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.

Reuben Collins

About Reuben Collins

Reuben lives in South Minneapolis with his wife and kids. He authors the cycling blog VeloTraffic.com and tweets at @reubencollins. In his spare time, he enjoys renovating his 1939 tudor home and riding bicycles.