Counterproductively Safe: U of M’s Washington Ave. Transit Mall

Washington and Oak LRT testing

Washington and Oak LRT testing


It has been several months since construction came to a close on Washington Ave SE’s stretch through the University of Minnesota’s East Bank, and I couldn’t be more conflicted about the result.

Great design, terrible timing

When comparing the reconstructed street’s physical design to its predecessor’s, what we have now is spectacular for all users involved. Despite involving a complex yet well managed sequence of bikeway changes, the street is far more cyclist-friendly than its previous design. I can happily say that, as on Nicollet Mall, cycling on a transit/bike-only street feels far calmer than in mixed traffic. Even with light rail in its testing phase and buses running at most hours, the pedestrian experience along this stretch is equally relaxed. Also, as always, freedom from automobile congestion results in a pretty dandy transit experience.


With a well designed bicycle signal, this potentially awful intersection is simple to navigate by bicycle.

With a well timed bicycle signal, this potentially awful intersection is simple to navigate by bicycle.


While the physical design couldn’t be better suited for the context, the signaling situation serves no one well. To be fair, this is probably the first transit project in Minneapolis that involves transit-only streets intersecting with pedestrian-only streets, and certainly the first mass transit rail line to cross a Twin Cities college campus. Pedestrian safety has always been one of the U of M’s chief concerns, as it has been for comparable college campuses with rail transit interactions.

How safe is too safe? 

However, the signaling situation is so oriented to pedestrian safety that it no longer reflects the realistic danger of crossing the street. Washington Ave SE is hardly the exception in this regard; you’ll notice that any city’s midnight red lights carry far less weight than their rush hour equivalent, simply because jaywalking is just less dangerous at midnight. When the ‘danger’ of a light rail train or bus only presents itself every 5 minutes or so, jaywalking across Washington Ave SE is far less dangerous than the signaling system would suggest. It’s quite hard to demand respect for a red light when this is the case.


Safe, but illegal crossing

Safe but illegal crossing


These inappropriate ‘rules of the road’ result in compliance by only some of the modes of transportation involved. As most pedestrian crossings across Washington Ave SE tend to take care of themselves regardless of the signal status, transit vehicles can find themselves waiting for no one at red lights and nearly colliding with pedestrians at green lights. With these obstacles, I’m not convinced that buses make it through the corridor faster than if they shared the road with vehicles.


#16 bus, waiting for someone to cross... eventually...

#16 bus, waiting for someone to cross… eventually…


When it comes to bicycles in the corridor, there’s simply no need for signaling whatsoever. Our Chain of Lakes is a magnificent example of countless high-traffic bicycle and pedestrian crossings that require no signal intervention. It’s tough to justify waiting at a stop light when pedestrians ignore their own constantly. Also, it’s just not that hard to avoid pedestrians on a bicycle. A ‘Cyclists Yield for Pedestrians’ sign would more than suffice at these intersections.


Would it really be unsafe for a cyclist to proceed?

Would it really be unsafe for a cyclist to proceed?


On-demand transit signaling 

I believe that if designed to more closely reflect the dangers involved, this street would see far more pedestrian compliance than it currently does. Rail transit vehicles cross non-signalized pedestrian streets in countless cities throughout the world. You’ll notice that these vehicles tend to travel closer to the speed of pedestrians themselves, allowing all participants ample time to react.

I’m hardly suggesting that light rail should run completely unregulated among pedestrian traffic. However, a signaling system that gives pedestrians an accurate safety assessment is inherently more trustworthy, and is much more likely to guide pedestrian behavior. Rather than a timed light, an approaching transit vehicle should trigger a red light for crossing pedestrians. The resulting signal would function more similarly to a railroad crossing than a traditional intersection. This guarantees that a pedestrian green light is displayed when crossing is actually safe, making it easier to take the entire signal system seriously.  Additionally, a signaling system that gives priority to through transit, even at a slower speed, would likely result in quicker transit times across campus. This configuration could produce safer and more efficient use of the street.

Cameron Conway

About Cameron Conway

Cameron fell head over heels for cities while living in DC and Seattle. Now in Minneapolis, he advocates for equitable urbanism through the Midtown Greenway Coalition, the CARAG neighborhood board and the Minneapolis Bicycle Coalition. He wants to build dynamic urbanism in your parking lots.

18 thoughts on “Counterproductively Safe: U of M’s Washington Ave. Transit Mall

  1. Matt SteeleMatt Steele

    Just think how much money we could have saved if we do it like the trams that go through old European squares without any signaling.

      1. Froggie

        We’re also a much more litigatious society here than in Europe. So some of it is for legal reasons.

        As for Matt’s question, a typical signal system runs in the $200-300K range…add a bit more for interconnectivity. So, at best, you’d have saved maybe $1M or so. Not a whole lot given the context of the overall project budget.

  2. Peter

    I walk through this everyday, and I couldn’t agree with this more. I don’t understand why there are so many signals on the mall.

  3. Jordan

    Hear, Hear! Very poignant points, as someone who walks across Washington Avenue everyday I can attest to the accuracy of your claims. The signaling system is a joke, everyone walks when it is convenient, regardless of light. Really the only thing that will occasionally halt pedestrians is an oncoming 5-ton bus. But hey, whatcha’ gonna’ do?

  4. Tess

    Thanks for this – I agree with all your points! Human beings are quite good at assessing the safety of crossing an intersection. If only the traffic signaling mechanisms were nearly as logical.

  5. Brandon Johnson

    As an undergrad/pedestrian/cyclist/bus-rider/car-driver at the U, I have one response: +100000! Thanks, Cameron, for this brilliant critique.

    It certainly seems like University Services is worried about this, too — word on the street is that they (in concert with MnDOT, others) are working to reset the timing of the signals, so as to stop training pedestrians, cyclists to ignore them. That said, I completely agree with the above commenter: if we would only yield when it is our turn, no matter what vehicle we use, that would solve most problems.

    1. Bill LindekeBill Lindeke

      There’s a tendency to treat people (and particularly young people) in a very condescending way, with elaborate signage and highly over-engineered systems like this one.

      I find that people are almost always smarter than we give them credit for. This even applies to undergrads.

      And the people that aren’t very good at following common sense rules are impossible to control anyway, which is why we have a few deaths along the Blue Line already at places where it’s just blindingly obvious that there’s a train coming and you should not go onto the tracks.

  6. Sam NewbergSam Newberg

    Cameron, well said, and how timely. I have just spent a couple days around campus on my bicycle and on foot, inadvertently testing the mall myself. I thought I was a bit conspicuous crossing on reds until I noticed everyone was doing it anyway.

    I also find the chirping and talking crosswalks aggravating, and while I realize ADA is very important, I also wonder whether anyone will want to sit outside anywhere near them.

    As for the signals, even just speeding up the phases might really help, if not your on-demand transit signal, which seems to make a whole lot of sense.

    What is the crosswalk/signal equivalent of a “desire path?” College campuses in particular are full of desire paths, and likewise students on campus seem to cross when safe, regardless of signaling.

    “Desire crossing?”

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