Hiawatha Trail and Green Line

Supposed Safety Measures Test My Patience

Green Line signal timing and Green Line safety – especially for human-powered and potentially impatient users – are old news on streets.mn. Today, I point out an as-yet unmentioned crossing design that is begging for trouble.

Hiawatha Trail and Green Line

Hiawatha Trail and Green Line

I regularly observe the Green Line crossing of the Hiawatha bike trail as part of my daily commute. When I end up there at the same time as an west-bound train, it’s pretty frustrating. After a few experiences, I’ve noticed that waiting for east-bound trains is even more frustrating than for west-bound trains. However, waiting offers more than enough time to observe.

A few weeks ago, I pulled out my phone’s (imprecise) stopwatch. First, I timed people using the crossing. Every person riding a bike — save one — took 6-7 seconds to cross from a stopping distance before the first arm to pass the far arm. One person took 10 seconds, braking and looking in both directions multiple times for each set of tracks. Someone pushing a stroller and walking two dogs took less than 20 seconds from arm to arm.

I also timed (and later took a video of) an east-bound train. On the video, it takes 40 seconds from when it triggers dinging until the train actually enters the crossing. 40 seconds seems excessive. Let me rephrase. 40 seconds is excessive. And that’s 14 seconds longer than already-too-long time of west-bound trains, which take a leisurely 26 seconds.

Here’s the video so you can personally experience the wait from both directions. First, the short wait. Then, the long wait.

So, What’s Happening?

My theory is that the dinging is triggered at a specific distance rather than by a predicted travel time, and that the distance was calculated assuming trains would travel the same speed on both sides of the crossing. It also appears that east-bound trains have more and sharper jogs before the crossing. They have to shift to the north-bound tracks and then again to the St. Paul-bound tracks. Because of those zags, they CRAWL through that section of track — which is AFTER the dinging/arms are triggered. From the other direction, the tracks arc gently, so trains move a bit faster, arriving at the crossing 30% faster (from the initial dings).

Space for trucks to drive round the crossing arm

Space for trucks to drive round the crossing arm

I’m curious if the engineers who set up the timing at that intersection adjusted for train speed? Did they account for different behavior of people using different modes of traffic? Did they test bike riding speed? Why are the arms placed so surprisingly (and annoyingly) far from the tracks, necessitating a longer warning time to accommodate the long crossing? Clearly, they did design the arms to extend beyond the trail edge and to be impossible to sneak around. This is smart, but they missed the truck drive-around. PSA: people walking and biking can fit through there, too.

A Dangerous Scenario

If I, a red-light-waiting, rule-following, generally patient, bike-riding, middle-aged lady, am frustrated at being trapped behind the arm and watching a train CRAWL towards the crossing for 40 seconds, I’m willing to bet many other less-laid-back people are even more frustrated. And the frustration of being trapped behind an excessively conservative crossing arm timing system means that I always approach the crossing cranking hard to avoid the wait. I dare say I’m not the only one. That means people are likely to duck, cranking it at the warning. (Ever been caught by one of those arms? Yeah, you really don’t want to be.)

That conservative crossing arm timing is teaching all of us to do dangerous things around these trains. And trains can be deadly.

About Janne Flisrand

Janne Flisrand spends her time thinking about how people interact with the space around them. Why do they (or don't they) walk or bike or shop somewhere? How do spaces feel? Why do people sit here and not there? Why bus instead of bike, bike instead of drive? What sorts of spaces build community, and what sorts kill it? Can spaces build civic trust and engagement?

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