Breaking the Law to Mail a Letter, or, Being a Pedestrian in America and Abroad

MINNEAPOLIS, Minnesota, USA

It was Saturday afternoon and I needed to mail a letter to Japan. Most post offices close at 1 p.m. on Saturday, but I figured at least one would be open. Minneapolis is a big city after all, right?

The USPS website directed me to the following branch, open until 11 p.m. on Saturday. What great news!

US Post Office
TWIN CITIES
5001 NORTHWEST DR
SAINT PAUL, MN 551113032 (map)
There was a catch. This post office branch is located at the Minneapolis-St. Paul Airport (MSP). The thought of 10 miles of highway driving and dealing with airport parking seemed more trouble than it was worth. So I grabbed a book and my Metropass, hopped on a bus to Downtown, and caught the Blue Line to the airport. Upon arriving at Terminal 1 Lindbergh Station (map), I re-checked the directions; according to Google Maps, it would be an easy 6-minute walk to the post office. I headed out the door and could instantly see the USPS eagle logo across the way.
incorrect-walking-direction-msp-airport-to-post-office

Incorrect walking directions.

 

terminal-1-lindbergh-station-curb

The USPS eagle logo, as seen from the curb of the terminal station.

 The Google Map directions proved to be inaccurate, so I improvised, making my way past a low building that led to the a wide stretch of pavement. This was the exit for the airport’s main parking garage. I was encouraged by the clearly marked crosswalk painted on the ground. Few cars were exiting the gates, so I easily made it across. At the end of the crosswalk I reached a two-lane road with cars whipping by at near-highway speed. There was no crosswalk, no bridge, and no discernible option for getting to the post office by foot.
The promising crosswalk in front of the airport parking payment gates would lead to a (legal) dead-end.

The promising crosswalk in front of the airport parking payment gates would lead to a (legal) dead-end.

 One thing was clear: a sign on the edge of the road that read: “No Pedestrian Crossing per order of Airport Police” (or something to this effect. I didn’t take a picture of it for fear of being arrested. I’m a bit of a coward in this regard. In the post-9-11 world, I’m terrified of taking photographs of airports, police officers, oil tankers, or anything that could conceivably be construed as an act of pre-terrorism. I recall an Australian tourist who told me that his camera was confiscated by police in New York City for taking photographs of the George Washington Bridge).
The path described by the yellow and red lines is 350 meters. The red section is just 75 feet, and is both dangerous and illegal to cross.

The path described by the yellow and red lines is 350 meters. The red section is just 75 feet, and is both dangerous and illegal to cross.

I’m a law-abiding man, but I’m also a stubborn man of principle, especially when the principal in question is my right to move from Point A to Point B using my feet. Here I was, standing a stone’s throw away from the post office, and there was no safe or legal way to get there. I had traveled 10 miles from my apartment, a 50-minute trip via public transportation. I wasn’t about to turn back because of a mere 75 feet deemed uncrossable by airport police. To avoid breaking the law I suppose I could have hired a taxi, but I doubt they would have taken such a cheap fare. I elected to break the law, of course.

After a few moments, a gap in the traffic appeared and I sprinted across the road. When I reached the post office I  felt covered by a veil of suspicion, as if my lawless pedestrian ways would be detected by the car-driving staff and customers. After mailing the letter I went back outside and re-crossed the road, breaking the law for a second time.

It is frustrating that the only post office open on Saturday afternoon in the Twin Cities is inaccessible to people without cars. It is even more frustrating knowing that it would be accessible were it not for a stretch of just 75 feet. This “transit gap” is one of the most egregious I’ve ever encountered.

The issue of pedestrian safety and the “right to walk” has been gaining attention over the years. Stories like mine are an annoyance to people who enjoy walking and have a preference for public transportation. However, such stories can become a matter of life and death for low-income people who cannot afford a car and must live car-free in a car-oriented world. In an infamous case, a mother was convicted of vehicular homicide for “letting” her 4-year-old son get killed by a drunk driver:

 “A 30-year-old woman in Marietta, Georgia was convicted of vehicular homicide this week – and she wasn’t even driving a car. The woman was crossing the street with her three children when a driver, who had been drinking, hit and killed her four-year-old. The driver, Jerry Guy, was initially charged with “hit and run, first degree homicide by vehicle and cruelty to children,” Elise Hitchcock of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported. “Charges were later dropped to just the hit and run charge.’” Source:  Georgia Mom Convicted of Vehicular Homicide For Crossing Street With Kids, Streetsblog USA, July 14, 2011

The United States is a strange place.

We have so many safety rules and regulations, yet we seem intent on making walking as difficult and as dangerous as possible. Much of the blame obviously lies at the feet (or tires) of our car culture. But some blame should be attributed to our inability to accept low-tech, provisional solutions. For example, in a developing country, the solution to crossing a small creek would be to lay a piece of scrap wood across the water. In the United States we would have committee meetings, environment impact studies, consultation with ADA standards, and ultimately the project would be deemed unfeasible. All this, when a single piece of wood can do the trick.

Granted, this is a bit of a straw man, but I believe there is some truth in it. Furthermore, I have seen examples of makeshift pedestrian solutions that would never be found in today’s United States.

HANOI, VIETNAM

Vietnam is famous for its dense motorbike traffic. Many pedestrian crossings lack stop lights, and people wade across multiple lanes of traffic, comfortable in the knowledge that the drivers are aware of them and are expecting them to cross. During my visit to Hanoi I was initially terrified of crossing the street, but I soon got the hang of it and found it to be fun. In the following example, the traffic is lighter than usual, but it’s easy to focus on the single pedestrian as she calmly navigates within feet of the moving vehicles.

Hanoi Crossing

I don’t advocate Vietnamese traffic patterns – in fact, I anticipate they will pose a major challenge for the country as motorbikes are replaced with automobiles – however, I include this to illustrate that the behavior of vehicles towards pedestrians is markedly different in Vietnam compared with the United States. When I was at the airport in Minneapolis-St. Paul, crossing that 75-foot road was a somewhat reckless act because the cars were not expecting me. In Vietnam, crossing the road would have been far easier.

Another amusing example of pedestrian life in Hanoi can be seen in the two pictures below. This ladder is part of the path recommended to me by Google Maps when I asked it for the most direct route to my hotel. I laughed when I saw the spindly iron ladder hanging from a concrete wall. I tugged on the ladder to test its strength, then merrily scaled the wall – all in the spirit of adventure and research. Even this mini-adventure was safer than what I experienced at MSP airport.

Hanoi Ladder

TOKYO, JAPAN

Japan, which is far more modernized than Vietnam, also has its share of low-tech solutions to pedestrian access. In a previous post I wrote about the tunnel near Shinagawa where most are forced to duck.

shinagawa-tunnel-man-ducking-cropped

Similarly, just east of peaceful Senzokuike Station 洗足池駅 (map), there is a footpath that passes directly under the train tracks. The clearance is quite low, maybe 5 feet, so you have to crouch to pass through the short distance. Furthermore, the only “ceiling” separating you from the passing trains is a thin metal grate and the railroad ties above it; this made it especially exciting to stand under the tracks as trains passed by. Despite the spartan appearance and awkwardness of crouching, this path gets plenty of use due to its convenience. Like the ladder in Hanoi, it stands out as something unlikely to exist in modern America.

 

Tokyo Tunnel

FIRST CLASS COUNTRY

When it comes to walkability and public transportation, the United States is embarrassingly far behind most “first world” countries. And developing countries, too. For instance, the subway from the airport to the center of Bangkok is far better than anything New York City airports have to offer. Given America’s abundant, flat land, it is understandable that sprawling, car-oriented suburbs would grow at the expense of public transit investment. But what isn’t understandable is why American road builders go to such lengths to make walking difficult. Walking is one of the most simple activities in the world. Yet so often in this country it is more difficult than driving a car.

Why do I need a car to mail a letter?

Links & more:

Injustice at the Intersection, DISSENT, December 18, 2014

Pedestrians Dying at Disproportionate Rates in America’s Poorer Neighborhoods, GOVERNING, August 2014

Atlanta: Unsafe at Any Speed; Transit Fatality Raises Issues of Race, Poverty and Transportation Justice, By Laurel Paget-Seekins (2012)

Editor’s note: This post first appeared on the author’s blog, I See American People

 


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24 Responses to Breaking the Law to Mail a Letter, or, Being a Pedestrian in America and Abroad

  1. Justin November 28, 2015 at 12:07 pm #

    I think we as a nation tend to make the perfect the enemy of the good, especially with anything related to safety or infrastructure or transportation. If something isn’t the perfect solution that makes everyone happy…then it gets derailed by fighting or changed so dramatically that it doesn’t really resemble the original vision. Or we overdo it, making something so safe that it isn’t usable. The airport situation in this article is a case where in order to not risk someone getting hit by a car, we make much of the walking completely illegal or impossible.

    • Rosa November 29, 2015 at 9:45 am #

      except we don’t make the perfect the enemy of the good when it comes to car access – I’ve been on plenty of backcountry gravel and dirt roads, and very rarely is there a “ILLEGAL TO DRIVE” sign on a public road unless it’s actively unsafe (like being undercut by a river.)

  2. Evan Roberts
    Evan November 28, 2015 at 2:52 pm #

    The Humphrey terminal, sorry Terminal 2, is surprisingly accessible on foot. Maybe they should relocate the post office there.

  3. Ray Marshall November 29, 2015 at 8:55 am #

    What would have been so difficult about driving to the airport on a Saturday afternoon? I have always found USPS parking largely unused. Walk right in, sit right down, etc. In the good old days they used to be open 24 hours.

    With respect to moving the post office for three walkers a day??????

    Were you expecting overnight delivery to Japan? What with the Int’l Date Line, the absolute best you could expect would be Tuesday (our time) and probably a day or two later.

    • Rosa November 29, 2015 at 9:45 am #

      How can you know how many people would walk there if it were less impossible? Using the number of people who manage to walk there when it’s dangerous and signed as illegal is not at all a fair way of measuring demand.

    • Nathanael December 1, 2015 at 11:00 am #

      “What would have been so difficult about driving to the airport on a Saturday afternoon?”

      Renting a car to do so?!?!? If he doesn’t have a driver’s license (and lots of people do not and should not — for instance, people with seizure disorders should not –) then hiring a taxi?!?!

      Not everyone owns a car; not everyone can drive. If you are willing to provide free cars, free gasoline, and free limousine drivers to everyone, then sure, everyone can drive.

      I think it would be cheaper to make a pedestrian crossing.

      There’s actually a 14th amendment violation here. Unfortunately, the people being discriminated against are also less likely to be able to afford *lawyers* to sue over this….

  4. Alex November 30, 2015 at 1:13 pm #

    It is annoying that you can’t get to that post office by foot. The easiest legal way to get there without owning a car is probably to take an Uber or other cab (are they allowed on airport grounds?), or if you use Car2Go you can actually pick one up at the Fort Snelling P&R and make a quick trip of it that way. I do wonder if a cab driver at Terminal 1 would refuse such a short trip (and of course you’d also have to make him wait for you to return you to the terminal).

    However, the main post office in Downtown Minneapolis also has pretty good hours (although not as late as the airport office) and of course is much more pedestrian-friendly. That’s usually my go-to if I need to mail something a bit later than usual.

  5. Kyle November 30, 2015 at 4:12 pm #

    1430 Concordia Ave, St Paul, MN 55104 is open until 3:30pm.

    1326 Randolph Ave, St Paul, MN 55105 is open until 9pm (inside Korte’s grocery store).

  6. GlowBoy November 30, 2015 at 5:05 pm #

    I’ve frequently used airport post offices (in Mpls, Seattle and Portland) to mail letters when other post offices were closed. Sometimes it’s about timeliness in either mail delivery or postmarking (April 15, anyone?), but at least it’s as often that I have business that requires me to visit an *open* post office. But for a lot of people, most post offices are only open during the hours that they have to be at work themselves. So the evening (or late-night) airport option is often a great one.

    The number of people who’d use the pedestrian facility is irrelevant. It’s simply wrong for the place to be inaccessible to pedestrians. This is no different than building ADA compliant crossings even where few if any disabled people use them. Allowing access by automobile – a privilege – and denying access by foot – a *right* – is a violation of the Equal Protection clause of the Constitution.

    There are other pedestrian-unfriendly issues in that part of town:

    – The inaccessibility of Terminal 1 by bike or foot without using LRT. I discovered this a few months ago when my flight arrived late at night, behind schedule and at a time that forced me to wait AN HOUR for a train out of the terminal. I live 3 miles from the airport and could have walked all the way home in that time, if there were a (direct) path. I know it will be expensive and won’t happen overnight, but MAC really needs to fix this unacceptable situation, and provide paths out from the terminal to the Post Road and Fort Snelling areas. This could actually be great regional trail connection, linking Fort Snelling to the MOA area, the I-494 bike path over the river and the new Intercity Trail, so maybe someday they could work with Three Rivers and MnDOT to make it happen.

    – I discovered earlier this year that you cannot legally walk between the Mall of America and IKEA (at least not without circling all the way east to 34th Avenue, then north to American Boulevard and back west to IKEA’s *north* side). The signalized intersection at Lindau Lane does not allow pedestrian movements in *ANY* direction. I had taken the #515 bus to the Mall, did some shopping there, intending to then shop at IKEA and take the #5 home from there.

    • GlowBoy November 30, 2015 at 5:07 pm #

      Oops, hit Reply before finishing … so I ended up trudging across sidewalk-free islands in the snow, then dashing across at a green light. “No Pedestrians” signs at every physically possible means of crossing. Just disgusting.

      It maybe that you can walk from the mall to IKEA now that the new hotel is open, and bridges Lindau Lane. I’ll have to try it soon.

    • Monte Castleman
      Monte Castleman November 30, 2015 at 5:38 pm #

      I guess I wasn’t aware that the Supreme Court of the US ruled that not granting pedestrian access to every building was a violation of the Equal Protection Clause. When was this ruling?

      • GlowBoy November 30, 2015 at 9:13 pm #

        So unconstitutional things don’t *become* unconstitutional unless the Supremes have ruled it so?

        Last I checked, this history of this country is littered with examples of people demanding that government recognize the unconstitutionality of the status quo, (even when the vast majority of people, lacking vision, don’t recognize it as a problem or shrug “that’s just the way it is”), fighting for years or even decades before finally winning in court. Gay-marriage bans were already unconstitutional before SCOTUS ruled on them; the legal system just didn’t officially recognize it until then.

        And to go back to the actual content of the issue: In my view, failing to grant equal access to pedestrians to EVERY public building and EVERY public transportation corridor (notice I didn’t say “road”) amounts is a denial of rights to one class of citizens (pedestrians) while granting them to another class of citizens (drivers).

        This is particularly egregious when people in the privileged class are exercising a revocable privilege – in essence, they do not have an innate *right* to be in that class – while while those in the denied class are in fact exercising their Ninth Amendment *right* to travel.

        I’m not a lawyer and don’t need to be. I have enough knowledge of our Constitutional framework to know an outrage when I see one. Governments need to stop providing nonexistent or severely substandard pedestrian facilities. Period.

        You can keep laughing at my invocation of the 14th, but I know I’m right, and I’m going to keep bringing it up. Over and over and over again. When enough others join me (and they will), the powers will fight me. And I will win.

        • Wayne November 30, 2015 at 9:55 pm #

          I’m right there with you. I have no idea how this state of affairs has been able to continue so long without legal challenge, but it makes me angry and depressed. The fact that they will clear roads within hours after a snowfall and sidewalks can remain impassable the entire winter is a ridiculous violation of the ADA. But I guess there’s not a lot of money or visibility for these kinds of issues, since we barely get a few ADA rebuilds of corners downtown while streets like Franklin have appallingly unusable sidewalks that are allowed to remain untouched for decades.

          • Nathanael December 1, 2015 at 11:10 am #

            It took about 10 years of ADA advocates fighting cities in court to get a clear ruling that cities are required to make their sidewalks ADA-accessible during repairs, and required to maintain them in an accessible state. I forget what year we got a clear ruling, but it was early 2000s. Since then, cities have STILL been dragging their feet.

            If you get a road repair or resurfacing and the city doesn’t make the sidewalks and street corners ADA-compliant when they do the road repair, the city is in violation of the ADA. This is now very very clear since a serious of court rulings against various cities for exactly this.

            Keep an eye out for planned illegal road repairs. You can sue to force the city to repair the sidewalks.

            I don’t know of a specific case fining a city for clearing roads but not sidewalks. It will happen soon enough; it’s pretty obvious from the existing cases how the courts will rule if someone decides to make a federal case of it.

            • Wayne December 1, 2015 at 12:09 pm #

              Unfortunately they seem to have gotten pretty good at finding loopholes and technicalities, like defining road projects differently to claim they don’t have to do anything about the sidewlak. Or their other fun option, which is letting the road completely fall apart too so they can avoid dealing with the sidewalk issue.

              Also unfortunately, I’m neither a lawyer nor do I have the kind of dispoable income to hire one. I’m also not disabled, so I probably wouldn’t even have standing to bring a case if I wanted to. Do you know if there’s a group interested in filing ADA suits that I can notify of these issues? I would fill their inbox in a hot minute if I knew who to send these things to that would and could do something about it.

              Writing to 311 or the city is less than useless because they want to make these things go away without spending any time or money on it, so it’s obviously going to take lawsuits or viable threats thereof to get them to spend money on anything (unless it’s a stadium or a project related to a stadium, I guess).

              I don’t suppose you have the case law or ruling handy for that particular decision about resurfacing requiring ADA compliance do you? I’d love to drop that in some emails to the city to see if it piques their interest next time I see a road project ignoring the sidewalk.

      • Nathanael December 1, 2015 at 11:04 am #

        It’s been repeatedly ruled that discriminating against poor people in the provision of access to public services (“getting in the door”) is a violation of the Equal Protection clause. Particularly because black people are more likely to be poor, so this is discrimination against black people. Discrimination against disabled people has been illegal since the ADA was passed. Disabled people are also more likely to be poor (due to medical expenses, inability to work, etc.)

        Now, people who have less money are more likely to not have access to a car or public transportation. But they can walk (or roll their wheelchair). Making it impossible for them to access public services by requiring a car to get there is discrimination.

        This would be an easy case to win.

        Now, not *every* building would be subject to this, because the caselaw on private buildings is much less clear. But the Post Office is undeniably a public service.

        • Nathanael December 1, 2015 at 11:05 am #

          P.S. Glowboy is correct that the “right to travel” has been recognized as a Constitutional right (a Ninth Amendment right).

          It doesn’t necessarily allow for travel by any particular means (so people can be prohibited from flying, driving, etc.), but walking has ALWAYS been considered to be an *absolute* right with respect to the right to travel.

  7. Bill November 30, 2015 at 5:07 pm #

    Perhaps next time you have an important letter, a little advance planning will be in order? There are obviously numerous neighborhood post offices you could have used the previous day that are much more accessible by foot. If the letter couldn’t wait until the next day, perhaps it was time to bite the bullet and use your car.

    Your parking complaint is irrelevant since the post office has its own lot and is extremely easy to get in and out. If you had explored a little further in your google search you would see the MSP Airport website states clearly that, “The Airport Mail Center (AMC) is not located within MSP’s facilities, and there is no access from either terminal to the AMC.”

    • Wayne November 30, 2015 at 10:00 pm #

      Ok what about people who don’t own a car or have a license? A car should never be a prerequisite to use a post office to mail a letter. That was the point. You can sit and judge and tell people they should have planned ahead or used their car, but that changes nothing about the fact that there is a post office that is not legally accessible without a car, thus excluding an entire portion of the population that cannot drive because of economic reasons or disability. That is not acceptable and if you think it is you’re on the wrong side of history and are basically fine with discrimination. So yeah, plan ahead next time you want to make a ridiculous statement like that maybe and bring your car.

    • Matt Steele
      Matt Steele December 4, 2015 at 7:11 pm #

      “The Airport Mail Center (AMC) not located within the plane of human existence, and there is no way to walk from anywhere to the AMC. If you do not drive, you do not exist.”

  8. GlowBoy November 30, 2015 at 5:13 pm #

    “Perhaps it was time to bite the bullet and use your car.”

    This presumes car ownership. It is time for society to abandon this mentality. Even in overwhelmingly car-dominant Minnesota, significant numbers of people are car free. I guess in Minnesota those people are mostly poor, but I don’t think it’s fair to say that poor people don’t sometimes have good reason to visit the post office at night.

    • Wayne November 30, 2015 at 10:04 pm #

      Don’t forget those who are disabled in a manner that prevents them from operating a car. Excluding them is almost certainly an ADA violation and that’s some federal fun to deal with.

  9. John Charles Wilson December 3, 2015 at 11:00 am #

    Thank you for posting this. I’ve always wondered about pedestrian access to that Post Office. Didin’t it used to be on the other side of the Airport? At least that’s what I think I remember from about 1990. Anyway, this would be a good place for a crosswalk with a “beg button”.

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