City showed heart but little brain in setting new speed limits.

I’m so frustrated by the new 20 mph speed limit in much of the cities of Saint Paul and Minneapolis. At various entry points into the cities, you see this sign: “Citywide speed limit 20 mph unless otherwise posted.” We’re now led to presume that nearly every street has a speed limit of 20 mph.

So you leave your home on a 20 mph residential street and turn onto an arterial street. What’s the speed limit there? You’re told to assume nothing other than 20 mph unless you’re informed otherwise.

20 mph sign
One of the city of Saint Paul's new speed limit signs on Montreal Avenue near Elway.

Now you turn a corner. And because you can assume nothing else, you’re driving 20 mph on a street with a speed limit of, say, 25 mph. Or 30 mph. Or 35 mph. Or 40 mph. Or even 45 mph. Are you a hazard on the road? Absolutely. Are you likely to be subjected to road rage from other drivers? Almost certainly.

When are you allowed to increase your speed? Not until you’ve been formally notified that the speed limit is higher. When will you be notified? If you’re lucky, in less than half a block. If you’re not so lucky, several blocks. Seriously, you could be driving on an arterial road for half a mile before you finally see a sign. Meanwhile, you’re obeying what appears to be the law: 20 mph, unless otherwise notified.

Personally, since the law changed, I’m watching for speed limit signs on practically every block when I should be watching the road for hazards, for other vehicles, for bicyclists, for pedestrians. I’m not about to just guess when I could get pulled over for speeding if I’m wrong.

In theory, it might make sense that it’s all standardized at 20 mph. But here’s what it says on the city of Saint Paul’s website: “New speed limits are 20 mph for local residential streets; 25 mph for larger, arterial and collector city-owned streets; and 30-plus mph for a few city-owned streets. Per Minnesota law, cities do not have authority to change speed limits on county and MnDOT (state) roads. Speed limits on these streets in Minneapolis and Saint Paul will not change.”

There’s nothing wrong, or overly complicated, with different speed limits. That is, unless the city refuses to post exceptions—upward or downward—everywhere else. There’s also nothing wrong with the decision to make 20 mph the standard. What is wrong is that city officials are assuming that drivers will intuitively know the speed limit on each non-residential street.

Where the theory breaks down is here: Are drivers really cognizant of when they’re driving on “city-owned streets” or “collector city-owned streets” (whatever those are). Do you recognize when you’re driving on county or MnDOT roads? Of course not. People shouldn’t need a doctorate to get a driver’s license. But the current rules are unnecessarily complicated.

There’s nothing wrong, or overly complicated, with different speed limits. That is, unless the city refuses to post exceptions—upward or downward—everywhere else.

There’s also nothing wrong with the decision to make 20 mph the standard. What is wrong is that city officials are assuming that drivers will intuitively know the speed limit on each non-residential street. Perhaps—after memorizing all of the exceptions on all city streets—experienced local drivers would have a decent idea of what the speed limit is likely to be. But certainly those people would be exceptions. Average drivers would be clueless until a sign appears.
 
Don’t get me wrong, I’m a rule-follower. And I’m all about safety. I’m an emergency medical technician and a CPR and first aid instructor with over three decades of experience in both professions.
 
If you want to make the standard 20 mph, do it—and stick to it. Then heavily post those streets where the speed limit is something else, like at the beginning and middle of every block so you’re not constantly guessing or driving distracted.
 
City officials’ hearts may have been in the right place when lowering the speed limit, trying to get drivers to slow down and save lives. But their brains were not in the right place in the illogical way they implemented the plan.

— John Fineberg

John Fineberg is a resident of Highland Park.

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