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 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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6 thoughts on “Supposed Safety Measures Test My Patience

  1. KPD

    I cross that intersection twice a day while commuting. Of all the frustrations I encounter while bike-commuting, this intersection doesn’t even register. The occasional 40-second wait is nothing compared the dangerous crossing at 26th Street, waiting for traffic at the poorly designed 11th Avenue crossing, or navigating the downtown construction blocking the bike lanes.

    1. janne

      I’m 100% with you on the downtown construction – it’s infuriating to to try to get those last few blocks. I also agree that 26th is a much more dangerous crossing, although I find 11th just fine.

      I also agree that this one is fine… the vast majority of the time. I’d never say it’s dangerous as designed. Rather, the one time in 20 you end up waiting for the train, the frustration of having to wait when it’s totally unnecessary leads to foolish — and risky actions.

      Last night, I was a bit surprised to hear of another friend who had a story of crank through, knowing the length of the wait. Yes, anectdata. If I knew the Really Good Reason it’s designed the way it is, I’d mind less. (I know why 26th, 11th, and the construction zones are the way they are. I don’t like it, but I mind it less.)

    2. Adam MillerAdam Miller

      11th Avenue shares a problem with this one – the way it’s set up is just asking people to go around it, and that’s dangerous.

      26th Street is kinda scary, but at least if you wait for the train the traffic coming from the west gets interrupted.

    3. Ben

      26th is absolutely the most frustrating part of my commute, although generally if I force the issue cars will stop.

  2. Evan RobertsEvan

    I find 26th to be good on foot, traffic seems to stop for me more reliably than most signed crossings, and median island functions well. But on a bike it’s worse. Speed of approach is the issue, I think.

  3. Joe ScottJoe Scott

    Seems like the best solution is to set it up the way the 24th st. crossing of the Blue line works. It starts dinging ridiculously early too, but there’s no bar, so the dinging acts as more of a “heads up” rather than a strict barrier to crossing.

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