Duluth Mail Bag: Safe Streets, Tabling

Hobbs Mail BagAs a two-time former Duluth city councilor, one of my goals is to make city government more accessible, or at least help citizens become more informed. I figure there are many Duluthians who would like some simple answers to some simple questions. I learned in school that if there is something you don’t understand it’s likely there are many others who feel the same way. Hence the idea of the Duluth Mailbag column.

I won’t divulge who is asking the questions, but I’ll answer them in this format about once a month. Feel free to put a question in the comments for next month’s “Duluth Mailbag” or tweet me via @Hobbs_Duluth or email me at hobbsforduluth @ gmail.com.

Also, if you want to have a longer conversation, you can sign up for a 45-minute cup of coffee through my 100 Cups of Coffee project.

OK, here we go!

What is tabling?

Tabling, a parliamentary procedure outlined in Robert’s Rules of Order, involves temporarily removing an item from the agenda to allow for further discussion. This is commonly used to align an agenda item requiring a single read, such as a resolution, with one requiring two reads, such as an ordinance, to facilitate approval. Tabling is also employed when additional information is needed from the administration. However, it is intended to be a temporary measure, typically lasting from one meeting to the next, rather than a way to delay action on an item indefinitely.

Some councilors may move to table as a strategic maneuver to stall an effort and gather support for their position. They may justify this by stating the need for more time or a thorough decision-making process. While this may be valid in cases where an item is unexpectedly introduced, such instances usually lead to a unanimous vote to table. A split vote on tabling often indicates political motives, as councilors and the public generally have access to ample information before a vote on a topic.

To stay informed before items reach the council agenda, reading the minutes of the Planning Commission and the Duluth Economic Development Authority is recommended, as these bodies often deal with matters of public interest. As a councilor, I made it a practice to thoroughly review these minutes to ensure I was well-informed on relevant issues.

How much of the work of the council is public vs. private?

The work of the council is a blend of public-facing and behind-the-scenes efforts. During my tenure as an at-large councilor, I handled various tasks, including addressing pothole complaints, resolving neighbor disputes, and managing trash-related issues. Much of this work involves directing constituents to the appropriate city staff for resolution or information. When there are concrete issues that need fixing or improving, councilors take the lead in passing resolutions or ordinances.

Any claim by a councilor that most of their work is conducted behind the scenes suggests a lack of effort in engaging with constituents and working on policy. In reality, the workload is about a 65/35 split, with a significant portion dedicated to addressing constituent concerns and the remainder focused on policy work.

What is the role of acting mayor as a councilor?

Serving as acting mayor was not a particularly grand role for me. I took on this responsibility almost a dozen times without any attention. In situations where the mayor is unable to communicate, typically due to being away from the city, the mayor appoints an acting mayor from the pool of at-large councilors. This position doesn’t come with any additional pay or prestige; rather, it signifies that the mayor trusts you to carry out the duties of acting mayor, which primarily involves signing documents, which out of the dozen times, I did once.

In more serious cases, such as if the mayor is incapacitated, perhaps due to a medical condition like a coma, the council selects an at-large councilor to serve as mayor until the mayor can resume duties or until a special election is called.

What is TIF?

This question gets asked often when there is a TIF proposal. I answered this in a past mailbag in more detail here.

What are you doing for work now that you’re not on the council?

Despite some misconceptions, I am currently employed. I held a full-time job before joining the council, and I continued in the same full-time position during my time on the council. I work at One Roof Community Housing.

In Duluth, serving on the council is not a full-time job. Councilors can dedicate as many or as few hours as they believe are necessary to fulfill their duties effectively.

While some of my colleagues put in the minimum effort by attending meetings, many of us went above and beyond. Personally, I devoted between 20 to 30 hours a week to council work. Now that I am no longer on the council, I have regained 11 free evenings per month. However, I have chosen to spend that time coaching high school baseball at Denfeld.

Can streets be made safer/slower?

Yes, streets can indeed be made safer, and one key aspect is to reduce traffic speed. While lowering speed limits can help, there’s more to it. The physics formula F=ma (force equals mass times acceleration) underscores the importance of reducing speed to enhance safety. I only remember this because I took high school physics for the sole purpose of taking a trip to Valley Fair to do physics equations.

In simpler terms, we need to slow down vehicles and make them lighter. This approach can significantly reduce traffic injuries and fatalities, especially on residential roads.

A comprehensive approach to road safety involves five key elements: safe road users, safe vehicles, safe speeds, safe roads and post-crash care. Here, I’ll focus on the first four.

Safe road users encompass everyone on the road, including cyclists, pedestrians, drivers and public transit users. Unlike other modes of transportation, motorists generally don’t choose routes based on safety concerns, as most roads are designed primarily for cars. However, factors like lack of sidewalks, accessible crossings, protection, predictability, cycle facilities, poor intersection design, unsafe boarding areas and surface hazards contribute to unsafe conditions for all road users.

To design safer streets, we must address these issues. This can involve:

• Implementing sidewalks and accessible crossings.
• Providing adequate protection for all road users, such as barriers or bike lanes.
• Ensuring road design promotes predictability, such as clear signage and lane markings.
• Incorporating cycle facilities, such as bike lanes or paths.
• Improving intersection design to enhance safety.
• Addressing surface hazards like potholes or slippery conditions.

By focusing on these aspects, we can create streets that are safer for everyone, regardless of their mode of transportation.

Lane Width

Lane width should be carefully considered in the context of the entire street design. In urban settings, lanes that are 10 feet wide typically offer sufficient safety while helping to deter speeding. In some cases, cities may opt for 11-foot lanes, particularly on routes designated for trucks and buses, or alongside lanes going in the opposite direction.

In constrained urban environments, it’s important not to implement policies that mandate wider lanes, as every foot of space is valuable. Research indicates that narrower lanes can effectively control speeds without compromising safety. Conversely, wider lanes not only fail to improve safety but also increase the exposure and crossing distance for pedestrians at intersections and midblock crossings.

Therefore, when planning street layouts, it’s crucial to prioritize lane widths that align with the overall design goals and safety considerations of the area.

Sidewalks/Bike Lanes

Sidewalk design should surpass basic requirements, considering both width and amenities. Pedestrians and businesses thrive in areas where sidewalks are appropriately sized and include adequate lighting, shade and street-level activity. These factors are particularly crucial on streets with high traffic speeds and volumes, where pedestrians may feel unsafe and opt against walking.

In urban areas, sidewalks should be present on both sides of every street. On shared streets, where the street itself serves as the path of travel, design should adhere to accessibility recommendations. In some cases, such as on rural or suburban roads connecting urban areas, it may be beneficial to construct a shared-use path next to the main roadway instead of a sidewalk. In such instances, the path should meet the criteria for serving as a sidewalk or pathway.

Designing ideal sidewalks involves:

• Scaling lighting to the pedestrian realm, in addition to overhead lighting for vehicles.
• Incorporating benches and seating platforms into the sidewalk’s structure or within the frontage zone.
• Offering incentives for elements like awnings and sidewalk cafes that enhance comfort and appearance.
• Using permeable metal shutters on storefronts at night, where security concerns exist.
• Providing adequate lighting beneath scaffolding and other construction sites.
• Selecting street trees and tree wells that won’t compromise the sidewalk’s integrity.
• Ensuring sidewalk cafes don’t obstruct accessible pedestrian pathways and contribute to street life and business.
• Relocating utilities and street furniture to separate pedestrian and bicycle traffic if repurposing a portion of the sidewalk as a raised bikeway.
• Adding 2 feet to the absolute minimum clear path width if the sidewalk is directly adjacent to the roadway, to accommodate roadside hardware and snow storage.
• Implementing parking as a buffer between the pedestrian and vehicle realms, especially on urban arterials or high-volume downtown streets. Sidewalks with minimal dimensions directly adjacent to the traveled way should be avoided.

Curb Extensions

Curb extensions are effective in visually and physically narrowing the roadway, which enhances pedestrian safety by reducing crossing distances. They also create additional space for street furniture, benches, plantings and street trees. These extensions can be installed on various types of streets, including downtown, neighborhood and residential streets, regardless of size.

By decreasing the overall width of the roadway, curb extensions serve as a visual indicator to drivers that they are entering a neighborhood street or area. This can help to calm traffic and improve safety for pedestrians.

Furthermore, curb extensions improve the visibility of pedestrians by aligning them with the parking lane, reducing the distance pedestrians need to cross. This extra space allows for preferential treatments such as leading pedestrian intervals and transit signal priority, making crossings safer and more efficient.


Curb extensions are commonly installed at the entrance of intersections. When placed at the beginning of a residential or low-speed street, they are known as “gateway” treatments, marking the transition to a slower-speed area.

A typical curb extension should be 1-2 feet narrower than the adjacent parking lane, except where the parking lane is designed with materials that integrate it into the sidewalk’s structure.

Installing curb extensions wherever on-street parking exists can improve visibility, reduce pedestrian crossing distances, create additional queuing space and allow for enhancements like seating or greenery.

In some cases, curb extensions may be used midblock to slow traffic and create public space. When employed for traffic calming, these mid-block extensions are referred to as “pinchpoints” or “chokers.”

When planting street trees on curb extensions, align them with the parking lane to help narrow the roadway’s overall profile. Assessing surrounding utilities is important to ensure that tree roots won’t damage underground infrastructure before planting.

Vertical Speed Control Elements / Speed Hump / Speed Table

Vertical speed control elements should be used when the target speed of a roadway cannot be achieved through traditional traffic calming methods like medians, narrower lanes, curb extensions, enforcement or lower speed limits. These elements are particularly effective on streets with speed limits of 30 mph or less, especially where operating speeds are higher than desired or where there is frequent cut-through traffic.

Implementing vertical speed control has been proven to reduce traffic speeds, creating a safer and more appealing environment. It is most effective when applied at a neighborhood level, rather than on individual streets. Designating “Slow Zones” where multiple traffic calming measures are used together can further enhance effectiveness.

In colder climates such as Duluth, it is important to design vertical traffic calming elements to allow for snow removal. Collaboration between cities and local agencies responsible for street maintenance is crucial to ensure that these elements do not hinder snow removal operations or sustain damage.

Dedicated Bus Lanes

Dedicated bus lanes are typically reserved for major routes with frequent service (10-minute headways at peak times) or where congestion significantly impacts reliability. As bus performance declines, more aggressive measures may be necessary to enhance transit service speed. Agencies often establish ridership or service benchmarks for transitioning bus routes to a dedicated lane system. These lanes can be located at the curb or in an offset configuration, replacing the rightmost travel lane on streets where parking is permitted.

The width of a bus lane should be determined based on available street space and the needs of bicyclists, pedestrians and motorists. Curbside bus lanes should be at least 11 feet wide, while offset bus lanes should be a minimum of 10 feet wide.

Bus bulbs, which extend the sidewalk to the edge of the bus lane, should be considered for offset lanes. Additionally, bus lanes can be integrated with other bus rapid transit elements such as off-board fare payment and transit signal priority to improve service efficiency.

Transit signal priorities should be implemented where possible to reduce delays caused by traffic signals. Shorter signal cycles can process movements more efficiently and maximize the benefits of transit signal priority.

To demarcate bus lanes, red-colored paint can be applied to emphasize the lane and deter unauthorized driving and parking. While this may incur higher installation and maintenance costs, it has been effective in keeping the lane clear.

To further ensure the efficiency of dedicated bus lanes, right turns should be prohibited during times when the lane is in effect or otherwise separated from bus movements.

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