Snelling Avenue needs a long-term sidewalk solution

[Pedestrian activists tilt at windmills along Saint Paul's Snelling Avenue.]

As much as I like what they're doing, Saint Paul is taking the wrong approach to pedestrian safety. Neighborhoods along Snelling Avenue, along with the great bike & walk organization, Saint Paul Smart Trips, kicked off a campaign to change car behavior along Snelling Avenue. Cops and activists worked together to increase awareness of the state's crosswalk laws, which require cars to stop for pedestrians in crosswalks. They got a lot of news coverage for their effort:
Police say it's a law too many drivers don't know about—pedestrians who step into a crosswalk always have the right of way. But on Snelling Avenue today, 5 EYEWITNESS NEWS found hundreds of drivers ignoring it.

"I almost got run over and I had a uniform, a clip board and radio—it’s bad," said St. Paul Fire Chief Tom Butler.

It’s these kinds of close calls that prompted police to begin a weeklong crack down on drivers who don't obey the crosswalk laws.

In 2007 through 2008, there have been nearly 400 pedestrians and bicyclists struck by vehicles in St. Paul alone. Officials say many of those victims were hit in crosswalks by drivers who don't know the rules.

Apart from the way in which each of these articles point at pedestrians as equal parts of the problem, the thing that chaps my hide here is that this enforcement campaign won't really solve anything. The big problem with Snelling Avenue isn't a lack of police or awareness, its that the road is designed for really fast-moving cars.

The problem is that the police are telling you one thing, but the design of the road itself is sending a very different message. In his book, Traffic, Tom Vanderbilt explains the paradoxical nature of traffic safety:

"The first thing to think about it, What is a road telling you, and how?

The truth is that the road itself tells us far more than signs do. 'If you build a road that's wide, has a lot of sight distance, has a large median, large shoulders, and the driver feels safe, they're going to go fast,' says Tom Granda, a psychologist employed by the Federal Highway Administration. "It doesn't matter what speed limit or sign you have. In fact, the engineers who built that road seduce the driver to go that fast.

But those same means of seduction -- the wide roads, the generous lane widths, the capacious sigh distances, the large medians and shoulders -- are the same things that are theoretically meant to ensure the driver's safety. This is akin to giving a lot of low-fat ice cream and cookies to someone trying to lose weight. The driver, like the would-be dieter, is wont to 'comsume' the supposed health benefits.

[The four wide lanes of Snelling Avenue encourage cars to go too quickly.]

Snelling Avenue, particularly between Summit and Hamline University, is a wide road with four wide lanes that encourage drivers to go really quickly. The road discourages drivers from even seeing pedestrians, let alone slowing down and stopping for them. (In fact, if a driver in one lane slows down for pedestrians along Snelling, they might be inadvertently contributing to that person's injury or death if the driver in the next lane over continues on ahead.)

Simply put, there's no way that a four-lane road without a median can be safe for pedestrians, no matter how many police, crosswalks, or warning signs you put on the side of the street. A longterm solution for Snelling Avenue has to re-think the speed and width of the street, and start to make it make sense for cars and trucks to drive more slowly.

A median that reduces the width of the traffic lanes, provides safety for pedestrians, and makes the street seem like a neighborhood rather than a freeway is exactly what Snelling Avenue needs. And this is exactly the solution that is proving so controversial closer to the Macalester College campus.

[Sidewalk politics on the TeeVee.]


Stephen Gross said...

Absolutely a great point.

Road *design* is the issue here. Driver behavior--in fact--all human behavior--must be understood as *partially produced* by environmental cues.

Wide roads, with long sight lines, and no medians, produce fast drivers. End of story.

So, I see two possible changes:

(1) Accommodate pedestrians by adding flyovers / tunnels.

(2) Accommodate pedestrians by instituting traffic calming measures.

What do you think, Bill?


Unknown said...

This is absolutely a design problem - not an enforcement problem. However, there's nothing wrong with a little enforcement either.

@Stephen Gross: I expet that adding flyovers/tunnels would exacerbate the pedestrian problem by signaling to drivers that they need not bother stopping since the peds are all overhead/underground.

Pedestrian said...

Macalester College has raised over a million dollars to construct a median on Snelling Avenue but City Council Member Pat Harris won't introduce the resolution accepting the funds so Public Works can complete the project.

An enforcement problem? A design problem? Saint Paul simply has a political problem.

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