A Blink of an Eye on Hennepin Avenue East

On Tuesday evening around 6 o’clock, my girlfriend and I decided to take a trip from our home in Stevens Square to the first-ever Northeast Night Market at 13th and Tyler St NE. We chose to bike; the sun was shining, the air was hot (but not too hot yet), and we knew that with as many RSVPs as the Facebook event had, parking would be a nightmare. Besides, we chose to live in a city where biking was not just allowed but encouraged, so the choice seemed natural.

Now, I’m a confident biker. I’m willing, if not happy, to ride on a street without bike lanes or sharrows. I try to spend at least an hour a day biking, and most days, I manage that. But my girlfriend isn’t, so we planned a route that would hopefully be low-stress; Park Avenue through downtown (busy, but it was after rush hour), the lovely Stone Arch Bridge, and finally the new Fillmore/Polk/Pierce/Tyler (“Presidents”) bike boulevard through Marcy-Holmes and the Northeast. It was actually my first time on the boulevard (built only last year!) and I’m happy to report that for the most part, while the signage could be improved, it is a pleasant and low-stress way to travel through the area.

But there’s one place where that isn’t true.

Photo of intersection of Hennepin at 5th Ave SE Minneapolis

Hennepin Avenue at 5th Ave SE

Where the bike boulevard crosses Hennepin Avenue E, at Fifth Street SE, the city elected to build only half a solution. Hennepin here is a busy four-lane road, on which cars race along at speeds far exceeding the posted limits. Because the grid here is thrown off by the railroad tracks, cyclists are given an awkward, if ostensibly workable solution; they press a button to activate flashing warning lights, wait for a safe moment to cross, then bike along the north side of Hennepin on the sidewalk until reaching Pierce Street NE, where preference for bikes is once again established. In theory, this is a solution which accommodates the needs of everyone. In practice, it almost got me killed.

Approaching the intersection at a low speed, I took note of the circumstances and came to a stop. I did everything right, as far as I could tell; I pressed the button (you can see it in the bottom right of the picture above), noted the flashing lights on the sign overhead, waited until the traffic stopped to yield for me, made eye contact with the driver, and then slowly proceeded into the intersection to cross.

Then I heard sustained honking and screeching brakes. I barely had time to look to my left; a driver had raced around the stopped cars (which is illegal, section 2b), perhaps assuming that they’d stopped to look at clouds, and noticed me just in time to slam to a halt. He stopped six inches away, if that. We made eye contact (kind of, he was wearing dark sunglasses); his face was impassive. As far as I could tell, the only thing on his mind was wondering why I had the temerity to be there.

Think about it. This man, whoever he was, was driving his SUV well above the speed limit, on a road already posted for a speed (30 miles per hour) which is plenty fast enough to kill someone. If any of a thousand things had been different — if he had been on his cell phone, if the stopped driver hadn’t laid on his horn, if I had been just a fraction less visible — there is a 60-85% chance that I would be in a morgue right now. It wouldn’t matter whether I was wearing my helmet (I was) or wearing a suit of armor (I wasn’t); at a certain point, physics takes over. I would be dead, or (at best) grievously wounded, and the driver might not even be under arrest.

And that’s doing everything right! Imagine if I had been careless for a moment, or if I didn’t understand the instructions, or if my vision were impaired. Even though I knew exactly the movements to make, even though I took every precaution, I still came a fraction of a second away from death because someone decided this intersection wasn’t worth a red light.

Minneapolis can brag about its Copenhagenize score or take visitors on trips down the Greenway, but so much of our network is held together by junctions like this, so fragile that a moment’s carelessness — to say nothing of depraved indifference — can end someone’s life in the blink of an eye. If we truly want to get serious about living in a city where everyone can get around comfortably by whatever means they choose, we need to do more than draw lines on a map. Just as a bike lane is meaningless if it’s always filled with parked cars, an intersection like this is worse than worthless if we don’t confront the choices which lead to that driver speeding through this blinking intersection far over the speed limit.

Because I may not survive another near miss.

Ethan Osten

About Ethan Osten

Ethan Osten is a writer, a co-chair of the Saint Paul Bicycle Coalition, an avid cyclist and bus rider, and generally a pretty boring guy. He lives in Saint Paul's North End.

58 thoughts on “A Blink of an Eye on Hennepin Avenue East

  1. Joe D

    I do like the overhead crossings as are at this intersection, but I also think there should be flashers at 4-5ft off the ground on the right side of the roadway as well. If these were installed, I’m sure this type of situation would be avoided.

    Adding a signal here does not make sense. Low minor approaches (even with peds) will probably not meet warrants and that will cause a decrease in safety for all modes.

    1. Ethan OstenEthan Osten Post author

      In my experience, very few drivers will stop unless they’re explicitly told to STOP, not just yield. This same thing happens at 10th Ave SE and 5th St, where cars have a lower average speed but are equally reluctant to yield.

        1. Matt SteeleMatt Steele

          Wouldn’t it be far cheaper to have a single lane of traffic in each direction, separated by a wide refuge island? Seems to work well on Greenway/28th, Southern (17th)/42nd St, etc.

          1. Al Davison

            MnDOT’s traffic map states about 11,500 vehicles a day along that stretch in 2011, similar to Riverside Ave. So it’s possible to have the corridor go under a 3-lane road diet with refuges at some intersections, unless there is an issue with trucks (I couldn’t find info about truck traffic on the road). Even with a truck issue though 4-lanes with no turn lanes anyways causes unsafe lane changes due to impatient drivers. I hate them even as a driver, as Rice Street is easier to drive where it’s 3 lanes near where I live versus 4 in St. Paul.

              1. Al Davison

                MnDOT had a more updated count, but it was just a draft from 2013. Still was only 14,500 vpd and I can’t see a reason why it would increase to anything higher than 15K. Only thing I could think of that would increase in the future is pedestrian and cyclists.

                Could be a good route for SE Como residents north of Como and NE/Mid-City Industrial people to travel to/from Old St. Anthony and downtown.

            1. Alex CecchiniAlex Cecchini

              Right of way here is 80′. I know it’s a pretty desolate industrial area, but the development going on in “Old St Anthony” is going to continue creeping north and east. There’s no reason a 4-3 shouldn’t be the template here. Paint it now with super wide/buffered bike lanes on the outside, and do something when it’s reconstructed that allows for quality development on either side: http://streetmix.net/alexcecchini/99/e-hennepin-ave-future Zone as transitional industrial to mixed-use.

  2. Joe U

    I travel through this area often, so I’m glad this was brought to attention. I don’t bother with the crosswalk signal anymore and just wait until all traffic is out of sight.

    The next intersection to continue on the BB at Pierce and Hennepin is almost as dangerous when traveling eastbound. After carrying speed down the hill on Hennepin’s sidewalk, a cyclist needs to make a blind left turn around a retaining wall onto Pierce while looking over their shoulder to make sure people aren’t turning into them from Hennepin.

    Don’t worry, there are no pedestrians on the sidewalk.

  3. Matt SteeleMatt Steele

    Living on the southside, I’ve only had to bike through here a handful of times. But it is scary. How the heck is Hennepin still a 4 Lane Death Road? A road diet + a refuge island would work wonders at this location. Fancy lights or bridge likely not needed. Just channelize traffic and #slowthecars. The current design invites irresponsibility by drivers.

    This wouldn’t have had an impact on a motorist deciding to cut around stopped traffic, but here’s an interesting piece from Rachel Quednau over at StrongTowns: http://www.strongtowns.org/journal/2015/6/20/my-personal-stop-sign

    1. Wayne

      Probably the same way Broadway NE is still a 4 lane death road and E Hennepin/1st Ave NE are 3-4 lane one-way death highways through supposedly pedestrian-oriented areas. Supposedly they’re waiting on the latter two until they figure out what to do with the streetcar, but that’s going to be another ten years at best and it’s currently way too dangerous to leave how it is for that long. I have little hope for Central ever getting calmed through near northeast, but currently that whole area is just awful for pedestrians and cyclists.

    2. brad

      according to the city’s document linked in the article, could’ve have had refuge for an additional $10K, and curb extensions for another $10K

      1. Justin FoellJustin Foell

        Does the document indicate how much the signalized intersection thingy was? I’d take a neckdown with a center refuge over blinky lights anyday. Sounds like it would be a good tradeoff if the costs lined up.

        1. Wayne

          I’ll take road spikes that pop up on demand about 100ft back from the actual crossing with flashing lights back there (they can have a delay between the lights coming on the spikes popping up, that seems fair).

  4. Keith Morris

    Across this intersection north to the west is a long parking lot that leads to an alley behind Legends to Harrison St. Take that north and you have to head east under the bridge which takes you right to Fillmore where the bike boulevard is: a 180 compared to riding on Hennepin and so I have no idea why the city didn’t work with businesses to make it an official route

  5. UrbanDoofus

    I drive this stretch every day to and from work and I can attest to it being utter bullshit. Motorists here do not obey the law, despite any dumb ass studies or articles say about MN drivers being best in the nation. There is little to no enforcement from police for traffic violations, why will anyone obey? Also, the sign says STOP, not yield, so there should be no confusion here.

    I have several times come to a complete stop when seeing the sign lit up, and a kid(why?) waiting to cross. The blinking lights do nothing. Cars roar through and around me even as I honk. I was also on the receiving end of this behavior this morning as I waited to cross an identical type of intersection in North Loop. When I waved to alert them, they glared at me, sped up and flipped me off once past me. This is the shit we’re dealing with.

    Am I mad? Hell yes, I’m mad for Ethan and his wife, I’m mad for me, and I’m mad for the kids I see who have to face this. MN has a driving culture problem, not a signage problem. I assure you, this is not the norm everywhere, despite everyone who says “this one time, I was in Chicago….” or “the cabs in NYC don’t give a shit, they almost killed me…”

    Despite the huge time crunch, maybe we should sit for hours and take video of the stuff we see. Sit at this intersection and document everything because the sum of our experiences is far more powerful than one person’s story.

    1. Dave Bucklin

      I frequently observe drivers in North Loop ignoring stop signs and failing to give pedestrians a safe buffer. This is really surprising if you assume that these drivers live in the area.

      1. Rosa

        That “I see a car is stopped I will zoom around them because they are clearly an idiot” or “I see a car is waiting to turn even though they have a green light, there is no reason for that I will honk at them” is pretty standard Twin Cities driver behavior. It happens to me basically every time I drive, since I stop for pedestrians.

        The worst are the car choke points, like the streets that cross Hwy 55 on the South side, and the streets that feed into or off interstates.

        I’m all for video evidence of this kind of behavior. It is maddening and dangerous. Every driver who says “Well nobody gets behind the wheel thinkin “i’d love to kill someone today” should have to watch it and see how it looks from the vulnerable side.

    2. Wayne

      I’m so 100% with you in this boat. I’m guessing most people in general, and even quite a few here would be surprised with the kind of behavior I have to deal with as a pedestrian in this city. People are incredibly rude, dangerous and actively hostile to me just for … walking? When I have the right of way? Like seriously, wtf? I had someone try to back their car over my girlfriend and I on the sidewalk and when she lightly kicked their bumper to try to alert them to our presence an old man got out and spewed one of the most vile strings of profanities at her I’ve heard in a while. He even dropped the never-appropriate n-bomb (and she is white …?). I’ve had other people get out of their car and want to fight me because I dared to tap their car with my hand when they were putting my life in danger, or threw them a bird when they zoomed by way too close for safety. It’s a war out there and people who drive refuse to see the toll it’s taking on anyone who doesn’t live like they do.

      1. Wayne

        One of my favorite trouble spots is where 4th street NE turns onto 1st Ave NE … they are both one-way streets with multiple lanes. People coming from 4th get impatient waiting for the light and start making left turns on red frome both lanes and only look right for cars coming down first … so if you’re a pedestrian walking north on 1st ave good luck not getting killed when you have the walk sign. There’s a police substation a block away, but they basically only exist to write parking tickets so there’s zero enforcement here. I can see someone getting killed here and absolutely nothing changing because … no one cares about your life if you’re a pedestrian.

          1. Wayne

            I walk through it almost daily and it never feels safe. At the very least a “NO TURN ON RED” sign would deter some of this behavior, but even that is probably asking too much of traffic engineers. I wonder how long it would take for anyone to notice and remove it if I just put up a home-made or ‘vintage’ one that I find/make? Guerra urbanism.

          2. Rosa

            At that point it’s not just design, though, it’s driving culture.

            And you see it in cyclists too – I assume the folks who like to stop their bikes completely blocking the crosswalk do the same thing with their cars when they drive.

    3. Nick

      Sadly, video isn’t even that effective. I already tried sending video to MPD (via my City Council member’s office), showing many instances where people found it ‘just too inconvenient’ to stop for the red lights for Nicollet Mall at 3rd St. and 4th St. in DT. I walk through those intersections twice daily (for a collective observation time of maybe 5 minutes weekly) and catch a great shot of flagrant re-light running about 6x per week. I could probably choose other intersections and get the same frequency, but I’d prefer to get action on those streets to increase the likelihood of passing along some costs of maintaining our city to the fine suburbanites using 94 through N Minneapolis… my own brand of ‘equity’. Doesn’t matter either way, though, since MPD is a dead end on enforcing traffic laws.

      1. Monte Castleman

        If police will shut down a freeway to facilitate it’s illegal use by pedestrians rather than start righting citations, it’s not a surprise that issuing red light tickets isn’t a priority either.

        1. Wayne

          Oh boo-hoo, one day for a couple hours outside of rush-hour is not the same thing as every rush hour every day for years and years. Daily flouting of these laws puts the lives of pedestrians in danger… a one day protest inconvenienced a few drivers. NOT EQUIVALENT.

  6. Justin FoellJustin Foell

    Thanks for writing about this Ethan. I encounter it anytime I ride to downtown, and it is the worst part about this otherwise pleasant route.

    The crosswalk blinky thing is a stupid cover-your-a$$ engineering idea that probably does more harm than good.

    I do what I did before they installed the blinky light, ride in the road on Hennepin for a brief moment. It is not for everyone – it is often an intimidating adrenaline rush. But I feel like cars will see me better there, and it’s only for 30 seconds.

    I’d love to see a better solution, but I’m not sure what it is. A bridge would be expensive and then after crossing the road you still need to cross the tracks.

    1. Dave Bucklin

      There’s a crossing signal like this at 31st street and Girard Ave S. I often see drivers stop short when they see a pedestrian in the crosswalk as if they didn’t see the flashing signal. I think these signals are so rare that drivers ignore them. Plus, the lights are yellow, not red. As UrbanDoofus mentioned, the sign says stop, but there’s no red to be seen, so a quick scan could leave a driver feeling that he’s not expected to stop.

    1. Jeremy HopJeremy H

      I use that route frequently, however trains do pass through at grade, so you have to stop

      1. Nick

        The conditions in that underpass are not particularly desirable. I used to use this more often, but almost crashed because of a pothole I couldn’t see in the low light. I’ll take my chances in full daylight for now.

  7. Sean Hayford OlearySean Hayford Oleary

    The crossing pictured is very badly designed, and coaxes bicycles into asserting non-existent right-of-way.

    The problem is this: a bicycle on a sidewalk or trail, crossing in a crosswalk, has the same right-of-way as a pedestrian. A bicycle on the roadway is a vehicle, and is subject to the same right-of-way rules as any other vehicle — regardless of whether warning lights are flashing.

    This design, however, provides a push button for bicycles on the roadway to cross without ever entering the crosswalk. It sounds like from the original author’s description that that’s exactly what he did. I honestly think that if you were hit in that situation — not in the crosswalk — you would be found liable, for failing to obey the stop sign and yielding to the street with no stop sign.

    The solution to this would be fairly simple: direct bicycles onto the sidewalk first, to access the button there, and remove the button at the curb. Since bicycles are already being asked to ride on the sidewalk, this shouldn’t pose a problem.

    Of course, I don’t think the offending motorist’s behavior would necessarily be better just because you’re riding on rather than near the crosswalk. But it at least puts bikes in the legal right. Making the actual crossing experience better has been covered well in other comments. My preferred option would be going to two lanes with a wide refuge island here.

    1. Monte Castleman

      That’s a good assessment of the situation. I don’t know if the engineers weren’t thinking, or if the intent was to for a bicyclist to push the button while riding, and setting the button farther back would give cars time to stop by the time the bicyclist reached the crosswalk.

      Assuming we can’t do a 4-3 conversion until the next resurfacing, a sign “bicyclists must use crosswalk” would clarify things

      1. Sean Hayford OlearySean Hayford Oleary

        Well, “must use” is a little strong, since you could well have a bicyclist not intending to get to that sidewalk, but planning to ride on the roadway eastbound — or maybe not intending to follow the Presidents Bike Blvd at all, and turning westbound on Hennepin.

        Taking away the button at the curb, and possibly providing a larger ramp so bicycles can easily get up to the sidewalk button, would help a lot. I suppose you could also combine a suggested “Bicycles use crosswalk” on conjunction with the wayfinding aspect. Like, an arrow indicating to cross street and turn right, paired with a recommendation to use the crosswalk.

  8. g bernard hughes

    sadly, this sort of bike-crossing is very common in minneapolis. ive not experienced the one in the article but i often cross 11th ave & also 26th street.

    as in the scenario described in this excellent article, in both cases i am on a bike trail which is interrupted by roads filled with speeding drivers.

    we can talk all we want abt our great bike trails but anyone who bikes them regularly understands their (life-threatening) limitations.

    i am only glad your story did not have a different ending.

    1. Wayne

      Yeah, I’d go so far as to say a bike trail is only as good as its least-safe road crossing–which puts almost all of our trails into pretty bad territory if you think about it that way.

  9. Nick

    This intersection frustrates me quite a lot. As a Marcy-Holmes resident, it’s right in my backyard, and I have been told this was just intended to be a stopgap until the project can actually be finished. (The long-term plan was supposedly to build an overpass that would clear Hennepin and the RR tracks to connect directly to Fillmore.) However, given the fact that such a project isn’t in the City’s capital plans for the next 5 years, seems unlikely it will change anytime soon.

  10. Walker AngellWalker Angell

    Ethan, very glad you guys are OK. And that you wrote this.

    It often seems that U.S. traffic engineers have an underlying belief that people will obey laws and so long as they design something to work as long as everyone does obey all of the laws then the traffic engineers (and AASHTO and NACTO and MUTCD and …) are absolved of all responsibility.

    Engineers elsewhere assume that people will not necessarily obey the laws so they design the roadways accordingly with much narrower lanes, sharper radiuses at turns, and very clear sharks teeth markings indicating who has right-of-way. It becomes second nature to use considerable caution anytime you’ve got the teeth. Crossings will also often be tabled (raised a few inches) to insure that drivers slow down and in some cases ‘veered’ so that the lane shifts a bit around a cement median at a crossing to further slow traffic.

    1. Wayne

      The assumption by traffic engineers of uniform, lawful, and appropriate road use is their biggest safety failure.

    2. Aaron Berger

      Just try talking with a traffic engineer about the need for a marked crosswalk on a busy street. “You DO know that every intersection is a crosswalk,” the engineer will helpfully reply.

        1. Sean Hayford OlearySean Hayford Oleary

          What I usually hear is that marked crosswalks give a “false sense of security”, and that by leaving them unmarked, we successfully intimidate pedestrians into not asserting their right-of-way, thus improving safety.

          Most engineers I talk to seem reluctant to acknowledge that peds have right-of-way at any locations other than those that they’ve designated for safest crossing.

        2. Aaron Berger

          I certainly agree that a crosswalk is not a substitute for judgment, and an even poorer substitute for conscientious motorists – however, it is also a (sadly necessary) bolster to the legitimacy of the pedestrian. It is a physical claim to a space that motorists believe belongs solely to them and it is at least a visual indicator that hey, there might be a human here. In the meantime, I’ll be there, scurrying across the street like a raccoon, trying not to be in anybody’s way.

  11. BB

    Here is a sure fire way to cross the street,

    One lane at a time.

    Fling the bike out to that lane (make sure your on the left side of the bike)

    Watch the cars all yield to you 🙂

  12. Mark Snyder (@snyde043)

    I have used that intersection while biking pretty regularly in the past few months and never even noticed that flashing warning light or the button to activate it. I’m going to make sure to try it next time I’m in that area.

    1. Mark Snyder

      Following up on my earlier comment…I’ve used that intersection twice now and the crossing signal both times and I agree it’s definitely not very good at actually getting drivers to stop.

      I’ve had much better success using the similar, but much more prominent crossing signal, at 18th and University Ave NE. I would say that has at least a similar volume of traffic, so I wonder if it’s just the bigger signal display or are there other factors for why that one seems to be more effective?

  13. Low

    I really wanted to read this article, considering I recognize how messed up this intersection is, but couldn’t get past, “Now, I’m a confident biker. I’m willing, if not happy, to ride on a street without bike lanes or sharrows. I try to spend at least an hour a day biking, and most days, I manage that. But my girlfriend isn’t, so we planned a route that would hopefully be low-stress…”

    Next time, try, “This intersection is dangerous for bikes to cross,” or, “This intersection is uncomfortable for some people/less confident people on bikes to cross.” I am uninterested in reading your assertions of your confident cycling status in comparison to your unnamed girlfriend to understand what is happening in that intersection.

    1. Sean Hayford OlearySean Hayford Oleary

      This is kind of a delicate balance. I am also someone who would also describe himself as a “confident biker” (or perhaps, more neutrally, a “vehicular cyclist”). And, honestly, I sometimes dismiss assertions that an intersection or street is “dangerous” without any attempt to drive a bike on it confidently and predictably. (e.g., yes, Lyndale Avenue north of Lake is dangerous when you’re weaving in and out of parked cars or hugging the door zone, concealing yourself from view of cars coming out of cross streets.)

      So to acknowledge that other routes exist — and that this particular route exists in part to cater towards those who are uncomfortable in heavier traffic — seems like a reasonable way to start off this article.

      I gather that you see a negative gender dynamic in the fact that he’s making the assessment of his girlfriend. But as my boyfriend is similarly averse to riding in heavy traffic, I found the author’s circumstances pretty relatable.

      1. Low

        How to talk about infrastructure:

        “I would like to make this infrastructure safer.”
        “I would like to make this infrastructure more comfortable for all people on bikes, including people with less confidence.”
        I agree that making it personal and telling your story is important. Perhaps you can say, “My girlfriend/loved one rides this route and I would love for it to be safer.” or, “My girlfriend/loved one is not a confident cyclist and does not like to cross this terrible intersection.”

        I am a confident cyclist and I prefer the “low-stress” route every time.

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