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Five takeaways from Minneapolis’ new plan to boost street safety

Among the proposals included in the plan, known as Vision Zero, is lower speed limits, a  new traffic enforcement division, and automated enforcement technology.

The Vision Zero effort has uncovered where serious collisions most often occur, including Lake Street in south Minneapolis.
The Vision Zero effort has uncovered where serious collisions most often occur.
MinnPost file photo by Tony Nelson

Minneapolis transportation leaders unveiled a three-year plan Tuesday to boost street safety with lower speed limits, new traffic enforcement officers, additional crosswalks and other roadway changes. Here are the plan’s biggest takeaways, traffic trends that motivated the proposals, and when residents could begin noticing different rules for getting around the city:

The number of people killed or seriously injured in traffic crashes in Minneapolis has gone up

Between the mid-2000s and 2013, the number of severe or deadly collisions on Minneapolis streets decreased, according to city data that transportation leaders shared with City Council members Tuesday. But in 2014, the trend reversed — cause by a spike in vehicle vs. pedestrian crashes specifically —  and 2016 and 2017, the city saw the decade’s highest number of incidents in which someone on any mode suffered a serious injury. Last year alone, three people died walking in Minneapolis, and traffic engineers recorded more than 330 additional injuries among pedestrians. 

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“Those are not numbers,” said Ethan Fawley, of the city’s Public Works Department, which is leading the plan. “Those are lives — those are people, families forever impacted.”

The troubling trend is the reason for the plan, called Vision Zero, which is part of a nationwide initiative to eliminate all traffic-related deaths and injuries in its roughly 35 participating cities. Fawley and city staff spent the past two years compiling the data to create the draft proposal, which will guide how the city spends money on road safety improvements between 2020 and 2022.

Minneapolis is preparing to lower speed limits.

As Minneapolis’ Vision Zero program coordinator, Fawley and local transportation leaders statewide lobbied state lawmakers this spring to allow large municipalities to establish their own speed limits on city-owned streets, rather than relying on state law. They were successful, and the city of Minneapolis does not want to waste time with making the changes official on the streets it owns. (The reduced levels would not apply to Hennepin County roads or state Interstates.)

“We know that [lower speeds] will save lives,” Fawley said, pointing to studies that show how the severity of crashes often correlates with drivers’ speed. “Higher traffic speeds [make] it harder for somebody to stop, so increases the likelihood of crashes and … increases the chances that a crash could be deadly or lead to severe injury, and that is especially true for people walking.”

Minneapolis’ Traffic Operations Engineer Steve Mosing said reduced speed limits make sense for his city, in particular, due to the complexity of the system including electric scooters, app-based ride shares, protected bike lanes and a street grid system with intersections at every 300 to 600 feet.

But it’s not yet clear where, and to what extent, drivers would have to adjust their speeds under the new proposal. A separate ordinance would determine those details, pending City Council approval.

Currently, Minneapolis transportation officials are in talks with those in St. Paul so that they create a consistent plan for new speed limits across the cities, as well as analyzing traffic on a street-by-street basis (most have speed limits between 20 and 40 mph). “It’s important for the city of Minneapolis to have a defensible … study with integrity that’s based on engineering,” Mosing said. “The actual physics and the environment of the roadway plays a huge role.”

Fawley said he hopes to have specific recommendations for reduced speeds by early next year, on which the council will vote.

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The first priority is addressing the most dangerous roads and intersections.

The Vision Zero effort has uncovered where, exactly, serious collisions in Minneapolis most often occur, whether because of speeding, distracted driving or other risky behavior: intersections (many of which with light signals) and on streets with higher speed limits (more than 25 mph) and traffic volume. 

The plan categorizes those areas as “high-injury” corridors, which make up about 10 percent of all streets in the city — such as University, Central, Lowry, Hiawatha, Hennepin and Franklin avenues, as well as Broadway, Lake and 38th streets.

Over the next three years, crews will go corridor by corridor in those areas to change street designs or add new traffic features to try to keep people of all modes (by car, foot or bicycle) safe. Various pools of municipal money could pay for the improvements, though the overall financial plan is unclear  considering the early stage of Vision Zero and how it fits into other safety efforts already under way.

Among changes to the busy streets, crews will convert some four-lane roads (two lanes in each direction) — which could include Lyndale, Third and Hennepin avenues, as well as 31st Street East — into three lanes (one lane in each direction with a center turn lane). They’ll also install new traffic-calming features such as bollards or delineators in place of parking spots so that parked cars don’t block pedestrians trying to cross the street, as well as adjust the timing of signalized intersections and add medians in some areas to separate opposing lanes of traffic.

City of Minneapolis
“Putting these types of devices in creates a culture where the most vulnerable piece of the population, which would be our pedestrians, is better acknowledged on our street system,” Mosing said. By 2022, they are hoping to have made improvements to hundreds of intersections alone.

The city is also planning to paint more crosswalks on roads, under guidelines in the draft plan, and update city rules regarding private development to ensure that developers follow traffic-safety standards in their building designs.

Looking at development trends and travel patterns, a Vision Zero engineer — whom the city has yet to hire — will come up with specifics for the roadway changes, Mosing said.

At a Transportation and Public Works Committee meeting Tuesday, when the Vision Zero team presented the draft plan to council members for the first time, elected leaders expressed support for the effort’s plan to modify roadways with additional signs, signal adjustments or new features.

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“The more we can manipulate the environment and change the environment to change behavior, the more effective that we’re going to be,” Council Member Cam Gordon said at the meeting. “When you make something structurally impossible to do, people aren’t going to be able to do it.”

The mayor wants a new traffic enforcement unit within The Minneapolis Police Department.

Vision Zero sets a framework for following through with a 2020 budget request by Frey to grow the Minneapolis Police Department’s number of traffic enforcement officers from zero to three.

As part of his citywide funding plan for next year, the mayor announced last month he wants to create a new “Accident Reduction” unit within the police department to monitor for law breakers on the road. 

It’s not a novel idea in Minneapolis: The city had a traffic-enforcement unit until 2003, when it eliminated the team “due to reduced staffing levels,” Frey’s budget says. Since then, patrol officers have been in charge of citing roadway users for violations, which can include red-light running or speeding, on top of answering 911 calls.

Pending approval from the City Council in December, Frey’s budget proposal would set aside $355,000 annually, as well as a one-time boost of $207,000, to create the new officer positions and pay for squad cars. Existing sworn cops would fill the openings, and the mayor wants the new team to work with the police department’s existing Traffic Investigations Unit.

MinnPost photo by Jessica Lee
Ethan Fawley, Minneapolis Vision Zero program coordinator, and Steve Mosing, Minneapolis traffic operations engineer during Tuesday night's unveiling of the street safety plan.
The investigations team includes just four people who responded to 4,491 hit-and-run crashes,  609 DWI cases, 181 dispatch calls in which drivers fled the area, 126 squad accidents and 8 deadly collisions last year alone, Frey’s budget says.

At Tuesday’s committee meeting, Council President Lisa Bender, who represents neighborhoods south of downtown, voiced skepticism of the increased focus on traffic enforcement. She said she’d like for the extra attention from officers to focus specifically on areas where the most crashes occur for the best chance of more citations curbing accidents and ensuring equity, yet she still has concerns over the amount of city dollars for the efforts versus other safety improvements.

To address those concerns, Robin Hutcheson, the city’s Public Works director, emphasized that the city is in contact with transportation officials in St. Paul, which currently has a traffic enforcement unit. There, officers base their work on input from traffic engineers, as well as data specific to the capital city and compiled by a University of Minnesota researcher. 

“They saw a pretty dramatic increase in compliance,” she said of the new approach, adding that Minneapolis may try to get the same type of U-led study to help the enforcement efforts.

Minneapolis is preparing for automated enforcement technology even though state law doesn’t allow it (yet).

Vision Zero sets the groundwork for installing technology on streets and sidewalks that aim to catch illegal behavior by drivers, while freeing up officers for other things. The technology could be cameras at signalized intersections to catch red-light runners or speed trackers on neighborhood streets to ensure motorists obey the limits, but the plan does not include details.

But current state law does not permit the technology, and opponents for years have argued that the recording devices infringe on their privacy. 

The city of Minneapolis (alongside other jurisdictions) has tried for years to advocate for a change to the state statute, with no success. For now, though, Fawley said traffic engineers are launching a study to determine how they would roll out the technology if, or when, state lawmakers come around to it. 

“People should expect that, you know, we are focusing on those [illegal] behaviors so they can address their behavior,” Fawley said.

Looking ahead

Vision Zero is just one piece of the city’s transportation plan. The newly released draft plan fits within broader policy frameworks, such as Minneapolis’ Transportation Action Plan and Minneapolis 2040, which establish long-term goals for street design and traffic improvements as the city grows. Vision Zero also builds upon already-established safety efforts at both the local and state levels. 

Once the city closes a public comment period on Oct. 16, Fawley’s team will revise the draft plan based on the feedback and then present a new version to the council in late 2019 or early 2020. They are set to go through the same steps in a few years and create another plan that builds on the latest plan’s proposals.

Hutcheson, the city’s director of Public Works, described the plan as a catalyst to “refine and accelerate” the overall push for better street designs and traffic features to keep people safe. Because one traffic-related death or injury in Minneapolis is one too many, supporters have said. 

“This list of folks who died on our streets last year — that is unacceptable,” Fawley said. “Together, we can do something about it.”