Reading the Highland Villager Op-Ed Extra #7

[Crosswalk flags at Grand Avenue; photo by me.]
Flashing signs to raise the profile of pedestrians on Snelling; Whether or not signs make them safer will depend on how pedestrians use them

by Dale Mischke

If you drive, bike or walk near the intersection of Snelling and Lincoln Avenues, you may have noticed orange flags on both sides of the crosswalk. You may also have seen pedestrians waving the flags as tjey cross Snelling, hoping to catch the attentin of approaching motorists. The flags are the brainchild of Gena Berglund, associate director of Macalester College's High Winds Fund, who crosses Snelling onfoot several times a day between her Macalester office aher Macalester-Groveland home.

For the past two weeks, High Winds Fund staff have kept about 14 of the flags in two plastic cyliners attached to the posts of the flourescent pedestrian crossing sgns at Lincoln. They are there for anyone to use to "narrow the risk" when crossing busy Snelling, according to High Winds Fund director Tom Welna.

In the last couple of years, three Malaester employees, two students and two neighbors have been hit by cars while trying to cross Snelling at Lincoln, according to Welna. Among the victims were Swinta Kay, 20, and Yacine Diouf, 19, two Macalester freshmen who were struck and seriously injured on May 28 in the southbound lanes on Snelling. Diouf was released from the hospital a day or two later. Kay suffered a traumatic brain injury and as of mid-June was still hospitalized, though in stable condition, Welna said.

Welna has been lobbying city and state officials for the past 18 months to install pedestrian activated signals at the crosswalk on Lincoln -- flashing lights that would give Snelling motrists a more visible warning of the presence of pedestrians. Installing four signs with signals on the boulevards and median would cost about $15,000, Welna said, and the High Winds Fund is willing to pay it.

Macalester's High Winds Fund -- established in 1956 by former Mac student and longtime Mac benefactor DeWitt Wallace to prevent the kind of urban blight he had seen in other neighbohroods surrounding colleges -- paid close to half the cost of the landscaped medians that were installed on Snelling between St. Clair and Grand Avenues in 2010. The medians were intended not only to beautify Snelling, but to slow traffic and provide a mid-street refuge for pedestrians, making it easier and safer for them to cross the street.

Welna met last week with St. Paul Public Works and Minnesota Department of Transportation (MnDOT) officials to discuss possible improvements to pedestrians afety at Snelling and Lincoln. "We want to do the right thing, something all parties can agree to," said Steve Misgen, a metro traffic engineer for MnDOT.

MnDOT had been hesitant to install pedestrian-activated warning signals at Snelling and Lincoln. Will motorists confuse the flashing pedestrian lights at Lincoln with the traffic signals at Grand? Misgen asked. Will pedestrians be emboldened to cross Snelling without giving motorists enough time to stop? [How dumb do Mischke and MnDOT think that people are? Seems like the answer to that falls somewhere between a potato and an adolescent orangutan.] Nevertheless, MnDOT and Public Works officials agreed on June 18 to give the pedestrian-activated flashers a try.

Sometime prior to the beginning of school in September, MnDOT will attach at High Winds' expense four rectangular Rapid Flash Beacons to the pedestrian crossing signs on the curbs and median on Snelling at Lincoln. Once activated by a pedestrian, the beacons will flash, warning motorists of the need to stop before the crosswalk. The flashing will continue for about 15 seconds, giving pedestrians enough time to cross all four lanes of Snelling. MnDOT will also install cameras at the intersection to record how pedestrians and motorists behave both before and after the flashing signals are installed. [Hey how about automatic red light cameras, NTOR laws, streets with 20 mph design speeds...]

Minnesota's crosswalk law states that where no traffic stoplights are present, motorists must stop to yield the right-of-way to pedestrians crossing within a marked crosswalk and at intersections where there is no marked crosswalk. Pedestrians should not make any suden moves in leaving the curb, nor should they walk or run into the path of a car so close it could not possibly stop.

In the case of the Mac students struck on May 27 -- and a local resident who was hit by a car there just a few days later -- the first Snelling motorists to approach the intersection stopped in the near traffic lane, but a second motorist in the far lane did not. Coming up from behind, the second motorists may not have seen the pedestrians starting to cross or realized why the first motorists stopped.

People may complain that too many motorists are not aware of the state's crosswalk law, but look around and it seems more people are aware of the law then ever. The problem may be in how the law is interpreted on a busy street like Snelling where stopping in traffic cam be hazardous for motorists. If you're a motorists amoung a stream of cars on Snelling, do you stop for a pedestrian on the curb and risk being rear-ended, or keep going in the belief that the pedestrian ought to wait for a bigger break in the traffic? If you're a pedestrian, do you leave the curb knowing that the law is on your side, or wait until two lanes of traffic have stopped before you cross? [I can't really comment on this paragraph. It hurts me.]

Of course, the crosswalk law can only do so much in protecting pedestrians from a run-in with a 3,000-pound vehicle traveling at 30 mph. Like the marked crosswalk or the florescent pedestrian crossing signs aready in place, the new pedestrian-activated flashing signs may not prevent another serious accident from happening at Snelling and Lincoln. When traffic is too heavy to wait for a break in the cars, pedestrians may still be safer simply taking the one-block detour ot the signalized crossing at Grand and Snelling.

Dale Mischke is co-editor of the Villager.

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