France Avenue: Pedestrian-Friendly at 40 MPH

The City of Edina is finishing up an ambitious project to help remake France Avenue through the Southdale District into less of a highway, and more of an urban boulevard.

France Avenue

To the unfamiliar, France Avenue through the Southdale District is a 40 MPH, 7+ lane divided megastroad. Prior to this project, there was a sidewalk on only one side, nearly every intersection had a porkchop island (free right turn), and there was not a single crosswalk marking between the Crosstown (TH 62) and the Bloomington city line at Minnesota Drive.

Southdale’s France Avenue has long been seen as a barrier to neighborhoods. It divides the largely residential area on the west to the core of the Southdale District, including Southdale Center, Centennial Lakes, Galleria, and several office and housing complexes. The original solution to this problem was an expensive pedestrian bridge that would have spanned France at a single point. Instead, the project was reworked to focus on bike-ped accommodations at three critical intersections–76th, 70th, and 66th–and to make general improvements along the whole corridor. As density and housing continue to increase in the Southdale District, this change in focus is in line with the larger transformation of the area into something of a third downtown. Rather than being a barrier to cross, France Avenue should be a primary focus of the area.

The process and concept of this design are terrific. Our metro area is filled with stroads like France Avenue, and there is simply not always the budget or need to tear them up and reconstruct them from scratch. This was a unique attempt to improve the corridor for pedestrians as a retrofit, with a relatively small price tag.

However, the result of this process has been underwhelming. I did a walk-through this week, and was disappointed to find that, although it appeared pedestrian-friendly at 40 mph and a few meaningful improvements were made, the on-foot and on-bike experience was still pretty lacking.

(Note: Although technically owned and maintained by Hennepin County as CSAH 17, this project was administered by the City of Edina.)

Farewell to Pork Chops

Porkchops–the triangular islands used in conjunction with free right turns–formerly littered France Avenue. This right turn design encourages motorists to make high-speed right turns on red, and can pose a real barrier for pedestrians crossing the street. At best, a pedestrian must cross the street three times instead of once. At worst, the pedestrian must play “chicken” with a right-turning motorist to assert their right-of-way.

Porkchop covered in snow

Occasionally, porkchops pose an inconvenience to pedestrians

A more humane way to cross the street

A more humane way to cross the street

The removal of porkchops along France was a great improvement. Unfortunately, the curb radius used is still quite large–almost as large as a small free right, and substantially larger than nearby county roads use. This encourages higher-speed turns across the crosswalk.

Refuge Islands

One mixed blessing is the refuge islands placed at the major intersections. On the one hand, it really does increase the comfort of crossing the busy street. Although I was caught in the middle while crossing, I did not find it at all unpleasant to wait there for another cycle.

However, since the engineers did not want to create a tighter turn for left-turning motorists, the crosswalks are now set way back from the intersection. This means a slight detour to cross the street, and it also means this:

Motorist blocks the crosswalk on France Avenue

And, on my return trip, this…

Motorist blocks the crosswalk on France Avenue


Cross Street Bike Lanes

The vanishing bike lane

The vanishing bike lane

One detail intended to improve bicycle safety was short stubs of bike lanes on either end of the three major intersections. The idea is that by providing a designated space for bicyclists at the intersection, they will make it across France Avenue more safely, and be less likely to ride in the right-turn lane. This makes sense at first whiff, except to consider bicyclists are generally going farther than half a block past France. Assuming they wish to proceed on the street, they are now forced to merge back into busy traffic, where they have just been coaxed to give up their space.

I objected to this design before it was striped, but was rebuffed by the consultant on the project. Seeing the actual striping down, the situation gets even worse: at 70th and 76th, the lane was striped over a substantial longitudinal gap. Nearly everyone who rides a bike knows the danger of longitudinal cracks: they can easily grab a narrow tire and cause the cyclist to lose control of their bike. If the cyclist manages to stay upright, they’ll still have to merge back into traffic–on 76th, they’ll do so in the middle of a signalized intersection, going up a hill.

Mind the gap

Mind the gap

Pedestrians As Clear Zone

The project included installation of a much-needed sidewalk along the east side of France. In terms of construction quality, this is a great sidewalk: it’s at least eight feet wide, saw-cut, with a six-foot boulevard. The project also included landscaping for this project, including boulevard trees to shade pedestrians and calm traffic.

Pedestrian walks on new sidewalk

This human being will cause far less damage to an errant car than a mature tree would.

Unfortunately, these boulevard trees have been placed behind the sidewalk, at least 15′ back from the curb. This means that they will not shade the street for at least a decade, and will never provide a buffer from moving traffic. They also give the compelling feeling to pedestrians that they, too, are part of the clear zone of high-speed France Avenue.

Needless Restrictions on Pedestrians

No ped sign replaces crossing

Rusted-out scar of a removed beg button.

The signals do not include an automatic pedestrian phase on any legs, for any intersection, even though most lights for France are more than long enough to accommodate such a phase without any adjustment. And although the project did add several new crosswalks, there is at least one mysterious removal. At Parklawn Avenue, an existing crossing at the north leg was removed. There was no cost savings to this removal, as the project would not have required any new construction or new push buttons at this location. By eliminating the crossing, pedestrians on the north side sidewalk must cross the intersection through three legs instead of one.

A Work In Progress

Although there are many disappointments in this year’s France Avenue project, I do not think this is a sign of the hopelessness of the Southdale District. Rather, it is a sign of just how much we must do and just how differently we must approach our streets in order to turn a high-speed stroad environment into a meaningful street for people.

This time, it seems, we didn’t do quite enough.

Sean Hayford Oleary

About Sean Hayford Oleary

Sean Hayford Oleary is a web developer and planner. He serves on the Richfield City Council, and previously on the city's Planning and Transportation commissions. Articles are written from a personal perspective and not on behalf of Richfield or others. Sean has a masters in urban planning from the Humphrey School. Follow his love of streets, home improvement, and all things Richfield on Twitter @sdho.