Permission to Cross

Crosswalk button 1This past summer, my wife and I went to see one of the Walker Art Center’s movies in Loring Park. We took the bus instead of biking because of a recent injury. When we left the park, we walked to pick up the #6 at the south-east corner of the Sculpture Garden. We got to the Loring-Park side of the mess that is Hennepin/Lyndale/I-94 between the Walker and the park and hit the pedestrian crossing button.

When the walk signal blinked on, we started across and saw our bus approaching from the north. Because of the injury, we did not move faster than a normal walk speed. As a result, we discovered that the walk signal (and green light) provided just enough time to make it to the center median, but not across the entire street. We watched our bus arrive, load up, and depart, and we waited for the light to change again.

The anecdote above highlights plenty of problems with the City of Minneapolis, including poor crossing times, the absurdity of the Hennepin/Lyndale Bottleneck width, and unnecessary impediments to walking between downtown Minneapolis and Uptown Minneapolis, two of the more walkable parts of the city. But I would like to reflect briefly on a much smaller detail in the story: that we had to push a button to get a crossing signal at all.

Pushing a button is a minor act. It may not even rise to the level of inconvenience. Yet pedestrians are almost entirely alone in their need to regularly take an extra step just to cross the street (imagine the chaos of ‘green-light buttons’ for cars). By requiring pedestrians push a button to cross the street, the city relegates pedestrians to second-class citizens. The buttons imply that pedestrians are so rare that traffic engineers’ default is to ignore them.

In addition, requiring that pedestrians request permission to cross creates an inhospitable environment for visitors. Some cities provide pedestrians with an automatic walk signal at every intersection. Even in Minneapolis, some neighborhoods are peppered primarily with automatic walk signals. As a result, those unfamiliar with our system or even with a specific intersection can spend a full light cycle innocently waiting for the signal.

Some of these ask-to-cross buttons are active in pedestrian-heavy neighborhoods. For example, one has to push a button to cross Lyndale at 31st Street. In a relatively pedestrian-friendly neighborhood like Lyn-Lake, why not let pedestrians cross with the light? The only motorists inconvenienced by pedestrians in the crosswalk are turning vehicles, which already have a right-turn-on-red advantage.

Perhaps not all walk-signal buttons are equal. Where there is an underutilized pedestrian-only crossing (ie where there is no corresponding vehicular cross street), maybe it does not make sense to stop traffic flow at regular intervals. However, even this scenario creates a dangerous cycle wherein an intersection is unfriendly to pedestrians because there are few pedestrians, and there continue to be few pedestrians because that intersection is unfriendly.

The City of Minneapolis supposedly “places a high value on creating and enhancing pedestrian-friendly neighborhoods.” Yet walking to the store can seem like a tactical mission in which a person must trot across a street to avoid being caught in a rush of automobiles, dodge signposts lodged in the middle of the sidewalk, scurry down an unlit block at night, and pray that the push of a button results in permission-to-cross from a “pedestrian-control signal” (sounds like a Soviet brainwashing tool, but it is what the State of Minnesota calls a walk signal).

Pedestrian push buttons are annoying. More importantly, they are emblematic of a system that actively discourages walking. Walking should be easy, even enjoyable. But unless we systematically prioritize walking in our mix of transportation options, traveling by foot will remain a pain in too many parts of our community.

Sam Rockwell

About Sam Rockwell

Sam works on transportation and land use issues in Minnesota.