It’s Simple: Slow the Cars in Saint Paul

[An entry to the West 7th neighborhood.]
The details of last week’s tragedy on West 7th Street are horrid. An immigrant couple's daily walk, the young driver, the terrible cry from the husband, even a pilgrimage to the Dalai Lama. They add up to a terrible tragedy

Read them yourself, but as someone who passes through this intersection once a day, I can’t get the story out of my head. It’s these kinds of things that mark the urban landscape with trauma.

It makes matters worse that many people seem to think that these kinds of crashes are tragic but unavoidable. The Strib article quotes from Saint Paul Police spokesman Steve Linders — “We’re not sure why it happened, but the message to pedestrians and drivers … is to be aware of your surroundings” — seem to suggest there’s little we can do. And I have little faith that the legal autopsy of the crash will be different than the hundreds just like it which reduce events like these to a cold calculation of fault: “drivers are 62% at fault,” we are told, or some similar ineffectual accounting.

Likewise, conclusions about street design are vacuous, we tell ourselves, because the designers of our intersections and streets conform to national standards. This corner is just like all the others.

The feeling of helplessness leads to hopelessness. After all, this intersection isn’t even one of the worst in the neighborhood. A few years ago, the city put up (too rare, often ignored) “no turn on red” signs, hoping to decrease dangerous turning movements. Around a decade ago, West 7th street was put on a “road diet,” reducing the traffic lanes from 4-to-3. And Saint Clair Avenue isn’t necessarily a dangerous road, certainly not relative to the real problem streets in the city.

Despite all of that, an innocent woman is killed because our city isn’t a safe place to walk.

Slow the cars
[Basic physics: outcomes of impacts at different speeds.]

Surely crashes are inevitable, but that doesn’t mean that people have to die. It all has to do with speed, which is the main factor deciding whether crashes between cars and people prove to be deadly. It’s basic physics.

And boiling urban design down to its essence, as the folks at urban design think tank Strong Towns have done, makes it simple: slow the cars.

Sure there are other factors. Probably the most important is the idea of distraction. Streets and intersections must force drivers to pay close attention to their surroundings (through narrower lanes, tighter turning radii, etc.). Streets should reduce crossing distances with bump outs. Cities should ensure quality lighting and non-crumbling sidewalks free of ice and snow.

But the key is speed. Even if you can’t prevent car-person collisions, you can still greatly reduce their impacts. A driver who messes up shouldn't have to live with killing someone, and a woman who stumbles crossing the street shouldn’t lose their life.

Urban Bifurcation

[The Strong Towns STROAD/safety/value chart.]
When you follow through on this basic idea, you get a bifurcated city with clear distinctions between high-speed and walkable places. For any place where people are walking nearby, drivers should not be going faster than 30 miles per hour.  Meanwhile, on freeways or separated high-speed arterial roads (with minimal access points), you’d drive fast and safely.

In this kind of city, there would be a physical and visual difference when you moved from those high speed areas into walkable places. Traffic speeds would quickly decrease, and drivers would have to “switch gears”, paying much more attention to the areas around them. These places would prioritize the safety of pedestrians and cyclists over speed or volume of cars. Driving a car in these walkable areas would be experienced more as a privileged intrusion rather than the central justification for our streets.

If we followed through, cities like Saint Paul would end up looking much more like the University of Minnesota campus. Bridges and freeway on-ramps that funnel high-speed traffic into city streets would receive meaningful traffic calming treatments at their end points. Meanwhile, four-lane undivided arterials (the “Death Roads™”) that currently run all through our city eroding safety for everyone (including car drivers) would have to be calmed with narrower lanes, turn lanes, and crosswalks designed so that drivers actually stopped for people on foot. The only way to do this would be to reduce design speeds to less than 30 miles per hour.

[Temporary bumpouts like these on Como are cheap and quick safety measures.]
This sounds like a big project, and it is, but it doesn’t have to be expensive. 4-to-3 road diets only require paint, and temporary bump outs can be installed at dangerous corners like many of the angular West 7th intersections.

For example, thanks to years of lobbying from the neighborhood (and a CIB grant), the city recently installed temporary bollard bump outs at the intersection of West 7th and Victoria. We could do the same for all the dangerous corners on West 7th, and in the rest of Saint Paul.

The Stakes of Mistakes

The same corner where Wagmo was killed last week was where an urban planner named Nicole Mardell lost her sister back in 2009. Mardell is in a unique position to talk about this issue, because she is already versed in some of the 'safety vs. speed' tradeoffs around street design. Here’s what she says at the end of her moving column:
The accident that occurred at 6:45 am on October 1st seemed like something out of a safety video. Kunlek was on her daily route, she knew the road, she knew it was dangerous. It was daylight, the weather was clear. There wasn’t traffic or construction. Conditions were seemingly ideal. Except, St. Clair Avenue and West 7th Street carries five blind spots and a driver going the speed limit did not have time to stop when she saw Kunlek fall into the street.


My call to action is clear—if we want to stop preventable pedestrian and cyclist deaths in unsafe intersections in St. Paul, we need to lobby for them. Attend open houses, report issues to traffic safety, and utilize your rights in the public system. There are many advocate groups doing the same, but more help is always needed.

Six years ago, my sister was killed as a ped at St. Clair and West 7th Street in St. Paul. Is it time to act? Or do we need another death?
Don’t say that there’s nothing we can do. Saint Paul can solve this problem by reducing speeds on on our walkable city streets, protecting our most vulnerable people, and preventing deaths like Kunlek Wagmo's from happening again. We need a city where the stakes of a mistake are not deadly.

[We can do better than this.]

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