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.
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.)
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.
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.