Olson Memorial Highway is especially ‘hard to tame’
Although fewer people are commuting due to the pandemic, pedestrians and cyclist deaths are on the rise because there are more reckless drivers in the streets. An Iowa State University report commissioned by the Minnesota Department of Transportation found many drivers are taking advantage of fewer people driving to drive more recklessly, like by speeding, often with disastrous results.
“The vast majority of [pedestrian fatalities] involve reckless speeding or other things like running through red lights,” said Ethan Fawley, who leads Minneapolis’ efforts to reduce the number of traffic deaths through a program called Vision Zero.
The Minnesota Department of Public Safety found 120 people died in speed-related crashes last year, the most since 2008 when a recession was underway. The number of speeding tickets they issued in 2020 doubled from 2019.
At the same time, they recorded 445 people killed on Minnesota roads as of November 17, compared to 358 killed at the same time the year before. Fifty-one of the deaths were of people walking, compared to 40 deaths the year before.
Roughly the same number of people biking were killed on Minnesota roads compared to the same time last year, at nine and 10 respectively.
The situation is no different in Minneapolis. While no one riding a bike has been killed in Minneapolis in 2020 or in 2021, as of mid-November, 10 pedestrians have been killed so far this year, which is the highest since 1998.
“The majority of traffic deaths both this year and last year were on the North Side, and it’s a very marked increase from previous years,” said Fawley. To address reckless driving, the City reduced the speed limit on most residential streets to 20 miles per hour after studies revealed that people are more likely to die when hit by a driver at higher speeds.
The City is also building bikeways separated from vehicle traffic, as well as installing plastic bollards that make it harder for drivers to speed when turning at intersections.
Some roads are harder to tame. Highway 55, Olson Memorial Highway, skirts the southern end of North Minneapolis. Named after former MN Gov. Floyd Olson (1931-36), it is now home to two of the most dangerous intersections on a trunk highway in the state.
According to the Minnesota Department of Transportation, Highway 55 at Morgan Avenue had 10.75 fatal and incapacitating crashes per 100 million vehicle miles traveled, while Highway 55 at Lyndale had 2.47 crashes per million entering vehicles, or about one crash every 14 days based on 2017 traffic count data and crash data from the city from 2007 through 2015.
Before it became a highway it was North 6th Avenue, home to the local jazz scene and many Black-owned businesses. In a September 1937 edition of the Minneapolis Spokesman, Olson and Lyndale were reputedly the most popular area for Blacks to congregate, “which was highly reminiscent of parts further South.”
Now the Bottineau light rail extension from Target Field Station in Minneapolis to Brooklyn Park has been routed away from Olson because of a railroad company’s objections to the route running next to its tracks. Activists in the Harrison neighborhood who have been pushing for changes for years have teamed up with Our Streets Minneapolis to doorknock and circulate a petition asking the City and State to pledge making Olson safer.
In addition to getting feedback from neighbors, they want to see bike lanes, bus lanes, and wider sidewalks. This issue is important to Qannani Omar, who organizes with the Harrison Neighborhood Association, because Olson has split the North Side.
“You have a Heritage Park family member, her kids are not allowed to go to the community center because they’re crossing Olson. And you have children in Harrison who aren’t allowed to go to Sumner Library,” said Omar.
Although advocates are asking for reduced speed limits, they are not asking for more traffic enforcement because it perpetuates more harm than good, particularly in a historically impoverished Community of Color. “[Traffic enforcement] will almost certainly exacerbate racial disparities,” said Alex Burns, Our Streets program coordinator.
“Our Streets Minneapolis tracks the arrest data in terms of who is being targeted by traffic enforcement most, and we know that in Minneapolis that tends to mostly be Black residents.”
Fawley, who was one of the founders of Our Streets Minneapolis and before joining the City was its executive director, mentioned introducing speed enforcement cameras. However, not only do they need permission from the state legislature to do so, they would also need to work with the community to decide how to price fines so they won’t disproportionately burden low-income people, as well as where to place the cameras.
Fawley also mentioned that the federal government needs to do a better job regulating the automotive industry, particularly on how big vehicles are built and the number of blind spots they come with, so people are more aware of where they are driving.
Readers in Minneapolis who want to report a traffic safety concern can do so by visiting: survey123.arcgis.com/share/649164ad8bea4460b106e7dc34b4dbac.
People interested in discussing changes to Olson Highway can join an online forum hosted by Our Streets Minneapolis and the Harrison Neighborhood Association on January 25, 2022, at 6 pm. Find details at facebook.com/events/706408844055431.
Henry Pan is a contributing writer at the Minnesota Spokesman-Recorder.