Another Predictable Tragedy Shows Need For Change on West 7th

[Jose Hernandez.]
This past weekend, there was another tragic crash on West 7th Street.

A 52-year-old Saint Paul man named Jose Hernandez had just finished his shift working in the back of the house at Brasa before riding his bicycle home, down Grand Avenue about a mile or two. When he reached the corner of West 7th and Grand, someone driving a beige SUV ran a red light and put Jose in a coma before driving off. Judging by his friend’s comments on Facebook, his chances for survival are bleak.

At one level, something like this seems like a tragic accident, another reckless / distracted /  drunk person driving too fast in the city.

“Senseless. How terrible!"

"Our thoughts and prayers are with the victim. There's nothing we can do about something like this.”

Sure, sometimes people drive in homicidal incomprehensible ways. I remember the guy who drove a truck over the sidewalk back in 2011 by the Franklin Avenue bridge, killing Thomas Malloy, an observant Jew riding his bike home from synagogue on a Friday. How do you prevent that?

This weekend, the crash occurred at midnight in late November, critically injuring a guy trying to get home from a long shift in a busy restaurant. What can we do about something like this?

It turns out that there are lots of things we can do.

For far too long, Saint Paul’s West 7th Street has been a death trap. The design of the old highway through the heart of the city is inherently dangerous, and there are precious few safety features that help anyone on foot or bicycle. West 7th has four 10’ lanes and parking on both sides, a design that creates lots of confusion and encourages people to weave, speed, and drive in other dangerous ways.

[Existing conditions on West 7th by Grand Avenue.]

[The intersection where Jose was struck.]
On top of that, because West 7th cuts diagonally through the rectangular street grid, it creates intersections that have perverse and dangerous effects. The expanse of pavement gives drivers a signal to speed or run red lights. The obtuse angles — called a wide turning radius  — encourage drivers to take corners at high speeds, and lead to a high number of crashes in cases where people on foot or bicycle technically have the right of way.

These dangerous conditions have been in place ever since they removed the streetcar tracks back in the 1950s, and in all those decades there have only been a few mitigating safety measures installed. Most notably, in 2002 the City engineered a 4-3 conversion along most of the urban part of the street.

Tl, dr; there are lots of things we can do to improve safety on West 7th.

[The last few summers, a temporary bumpout has been installed at West 7th and Victoria.]

Here are a few concrete ideas:

Bumpouts or refuge medians: You could install these at a few key points. There’s a “temporary bumpout” already at Victoria Street, for example. It would slow and calm traffic, and at the same time make it much safer to cross the street.

[See my article on some ideas.]
Tightening intersection curb radii: Replacing some of the speed-inducing asphalt with curbs and more sidewalks, especially at the large intersection “squares”, would boost safety and simplify chaotic intersections. 

Reconfiguring angles at odd intersections: One of the most dangerous intersections for drivers is the Montreal / Lexington corner, just on the southwest side of 35E. There are plans underway right now to reconfigure the last block of Lexington Parkway to improve safety. This is the kind of thing we could do at many of these dangerous corners

Closing some intersections to car traffic: An additional safety improvement might be closing off access between some side streets and West 7th, to create more sidewalks and simplify and reduce the number of conflict points at these corners. It would increase the amount of sidewalk space and provide a boost to walking, biking, and on-street parking.

Extending the 4-3 road diet: Why does it stop at Mancini’s? In theory, it could continue all the way to Smith or Grand Avenues or farther. I reached out to Dave Thune, who was Council Member at the time and pushed for the road diet. He told me that engineers claimed there was too much traffic to make the street safer in the Grand Avenue area. Well, sometimes the safety trade-off might trump some traffic concerns.

Replacing parking or a travel lane with bike lanes: This is a pipe dream, officially “banned” by an amendment in the Bike Plan, but if done well, it would be a boost to safety.

[Crossing West 7th sucks.]

What about the Riverview project?

[There are a lot of things we can do for safety if we build a streetcar.[
One reason I’m a fan of the Riverview modern streetcar project is that I'm so dissatisfied with the dangerous status quo. The current design of West 7th is not OK, and has been needlessly killing and injuring people for generations.

Riverview gives the city a chance to change. If done well, with sidewalks, walkability, and safety in mind, the project could solve many of these problems. We’d be reconstructing the street, and that change would allow community members and engineers to re-think many of these dangerous design factors. If done well, the streetcar construction would prevent crashes like the one that put Jose in the hospital.

The tragic injury to Jose Hernandez isn’t an unpreventable accident. Just like many other horrible crashes, it’s a sad predictable result of a dangerous design. For generations, West 7th has been deadly, and we’ve done almost nothing about it.

It’s time for a change.


Check out this wonderful and sad Reuben Rosario column on Jose Hernandez. Also, there is a crowdsource donation page where you can help pay for his family expenses.

More update:

Here's a pic of the Lexington / West 7th / Montreal realignment that I mentioned above:

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