Improving Level of Service for Blind People

On my way to the Wedge Co-op one evening last week, I heard someone curse under her breath. I turned to see an older woman standing on the sidewalk, tapping a white cane around slushy snow at one of the entries to the Wedge’s parking lot. I figured she had impaired vision, and that she was trying to find a safe way to walk up to Lyndale and Franklin. I asked if I could help her, but she politely declined.

Imagery from Google Earth Pro. Scribbles by Scott Shaffer.

Imagery from Google Earth Pro. Scribbles by Scott Shaffer.

Why would a blind person walk around such a busy intersection? Besides the reasons we all have (expensive groceries, cheap drinks, restaurants, pet food, and major bus lines) there’s the Vision Loss Resources center on the northwest corner of the intersection, which provides “the services, skills, and community of support to aid in reclaiming life after vision loss.” This week they’re playing cards, reading “The Goldfinch” by Donna Tartt, and playing bingo. For the next couple days, I kept imagining what it would be like to walk around Lyndale and Franklin without the ability to see. Walking in the dark wouldn’t be a problem per se, but I know how many drivers forget to turn on their headlights at night, and the possibility that I would be invisible to someone driving scares me.

Living with visual impairment would be easier if there were more space dedicated to pedestrians. On the streets with the most attractive destinations, we have many curb cuts, which is where people driving can cross the sidewalk to get into a parking lot. The law is that people driving yield to people walking, but that law is often broken. The result is that many sidewalk curb cuts become danger zones, especially for people with visual impairments and mobility issues. On the east side of Lyndale Avenue, between the Wedge Co-op and Franklin Avenue, more than 20% of the sidewalk is a curb cut.

Even when no cars are present, poorly-designed curb cuts can be dangerous. The entries to parking lots on Lyndale result in sloped sidewalks, which makes it harder to move for people with impaired sight and people using scooters, crutches, strollers, and walkers. (This difficulty is compounded if the sidewalk is icy, but sidewalk maintenance is another topic.)

A ramp and a level sidewalk. Photo credit Dan Burden.

A ramp and a level sidewalk. Photo credit Dan Burden.

What can we do to make it better? The Model Design Manual for Living Streets has at least two suggestions to make sidewalks safe. First, make sidewalks level. By making the ramp steeper and routing the sidewalk slightly away from the street, we can keep the sidewalk from sloping. Second, we can reduce the number of “conflict points,” or scenarios in which drivers might hit a person. We can do this by consolidating curb cuts and restricting left turns. Instead of having three curb cuts leading to two adjacent parking lots, we can have all the drivers enter at a single point. And instead of watching for cars coming and going from both directions, installing a median on Lyndale that would stop drivers from turning left into or out of the parking lot would making moving around the area safer and more efficient. Drivers coming from the north on Lyndale or East on Franklin could use the alley behind Mortimer’s to access the parking lot. This could be as easy and cheap as putting down traffic cones or plastic bollards down the center of the street.

From the Model Design Manual for Living Streets.

From the Model Design Manual for Living Streets.

It’s past time that I included a caveat: I am not a traffic engineer. I understand that “Level of Service” is a thing that people worry about. But streets are for people, not just cars. What’s Lyndale’s level of service for the sight-impaired woman I saw last week? Or the level of service for a mom carrying a bag of cat food and pushing a stroller? Or the level of service for that barista who was hit by a speeding Jeep a couple years ago? If “level of service” is only a bit of jargon that justifies providing safe, pleasant, convenient, and useful transportation for people driving at the expense of everyone else, then it’s time to redefine our terms.

I’m taking a class on sustainable transportation right now, and the instructor put this quotation at the top of the syllabus:

“A child accepts the man-made background itself as the inevitable nature of things; he does not realize that somebody once drew some lines on a piece of paper who might have drawn otherwise. But now, as engineer and architect once drew, people have to walk and live.”

Engineers have great power and great responsibility, and I believe they want to improve lives. I’d invite them to see how people are walking and living on Lyndale Avenue today. Together we can imagine new lines to draw, and better ways to live.

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21 Responses to Improving Level of Service for Blind People

  1. Alex Cecchini
    Alex Cecchini February 10, 2015 at 10:38 am #

    The area between Franklin and 24th on Nicollet is also heavily-used by vision impaired. Our daycare is in this area and my wife and I have both witnessed many slips, stumbles on snow, collisions with things that crowd the sidewalk (bus shelters, poles, etc), and near-misses with cars turning at intersections/curb cuts. We need to do better.

  2. Sean Hayford Oleary
    Sean Hayford Oleary February 10, 2015 at 11:17 am #

    There is often a “not seeing the forest for the trees” issue with environments like that near the Wedge, possibly because of personal opinion, but largely because of limits on what they can do and what our system is set up for them to change. Technically, that sidewalk is pretty good. It has a level crossing on the driveway ramps at least 4′ side. The sidewalk does not contain trip hazards and is not in bad repair. APS is installed at the signals (the thing that beeps and tells you when the walk signal is on, and how much time you have left). The only thing that’s “wrong” is that truncated dome detectable warnings are not installed at the corner curb ramps.

    Agencies tend to pat themselves on the back when they make things “more accessible”, for example, by removing automatic pedestrian signals and replacing with beg buttons that include APS. Or when tearing out curb ramps to install new ones at a slightly different slope, with truncated dome mats. Of course, these changes largely make substantial differences to the pedestrian environment.

    I agree about consolidating access points — however, remember that doing this often requires bigger parking lots, or a loss in stalls (which could bring the established below its own perceived needs, or city requirements). Note that you tend to see a lot more driveway cuts in the core and first-ring cities, while you’re likely to see very limited accesses in new commercial areas farther out. This is largely because new lots are bigger and include enough circulation to allow cars to maneuver themselves to a consolidated exit. That’s not always feasible, especially not when we wish to reduce the amount of land dedicated to parking.

    • Scott Shaffer
      Scott Shaffer February 10, 2015 at 11:44 am #

      “consolidating access points… often requires bigger parking lots, or a loss in stalls”

      Could you sketch that out? I figured that removing an access point would allow more space for parking in the lot and on the street.

      • Sean Hayford Oleary
        Sean Hayford Oleary February 10, 2015 at 12:02 pm #

        The Wedge lot is a bad example, because it already has a lot of that internal circulation that new suburban lots have. But you’d still need a way for cars to queue to exit.

        I did a quick sketch of two adjacent (small/hypothetical) lots next to each other. One is a one-way loop, and the other is a small two-way lot. (IRL, it’d probably have a lot more stalls, and the one-way loop would have stalls adjacent to the store… but I ran out of space on the page).

        Here is what it would look like before any access changes.

        Here is what happens when you take out the exit for the one-way loop. Several stalls lost, and more difficult to get out to the street.

        • Sean Hayford Oleary
          Sean Hayford Oleary February 10, 2015 at 12:04 pm #

          And here’s the third, when access is consolidated with a neighboring lot (links split into two comments so WordPress won’t cut me off)

          Both lots lose more stalls — and rather than gaining spots near the former access, they actually lose two more spots, since cars now need to turn around and head the other direction; they need something to back into, which those edge spots wouldn’t have.

          None of this is to say we should allow access points left and right. Just that this is better addressed with new development, when you can plan around it, rather than closing off existing accesses. Sometimes you can, but often (like in this sketch) the impact of that is pretty bad.

          • Alex Cecchini
            Alex Cecchini February 10, 2015 at 1:07 pm #

            The public also gets that street space back, which could be used for on-street parking. Losing X spots but gaining 2 back (in that example) softens the blow. That assumes the loss of X spots even matters 95% of the time.

            • Janne Flisrand
              Janne February 11, 2015 at 12:27 pm #

              My street has had two access points added in order to create 4 and access another 4 parking spaces. (There were two from before, too.) I don’t understand the logic that trades four available-to-anyone spaces to add four private spaces. (The other four spaces moved from one end of the lot to the other.)

  3. Bill Lindeke
    Bill Lindeke February 10, 2015 at 11:35 am #

    where’s that quote from?

  4. Monte Castleman
    Monte Castleman February 10, 2015 at 11:44 am #

    Engineers really don’t like undivided roads because of the safety issues involved, but usually if there’s enough space for a median there’s a huge squawk from the local businesses involved on the theory that people in cars won’t bother to patronize their business if they have to make a U-turn, which can be difficult to impossible to illegal to do in the city. I know if I’m driving it’s one thing if I’m heading to a store, but if I want to stop at McDonands or a SuperAmerica I’m apt to just drive to the next one if I’d have to make a U-turn.

    • Alex Cecchini
      Alex Cecchini February 10, 2015 at 1:03 pm #

      These are really first-world problems that highlight the absurdity of our auto-oriented places. Yes, left turn access is more dangerous. And we’ve allowed it in likely hundreds of thousands of urban places across our country because the added time to go a couple blocks out of the way is just too much to handle. This underscores the author’s intent, that we really have put the perceived needs (mostly desires) of drivers above pretty much every other street user.

    • Sean Hayford Oleary
      Sean Hayford Oleary February 10, 2015 at 1:10 pm #

      But I think Monte’s point is decent. People are really, really lazy. Whether they’re driving, walking, or bicycling, they’ll almost universally pick what’s less stressful and less work.

      This definitely doesn’t make a difference for a specialty place like the Wedge, but gas stations at least perceive that they will lose a lot of business if their access is undesirable. This doesn’t mesh with my own experience — I tend to be more particular about a nice gas station experience, and don’t mind even going a ways out of my way. But at least as business owners see it, that’s not typical. People are not loyal and will do whatever’s easiest.

      Of course, there are ways to combat this. First, we can stop making new, dangerous-but-so-convenient open accesses so there isn’t a sense of less-convenient accesses having to “compete” with that. We can also use grids that allow people to avoid U-turns (already done in almost all of Minneapolis). And we can use more roundabouts in commercial areas, which make U-turns a breeze.

      • aexx February 10, 2015 at 2:29 pm #

        This is definitely the case with convenience locations. We have real-world examples in Minneapolis – when I’ve driven on Hennepin through the Uptown area and realize I need something in that moment (prime convenience shopping), I am apt to find whatever I can right turn into rather than try to battle the sometimes constant traffic required to turn left. Hell, a lot of times you can’t turn left on Hennepin at all, further cutting off convenience.

        It seems like calming road speeds so people aren’t whipping across sidewalks as they pull into a parking lot would be more effective than forcing people to drive down the street and attempt to make a U-turn or circle around the block.

      • Joseph Totten
        Joseph Totten February 10, 2015 at 3:48 pm #

        Convenience Stores are the only businesses shown to be negatively affected by medians. Drive-thru restaurants have seen very mixed results, otherwise businesses are unaffected, to positively affected by new medians.

    • Scott Shaffer
      Scott Shaffer February 11, 2015 at 9:26 am #

      So we’re weighing two competing interests. First, we have the interests of people driving to not have to make a U-turn or drive around the block. Second, we have the interests of people with disabilities to safely get to the grocery store. So, convenience vs. safety. I’d put safety first, how about you?

      • Sean Hayford Oleary
        Sean Hayford Oleary February 11, 2015 at 10:15 am #

        Although I agree with you about medians, what you’re saying is very similar to what engineers say to justify things to speed up cars. “Convenience versus safety” is why engineers justify removing crosswalks, for example, and telling pedestrians to walk a couple blocks out of their way. And various other things vs safety are reasons why we shouldn’t have street trees, or too narrow of lanes, etc.

        And to go a little more devil’s advocate — if we accept that the purpose of a street is a place for capturing value, and the street mainly caters to auto interests (like one of those blocks of E Lake St with auto shops, tire shops, and gas stations) shouldn’t we avoid features that rob that land use of value? That is, if a median prevents people from going to a particular gas station, isn’t that safety/engineering feature actually impeding the value that particular street could create?

      • Monte Castleman
        Monte Castleman February 11, 2015 at 12:24 pm #

        It depends. Convenience vs Safety is the main tradeoff in these kind of things and you can’t make a knee-jerk reaction like “safety first”. If we only cared about safety we’d set a 5 mph speed limit for cars and require a person walking ahead of it waving a flare. Left turn phasing is the classic example- do you go with a “Left Turn Yield on Green” that is less safe but more efficient, or a red arrow that is more safe and less efficient. The flashing yellow arrow is less safe than turns on green arrows only, but is more safe than the traditional green ball, so that tips the balance in favor of convenience and green arrow only turns are being removed en masse. This is what benefit/cost analysis is about, and might be useful as to evaluating the merits of the original proposal in the post.

  5. David Markle
    David Markle February 11, 2015 at 12:24 pm #

    St. Paul’s adoption of vibrating semaphore buttons along University Avenue strikes me as an excellent accomodation. Medians are more complicated. Certainly Minneapolis’ substitution of a median for a semaphore at 5th and Cedar has gotten a mixed reception. (And the recent major street modifications in that neighborhood have proven as bad or worse than I predicted–but more about that later!)

  6. Roy Gothie February 12, 2015 at 6:33 am #

    For those of you interested in Access Management, I’d note that the Transportation Research Board (TRB) has released the new NCHRP 15-43, Second Edition of the TRB Access Management Manual.

    I’d also recommend the TRB’s Access Management Committee’s website located at: http://www.accessmanagement.info/

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