Green Line Tragedy a Wake-up Call

When I first heard about the fatal Green Line crash at Snelling Avenue Station last Thursday morning, I was shocked and dismayed. And as additional reports gave the name of the victim–Lynne Thomas–and focused on how highly she was valued for the role she played as receptionist at the Minnesota Senate research department, I became even more upset and saddened. Finally, I moved to anger, because I knew this was a preventable death.

According to media reports, Lynne Thomas lived just a few blocks from the station. She was “a lifelong transit rider who didn’t drive” and took the Green Line train every day to her job at the Capitol. Renee Rose, her supervisor, described her as “very safety conscious” and said: “Crossing against the light does not sound like her at all.” This was clearly not some rash young scofflaw (probably male?), who made a practice of darting through traffic, ignoring crosswalks and red lights. From the descriptions given, Lynne was clearly aware of the need to obey the law and pay attention while crossing to the station.

That was when it clicked that this could easily have been me–or any other pedestrian trying to get to a Green Line station.

Green Line transit riders waiting at the Snelling station (courtesy of Metro Transit

Green Line transit riders waiting at the Snelling station (courtesy of Metro Transit)

I’m not a daily Green Line rider, but when I do take the train at the Snelling station, I’m usually getting off the 84 or 21 bus at Spruce Tree Drive and walking north to the southeast corner of University Avenue. Then if I’m headed west to Minneapolis, I must often wait more than a minute to cross Snelling, before heading north across the eastbound traffic lanes and both light rail tracks to get to the westbound platform. Many times, as I cross Snelling, I watch my train proceed through the intersection, stop at the station, and then pull away, just as I’m swiping my Go-To card and running up the platform. Knowing I’ll have to wait another ten minutes for the next train, I’m often sorely tempted to take advantage of a gap in traffic to race across the street against the light.

Lynne Thomas lived a few blocks northwest of the station, and faced a similar challenge coming from the north. She too would have had to cross both Snelling and University, including both LRT tracks, to get from the northwest corner to the eastbound station platform. Thursday’s train crash is still being investigated, so we don’t yet know exactly what happened, but it’s clear to me that we need to provide safer, faster, more direct routes for people to get to the train station if we are to avoid future fatalities and injuries along the Green Line. David Rasmussen who lives just a couple of blocks from the Snelling station, puts it this way, in a post on e-democracy: “Those making connections are offered an obstacle course with traffic lights to get between bus and rail. I have seen teenagers outrun and run in front of moving traffic to try to make a connection.”

Walking routes to the Snelling station

Walking routes to the Snelling station

And while heavy traffic makes the Snelling intersection especially challenging for pedestrians as they navigate multiple conflict points with cars, trucks, buses and light rail, other stations present similar problems. For example, in an earlier streets.mn article–Getting to the Green Line: Seen through the Lens of a Wheelchair User–I noted that to get to the Fairview station, residents of Episcopal Homes must walk a fair distance to the corner, wait for the light, cross traffic lanes and train tracks, and walk back to the station platform, which is located directly across from the main entrance to their senior residence. It seems unreasonable to expect people to follow such a circuitous route. Given human nature, good intentions may well be overcome by the temptation to cut across traffic lanes and climb over barriers to catch the train.

The District Councils Collaborative of Saint Paul and Minneapolis (DCC) has for some time been concerned about making sure that people can safely and easily walk to the Green Line. Knowing that 80% of riders were expected to walk to their station, and that the light rail planning process did not pay much attention to this issue, in 2011, the DCC began working with the district councils and neighborhood associations along the Green Line to identify barriers and propose improvements to create safe, pleasant walking routes to the stations. A number of walkability studies were undertaken, and recommendations made, to ensure that people of all ages and abilities could get to the light rail on foot.

The most recent DCC walkability study is of Snelling Avenue, from Charles Avenue to Marshall Avenue, with a report and recommendations due to be released shortly. Working collaboratively with the Union Park District Council and Hamline-Midway Coalition, with technical support from the Design Center of the St. Paul Riverfront Corporation, the study included a walkabout with MnDOT and St Paul Public Works staff, door-to-door conversations and community meetings, and a two day workshop to review field note findings and to develop recommendations.

Signage on University Ave shows the way to the Snelling station, but there's no wayfinding for pedestrian approaching from Snelling Ave

Signage on University Ave shows the way to the Snelling station, but there’s no wayfinding for pedestrians approaching from Snelling Ave

A primary goal for the DCC study was to persuade MnDOT and the City of Saint Paul to include pedestrian improvements on Snelling as part of the I-94 Snelling bridge deck replacement and Mill and Overlay projects that are scheduled to begin shortly. At the Snelling-University intersection, community members noted that the LRT crossing is “stimulating and confusing”, and lacks way-finding for people walking to the station on Snelling. The bar crosswalk markings are also worn out in several places and there is not enough time allowed for pedestrians cross the wide streets at this busy intersection. The study recommendations for this intersection include:

  • replacing bar crosswalks with high visibility crosswalks and installing advance stop lines for all directions of traffic
  • ensuring accessibility for people in wheelchairs by improving ADA pedestrian ramps, placing countdown push buttons in reachable locations, and providing adequate sidewalk width
  • installing way-finding signage on Snelling, directing people to eastbound and westbound platforms
  • adjusting signal timing to allow more time for pedestrians to cross Snelling and giving pedestrians a head start by providing Leading Pedestrian Intervals (LPI)

These are all good recommendations, and most will be implemented as part of MnDOT’s summer construction projects. But more will need to be done if we are to prevent future pedestrian deaths in train crashes like the one that took Lynne Thomas’s life last Thursday. We should be looking at all options, and researching what works in other cities. Adjustments to signal timing? Perhaps a pedestrian-only walk cycle, allowing people to cross in any direction, including diagonally? (This is known as a pedestrian scramble and has been implemented in a number of locations) Should we consider pedestrian bridges or tunnels for the busiest station areas? If so, what would they cost, and where would they go?

Some have suggested a pedestrian bridge for the Snelling intersection (example from Kunming, Yunnan Province, China -- probably not Minnesota style

Some have suggested a pedestrian bridge for the Snelling intersection (example from Kunming, Yunnan Province, China — probably not exactly Minnesota style!)

The train has already cost two pedestrian lives since the Green Line opened on June 14, 2014. (A previous fatality occurred at the Westgate station in August 2014.) That’s two too many train crash deaths. But it would be a lost opportunity if we focus only on train crashes. Colin Fesser, who has been actively involved in efforts to make Snelling safer for pedestrians, points out, in an e-democracy post, that the discussion about what can be done to further minimize traffic crash fatalities needs to be put in the proper context. He asks: “How many accidents along the corridor DON’T involve the LRT?” And he points out that “our media… is much quicker to jump on “train hits woman!” than “two cars crashed…again.”

A "Pedestrian Scramble" allows pedestrians to take the most direct route to their destination (example from Chicago)

A “Pedestrian Scramble” allows pedestrians to take the most direct route to their destination (example from Chicago)

My hope is that this tragedy will be a wake-up call for the Twin Cities, not just to figure out what needs to be done to prevent train crash fatalities and injuries along the Green Line, but to make a commitment to eliminate traffic crash fatalities of all sorts in the Twin Cities. Minnesota already has a Toward Zero Deaths (TZD) program that has been in place for ten years and has resulted in a 43% reduction in traffic fatalities; but metro area efforts have so far been limited. Isn’t it time for Saint Paul and Minneapolis to create a Twin Cities TZD coalition, and adopt an action plan with specific measurable goals and a target date to end all traffic (and train) fatalities?

Much more to come on TZD and Vision Zero. But that’s a topic for another day…

 



 


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15 Responses to Green Line Tragedy a Wake-up Call

  1. Bill Lindeke
    Bill Lindeke May 5, 2015 at 10:49 am #

    Great post today Anne! Reading through this, my first thought was the diagonal pedestrian scramble crosswalks in downtown Chicago. That kind of treatment would be perfect for a spot like this! (I’m glad to see you had the same idea.)

    Sadly, I think Mn-DOT (and the city?) are still a long way from actually prioritizing pedestrian traffic to the point where they’re willing to do something innovative like that…

    • Colin Fesser May 5, 2015 at 1:47 pm #

      Thanks for the mention, Anne!

      I like that diagonal pedestrian scramble idea, but I agree that MnDoT and Public Works will almost certainly be against it due to impact on the signal cycles up and down Snelling. But could that be mitigated enough by restricting that option to just the times when the Green Line and the A Line are arriving/departing? They both have 10 minute headways, though that’s complicated by the fact that the east-west movements are not synced and north-south almost certainly will not be. Still, it might be something for the timing people at Metro Transit and the city to consider.

  2. Monte Castleman
    Monte Castleman May 5, 2015 at 1:58 pm #

    I have to think changing pedestrian phasing many times each hour would be a bad idea no matter what (as well as impossible to implement with the standard NEMA traffic controllers St. Paul uses.) I have a feeling it would create a lot of confusion from both motorists and pedestrians and thus cause more problems than it would solve.

    Like it or not, the trend is away from exclusive pedestrian phases. A lot of them were removed with the change from 4 to 3.5 ft/s clearance times was considered to be the tipping point. Denver removed theirs with the coming of light rail because the combined impacts of both would cause auto traffic to gridlock.

    • Rosa May 5, 2015 at 9:30 pm #

      Denver enforces on drivers who stop blocking crosswalks, don’t they?

      It is just endlessly frustrating to be waiting for cars to go through AFTER you’ve pushed a beg button, when your bus or train is going to leave without you. And at least with the trains it ought to be easy to fix it so that doesn’t happen. (And then maybe fix the stupid slow ticket machines too…)

    • Nathanael May 11, 2015 at 11:37 am #

      Well that’s just ridiculous. Exclusive pedestrian phases are a good thing, and doing away with them in the name of faster auto (deathmobile) traffic is… insane.

      This is a pretty obvious location for an exclusive pedestrian phase, all day long. The super-wide streets, and turning auto traffic, make it rather problematic to cross with the lights anyway. Sure, grade separation (sink the Snelling cars under University) would be better, but it’s hundreds of times more expensive.

  3. Monica Millsap Rasmussen
    Monica Rasmussen May 5, 2015 at 2:34 pm #

    All of the Green Line intersections are disorienting to cross. Many people realized this during the Snelling Walkability study, but few take the time to think about how that should affect future design. I think the best thing that could come out of tragedies like this is to consider future development and design and learn from previous mistakes. We should consider how adding too much stimulus to intersections is neither traffic calming nor safe for pedestrians. We should consider designs that allow pedestrians to clearly see their environment as well as designs that allow drivers to clearly see pedestrians, or other cars. (I think of the other highly stimulating, and dangerous/deadly intersection in St Paul as being the very active business area and tree lined median intersection at Macalester…as a pedestrian, I feel completely camouflaged to any car and risk my life when I finally decide to pop out of hiding.)

    Bridges or tunnels, even if they aren’t always used, at least give pedestrians options. But, it doesn’t necessarily need to be pedestrians that are tunneled- one proposal I heard during the planning phase was tunneling cars that were going through or giving them ramps to get them to the cross streets at Snelling/University in order to ease the impact of high traffic at that intersection.

    Somewhere, somehow, sometime, when we are acting on behalf of the public and talking about what safety should look like, we need to get out of the box of thinking that the only thing that makes pedestrians safe is slow traffic driving in narrow lanes. Safety is so much more than that with so many other factors in place.

  4. Nick Magrino
    Nick Magrino May 5, 2015 at 6:13 pm #

    Really great post.

    A bit tangential, but stuff like this (along with the signal timing issues) does balance out the “Ridership Projections Exceeded by Eleventy Billion Percent!” headlines a bit. If the ridership had been forecasted more accurately, we probably could have considered some grade separation more seriously. The U of M was the big one, but I believe Snelling and University (the busiest intersection in the state!) had also originally been looked at for grade separation.

    • Adam Froehlig
      Adam Froehlig May 6, 2015 at 7:50 am #

      Yes, Snelling and University (not the busiest, BTW) was considered for some sort of grade separation…I’m not sure why it was dropped, but my first guess would be cost (which is why the U of M tunnel was dropped).

      A grade separation here should have been a no-brainer. Whether it was separating Snelling Ave through traffic (idea dates to the ’60s) or dropping the LRT underneath the intersection (the 1991 version of the Green Line proposed this), something should’ve been done.

      About a year ago, after I first discovered Streetmix, I came up with a concept of what University might look like at Snelling had the Green Line been run underground. In this example (looking west from the east side of the intersection), the “Transit Shelter” on the left represents station access, while the “Bike rack/Wayfinding” on the right is the equivalent to a NiceRideMN station.

        • Adam Froehlig
          Adam Froehlig May 7, 2015 at 8:38 pm #

          Yeah, I’ve seen that, and I’d say that source is a bit suspect. For starters, it dates to 2007. Second, MnDOT’s own traffic figures show University/Lexington as busier than University/Snelling. Hwy 55/Xenium in Plymouth is also busier, as is 55/Fernbrook on the other side of 494. There’s also 65/109th up in Blaine.

      • Matt Steele May 8, 2015 at 11:04 am #

        At this point, if there could be grade separation at Snelling/University, it would be most cost effective to leave the LRT at grade. I could see a tunnel for Snelling under University/Green Line working well, so long as there would be no impacts to building frontage. Access between the two could happen via Spruce Tree and possibly a new street as the SE corner redevelops. This could also work well as we try to calm Snelling south of 94 and connect Ayd Mill to 94 (the better road for better street trade).

  5. Joe Ward May 5, 2015 at 6:42 pm #

    It might be good to look into planning on grade separated improvements for the busiest green line stations. What would it take to construct an underground or aboveground station where trains and pedestrians are both not in conflict with vehicle traffic? The intersections along University are too complicated and I agree that there needs to be a more thoughtful approach towards common sense usability for all users. For instance, left turning vehicles are dealt a very difficult environment to navigate safely and I have been caught by surprise both walking and driving by cars or pedestrians trying to make it through the intersection. I think Snelling in particular should have the money spent on removal of trains from the surface domain of traffic. The human lives saved alone would be worth what I can only guess as a high price tag of such a project and time savings for trains not waiting to cross the intersection would be beneficial as well.

  6. Alex Schieferdecker
    Alex Schieferdecker May 6, 2015 at 4:02 pm #

    Great post. I usually shop at the Midway Rainbow, after taking the Green Line from the west. Getting off the westbound platform headed east requires a weirdly long walk, and I usually just watch for a break in the traffic and hop the barrier. Not safe pedestrian behavior, but I know I’m not the only one to do it.

    Coming back from the store, I can see the train across the parking lot. Sometimes I’m close enough that I feel I could make it by running, but I know from experience with that intersection that I will never make it. It’s nonetheless frustrating to have to wait for another ten minutes when the train is just three lanes (of rushing traffic) away.

    A pedestrian scramble at that intersection is badly needed. In my mind, that’s the only reasonable solution for this intersection, otherwise, as you say, the architecture strongly encourages trying to beat the system.

  7. James Oliver Smith Jr May 7, 2015 at 4:47 am #

    I am all for improving signage and pedestrian walk markings, but I am also for pedestrians paying attention. There are signs and there lights and there are walkway markings. It doesn’t take a PhD in civil engineering to navigate the traffic signals and platform ramps on the Green Line. I am on the Green Line everyday multiple times and am frequently crossing most of the intersections along University Avenue throughout the week. I am constantly amazed at the blatant disregard pedestrians exhibit for their own safety and the safety of others:
    1. running diagonally across an intersection to get to get to a train pulling up to a platform.
    2. Walking on the tracks to get to a platform, even when there is a walkway adjacent to the track.
    3. crossing two lanes of traffic, a track, a post and chain barrier, another track and another two lanes of traffic just to cross the street, not even to get to a platform
    4. sitting on a platform with feet dangling over the edge
    5. crossing from platform to platform, which includes jumping a post and chain barrier at split platform stations (Stadium Village, Fairview Avenue, Rice Street Capital, Robert Street, 10th Street, Central)
    6. crossing from the curb to a center island platform across traffic lanes and the track to the platform (West Bank, East Bank, Prospect Park, Nicollet Mall, etc).
    7. Standing between two tracks while waiting for a traffic signal to change.
    8. Crossing against the light to cross two lanes of traffic and two tracks to get to a platform.

    All of these behaviors are done intentionally while knowing full well laws are being broken. It doesn’t matter how good the signage and walkway markings are, if people are willing to violate laws and put themselves in danger to get to a train that comes through every ten minutes all one can do is let Darwinian laws improve the intelligence, or at least the attention, of the species. These behaviors are not limited to careless kids. I’ve seen professionals in suits and women with children do all of these things. All races, classes and genders are being careless around light rail trains.

    Boston’s streetcar-based Green Line, the most heavily used light rail system in the United States, has two branches that are very similar in structure to the Metro Transit Green Line, at least where the Boston Green Line trains operate outside of the downtown tunnels. The Cleveland Circle Line and the Boston College line both move along medians. There are no platforms, ramps, shelters or even walkway markings and they service around 40,000-50,000 boardings per day for each of the 5 lines (220,000 total boardings a day). The Metro Transit Green Line is already one of the busiest light rail lines in the United States, approaching 40,000 boardings a day (64,000/day for Metro Transit light rail system). There are pedestrians hit by Boston’s Green Line trains but nowhere with the frequency of pedestrians hit by cars in the same corridors. Boston’s Green Line also has many signs saying “Eyes Up Phones Down.” Distracted walkers are definitely a problem here in the Twin Cities, but most of what I am seeing is just people knowingly taking chances.

    A lot of what the Twin Cities metro area is experiencing is just inexperience. Actually, only two deaths over the past year for a line that services a million boardings a month is quite good.

    I would love to have tunnels on the Green Line, but construction costs for new subway systems at today’s construction costs are around 1 billion dollars a mile. I don’t see where there is any legislative patience for a 10 billion dollar price tag for a Central Corridor subwayline.

    … The Bard of Franklin Avenue …