Splitting Hairs on Unmarked Crosswalks

I’m going to split a few hairs today. I hope you’ll indulge me. Take a look at the following image of a pretty typical minor T-intersection in a 2nd ring Twin Cities suburban community.

Typical Suburban T-Intersection.

The north/south roadway is a County State-Aid Highway carrying about 10,000 vehicles per day. The east/west roadway is a small cul-de-sac street serving eight single-family homes. The county roadway has an asphalt shared-use trail along the west side, and a concrete sidewalk along the east side. The cul-de-sac has no sidewalks. There are pedestrian ramps on the northwest and southwest corners. There are no pedestrian ramps on the east side of the county roadway at this location.

This roadway is relatively new, having been completely reconstructed within the past five years. Presumably, this intersection is compliant with current (as of five years ago) laws and policies regarding provision of pedestrian facilities.

Q: Where do marked crosswalks exist at this intersection?

A: There are none.

Q: Where do unmarked crosswalks exist at this intersection?

A: This is not clear. An unmarked crosswalk certainly exists across the west leg of the intersection, connecting the two segments of shared-use trail along the west side of the county roadway. However, whether unmarked crosswalks exist across the county roadway is debatable (and we know this because I’m about to debate it). On one hand, this poster from MnDOT used in the recent (and excellent) pedestrian safety campaign seems to immediately and clearly answer the question:

Every Corner is a Crosswalk?

On the other hand, I’ll admit that I am not the biggest fan of this particular poster from the campaign. Indulge me while I quote the definition of “crosswalk” from the Minnesota Statute 169.011:

Subd. 20. Crosswalk. “Crosswalk” means (1) that portion of a roadway ordinarily included with the prolongation or connection of the lateral lines of sidewalks at intersections; (2) any portion of a roadway distinctly indicated for pedestrian crossing by lines or other markings on the surface.

We know there is an unmarked crosswalk across the west leg of the intersection, because we can identify the prolongation or connection of the lateral lines of the trail (please set aside the question of whether a trail is a sidewalk or a sidewalk is a trail – we will not split that hair today). As I mentioned earlier, the cul-de-sac has no sidewalks. And this being a T-intersection, there are no east/west running sidewalks east of the county roadway. There are no lateral lines of sidewalks to connect across the county roadway, thus no unmarked crosswalk.

Of course, I’m no lawyer. If others can interpret this statute differently, I’d love to hear about it in the comments (can anyone provide a legal definition of “ordinarily”?).

Q: Where are vehicles legally required to stop for pedestrians at this intersection?

A: This is where the hair-splitting really starts getting interesting. Can you stomach one more quote from Minnesota Statute 169.21? (emphasis mine)

Subd. 2. Rights in absence of signal. (a) Where traffic-control signals are not in place or in operation, the driver of a vehicle shall stop to yield the right-of-way to a pedestrian crossing the roadway within a marked crosswalk or at an intersection with no marked crosswalk.

Note that the phrase “an intersection with no marked crosswalk” is fundamentally different than if it had said “an intersection with an unmarked crosswalk.” As I read it, it doesn’t matter if there is or isn’t an unmarked crosswalk across the county roadway. If it’s an unsignalized intersection, vehicles are required to stop to yield the right-of-way regardless of the presence of crosswalks (marked or unmarked), sidewalks, pedestrian ramps, or any other pedestrian indicator (except traffic control devices expressly prohibiting pedestrians).

I like the following MnDOT poster a lot more than the previous one:

Stop for Pedestrians at Every Corner.

Like I said, I’m really splitting hairs here. Does any of this matter (especially since the law is clear that vehicles have to yield regardless of the presence of a crosswalk)? I think it does. For example – why aren’t there pedestrian ramps on the east side of the intersection? If there is, in fact, an unmarked crosswalk across the county roadway in this location, shouldn’t there be an ADA compliant pedestrian ramp on the east side? Perhaps not if there is no unmarked crosswalk. That may be a question for another day.

30 thoughts on “Splitting Hairs on Unmarked Crosswalks

  1. hokan

    This difference ( crosswalk vs not at an intersection ) does make a difference to cyclists. Cyclists have the rights and duties of pedestrians on sidewalks and in crosswalks. That is, cyclists have the right of way in a crosswalk. Cyclists do not have the rights and duties of pedestrians at intersections.

    I suspect that this different treatment of cyclists is the reason for this oddness.

  2. Phil

    What about crossing mid block? Is it not true that pedestrians have the right of way at all times? Does this only apply to intersections? The way I had always thought it worked was that as soon as a pedestrian steps foot into the street, cars should stop.

    1. Reuben CollinsReuben Collins Post author

      Pedestrians are permitted to cross the roadway at any point they choose midblock except for locations where they are between two signalized intersections. Midblock crossing between two signalized intersections is limited only to marked crosswalks. However, pedestrians crossing mid-block where there are no crosswalks must yield to motorists. See MN Statute 169.21 (linked above) Subd. 3.

  3. Steven Vance

    I don't think you're splitting hairs. At some point there will be a crash and a case where a lawyer will need to test this.

    I wonder if the case could be made that the curb ramps on the west side of the highway, with their right-angle shape, could propagate (birth? push out?) an elongation of the sidewalk across the highway to the east side.

  4. Reuben CollinsReuben Collins Post author

    Yea, and that's kind of where I could use a lawyer to define "ordinarily" for us. We can all imagine where the sidewalk would be if there were one present. Is that enough to establish an unmarked crosswalk? I don't know.

  5. Faith

    It seems like 'Rights in absence of signal' permits pedestrians to cross at all intersections legally, regardless of crosswalk status. I agree that based on the definition of a crosswalk, there seems to be neither a marked nor an unmarked crosswalk. The lack of sidewalks on the cul-de-sac seems to put the unmarked crosswalk status in a questionable gray area.

    The design seems to put wheelchair users in a quandry: a wheelchair user can cross legally based on the fact that there is an intersection, yet once they reach the other side, a wheelchair user would have to travel on the road until reaching the next curb ramp.

    Adding curb ramps to the east side would clarify that there is an unmarked crosswalk. Somehow, I doubt the folks who designed this intersection pondered whether or not they met the criteria for an unmarked crosswalk.

  6. Aaron

    1. Check the legal definition of "sidewalk". (MN Statutes169.011(75)) It is the space between the property line of the street and the curb or edge of the roadway "intended for the use of pedestrians". It doesn't have to be paved. Assuming there is such a space, and there probably is, there are legal sidewalks along the cul-de-sac.

    2. The word "prolongation" is used in the definition of unmarked crosswalks so that they exist at T intersections when there isn't a corresponding sidewalk to connect to on the other side. So there is an unmarked crosswalk across the arterial here.

      1. Aaron

        Sure can. Other than the MN statute here: http://www.sauerburger.org/dona/roadrules.htm "We tend to think of sidewalks as paved walkways with curbs, but in Maryland it doesn't have to have a curb to be considered a sidewalk, and in one court case an unpaved 8-foot-wide walking area between the street and the bordering property was considered to be a sidewalk (21-502: Lipphard v. Hanes, 1963). A "sidewalk" is that part of a highway that is intended for use by pedestrians and that is between adjacent property lines and the curb or boundary lines of a roadway (21-101: t)." Yes that's in Maryland but the definition of "sidewalk" is exactly the same as MN. Of course, I wouldn't recomend anyone walk in front of motorists to prove the point.

        1. Reuben CollinsReuben Collins Post author

          This is an interesting idea that's worth exploring. It requires a pretty liberal reading of the law (and this post demonstrates that I have a much more conservative reading of the law), but I would be interested in learning if there is any MN precedent for this idea (or any precedent more recent than 1963). If it is the case that any space between the roadway and the ROW line is legally a crosswalk, this would (or should) have sweeping impacts on ADA requirements.

        2. Sean Hayford OlearySean Hayford Oleary

          This seems like a bizarre and dangerous rabbit hole. Intended for the use of pedestrians speaks pretty clearly to me as improved upon. After all, if we considered all grassy boulevards, paths, or ditches to be "sidewalks," it means that pedestrians would be legally obligated to use them (as long as they're "accessible") rather than walking in the roadway (169.21, subd.5).

          1. Reuben CollinsReuben Collins Post author

            In addition, if every roadside is legally a sidewalk, ADA requirements would all but require agencies to pave an ADA compliant sidewalk along every one of them. Current ADA requirements don't always require agencies to install facilities where none exist, but they do require agencies to improve existing sidewalks. If we're going to argue that every roadside is legally a sidewalk whether agencies have done anything to designate it as such or not, current policies would require every roadside to be improved in conjunction with roadway improvements.

    1. CC

      Subd. 5.Walk on left side of roadway. Pedestrians when walking or moving in a wheelchair along a roadway shall, when practicable, walk or move on the left side of the roadway or its shoulder giving way to oncoming traffic. Where sidewalks are provided and are accessible and usable it shall be unlawful for any pedestrian to walk or move in a wheelchair along and upon an adjacent roadway.

      So the law says I can walk on the road on your left and it doesn't say anything about paved.

      So my point is still valid.

  7. Jeff Zaayer

    I have noticed that Hennepin county has chosen to remove marked crosswalks at mid block crossings. Many crossings on trails such as the Dakota rail trail, Luce line and some others that striped cross walk markings were once there. I am not sure what the point is other than to perhaps reduce liability to drivers through some sort of overwhelming ambiguity? It is my understanding that an unmarked mid block crossing puts the responsibility of crossing safely on the crosser where as with a marked mid block crosswalk the responsibility is on the driver to yield. There is some inconsistency in the county which I would assume boils down to local decisions by cities to keep the crossings marked. Perhaps this practice with mid block crossings comes into play with 3 way intersections as well. I guess we will have to wait for a tragedy to occur and hope their family has the means to lawyer up to address the situation :-/

    1. Sean Hayford OlearySean Hayford Oleary


      I believe it's actually Three Rivers that has been removing these crosswalk markings, not Hennepin County. Remember, a crossing of a trail and a roadway is at least "an intersection with no marked crosswalk", so pedestrians DO have right-of-way. The marked crosswalk, in typical installation, does not resolve ROW questions, however; it's usually installed with a stop sign, giving the impression to motorists that bicyclists must stop and yield right-of-way, even if facing a marked crosswalk. (A good example of this is the Hiawatha LRT crossing of E 26th St, just east of Hiawatha.)

      1. Matt SteeleMatt

        This is also the policy of Hennepin County and/or the city with regard to Minneapolis streets that are under county jurisdiction. They will not authorize the painting of unmarked crosswalks, even if done by another jurisdiction, unless it's at a controlled intersection. It's unfortunate because it does seem like the county is trying to abdicate a role in promoting the safety and legal rights of pedestrians through making things much less clear for motorists.

  8. Sean Hayford OlearySean Hayford Oleary


    One other matter I'd like your opinion/knowledge on is the legal effects of intersection treatments done by engineers to discourage/redirect pedestrian crossing. A good example of this is where a median is present, and it is not interrupted for the intersection (and no curb ramps are provided). W 76th Street in Richfield provides a good example. Is there any legal effect to the fact that the median does not provide access? Or to the fact that a sign is posted — "CROSS ONLY AT CROSS WALKS"? (Presumably, they don't mean unmarked ones 😉 )

    1. Reuben CollinsReuben Collins Post author

      Sean, I do not know the answer to this question. We know that there are numerous intersections that are clearly designed to discourage pedestrians from crossing (like the one pictured in this post), but how much do agencies have to do before crossing becomes prohibited? Signage prohibiting pedestrians is enough. Is an uninterrupted median enough? Maybe (if we were voting, I'd vote yes). Is the lack of curb cuts along the east side of the roadway in the photo of this post enough? Maybe (if we were voting, I'd vote no).

      I do think these are questions we need to answer, however.

  9. David LevinsonDavid Levinson

    I wrote this to the author of a recent StarTribune article, which seems relevant (and hair splitting). This follows very closely Sean Oleary's example.

    Dear Mr. Walsh,

    You wrote this earlier (below). However the description of "no … crosswalk" is incorrect. There may be no marked crosswalk, but there is almost certainly an unmarked crosswalk. See this post for discussion, in particular the comments.

    It appears from the <a href="https://maps.google.com/maps?q=Verndale+Avenue,+Anoka,+MN&hl=en&ll=45.208982,-93.407417&spn=0.000762,0.000758&sll=46.44186,-93.36129&sspn=17.280857,24.851074&oq=verndale+ave&t=h&hnear=Verndale+Ave,+Anoka,+Minnesota+55303&z=21&quot; rel="nofollow">Google maps that there is no paved sidewalk on Verndale. However, that is not the relevant factor.

    I don't know any specific facts of the case, or where exactly the pedestrian crossed, but drivers need to be reminded to stop for pedestrians, whether or not the intersection is controlled.

    Thanks for correcting,

    — David Levinson

    Patrol: Pedestrian hit, killed was crossing in middle of Anoka highway

    The pedestrian who was run over and killed was hit while trying to cross four lanes of traffic in the middle of a busy north metro highway, authorities said Tuesday.

    Article by: PAUL WALSH , Star Tribune

    Updated: November 27, 2012 – 8:02 AM

    The pedestrian who was run over and killed was hit while trying to cross four lanes of traffic in the middle of a busy north metro highway, authorities said Tuesday.

    The 16-year-old boy from Ramsey was struck by a car about 7:40 p.m. Monday as he was "jogging across the eastbound and westbound lanes" of Hwy. 10 near Verndale Avenue, and "not at [a] controlled intersection," according to the State Patrol. He died at the scene.

    Hwy. 10 and Verndale create a T-intersection, where there is no traffic signal, stop signs or crosswalk. There is an intersection one-tenth of a mile south on Hwy. 10 that has crosswalks and traffic signals.

    The patrol said it expects to release the identity of the boy later Tuesday.

    1. David LevinsonDavid Levinson

      The article was updated to replace "no … crosswalk" with "no … marked crosswalk".

      It still has the flavor to me of the victim was at fault.

      The whole design is poor and ambiguous. From the point of view of the driver on the far side of the median (where the girl was hit), there is not an apparent intersection (aside from the driveway) since there is no break in the median. From the point of view of the driver (and pedestrian) on the near side of the median there is an apparent intersection. This seems to strand the pedestrian at the median on an implicit crosswalk.

      1. Reuben CollinsReuben Collins Post author

        David, I think the word "ambiguous" is a good way to describe the intersection, though this type of design is also very common. It is telling that in the aerial photo, there is a very clearly worn path through the grass in the median from pedestrians repeatedly crossing here. Is the presence of a raised median without curb cuts enough to legally prohibit pedestrian crossing? What if there had been a "NO PED CROSSING" sign in the median?

        1. Sean Hayford OlearySean Hayford Oleary

          Incidentally, when I complained to Mn/DOT some months ago about some pedestrian crossing signals being removed on a north metro highway and NO PED signs being installed, I was told that such signage is only advisory, and an indication that there are not designated pedestrian facilities at that point.

          While I disagree with the engineer I complained to, I actually can't find what legal weight those signs would have. The only effect I can see at all would be that, at an intersection where one crosswalk is marked with signals, and the other is not marked and has a NO PED sign, the pedestrian would only have right-of-way in the marked crosswalk. However, at intersections like the one in Richfield, there are no marked crosswalks crossing the main street. This becomes even more chaotic if we start to consider new types of facilites, like Single Point Urban Interchanges, where the law simply does not speak to the type of facility at all.

          Personally, I think this all becomes a ridiculous calculation. In Norway and Denmark, there is no notion of an unmarked crosswalk: all locations where pedestrians have right of way are marked (and usually signed). There is no presumption of right of way at other locations, even at intersections. While that sounds like pedestrians have less power, I think they practice, they actually have more: there is rigorous enforcement of peds' ROW at marked locations, and very little notion of social acceptability of cutting off a pedestrian.

Comments are closed.