Unreasonability at the Green Line Central Station Makes LRT More Dangerous Everywhere

In downtown Saint Paul, there is a station on the Green Line light rail (LRT) called “Central“. This station is very useful! There’s a skyway connection, and it allows core office workers and casual activity users access to the Metro system.

Parked diagonally across a city block, there was always going to be some awkwardness. The sidewalk does a ‘V’ down to avoid pedestrians crossing at the wrong places anywhere along the diagonal tracks. It’s awkward.

The sidewalk is not adjacent to the street, but runs along the fence.

The sidewalk is not adjacent to the street, but runs along the fence.

And of course, in a busy downtown, we have to control everything. Pedestrians have a signal indicating when tracks are clear for crossing. In theory, you can see where the train is located ten seconds in advance, and the signal starts the countdown to clear pedestrians. Coming into a station and going around a bend, the train is going slow enough to not run over grandma.

However, the crossing doesn’t have pedestrian sensors. Instead, it seems to be timed with the vehicle light. This leads to some very awkward situations, like having the “do not walk” signal show when no train is approaching. It even lights up when there is no conflict for the entire cycle.

This might not seem like a big issue: if trains are the only conflicting traffic, the signal is just telling people when it is assuredly safe to cross and nothing more.

There was no conflicting traffic of any sort during this cycle, but pedestrians still get a raised hand.

There was no conflicting traffic of any sort during this cycle, but pedestrians still get a raised hand.


What is Reasonablity?

Unfortunately that is not how the human mind works. The hardest subject we ever broached in any transportation class — which included traffic flow and highway design — was the topic of reasonability.

When a design is unreasonable or unwarranted, it will not be obeyed (or at least will not be obeyed for any length of time in months, years, etc). People learn that their command is not prudent for them, and begin to disregard it.

This is why we have so many uncontrolled intersections. Using stop signs when you don’t have to get below 5 mph to make a safe decisions means that the stop sign begins to lose its meaning. And by association, people begin to disregard all the other stop signs, too.

Now I will freely admit, a lot of reasonability has already been lost on pedestrian signals overall. But this case is especially ridiculous. Watch the video below:

[Watch the cops. Also note that the bells are ringing for a train which has already passed through and is in the station]

Not even MetroTransit’s own police officers will obey the signal! It is so unreasonable, that the people who are paid to uphold the rules not only ignore other people breaking the rules, but they themselves ignore the rules! If the signals are that unreasonable, then they are only conditioning people to ignore pedestrian signals.

I’m not sure when it happened, but can we just go back to the good old electronic bells in a light up sign?

Good ole sensor driven warning signs. No commands given, just letting people know when its dangerous and that's all.

Good ole sensor driven warning signs. No commands given, just letting people know when its dangerous and that’s all.

When we built the Green Line through the University of Minnesota campus, we over-controlled pedestrians. Along University Avenue, we over-controlled pedestrians (less so, but still).  A high amount of walk-up traffic plus over-signalization creates a dangerous situation all across the city.

As long as this goes on, people will be learning that the LRT signals are not designed with pedestrians in mind. They’ll start  wholly ignoring them, making a dangerous situation for everyone.

Joseph Totten

About Joseph Totten

Joe is a graduate of Civil Engineering-Transportation and Urban Studies at the University of Minnesota, and has a masters degree from Portland State University. Born and raised in Saint Paul, Joe has worked with nonprofits and public agencies in MSP and Portland.

19 thoughts on “Unreasonability at the Green Line Central Station Makes LRT More Dangerous Everywhere

    1. Joseph TottenJoseph Totten Post author

      I made sure to link yours in here. I saw this and remembered your post, decided this was the same kind of situation, and another post was in order.

  1. Emma

    Ack! I’m so glad you touched on this.

    I recently went to a city meeting where several engineers were pushing back on the idea of safer ped/bike infrastructure, stating that “people don’t follow signs/rules anyway, so why spend the money on changing this”? To me, it’s so obvious that if you want people to follow the rules, they need to make sense to ALL users, otherwise, as you stated, people [specifically walkers/bikers, since their modes are treated secondary to the car] will disregard.

    As a walker and a bicyclist, I regularly disregard rules/lights, not because I am a hooligan and a rule breaker, but because I understand that these rules were not timed or designed for my mode of transportation. As a driver, I follow all laws because I feel like they make sense and were designed for the mode I am travelling in. I’m sure walking against a light or yielding at a stop sign on my bicycle doesn’t make me look good but really, what’s a girl to do when walking/biking right-of-way is rarely ever prioritized and I have places to be in a timely manner, too!!

  2. Scott Walters

    Same issue with the Saint Paul bike boulevards. I always do an Idaho Stop whenever I’m biking on a bike boulevard. Until the boulevards are finished (assuming ever finishing them is a plan), I and almost every other cyclist I see on them treats the unadjusted stop signs as yield signs (which is only a half way solution, the crossing cars should be yielding to bikes all along the boulevards).

    It seems bizarre (and disappointing) that we spent a ton of money on the hard part of creating the boulevards (roundabouts, center refuges at the mile and half-mile main crossings, warning signs on the mile and half-mile main crossings), but didn’t do the easy cheap part of adjusting the stop signs on the minor crossings and changing the speed limits. A ton of money was spent and they all remain darn near useless for actual cycling (assuming you don’t run all the stop signs).

  3. Hokan

    In the last month they’ve improved the crossing timings through the University of Minnesota.

    For the last two years pedestrians have learned to ignore the pedestrian signals that didn’t work for them.

    Now, after those two years of training, pedestrians are ignoring the better crossing controls. Who’d have guessed?

  4. Walker AngellWalker Angell

    Great post.

    At many tram crossings in northern Europe there are zero signals. People walking or riding are expected to look for trains and if one is coming then not cross in front of it.


    I think these are often going somewhat slower than our LRT (45 mph max tram vs 55 mph max LRT) and the driver will slow/stop before hitting someone.

    Going a bit with your theme, the UK and EU sort of buy in to the don’t-make-things-unreasonable. They use many fewer stop signs and stop lights and often use sharks teeth (yield) instead. A stop sign in the UK is somewhat rare and when you see one it carries a lot of meaning.

    Their traffic engineers design for “what will real people do” instead of “it might be safe if everyone perfectly obeys every rule”. They establish speed limits but where they want people to drive slow they also narrow the lanes install chokers and make turns much sharper. They make many streets local access only and don’t allow through traffic.

    1. Nathanael

      A stop sign in the UK often means “Intersection is blind, you will have almost no notice of people or vehicles crossing your path”. You *really* watch it at a stop sign.

      Normal intersections have yields, or are roundabouts. They overuse roundabouts.

    2. Adam MillerAdam Miller

      I just spent two weeks driving around 1000 miles in the UK. I think I saw one stop sign. Everything else was a light, a roundabout or a “give way.”

      1. Monte Castleman

        I’ll be everyone stopped too.

        Using stop signs for traffic calming, speed control, or arbitrarily without warrants goes against MUTCD recommendations and just dilutes the message of the ones that are needed. (And in practice motorists do notice when stop signs are trying to impede them rather than warn of a dangerous condition, get angry at their time being wasted and stomp on the gas between signs, driving faster than they would otherwise). At least Bloomington is starting to use more “Yield” signs.

        1. Monte Castleman

          Or after coming to a complete stop at 5 nuisance stop signs, they start to roll through 6 and 7, and then completely blow #8, which turns out to be a 45 mph 5 lane wide suburban-style road rather than a quiet residential street.

  5. Monte Castleman

    I kind of wonder if the powers at be decided they needed to install the accessible vibro-tactile buttons at grade crossings, like they did on all the intersections rebuilt for the project. Those are part of a system that has to be tied in with a signal system with pedestrian signals. I don’t think you could have them tied into the train sensors somehow.

    1. Joseph TottenJoseph Totten Post author

      I mean, it would require another signal box (or a more complex coding) but it could definitely BE done, it was decided not to. 4 loop detectors would be easy enough. end of platform for NB (WB) the station dwell time is the clearance interval already, then another just across the tracks which, when clear switches to a walk signal. SB (EB) would require operators to stop further back or would have to be somehow knowing what the traffic signal for vehicles is doing, but one across the intersection to trip the countdown, another at the edge of crosswalk, when clear switches it back. The EXISTING train sensors probably cannot be reused, but if the concept of reasonability had been used in the design of this signal, it would not be this outcome.

      1. Wayne

        Yeah I don’t think laziness or incompetence on the part of traffic signal programmers is any excuse.

        1. Joseph TottenJoseph Totten Post author

          I don’t think this would be an engineer’s or programmer’s failure so much as likely a money saving device. This doesn’t excuse it not being there, actually probably makes it worse.

          Obviously, I did not dig hard for who made this decision, etc. So both are possibilities, but I think that someone said “We could get the fancy (extra $200,000 per station as a HIGH estimate) signal controllers, or we could save a million dollars and put it towards tunneling SouthWest LRT.”

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