Four-Lane Death Roads Should Be Illegal

deathroad1I was biking with a friend the other day around the East Side of Saint Paul, and we happened across White Bear Avenue. I knew at once it was a Death Road™.

Death Road™ is what I call 4-lane streets that have been shoehorned into a narrow right-of-way in an urban area. If you bike or walk around Minneapolis or Saint Paul, you can recognize a Death Road™ in an instant. It’s a four-lane street where cars are weaving unpredictably at high speeds, turning left at low speeds. You’ll see cars speeding around other cars stopped waiting to make a turn, or cars weaving around other cars racing to make a stoplight. Death Roads™ often have narrow sidewalks and usually lack an on-street parking buffer.* The mix of speeds and multiple lanes means that biking on, driving on, or trying to cross one of these streets can be deadly.

White Bear Avenue is just one example. The list is long (in order of worse-ness): Northeast Broadway Avenue, Cedar Avenue, the middle part of Franklin Avenue, Hennepin Avenue north of Central, Maryland Avenue, Hamline Avenue, Edgcumbe on the East Side, and the list goes on and on. 

These roads run all through the walkable areas of Minneapolis and Saint Paul, along streets with businesses and homes and schools and parks.


Another “Accident”

deathroad5deathroad6Then yesterday in Saint Paul’s North End neighborhood, where I used to live, a kid going home from school got hit by a car. It was an entirely predictable Death Road™ situation, where one car slows for the kid to cross the street and the car behind speeds around it and hits the kid. (Note: this is exactly what happened at Snelling Avenue earlier this year, where a car sped around another slowed car and seriously injured two college students.)

You can read accounts of the situation here, including what are very typical quotes from the police and public works officials. For example, in the Star Tribune story, the police officer calls it a bad accident:

The accident occurred shortly after 7 a.m. on Rice Street at Hoyt Avenue in the city’s North End, leaving the boy in critical condition, said Sgt. Paul Paulos, spokesman for the St. Paul police.

“This is just a bad accident today,” Paulos said.

Similarly, in the Pioneer Press, there’s a quote from a city traffic engineer, who seems to suggest that nothing can be done:  

The city reviews a streetscape “when incidents happen that are particularly tragic like this one to see if there’s anything that can be done,” said St. Paul city engineer John Maczko.

But he said he doesn’t think a painted crosswalk at the intersection would have prevented the crash, saying they can give people an illusion of safety.

There has been one other pedestrian accident at Rice and Hoyt in 10 years, Maczko said.

“Everyone needs to be part of the solution,” Maczko said. “Vehicles that are driving around other vehicles need to wonder why that other vehicle is stopped and understand if a car is stopped, it’s stopped for a reason. …As pedestrians, when we cross these four-lane roads, we have to cross every lane as an individual roadway.”

Meanwhile, in the KARE 11 report, you have a quote from an actual resident who seems to grasp the situation very well:

Local resident Virgil Calamese says that stretch of Rice Street is extremely busy and dangerous all year around. He points to a stretch of the street near where the accident happened where Rice Street funnels down from four lanes to two, and says drivers often rush to get ahead of slower moving cars so they won’t be stuck behind them. Calamese says not having a crosswalk near Rice and Hoyt makes things even worse.

“For a person to actually try and cross the street, you’re literally playing that (video) game ‘Frogger'”, Calamese said. “You’re literally trying to get across the street without actually getting hit. Unfortunately, a young kid got hit this morning.”

These different accounts of the situation are revealing. But it’s the last guy, the “local resident,” who gets it right, pointing out the structural problems with the road design. If only he know that there’s an easy fix for a Death Road™ like Rice Street.

Quick Facts about 4-3 conversions

4-3-conversion-safetyAt this point, there is a lot of research about how to fix 4-lane Death Road™. The easiest solution is a “three-lane road diet,” where the center two lanes become a turn lane for cars. This is also known as a “4-3 conversion.” 

Here are some facts well supported by research:

#1) 3-lane roads are much safer for car drivers. According to a Federal Highway Administration study, changing a 4-lane Death Road™ into a three-lane road reduces automobile traffic accidents from 20% to 50% depending on the context. (Note: this makes intuitive sense if you’ve ever driven on a street like this.) There are dozens of similar studies out there.

#2) 3-lane roads have marginal impact on traffic flow. I’m not going to suggest that a 4-to-3 conversion of a Death Road™ has no impact on traffic flow (though sometimes that turns out to be the case). Rather, fixing a Death Road™ usually sees a reduction in car throughput in the 5% to 10% range. As another Federal Highway Administration report puts it, “under most average daily traffic (ADT) conditions tested, road diets have minimal effects on vehicle capacity.” 

ped safety speed graph#3) 3-lane roads slow speeds. The main difference between a 4-lane Death Road™ and a 3-lane safe street is that traffic speeds go down and become far more uniform. It’s a proven fact that reducing speeds even a little bit, i.e. from 40 to 30 miles per hour, can make a huge difference on accident severity for pedestrians and bicyclists. 

#4) 3-lane roads increase biking and walking. After a 4-lane Death Road™ was fixed in San Francisco, “bicycle usage increased 37% during the PM peak hour,ƒ the number of pedestrians increased 49% during the PM peak hour, [and]ƒ public response has been overwhelmingly positive about this project.” That’s just one example; also, it’s common sense.

#5) Fixing a Death Road™ is really cheap. Unlike expensive street reconstructions or concrete bumpouts, cities and counties can quickly, easily, and cheaply fix these Death Roads™. Here’s a quote from a city engineer in Portland, Oregon:

Graff said the price of all five road diets considered in the city’s analysis was “in the $100,000 range,” or up to $120,000 or so for projects that added new median islands or other improvements.

“The cost/benefit is really high,” he said. “For the cost of one improved crossing — a median improvement or rapid-flashing beacon that provides a point improvement, you can reduce crashes across 10, 20 blocks.”

(Compare that to the quote in the news report above.)

The tradeoff: Marginal Traffic Flow vs. Safety for Everyone

deathroad2If you bring up these facts at a public meeting (as I have), you’ll probably get a reply about how the city can’t do a 4-to-3 road diet because of high traffic volumes. The problem with this reasoning is that there’s no such thing as a free street. Particularly in a walkable city, achieving a high traffic volume always come at a cost. In this case, the cost is increased accidents and far less safety for pedestrians, bicyclists, and people living in these urban neighborhoods.

Street design is always about tradeoffs. Slow speeds that are good for local business are bad for high-speed through traffic. Four-lane roads that improve “stacking” (i.e backups at an intersection) are dangerous for people on foot or on a bicycle. A turn lane that is good for throughput is bad for anyone trying to cross the street. A bike lane can sometimes come at the expense of an on-street parking spot, etc. etc. Everything is a matter of choices and tradeoffs.

The Moral Imperative

deathroad3deathroad7When a decision maker says “we can’t do that because of traffic,” to me they are really saying that they value traffic volumes over safety. To me this is morally indefensible, and is not a choice we should be making as a society.

One rarely stated fact about these four-lane Death Roads™ is that they’re often found in our city’s poorest neighborhoods. For example, the poorest part of Franklin Avenue is the part with the Death Road™ design. The Maryland and White Bear Avenue Death Roads™ go through one of the poorest parts of Saint Paul. The Cedar Avenue Death Road™ goes through the heart of the Little Earth and Somali communities. And on Rice Street, where this crash happened,  the death road section disappears once you get close to the Roseville border (wealthier suburb). 

These patterns are troubling, but they probably point to the political disenfranchisement of particular areas of the city more than any grand conspiracy toward structural racism. These streets shouldn’t be allowed in any parts of our cities where people walk or bike or have homes and businesses. It shouldn’t matter where you are or how much money you have. These streets are dangerous for everyone, and there should be no excuse for them.

I wrote about this two years ago. I’m probably going to write about it again after the next person is put in a coma or coffin. Every day, these dangerous designs erode safety and quality of life, and our urban businesses and neighborhoods continue to languish in the shadow of death. Minneapolis, Saint Paul, and Ramsey and Hennepin Counties can fix this problem and make Death Roads™ illegal in urban areas. Until they do, it’s only a matter of time before another kid gets mowed down.


Broadway Avenue in Northeast Minneapolis.

*I’m going to make a distinction here between Death Roads™ and other unsafely designed arterial streets like Snelling, Lake, or Lyndale. That’s a big enchilada.

Bill Lindeke

About Bill Lindeke

Pronouns: he/him

Bill Lindeke has writing blogging about sidewalks and cities since 2005, ever since he read Jane Jacobs. He is a lecturer in Urban Studies at the University of Minnesota Geography Department, the Cityscape columnist at Minnpost, and has written multiple books on local urban history. He was born in Minneapolis, but has spent most of his time in St Paul. Check out Twitter @BillLindeke or on Facebook.