Needless enforcement

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September 3, 2002 // UPDATED 1:30 pm - April 30, 2007
By: Terrell Brown
Terrell Brown

If City Hall needs to save a few bucks, they can eliminate traffic cops

Downtown and end bicyclist speed traps

Have you ever watched the performance art that appears in many Downtown intersections weekday evenings? It's the folks who stand in the intersections and blow whistles along with their choreographed arm movements in time with the changing of the traffic signals.

This is NOT a Police Department function; the cops have better things to do. The Licensing and Regulatory Services folks at City Hall bring this little piece of entertainment to us. These are the folks whose day job is to tag cars that have overextended their stay at a parking meter, or that are wearing expired license tabs.

We don't get this entertainment all day. You never see it, for example, during the morning rush hour, which may explain why traffic is just a bit smoother -- drivers aren't distracted.

Occasionally you can see them practicing during middle of the day. These practice sessions include a coach who provides instructions to insure coordination of the whistle with the change of the traffic light and proper positioning of the hands during the various parts of the signal light cycle.

I keep hearing that Minneapolis has a budget crisis. That they are looking high and low for places where they can save a buck or two. This might be the place.

Or, is this redundancy? Is this the city plan to avoid gridlock if Downtown traffic signals fail? Personally, I think most of the traffic lights that fail, fail because someone ran a vehicle into them. That accident creates a whole new set of disruptions.

Most Downtown drivers are able to make a reasonable decision on whether they should drive through an intersection based on the color of the signal light. The Minnesota drivers-license exam screens out most of those who can't.

A recent survey of Istanbul -- which, believe it or not, has some of the most efficient drivers in the world -- failed to find any intersections where drivers needed any help in interpreting traffic lights. Istanbul, which has a population of somewhere between 12 and 15 million depending on whose number you want to listen to, even saves money by not painting lane markings on many of its streets; many European cities leave off markings too. Given the Minneapolis propensity to tear up streets, we could probably also save ourselves a few bucks by not re-marking lanes between construction projects.

London is attempting to reduce traffic in its core. They will soon begin a program of congestion pricing requiring motorists to pay 5 (about $7.80) every time they enter the area. Officials expect this will reduce traffic by about 15 percent, an amount similar to what Singapore achieved using a similar scheme. London's plan uses the expected annual profit of $125 million for transportation projects.

Also: There were legal challenges to the plan. The plan won.

The art of traffic direction isn't the only wasteful Downtown spending. While walking back from lunch the day after Labor Day I watched three transit cops tagging bicyclists for riding on the Mall during the wrong hours. One of Minneapolis' sillier ordinances specifies the 60 hours per week that a person is not allowed to ride a bike on the mall; these folks must have missed the poorly placed signs. So did a couple of Minneapolis bike cops the next day.

The transit cops aren't unique in engaging in some rather strange police activity. A few years back, I watched as the Minneapolis Park Police (which is separate from the city's Police Department) ran a radar speed trap at the south side of Lake Harriet on the bike path. They put up some orange cones on which to lean speed limit signs just to add to the rather humorous sight.

Makes one wonder how many police departments we need operating in Minneapolis.

Note to folks at City Hall: Start thinking outside a bigger box.

Terrell Brown works Downtown and lives in Loring Park.