crashes and by what mode (bicycle, foot or car) people were traveling when they were hit.
It offers data bolstering some common-sense theories: More traffic volume means more chances of crashes; speeding lowers safety; and bicycle lanes help keep cyclists protected from cars. But traffic engineers are also exploring the less obvious conclusions from the data, like why Minneapolis streets are roughly twice as fatal as New York City’s per capita. “That one we’re going to have to dig into a little bit,” said Minneapolis’ Traffic Operations Engineer Steve Mosing in an interview.
Identifying trends just the first step
The first-of-its-kind report will serve as a guiding document as Minneapolis officials decide where, and to what extent, they should invest in street improvements or boost law enforcement. The in-depth look at travel patterns aims to provide statistical evidence behind goals in the city’s long-range plans, including Minneapolis 2040 and the Minneapolis Transportation Action Plan, about which the city is currently seeking public feedback and hopes to complete early next year.
The report emphasizes that a majority of crashes have occurred at intersections (most had light signals) — and on streets with higher speed limits (more than 25 mph) and traffic volume. Four-lane roads divided only by paint are the least safe roadways in the city, and the majority of severe crashes involving pedestrians happen on roughly 5 percent of the city’s streets, according to the study.
Researchers were also able to pinpoint driver behaviors that often cause the collisions. Drivers are often turning when they hit someone, and for driver-pedestrian collisions, cars are more often making a left turn. Speeding, impaired or distracted driving or failing to yield are other common factors of crashes.
“A lot of our right-of-way is tight, so a lot of traffic that’s occurring is competing for space,” Mosing said.
The study also highlights the overrepresentation of bicyclists and pedestrians in serious or fatal collisions in Minneapolis: Almost 20 percent of all trips around the city are via foot, but pedestrians account for nearly 30 percent of all severe crashes. Meanwhile, about 5 percent of trips are by bike, but cyclists take up more than 15 percent of fatal or serious crashes.
But identifying troubling trends is just the city’s first step. City officials and engineers will study the report’s finding over the next several months, analysis that will consider the city’s history of investments: why certain areas of Minneapolis have been prioritized over others. The study shows that areas of the city with a high concentration of crashes have more residents of low incomes.
“That’s something with the crash study that we’re going to look at and evaluate,” said Mosing. “From this first step, we can take a deeper dive on the city streets and sidewalks to see what, maybe, the behavior is out there, or what is going on out there, in regard to this (a concentration of crashes in areas with more low-income residents). It could be any number of reasons or a combination of reasons for this. We’re just not quite sure.”
Study part of larger initiative
City Council members began the step of analyzing the data this week, at a Transportation and Public Works Committee meeting where Mosing and others presented the results for the first time.
Council President Lisa Bender, who represents neighborhoods south of downtown, emphasized the city’s responsibility to improve safety conditions, regardless of where someone gets hit and if the city or county owns the street. She said the efforts are especially important now as Minneapolis prepares to grow and tries to disincentivize driving.
“If people try walking in their community and feel terrified and unsafe, or know someone who got hit by a car, or got hit by a car themselves, they’re not going to walk when they have another choice,” Bender said. “I know for a lot of my constituents, they don’t feel safe.”
Some council members, however, expressed hesitation about relying too heavily on the crash study’s data to guide street design changes as part of long-range planning. Among them was Council Member Steve Fletcher, who represents some downtown neighborhoods, including North Loop and areas east of the river. He said the study does not address some “hotspots” in his ward, and he urged the city to be proactive instead of reactive; he does not want the city to wait for severe crashes in a location before it decides it needs safety improvements.
“Crash data is a starting point, but I really hope we get a lot further in thinking about the safety of every street,” he said.
The crash study is part of an initiative involving similar research projects across the country — all of which have goals to eliminate all traffic deaths and serious injuries — called Vision Zero. Mosing said researchers in Minneapolis have stayed in touch with engineers in Denver, for example, to learn what they are doing to improve safety there.
“The goal of Vision Zero is zero fatalities and zero serious injury crashes before the year 2027,” Mosing said. “From a global perspective, this gives us and is the first step in trying to achieve that goal.”