France Avenue: Pedestrian-Friendly at 40 MPH

The City of Edina is finishing up an ambitious project to help remake France Avenue through the Southdale District into less of a highway, and more of an urban boulevard.

France Avenue

To the unfamiliar, France Avenue through the Southdale District is a 40 MPH, 7+ lane divided megastroad. Prior to this project, there was a sidewalk on only one side, nearly every intersection had a porkchop island (free right turn), and there was not a single crosswalk marking between the Crosstown (TH 62) and the Bloomington city line at Minnesota Drive.

Southdale’s France Avenue has long been seen as a barrier to neighborhoods. It divides the largely residential area on the west to the core of the Southdale District, including Southdale Center, Centennial Lakes, Galleria, and several office and housing complexes. The original solution to this problem was an expensive pedestrian bridge that would have spanned France at a single point. Instead, the project was reworked to focus on bike-ped accommodations at three critical intersections–76th, 70th, and 66th–and to make general improvements along the whole corridor. As density and housing continue to increase in the Southdale District, this change in focus is in line with the larger transformation of the area into something of a third downtown. Rather than being a barrier to cross, France Avenue should be a primary focus of the area.

The process and concept of this design are terrific. Our metro area is filled with stroads like France Avenue, and there is simply not always the budget or need to tear them up and reconstruct them from scratch. This was a unique attempt to improve the corridor for pedestrians as a retrofit, with a relatively small price tag.

However, the result of this process has been underwhelming. I did a walk-through this week, and was disappointed to find that, although it appeared pedestrian-friendly at 40 mph and a few meaningful improvements were made, the on-foot and on-bike experience was still pretty lacking.

(Note: Although technically owned and maintained by Hennepin County as CSAH 17, this project was administered by the City of Edina.)

Farewell to Pork Chops

Porkchops–the triangular islands used in conjunction with free right turns–formerly littered France Avenue. This right turn design encourages motorists to make high-speed right turns on red, and can pose a real barrier for pedestrians crossing the street. At best, a pedestrian must cross the street three times instead of once. At worst, the pedestrian must play “chicken” with a right-turning motorist to assert their right-of-way.

Porkchop covered in snow

Occasionally, porkchops pose an inconvenience to pedestrians

A more humane way to cross the street

A more humane way to cross the street

The removal of porkchops along France was a great improvement. Unfortunately, the curb radius used is still quite large–almost as large as a small free right, and substantially larger than nearby county roads use. This encourages higher-speed turns across the crosswalk.

Refuge Islands

One mixed blessing is the refuge islands placed at the major intersections. On the one hand, it really does increase the comfort of crossing the busy street. Although I was caught in the middle while crossing, I did not find it at all unpleasant to wait there for another cycle.

However, since the engineers did not want to create a tighter turn for left-turning motorists, the crosswalks are now set way back from the intersection. This means a slight detour to cross the street, and it also means this:

Motorist blocks the crosswalk on France Avenue

And, on my return trip, this…

Motorist blocks the crosswalk on France Avenue

 

Cross Street Bike Lanes

The vanishing bike lane

The vanishing bike lane

One detail intended to improve bicycle safety was short stubs of bike lanes on either end of the three major intersections. The idea is that by providing a designated space for bicyclists at the intersection, they will make it across France Avenue more safely, and be less likely to ride in the right-turn lane. This makes sense at first whiff, except to consider bicyclists are generally going farther than half a block past France. Assuming they wish to proceed on the street, they are now forced to merge back into busy traffic, where they have just been coaxed to give up their space.

I objected to this design before it was striped, but was rebuffed by the consultant on the project. Seeing the actual striping down, the situation gets even worse: at 70th and 76th, the lane was striped over a substantial longitudinal gap. Nearly everyone who rides a bike knows the danger of longitudinal cracks: they can easily grab a narrow tire and cause the cyclist to lose control of their bike. If the cyclist manages to stay upright, they’ll still have to merge back into traffic–on 76th, they’ll do so in the middle of a signalized intersection, going up a hill.

Mind the gap

Mind the gap

Pedestrians As Clear Zone

The project included installation of a much-needed sidewalk along the east side of France. In terms of construction quality, this is a great sidewalk: it’s at least eight feet wide, saw-cut, with a six-foot boulevard. The project also included landscaping for this project, including boulevard trees to shade pedestrians and calm traffic.

Pedestrian walks on new sidewalk

This human being will cause far less damage to an errant car than a mature tree would.

Unfortunately, these boulevard trees have been placed behind the sidewalk, at least 15′ back from the curb. This means that they will not shade the street for at least a decade, and will never provide a buffer from moving traffic. They also give the compelling feeling to pedestrians that they, too, are part of the clear zone of high-speed France Avenue.

Needless Restrictions on Pedestrians

No ped sign replaces crossing

Rusted-out scar of a removed beg button.

The signals do not include an automatic pedestrian phase on any legs, for any intersection, even though most lights for France are more than long enough to accommodate such a phase without any adjustment. And although the project did add several new crosswalks, there is at least one mysterious removal. At Parklawn Avenue, an existing crossing at the north leg was removed. There was no cost savings to this removal, as the project would not have required any new construction or new push buttons at this location. By eliminating the crossing, pedestrians on the north side sidewalk must cross the intersection through three legs instead of one.

A Work In Progress

Although there are many disappointments in this year’s France Avenue project, I do not think this is a sign of the hopelessness of the Southdale District. Rather, it is a sign of just how much we must do and just how differently we must approach our streets in order to turn a high-speed stroad environment into a meaningful street for people.

This time, it seems, we didn’t do quite enough.


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28 Responses to France Avenue: Pedestrian-Friendly at 40 MPH

  1. Eric Anondson
    Eric Anondson October 13, 2014 at 9:27 am #

    Placing the trees outside the sidewalks is pretty much a *headdesk* design, but it must have been done because the speeds are still 40mph. Regulations or guidelines force that?

    Also, still waiting on “No Right On Red” signs. Lots of drivers still on the habit of pulling way up to the curb corner atop the crossing marks.

    The lane narrowing has already started to get speeds DOWN to 40. Lanes had been so wide drivers easily slid to 50mph.

    • soleary
      Sean Hayford Oleary October 13, 2014 at 10:13 am #

      For what it’s worth, 77th St east of Nicollet in Richfield is a 40 mph speed zone, and trees are planted all over — to the immediate back of the curb on the north side, in the median, and between sidewalk and street on the south side.

      It may have been a requirement of Hennepin County’s, although it may have also been done for maintenance — by putting them behind the sidewalk, they’re less exposed to salt and other grit from snow removal. But if that’s the case, perhaps a more substantial boulevard was needed, or trees more resistant to salty soil.

    • Joe October 13, 2014 at 10:13 am #

      I’m sure they also place the trees outside the sidewalk due to salt spray due to snow removal. Gives the trees a little better opportunity to grow.

  2. Matt Steele
    Matt Steele October 13, 2014 at 9:40 am #

    This should have been a Multiway Boulevard.

    But seriously. Why still have a speed that is deadly to humans? And why do suburban drivers suck at stopping behind a shiny new thermoplast zebra stripe crosswalk?

    • Bill Lindeke
      Bill Lindeke October 13, 2014 at 9:49 am #

      they sure do!

    • Matt Brillhart October 13, 2014 at 10:41 am #

      Suburban drivers do suck at stopping before the crosswalk zone, simply because they are not accustomed to seeing pedestrians anywhere. As someone who grew up in the 2nd-ring suburbs, where most intersections have zero pedestrians (per day), it’s way too easy to simply ignore the crosswalk and pull up as far as possible. Stopping at the stop bar, before the crosswalk, is something you have to get used to after moving to the city. There was a period of time where I had to retrain my brain and eliminate those bad habits. I’m happy to say I’ve come full circle — I now verbally correct “crosswalk creeps” at the intersection of Lake & Lyndale.

      • soleary
        Sean Hayford Oleary October 13, 2014 at 10:54 am #

        In fairness to suburban drivers, there aren’t any examples I’m familiar with in Minneapolis or St. Paul proper where crosswalks are set this far back. I pretty much never see cars in Richfield blocking the crosswalk at lights — except along 76th Street, where they’re set really far back. Drivers seem to have a mental default place to stop (a few feet back from the lateral lines of the cross street), and these new crosswalks are just not where they expect them to be. (How they miss the blindingly prominent markings is a mystery, though.)

        One area I know of (but have not personally observed) in Minneapolis is the set-back crosswalks on the 6th St SE cycletrack. Curious what motorist behavior is like there.

        • Sam Newberg
          Sam Newberg October 14, 2014 at 10:06 am #

          Sean, don’t excuse drivers in this case. They should know. That said, for as disappointed as I am with Hiawatha Avenue crosswalk improvements, the thick stop bars do work pretty well. Edina should add stop bars.

    • Eric October 17, 2014 at 9:34 pm #

      I had the misfortune of driving down this road for the first time in more than a decade. what an abysmal, disgusting stretch of land. It was depressing. You could clear out the center islands and turn it into a football field, it’s that damn wide.

      The idea of this road EVER being pedestrian friendly, or of the people who have been conditioned to drive so poorly by such roads even thinking of pedestrians/bicyclists/road safety… it’s just never going to happen.

      I used it as a stellar example to my wife (a recent european transplant) to explain why we don’t live in the suburbs. The point was well made.

  3. Bill Lindeke
    Bill Lindeke October 13, 2014 at 9:48 am #

    great review of a common problem; i once complained about the porkchop right turns on Kellogg Boulevard in DT st paul to a city traffic engineer and he looked at blankly, wondering what the problem was. high speed turns make walking very uncomfortable.

    • soleary
      Sean Hayford Oleary October 13, 2014 at 10:04 am #

      I once had a conversation with a Bloomington engineer about porkchop islands. Bloomington is, of course, the porkchop capital of Minnesota, possibly with more porkchop islands than the rest of the metro combined. I suggested that perhaps porkchop islands were not the best thing since sliced bread — for pedestrians, but also for cyclists, as the turn across a cyclist’s path can be more abrupt. He responded that the culprit is not porkchop islands, but porkchop islands that do not meet The Standard. Modern porkchops have the crosswalk set back from the yield point — according to the engineer, this allowed right-turning motorists to focus solely on the pedestrian, then focus on cross traffic separately at the yield point. This might be theoretically true, but it seems in practice motorists do not fully exercise their special point of focus for yielding to pedestrians.

      He also claimed that porkchop islands reduce mainline crossing distance substantially — which is true, at least compared to dedicated right-turn lanes, but mainly benefits motorists, since it allows the light cycle to be shortened.

      • Reuben Collins
        Reuben Collins October 13, 2014 at 10:23 am #

        I’m pretty ambivalent about porkchops. There are good things and bad things about them. It’s not clear whether as a whole they are a net gain or loss for pedestrians.

        I love the set-back crosswalks, though. I think we routinely place crosswalks way to close to the intersections, which results in crosswalks being longer than they need to be, and creates additional conflict with turning vehicles, IMO. The shorter crossing distance is well worth the extra distance peds must travel around the radius to get to the crosswalk.

        • Erik B October 14, 2014 at 11:02 am #

          The question that should be asked is why is that turning radius necessary? So cars can take the turn quicker? Also, why aren’t those turning required to stop on red?

    • Matt Steele
      Matt Steele October 13, 2014 at 11:30 am #

      I’m always amazed at how many porkchops and stroads Downtown St. Paul has. 7th, Kellogg, Jackson, etc… very stroady. The worst porkchops in DT St. Paul are Kellogg at Robert & Jackson.

      • Bill Lindeke
        Bill Lindeke October 13, 2014 at 11:52 am #

        yup; the roads are designed exactly backwards

  4. David Markle
    David Markle October 13, 2014 at 11:25 am #

    For reference, check out the editorial in the October 13, 2014, New York Times; “We’re Walkin’ Here!”

  5. Eric Anondson
    Eric Anondson October 13, 2014 at 7:44 pm #

    Fwiw, Edina’s city manager says:

    “The project is not finished yet. I suggest reviewing it again when it is done.”

    https://twitter.com/edinacityman/status/521676321206722561

    • soleary
      Sean Hayford Oleary October 13, 2014 at 7:59 pm #

      I’m no expert on constructing staging, but I think it would be unusual to remove a crosswalk, place permanent no ped signs, and then reverse the process at the end of the construction. I tried to be pretty intentional about only noting things that seem to be inherently part of the design. The only thing that might be different in the final outcome is planting of additional trees in the boulevard, so that remains to be seen. Certainly, the finished product will look tidier.

      In fairness to Edina, I got an email this afternoon from the Director of Engineering offering to meet with me and the Edina bike group chair to go look at France on-site and see if some of the issues can be resolved. I’m very impressed with their hands-on approach to address concerns of multimodal users.

      I’ll post an update in the comments, or perhaps as a new post if it’s substantial enough.

  6. Walker Angell
    Walker Angell October 13, 2014 at 8:33 pm #

    Sean, great great post. I’m with Reuben on the crossing location being better when it’s set back a bit being considerably safer. NTOR and much tighter radiuses would certainly help.

    I wonder if the problem with the cars stopping in the crossing is the lack of any sort of stop line? The zebra is going with the car direction and from a mental standpoint doesn’t say ‘stop here’ so much as ‘there may at some point in the future possibly be a pedestrian here’. I think we need something going across our direction of travel to indicate where to stop.

    It looks like they were trying to match the mature trees on the new tree placement. Even so, jogging the sidewalk over away from the stroad where possible and putting the new trees between the two as a barrier would have been good and the jogs would add some interest to an otherwise boring and uninviting sidewalk. Maybe they can still do this for not too much cost?

    Do you know how wide the lanes were and how wide they are now?

    • soleary
      Sean Hayford Oleary October 13, 2014 at 11:50 pm #

      Lane width: old lanes were 12′ (plus I believe a 2′ curb reaction distance for the outer lane). The new lanes are 11′, although note that it is not the entire length of lanes that have been restriped — only the areas approaching the redesigned intersections. It’s possible the lanes are a consistent 11′ on the northbound/east side, since that entire curb was replaced.

      • Sam Newberg
        Sam Newberg October 14, 2014 at 10:13 am #

        Maybe we should reconsider the 12-foot lane – http://www.citylab.com/design/2014/10/why-12-foot-traffic-lanes-are-disastrous-for-safety-and-must-be-replaced-now/381117/

        • Walker Angell
          Walker Angell October 14, 2014 at 11:29 am #

          Yes!

          They do, at least according to most studies I’ve read, slow people down a bit (average of 3 mph per foot narrower?). Perhaps more important is that I think they cause people to pay more attention to driving.

          On most European roads you can’t really even think about anything but driving if you want to stay alive. The lanes are much narrower than here and narrowing down to below 16′ total road width (like the measurement between buildings or parked cars, not just painted lines) isn’t unusual. You have to pay attention. Our roads feel too safe.

  7. Sam Newberg
    Sam Newberg October 14, 2014 at 10:34 am #

    Sean, this is a good review. Many projects like this merely “accommodate” pedestrians and cyclists rather than “prioritizing” them. There is a pretty big difference, and it really comes out when bike lanes have a seam running down the middle, as you point out.

    One aspect missing is a discussion of existing land uses lining the corridor, and what is zoned. There is a whole lot of surface parking along France, and those rare buildings built closer to the street don’t have doors facing the sidewalk anyway. If the new apartments at the corner of 69th and York are any indication, future buildings along France can address the street better, albeit in a token manner.

    But hey, it is a move in the right direction, albeit underwhelming. Lately my observation of driving around in Edina is “damn, everyone here is so old.” Like many aging suburbs, Edina needs to do far more for a population that probably should give up driving sooner than later. Alas, Edina has the answer at 50th and France, a very walkable area with a grocery store and pharmacy and restaurants – a place where it is actually possible to drive less. Note how wide France is at 50th versus 70th – there’s your problem.

    • soleary
      Sean Hayford Oleary October 14, 2014 at 11:02 am #

      Thanks, Sam. I have no detailed knowledge of the setback requirements for new buildings, but new developments have been a mixed bag. There’s a great small building at 70th and France (NW corner) that has beautiful street presence. One of the two businesses there implores people entering from the street to use the “main” entrance (behind the building off the parking), but the other one — some vitamin store — has equally good entrances on both sides.

      On the other hand, One Southdale Place at 69th and York has mediocre street presence (OK on York, not good at all on 69th). Similarly, the new Lennar development planned between York and Xerxes has a very large, very prominent parking lot on the York frontage. (The Xerxes frontage is actually pretty nice, but that faces single-family homes, and isn’t really part of the Southdale District.)

      Then again, seen as an evolution from Southdale Center to Galleria to Centennial Lakes, public (or quasi-public) space has become more and more of a priority. Centennial Lakes has terrible street frontage, but probably the best urban park outside of the Chain of Lakes. It’s only now that we’re starting to think of the street as public space, and Edina seems to still be in the learning process.

      As a more general statement, I don’t think wide streets necessarily preclude good, walkable development. You’re not going to get an intimate, small-town-ish feel like 50th & France, but there are many great cities with wide boulevards. The problem is that, while Edina has embraced density in the Southdale District, the #1 priority seems to be drivable urbanism. If we keep growing density only for cars, streets like France will get progressively more unpleasant for everyone.

  8. Erik B October 14, 2014 at 10:58 am #

    For the life of me I can’t understand why there is such a lack of stop lines all over the metro area. A big beautiful crosswalk only to have monstrous SUVs stopping on them. Paint is cheap!

  9. Walker Angell
    Walker Angell October 14, 2014 at 11:45 am #

    I wonder how all of this would be designed in Europe? Given the traffic counts I think every road (including York) but France would be two lane (one in each direction) with roundabouts and no turn lanes. France likely two lanes in each direction, roundabouts at each junction, likely no extra lanes at the roundabouts and maybe a few mid-block turn lanes in to developments. The exception perhaps France @ 76th that I think would be in the top quartile for a roundabout and might be still a signalized intersection (and perhaps with just as many turn lanes since they’re needed for queuing space). I’d guess lane widths either 3 meters (10′) or 3.25 meters (10.6′).

    The result being mostly two lanes to cross anywhere in this area with at most four lanes when crossing France (except @ 76th). And with all of that extra ROW space maybe put in some cycletracks.

    • soleary
      Sean Hayford Oleary October 14, 2014 at 11:51 am #

      I’d be curious to hear from an engineer thoughts about what could be done with France if cost were no object. The volume of cars isn’t insane — 28,500 in the busiest section between 70th and 76th. (That’s only slightly more than 66th St in Richfield by Lyndale, and substantially less than Lake Street north of Lake Calhoun.)

      However, I believe the traffic is mostly concentrated at rush hour, and since it is a shopping district, can be particularly bad around the winter holidays. I love the idea of a 4/5 lane street with roundabouts — or at least, more tolerant signals (flashing yellow arrows). The existing fully protected lefts on both directions means that there is a whole lot of the time that the majority of traffic is sitting staring at a red light.

      • Matt Steele
        Matt Steele October 14, 2014 at 12:49 pm #

        If this was a shopping/mixed-use district in a European city, France would likely be a Multiway Boulevard. Mmmmm!

        http://www.ftscities.com/files/527%20Rendering2_450x291.jpg

        The great think about multiway boulevards is that they can be implemented incrementally, project by project and block by block. We just need a framework and an expectation of what the ultimate form would look like.