Green Line Tragedy a Wake-up Call

When I first heard about the fatal Green Line crash at Snelling Avenue Station last Thursday morning, I was shocked and dismayed. And as additional reports gave the name of the victim–Lynne Thomas–and focused on how highly she was valued for the role she played as receptionist at the Minnesota Senate research department, I became even more upset and saddened. Finally, I moved to anger, because I knew this was a preventable death.

According to media reports, Lynne Thomas lived just a few blocks from the station. She was “a lifelong transit rider who didn’t drive” and took the Green Line train every day to her job at the Capitol. Renee Rose, her supervisor, described her as “very safety conscious” and said: “Crossing against the light does not sound like her at all.” This was clearly not some rash young scofflaw (probably male?), who made a practice of darting through traffic, ignoring crosswalks and red lights. From the descriptions given, Lynne was clearly aware of the need to obey the law and pay attention while crossing to the station.

That was when it clicked that this could easily have been me–or any other pedestrian trying to get to a Green Line station.

Green Line transit riders waiting at the Snelling station (courtesy of Metro Transit

Green Line transit riders waiting at the Snelling station (courtesy of Metro Transit)

I’m not a daily Green Line rider, but when I do take the train at the Snelling station, I’m usually getting off the 84 or 21 bus at Spruce Tree Drive and walking north to the southeast corner of University Avenue. Then if I’m headed west to Minneapolis, I must often wait more than a minute to cross Snelling, before heading north across the eastbound traffic lanes and both light rail tracks to get to the westbound platform. Many times, as I cross Snelling, I watch my train proceed through the intersection, stop at the station, and then pull away, just as I’m swiping my Go-To card and running up the platform. Knowing I’ll have to wait another ten minutes for the next train, I’m often sorely tempted to take advantage of a gap in traffic to race across the street against the light.

Lynne Thomas lived a few blocks northwest of the station, and faced a similar challenge coming from the north. She too would have had to cross both Snelling and University, including both LRT tracks, to get from the northwest corner to the eastbound station platform. Thursday’s train crash is still being investigated, so we don’t yet know exactly what happened, but it’s clear to me that we need to provide safer, faster, more direct routes for people to get to the train station if we are to avoid future fatalities and injuries along the Green Line. David Rasmussen who lives just a couple of blocks from the Snelling station, puts it this way, in a post on e-democracy: “Those making connections are offered an obstacle course with traffic lights to get between bus and rail. I have seen teenagers outrun and run in front of moving traffic to try to make a connection.”

Walking routes to the Snelling station

Walking routes to the Snelling station

And while heavy traffic makes the Snelling intersection especially challenging for pedestrians as they navigate multiple conflict points with cars, trucks, buses and light rail, other stations present similar problems. For example, in an earlier article–Getting to the Green Line: Seen through the Lens of a Wheelchair User–I noted that to get to the Fairview station, residents of Episcopal Homes must walk a fair distance to the corner, wait for the light, cross traffic lanes and train tracks, and walk back to the station platform, which is located directly across from the main entrance to their senior residence. It seems unreasonable to expect people to follow such a circuitous route. Given human nature, good intentions may well be overcome by the temptation to cut across traffic lanes and climb over barriers to catch the train.

The District Councils Collaborative of Saint Paul and Minneapolis (DCC) has for some time been concerned about making sure that people can safely and easily walk to the Green Line. Knowing that 80% of riders were expected to walk to their station, and that the light rail planning process did not pay much attention to this issue, in 2011, the DCC began working with the district councils and neighborhood associations along the Green Line to identify barriers and propose improvements to create safe, pleasant walking routes to the stations. A number of walkability studies were undertaken, and recommendations made, to ensure that people of all ages and abilities could get to the light rail on foot.

The most recent DCC walkability study is of Snelling Avenue, from Charles Avenue to Marshall Avenue, with a report and recommendations due to be released shortly. Working collaboratively with the Union Park District Council and Hamline-Midway Coalition, with technical support from the Design Center of the St. Paul Riverfront Corporation, the study included a walkabout with MnDOT and St Paul Public Works staff, door-to-door conversations and community meetings, and a two day workshop to review field note findings and to develop recommendations.

Signage on University Ave shows the way to the Snelling station, but there's no wayfinding for pedestrian approaching from Snelling Ave

Signage on University Ave shows the way to the Snelling station, but there’s no wayfinding for pedestrians approaching from Snelling Ave

A primary goal for the DCC study was to persuade MnDOT and the City of Saint Paul to include pedestrian improvements on Snelling as part of the I-94 Snelling bridge deck replacement and Mill and Overlay projects that are scheduled to begin shortly. At the Snelling-University intersection, community members noted that the LRT crossing is “stimulating and confusing”, and lacks way-finding for people walking to the station on Snelling. The bar crosswalk markings are also worn out in several places and there is not enough time allowed for pedestrians cross the wide streets at this busy intersection. The study recommendations for this intersection include:

  • replacing bar crosswalks with high visibility crosswalks and installing advance stop lines for all directions of traffic
  • ensuring accessibility for people in wheelchairs by improving ADA pedestrian ramps, placing countdown push buttons in reachable locations, and providing adequate sidewalk width
  • installing way-finding signage on Snelling, directing people to eastbound and westbound platforms
  • adjusting signal timing to allow more time for pedestrians to cross Snelling and giving pedestrians a head start by providing Leading Pedestrian Intervals (LPI)

These are all good recommendations, and most will be implemented as part of MnDOT’s summer construction projects. But more will need to be done if we are to prevent future pedestrian deaths in train crashes like the one that took Lynne Thomas’s life last Thursday. We should be looking at all options, and researching what works in other cities. Adjustments to signal timing? Perhaps a pedestrian-only walk cycle, allowing people to cross in any direction, including diagonally? (This is known as a pedestrian scramble and has been implemented in a number of locations) Should we consider pedestrian bridges or tunnels for the busiest station areas? If so, what would they cost, and where would they go?

Some have suggested a pedestrian bridge for the Snelling intersection (example from Kunming, Yunnan Province, China -- probably not Minnesota style

Some have suggested a pedestrian bridge for the Snelling intersection (example from Kunming, Yunnan Province, China — probably not exactly Minnesota style!)

The train has already cost two pedestrian lives since the Green Line opened on June 14, 2014. (A previous fatality occurred at the Westgate station in August 2014.) That’s two too many train crash deaths. But it would be a lost opportunity if we focus only on train crashes. Colin Fesser, who has been actively involved in efforts to make Snelling safer for pedestrians, points out, in an e-democracy post, that the discussion about what can be done to further minimize traffic crash fatalities needs to be put in the proper context. He asks: “How many accidents along the corridor DON’T involve the LRT?” And he points out that “our media… is much quicker to jump on “train hits woman!” than “two cars crashed…again.”

A "Pedestrian Scramble" allows pedestrians to take the most direct route to their destination (example from Chicago)

A “Pedestrian Scramble” allows pedestrians to take the most direct route to their destination (example from Chicago)

My hope is that this tragedy will be a wake-up call for the Twin Cities, not just to figure out what needs to be done to prevent train crash fatalities and injuries along the Green Line, but to make a commitment to eliminate traffic crash fatalities of all sorts in the Twin Cities. Minnesota already has a Toward Zero Deaths (TZD) program that has been in place for ten years and has resulted in a 43% reduction in traffic fatalities; but metro area efforts have so far been limited. Isn’t it time for Saint Paul and Minneapolis to create a Twin Cities TZD coalition, and adopt an action plan with specific measurable goals and a target date to end all traffic (and train) fatalities?

Much more to come on TZD and Vision Zero. But that’s a topic for another day…



Anne White

About Anne White

Anne White lives in the Merriam Park neighborhood of Saint Paul. She is currently the Land Use Chair for the Union Park District Council (District 13) and serves on the Governing Council of the District Councils Collaborative of Saint Paul and Minneapolis (DCC). After moving to the Twin Cities in 2003, she retired from her work as a professional photographer and began working to ensure that community concerns were fully considered in planning for the Green Line LRT. Now that the line is up and running, including stations at Hamline, Victoria and Western, her main focus is on walkability, making sure that people of all ages and levels of mobility have safe, pleasant walking routes to LRT and other destinations. She was recently appointed to the St Paul Transportation Committee of the Planning Commission as the Active Living community representative.