ST. PAUL, Minn. (AP) — No, it's not a heat-induced hallucination — your streets are actually shrinking.
Around the metro area, cities are narrowing the size of their streets. Some state highways are even being rebuilt with fewer lanes of traffic.
In fact, 19 cities including Lake Elmo, North St. Paul, Maplewood and St. Paul have jumped on the less-is-more bandwagon, agreeing to tailor roads to the needs of neighborhoods.
It's a dramatic step away from the one-size-fits-all philosophy that has dominated street construction since the end of World War II.
Today, many sleepy suburban streets are 33 feet across — as wide as three lanes of 65-mph traffic on a freeway. It's time to put those bloated streets on a diet, said Ethan Farley, coordinator of the Minnesota Complete Streets Coalition.
"The advantage is that for very little cost we can improve safety and accessibility for everyone on the road, whether you are driving, walking, in a wheelchair or on a bike," he said.
"It makes no sense to have lanes as wide on Snelling Avenue as on Interstate 94."
Complete Streets is a set of policies that call for better designed and usually narrower streets. They challenge the old-fashioned ultra-wide streets as expensive and unsafe.
And advocates say the narrower streets reduce water pollution because there is less hard surface for runoff.
The Complete Streets movement in Minnesota began in 2009, when Rochester adopted the principles.
The state Legislature adopted Complete Streets as a policy in 2010, said Julie Skallman, a state aid engineer with the Department of Transportation — but the department had already adopted it.
"It's not necessarily always about narrower roads, but designing roads to accommodate all users," Skallman said.
The recent remaking of Minnesota 5 in Lake Elmo is an example of the department's new approach. The conventional four lanes were trimmed to three — including a center left-turn lane shared by traffic in both directions. The result has been improved safety and traffic flow, Skallman said.
Lake Elmo adopted the principles of Complete Streets in June. They will be applied mostly to streets in new neighborhoods, city administrator Bruce Messelt said.
"Narrow does fit into the ethic of a little calmer, slower and safer," he said. "From a management and budgeting standpoint, it makes good sense."
He even likes the way the narrower streets look. "It's less of an urban footprint. It creates a cozier neighborhood feel," Messelt said.
Some cities are narrowing their streets even though they haven't formally adopted the Complete Streets policies.
Six years ago, Woodbury narrowed its standard streets from 32 feet to 28 feet, with a sidewalk along one side. Parking is now permitted on one side, instead of two.
Complete Streets' Fawley admitted that it might seem odd to say that narrower streets are safer. Many drivers assume that wider is better because it means more visibility to see children or cars darting into their path.
But wider streets mean faster speeds. "I can go faster. That is what the road is telling you," Fawley said.
Narrow streets put drivers on edge and make them more alert to dangers. And they slow down - naturally.
MnDOT's Skallman said that Maryland Avenue in St. Paul has very narrow lanes, which results in slower traffic. "It makes you super-aware of the cars around you," she said. "If the lanes were two feet wider, you would be driving faster."
It's as if engineers have suddenly discovered the virtues of slimming down.
"Twelve feet is what we have been building for the last 25 years, and we said that has to be the safest. Now we are starting to say maybe there is something to this 11-foot-wide lane and making people a little bit uncomfortable," Skallman said.
The reconstruction can be done gradually or all at once. Fawley said the best opportunities are when a road is repaved - every 15 years or so — or completely rebuilt, which happens about every 50 years.
Snelling Avenue in St. Paul will be repaved this summer, said Fawley, conforming with the goals of Complete Streets.
"Is there any way we can make it better for people who are not driving?" said Fawley. "When you are spending over a million dollars, is there anything we can bring in — paint, signs, whatever — at the same time to improve it?"
When rebuilding roads, engineers have an opportunity for a more radical adjustment to fit community needs.
North St. Paul, for example, has plans to revamp roads entirely, trimming excess lane width, limiting parking and adding trees, landscaping and "bump-outs" to shorten pedestrian crossings.
In other cities, where the primary use of the road is for trucks and higher-speed traffic, no changes would be needed, Fawley said.
"The needs are different if you are in rural Moorhead than in downtown St. Paul," he said.
Information from: St. Paul Pioneer Press, http://www.twincities.com
Copyright 2011 The Associated Press.