We Must Do More to Improve Hiawatha Avenue Crossings

It is time to stop letting the highway standards dictate pedestrian safety improvements along Hiawatha Avenue. Anyone who has crossed Hiawatha Avenue on foot or by bicycle knows it’s a pretty rough go. Even with an actual walk signal illuminated the experience feels like taking your life in your hands, and I constantly rubberneck to be sure I’m not about to be run down. While the popular operation of light rail along Hiawatha for eight years running is surely a victory, the pedestrian realm has not kept up.

The good news is as a result of the Minnehaha-Hiawatha planning initiative, Hennepin County believes they have the funding to make some improvements to the crosswalks. Representatives from Hennepin County attended the Standish-Ericsson Neighborhood Association’s Business, Development and Transportation committee meeting last week to present initial plans for several crosswalks across Hiawatha, including 38th, 42nd and 46th Streets (38th Street is shown below). Crosswalks will be wider, crossing distances will be shorter due to curb bumpouts and wider turn lane islands, center medians will be larger to allow for refuge, and crossing signals will be longer to allow for safer crossing. While these changes are welcome, we must demand more.

Here are the additional changes I propose:

Crosswalks should follow a “continuous path” of the sidewalk on either side. In other words, a pedestrian approaching an intersection on the sidewalk should be able to cross the street in a straight line and continue on the sidewalk on the other side. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) recommends a continuous path whenever possible. Furthermore, the Minneapolis Pedestrian Plan Design Guidelines clearly show a “continuous path” in its recommended crosswalk examples. Even the Pedestrian Design Guide for Portland, Oregon, from the 1990s, recommends this. Unfortunately the current and proposed crosswalk along the south side of 38th Street does not follow a continuous path; it is offset a considerable distance to the south (see image above). The reason for the proposed change calls for it to remain offset is to reduce the crossing distance across the street. However, the elephant in the room, the real reason, is the state highway regulation that keeps the radius of the curb large (a wide curb angle). This pushing the crosswalk landing around the corner to the south, and doing so compromises pedestrian safety because a crosswalk around the corner is farther to the side of a driver’s field of peripheral vision. That means a vehicle turning right may not see a person entering the crosswalk. Therefore….

Reduce the curb radius at corners. The proposed curb radius is 40 feet (allowing for a very wide turn) is presumably the current state highway standard. There is no reason why a pedestrian zone adjacent to light rail stations should have curb radii built to the same standard as the suburban and rural areas. The primary reasoning for a wide turning radius is to allow trucks to turn right without hopping the curb and not swerving in to oncoming traffic. The few trucks turning from eastbound 38th Street to southbound Hiawatha have two lanes to work with in both street sections without impeding oncoming traffic. Some cities have turning radii of as little as 5 feet (a sharp corner). I suspect there is a middle ground that allows for trucks to turn safely but sharpens the corner and allows the aforementioned crosswalk to follow a continuous path. Smaller curb radii overall result in shorter crossing distances for pedestrians, a solution the county is seeking already through this process. Making these corners sharper helps this cause.

Reconfigure the right turn slip lanes. As shown in the image below, reconfiguring the right turn lane and related island could help pedestrian safety. As the image shows, a minor shift of the angle at which vehicles approach the turn and make the turn places the pedestrian crosswalk closer to the center of the driver’s peripheral vision. Doing so improves pedestrian safety. Nearly all of the intersections in question along Hiawatha have these turn lanes and islands, so the change could apply to multiple locations. Certainly eliminating right turn lanes and islands entirely would be the best solution for pedestrian safety, but the reconfiguration would be very beneficial.

Right Turn Slip Lane

Walk signals must be automatic. One of the true disappointments about the new traffic signals being installed along Hiawatha is the “actuation” feature. Effectively, every single light phase must be actuated. The unfortunate result is a vehicle rolling up to a red light automatically trips the actuator simply by reaching the intersection – the driver need not do anything extra. A pedestrian, however, must “apply” to cross the street (a bicycle must also apply because they aren’t heavy enough to set off the actuator) by pushing the button. I don’t know about you, but this doesn’t sit well with me. Technology does exist called proximity detectors that can “see” the presence of a pedestrian. The reason I’m given for why a pedestrian must press the button to “apply” to cross the street is the increased signal timing for crosswalks would, if a pedestrian was not present, make the signal phasing too long if a pedestrian wasn’t present. If the message we are trying to send is pedestrians are second-class to vehicles, then this is an acceptable answer. But pedestrians are not, particularly near light rail stations and bike routes cross Hiawatha. Perhaps proximity detectors are the answer, but pedestrians and cyclists must be on equal footing.

Restore the crosswalk along the south side of 46th Street. Come on, this should be a no-brainer. If the city and other public entities are really serious about TOD, there must be full crosswalks to access the transit in question. By far the best long-term development site is the southeast quadrant of 46th Street and Hiawatha, but what developer is going to seriously look at this location when the pedestrian crossing is truncated? The city is effectively leaving millions of dollars of taxable development potential on the table. The reason they eliminated the crosswalk (ironically right after light rail began operating) is there are two left turn lanes and something had to give. Well, now is the time to restore it, since, if the new signals being installed along Hiawatha are truly so smart, the left turn signal ought to be able to be smart enough to stay green until left turning traffic clears (and would have the added benefit of a longer walk signal for the north crosswalk).

Plant some trees. Those new green areas created by the curb bumpouts? Plant some trees. Real trees. Trees that will provide shade one day. The plantings from the Hiawatha reconstruction in the early 1990s are an embarrassment. While technically trees, in 20 years they have not grown in to a canopy and never will. Of course this was the intention of the highway department at the time, and likely still is. But the presence of light rail, pedestrians, cyclists and people now actually living along Hiawatha is a new reality, and trees are simply part and parcel of a healthy urban environment.

Why do we need to do this? Well sure enough, the morning following the Hennepin County presentation at our neighborhood meeting, I was pulling my youngest son in the bike trailer and riding next to my oldest on his own bike on our way to do our daily daycare/school dropoff routine. As we approached Hiawatha Avenue at 38th Street, a car turning from eastbound 38th to southbound Hiawatha took the corner at a high rate of speed (at least 20 MPH) because that damn curb radius is so great. Lo and behold, as we were about to enter offset crosswalk itself I looked back over my shoulder and a small bus was swinging around the corner. As we entered his field of vision, he had to stop abruptly short of the crosswalk so we could enter it and continue across.

You see, the proposed crosswalk improvements don’t do enough to improve pedestrian safety, largely because they are still beholden to highway regulations. I’m not speaking for just my own safety here, or even my kids. Hundreds of people cross each day at all of these streets, and if we are to spend public dollars to improve the safety of these crossings, we must insist they are done in a way that actually maximizes public safety. Continuing to bow to state highway regulations in an urban setting is not acceptable.

While it is true that all of these changes and more should have been made in 2004 when light rail went in, the fact is it has been eight years and in a time of scarce public resources we cannot let this opportunity pass to do the right thing now.

Sam Newberg

About Sam Newberg

Sam Newberg, a.k.a. Joe Urban, is an urbanist, real estate consultant and writer. He lives in Minneapolis with his wife and two kids, and his website is www.joe-urban.com.

10 thoughts on “We Must Do More to Improve Hiawatha Avenue Crossings

  1. pedro

    Great post, Sam, and nice recommendations. I just proposed to the Minneapolis PAC Infrastructure and Engineering Subcommittee chair that we support these changes before the County.

    1. Sam NewbergSam Newberg Post author

      Pedro, who are you and who is the chair? Please forward my post to the entire committee if possible. Thanks.

  2. Reuben CollinsReuben Collins

    FYI, one of the lead articles in the September 2012 edition of the ITE Journal is called Determining the Ideal Location for Pedestrian Crosswalks at Signalized Intersections by Georges Jacquemart, P.E., AICP. He spends much time extolling the virtues of "recessed crosswalks", and promotes them largely as a safety feature. Based on this article, the crosswalks Hennepin County is proposing aren't recessed enough (he recommends approximately one car-length from the curb line of the cross street). The safety benefits are assumed, rather than empirical, but I tend to agree with his conclusions.

    1. Faith

      Reuben, I found the article that you mentioned, and the author seems to assume that motorists will slow down after rounding a corner, not speed up. As Sam described above, motorists generally speed up when rounding the corner only to have to halt abruptly once they finally see pedestrians trying to cross. I would argue that this represents empirical evidence of recessed intersections causing safety problems, not solving them.

      The author's assumptions also go against the recommendations from the ITE Designing Walkable Urban Thoroughfares Manual (Page 178 has a diagram on site distances), which encourage bump outs to increase pedestrian visibility.

      I don't know about you, but I find it easiest to look for pedestrians while I'm waiting at a stop light or when I'm slowing down to make a turn, not while I'm trying to increase my speed after turning.

      1. Reuben CollinsReuben Collins

        Well, i don't see any conflict between bumpouts and sight distances and recessed crosswalks. I don't know if recessed crosswalks are or aren't safer, I'm just saying that it is not universally agreed that having a crosswalk set back from the intersection is a bad idea. In addition, it's standard practice when designing roundabouts to provide a cars length between the circulating lane and the crosswalk. Do you disagree with this practice as well?

        1. Sam NewbergSam Newberg Post author

          The standard practice for roundabouts makes total sense, since there is no way to establish a "continuous path" for the sidewalks anyway. I still feel the best way to design a standard intersection is with continuous paths, placing pedestrians as close to the action as possible. While this increases the number of potential conflicts, I feel the importance of putting pedestrians on equal footing with vehicles on our streets trumps reducing conflicts – it is more of a philosophical argument. And it is more of an educational process among drivers to watch for pedestrians.

          What I like about that article's example in Tokyo is with the recessed crosswalk it is still a very large, bold, easy to see crosswalk. Too often our traffic engineers design intersections for cars with the crosswalks as an afterthought. In the Tokyo example the crosswalk is given something closer to equal billing, and this is an important distinction.

          What would our streets look like if we designed them first for pedestrians, then added the vehicle?

    2. Sam NewbergSam Newberg Post author

      Very interesting read. I see his points, but at 38th we have a semi-recessed crosswalk and a large curb radii, allowing drivers to reach a dangerously fast speed rounding the corner before pedestrians enter the field of vision. A squarer corner and perpendicular rights-of-way give creedence to the recessed corner idea, but I don't think it's best for Hiawatha.

Comments are closed.