Signs and Sidewalks Don’t Mix

Photo of temporary construction sign on Sidewalk, Richfield, MN

A sign blocking a sidewalk on Lyndale Avenue, Richfield

Road construction season in Minnesota is winding down and, as a result, many of the orange signs that are seasonal visitors to our urban landscape will soon be warehoused away. If you’re a slab of concrete in Minneapolis with the purpose of providing space for people to walk, this may give you some breathing room.

Temporary construction signs are often placed on sidewalks or in bicycle lanes, usually without reason. I’m not sure if this is a new trend, or just something I’ve noticed more this summer.  A friend snapped this shot of a temporary sign placed on Lyndale Avenue in Richfield, but I’ve noticed similar situations in many places in Minneapolis this summer as well: Chicago Ave in my neighborhood during a chip seal project, East 31st Street in Corcoran during repaving, and 5th Ave South for signs related to East 28th Street repaving.

A lane-eating corollary

Sidewalk closed

Sidewalk closed in Downtown Minneapolis

I’ve noticed impacts to bicycle lanes and sidewalks from land development projects as well as street projects. Oftentimes it won’t be signs in the way of a bicycle lane or sidewalk, but rather the temporary elimination of this space in places where construction is happening adjacent to a street. I’ve noticed this on numerous blocks where my infrequent bicycle commutes to meetings downtown takes me along construction projects that extend past the curb.

While it’s understandable that building a skyscraper on a landlocked downtown parcel may require space for construction equipment and staging, we can still do a better job of providing temporary accommodations to walkers and bicyclists. It’s great many projects include complete reconstruction of the sidewalk, curb, and amenity space, but we can get to the finished state without limiting access in the short-term. Bicycle lanes, as well as sidewalks, need to be prioritized first for temporary accommodation around construction sites and through road construction projects.

Construction firms wishing to take some of this public right of way for their project need an obstruction permit. According to the city website, “There is no charge for the actual permit, but the permit is required to park vehicles in the obstructed area. Lane use fees may apply if a travel or parking lane is closed.” This makes it sound like we do charge for temporarily taking parking or “travel lanes” but we do not charge for usage of sidewalk space (and it’s unclear if bicycle lanes would be counted as “travel lanes”).

This creates an unfortunate incentive, especially on multi-lane one-way streets like what we have through much of downtown. The incentive is first to protect all space for vehicles, even parking, before accommodations are made for sidewalk users. Note: If I am interpreting this incorrectly, I hope someone from City of Minneapolis / Public Works comments to correct me.

A new approach is needed

Construction signs-2

Signs on sidewalks in Portland

From what I’ve seen this summer, road construction signs are placed on sidewalks despite being next to multiple travel lanes or a parking lane. That’s flat out unacceptable. It’s saying that those who cannot or chose not to drive should have a complete loss in level of service in order to avoid inconveniencing those driving cars. I propose these principles:

  • First, where multiple lanes of travel in one direction remain, including parking lanes, there’s no reason to obstruct sidewalks with temporary construction signs.
  • Second, there’s no reason to sacrifice bicycle lanes or sidewalks for encroachment during private construction projects so long as at least one “traffic lane” in each direction is provided.

Have you seen examples of either of these two sidewalk impacts happening this construction season? Let us know in the comments.


40 thoughts on “Signs and Sidewalks Don’t Mix

  1. Mike SonnMike Sonn

    Thank you for writing this. San Francisco was just starting to come around on this when I moved away last year. We need to establish guidelines and then strictly enforce them.

    In Highland this winter, [can’t find the picture off-hand] the sidewalk was closed and there appeared to be a detour into the parking lane. However, the parking spaces were being used. So it forced pedestrians out into the snow and fast-moving traffic on Ford Pkwy. When I called it in, I was told that there was no pedestrian detour at that site and that pedestrians must actually cross the street at the intersection 150+’ in either direction [no signage at the corners either that the sidewalk was closed ahead].

    1. Wayne

      My favorite was when they built the awful stupid pedestrian bridge across Killebrew in Bloomington, they walled off the old westernmost crosswalk and sandblasted the next one where the bridge was before that bridge was actually open. They had some vague signs about a detour that didn’t really point at anywhere you could actually cross the street anymore. I even emailed the city of Bloomington and they sent me a pdf map of some absurd detour that took you about half a mile out of your way to cross the street. Wonderful town, that Bloomington.

      1. Sean Hayford OlearySean Hayford Oleary

        Was this Killebrew or Lindau? The Lindau overpass is still closed, and the official detour (for over a year) has been going to 24th Ave.

        Average mall-going pedestrians seem to just cross “illegally” at the lights at IKEA Way and 22nd Ave. It is ridiculous that Bloomington could not accommodate crossing at IKEA Way for an over-one-year detour.

        1. Wayne

          I was talking about Killebrew.

          The Lindau thing was a whole different and equally bad mess in different ways. I did cut through the mudscape to get to IKEA once there too when everything was torn up and closed.

          And Bloomingon has demonstrated time and time again that it really does not care about pedestrians and will sometimes even go out of its way to make life more difficult for them. So, not really surprised they did it again there.

      2. Rosa

        I actually just came back and looked up this post because I wanted to say I have been impressed with how they keep protecting pedestrian access to the 13th Ave bridge over 494 in Bloomington as they progress with fixing it this summer. I noticed it again this week, that there was a protected pedestrian lane with concrete barriers between it & the cars.

  2. Wayne

    In more civilized cities they close an actual traffic lane for pedestrian use and put up real concrete barriers to protect them when they close down a sidewalk for construction.

    I would also argue that sidewalks are ‘pedestrian travel lanes’ and should not be some kind of freebie for taking public space. I’m so sick of the complete disregard for anyone on foot here.

    I’ve filed 311 complaints about signs blocking the sidewalk but they don’t seem to care. They disappear into the same void any sidewalk complaint does where it becomes a ‘private’ ticket and there’s no follow up.

    1. Matt SteeleMatt Steele Post author

      We do seem to carve out space in the street and use temporary jersey barriers to create sidewalks, but usually in places where it’s not seen as infringing on car movement. Here’s an example from my neighborhood, where Hiawatha Academy is building a middle school:

      But guess what, now that the school year has begun and there’s school happening in the adjacent historical elementary building, neighbors are complaining about… on-street parking!

      1. Wayne

        I’ll admit I have seen this kind of setup around here, but far too infrequently. It seems like they’d rather just close off an entire block of busy downtown sidewalks than dare to take a lane away from drivers. It seems like another ‘low-hanging fruit’ situation where they’ll only do something like this if it’s easy, but completely crap out if it’s necessary but difficult.

    2. Adam MillerAdam Miller

      There are a few places with this setup downtown right now, but it should be the norm, and not the exception.

      Doesn’t do much for bikes, though.

      A related complaint is that we seem to be okay with tearing up sidewalks on all four corners of an intersection at the same time (12th St. and Lasalle reconstruction projects). Exactly where are pedestrians supposed to go?

      It doesn’t help that the Lasalle project seems to be taking forever too.

  3. Angela M.

    Yes, I see this all the time. The sidewalk ramps near 6th and Robert in downtown St. Paul, near where I work, are frequently blocked on at least one side by signs, often when there’s no actual construction going on. In downtown Minneapolis, I’ve often run into situations where construction signs obstruct bus stops or the back exits of buses.

    I wonder if the city authorities would ignore pedestrians moving or turning the signs to keep access open the way they ignore complaints about how this careless placement makes our cities inaccessible to people in wheelchairs.

    1. Wayne

      I’ve actually started doing this sometimes when it’s extra egregious. I don’t particularly care if I have the blessing of the city because they don’t particularly care about enforcing any kind of walkable public realm for me. I haven’t quite gotten to the point of pushing them out into the street, but I’m getting close.

    2. Rosa

      I think, from experience with past construction projects around Phillips & Powderhorn, that they do just ignore it when cyclists & pedestrians use “closed” things and take down signs and whatnot. I see a lot of walking in the street, too. It takes a certain critical mass of pedestrians though, and doesn’t help wheelchair users much.

  4. Noelle

    I just came across this on Sunday while out on a run – Ramsey County has some construction taking place on Dale street that closed out the sidewalks/crosswalks just south and north of highway 36. It had just been getting set up so I’m hoping they have since actually blocked off the sidewalk reroute onto the street from cars (there was a barrier north of 36, but not south when I went by).

  5. Noelle

    Also, downtown Minneapolis is a mess between the various buildings going up and the start of the Nicollet Mall project.

    1. Wayne

      Nicollet seems to be the only road that’s actually closed to motor vehicles, though, while plenty of sidewalks are gone. Cool, close the bus street and sidewalks but don’t inconvenience drivers. Disparate impact much, city of Minneapolis?

      1. Sean Hayford OlearySean Hayford Oleary

        I feel like a common trend is that downtown gets a special level of priority in terms of not impacting motor vehicle flow. This probably makes sense, because it’s such a dense grid of traffic, that allowing one street in the grid to get really backed up can adversely affect the traffic flow of a larger area.

        The work on LaSalle, bringing 9th down to a single lane, really created a mess this spring/summer. More traffic diverting to 7th, more bad behavior like box-blocking that then affects the N-S streets.

        On the other hand, closing off a parking lane for temporary sidewalk or bike lane should be a no-brainer.

        1. Matt SteeleMatt Steele Post author

          Conversely, downtown seems like precisely the place where we could give a big gtfo to the cars-first paradigm, and life would still go on (and be more enjoyable).

          1. Wayne

            This, exactly. Downtown is probably the highest concentration of actual pedestrians walking places in the entire state, and it seems to be the last place where they’re given any preferential treatment or priority.

        2. Wayne

          Also, if the police would actually do any real enforcement of things like box blocking people might stop doing it eventually. But I’ve never seen even the worst cases be met with a ticket. The police could seriously stand on any downtown corner during PM rush hour and fund their monthly salary with tickets for this if they wanted to, and people might actually start changing their behavior to stop blocking intersections and crosswalks (but hey, police care even less about enforcing anything related to crosswalks, so whatever).

  6. Walker AngellWalker Angell

    Great post Matt. We’ve had a lot of problems in the NE metro suburbs with similar problems. I’ve got an article coming up in our local paper (and then here) about it. It’s particularly troubling here because we have a high percentage of kids and senior folk who are not as adept at adjusting and figuring out safe routes around this stuff. One path that’s been problematic gets about 60 people per hour during the day with about half of them under 15 or over 65.

  7. Walker AngellWalker Angell

    Here’s one from about 20 minutes ago. After a lot of complaints and at least two children almost being hit by cars the construction company set up some barriers to create a sort of alternate bikeway around the portion of MUP they were encroaching on. Since then there have been numerous problems with construction workers parking in the temporary bikeway. This is parking for their convenience, not loading or unloading. There is a nearby church parking lot that all workers are supposed to use for parking.

    This morning a couple of senior citizens were trying to get by this truck that was blocking the temporary bikeway. She almost fell in front of the car but fortunately did not. There’s less than 2′ between the truck and the barricades.

    My question to the city is why do we allow guests to come in to our city and continuously treat our residents with such contempt.

    They were riding with traffic. Now think about a couple of 10-year-old kids riding the direction I’m facing.

  8. Rosa

    The Franklin bridge project has actually been really good about leaving space for bikes and pedestrians open at all stages. The only (terrifying, since the kiddo was with me) time I got forced out into the single traffic lane going my way, it was just because I didn’t see the “closed” part of the sign in time and decided wrongly not to go back farther and go on the opposite-way sidewalk,which was open. And drivers were super respectful and patient, which is something that I don’t expect.

    I was pleasantly surprised to see Nicollet closed to traffic “except bikes” too.

    But keep pushing, it needs to get better everywhere.

  9. Monte Castleman

    Then you have the Hastings Bridge where they simply closed the sidewalk for the duration of the project, even though no work was taking place on the old bridge and they could have left it open at least until traffic was switched to the new bridge. And to invoke the Godwin’s Law, the St Croix Crossing they’re working on pedestrian trails “as time permits”, and they didn’t let a contract for part of the loop trail between downtown and the new interchange until this summer, when nothing was preventing them from doing it a long time ago. The official line was “through bicycle traffic should use the Wisconsin side of the River”.

    I wonder if there’s some sort of liability thing going on they’re worried about. They claimed they couldn’t open the new sidewalk on the new Beach Road bridge since “the trails on the south side aren’t completed”. They’re trying to discourage bicycles and pedestrians from using MN 95 without actually banning them. Earlier we talked about how there’s been discussion on liability in regards to using the “no peds” signs where crosswalk signals aren’t provided.

  10. Dana DeMasterDanaD

    Three favorites:

    1) In downtown Saint Paul on Exchange and Wabasha there are signs blocking the sidewalk that say “Do not drive vehicles on the sidewalk.” No idea what that’s about.

    2) During LRT construction on University there was a campaign to support businesses along the Greenline. One of those big, programmable flasher signs was placed on the median on Snelling at Van Buren that directed people in support local businesses. It was winter and the only place on the median that had been shoveled was the crosswalk and curb cuts. The sign was placed in the only spot pedestrians could cross Snelling for two blocks in either direction.

    3) Any time there are signs on the sidewalk on the Snelling bridge over the railroad tracks. The sidewalks are ridiculously narrow and there is no shoulder to protect from traffic going about 50 mph. The signs block the entire sidewalk and going around them on a bike means dismounting (or hopping a really tall curb) into fast-moving traffic and then getting back on the sidewalk.

    This is so frustrating because it seems in most situations there would be simple solutions if anyone thought about it.

    1. Wayne

      Those ones on the snelling bridge are a prime candidate for angrily knocking them into the car lanes.

      But #1, seriously?? Can someone get a picture of this, because it’s such delicious absurdity and would make a great visual point.

        1. Dana DeMasterDanaD

          Yep, that’s the one. However, in that picture it is placed straddling the light post so it isn’t in the way. The sign moves around and some days it is smack in the center of the sidewalk or adjacent to the light post. Why? Who put it there? Are vehicles allowed on other sidewalks? Is this a problem specific to that corner?

          1. Rosa

            there are so many places where wide sidewalks or offstreet paths are heavily signed against motor traffic, I have to think it’s a fairly common problem – drivers will just drive anywhere there’s room or they think there might be room. Not a lot of them but enough to be a problem.

            I’m thinking especially of pedestrian bridge ramps that are close to streets, and the Stinson bike lane thingy that is sort of just a wide sidewalk.

  11. Ethan OstenEthan Osten

    I’ve been thinking about writing something similar to this for weeks, so thanks for doing it for me!

    It really is absurd how willing Minneapolis is to close off bike and pedestrian accommodations for *any reason at all.* Right now, I don’t know of a single northbound bike lane through downtown which isn’t partially or completely closed at some point (maybe 5th Avenue, but it’s been closed by the Wells Fargo twins several times when I tried to bike through).

    When it comes down to it, I don’t think public works has much incentive to think about non-auto users. Things like the 11th Ave closure are a great example; the “detour” takes all traffic onto virtually-unbikeable 8th Street. Something similar happened on 2nd Street earlier this summer, when bikers were redirected onto Washington Avenue.

    1. Adam MillerAdam Miller

      The downtown bike lanes are a total mess with all of the road and building construction going on, but I’ve been really pleasantly surprised with rush hour drivers who have been pretty uniformly tolerant of me taking the lane when needed.

      It probably helps that rush hour traffic means they aren’t going all that much slower because of me, but still. Yesterday, it dawned on me that despite the mess, there’s also an abnormally (by East Coast standards) low amount of honking, too.

  12. Sam NewbergSam Newberg

    Last summer when construction began on 38th Street next to the Blue Line station, public works placed a Road Construction Ahead sign at the traffic signal at 30th Avenue (the bus turnaround), on the sidewalk, right smack in front of the actuator button, making it nearly impossible to reach. I took the liberty of moving the sign to the other side of the crosswalk ramp, yes, still on the sidewalk, but at least leaving the crosswalk actuator button usable.

    Classic example of going through the motions with no thought of how people actually navigate (or, in the case of applying to cross the street, are forced to navigate) the city. Yet some simple education or small policy change could prevent a lot of these problems.

    1. Wayne

      I think some of the problem is also that the people typically placing the signs are construction workers of some sort, and they are almost certainly more accustomed to driving because of their job. They probably don’t think about or don’t care because they’ve never been scolded for it. If we had some kind of rules (and enforcement) in place for the bad behaviors most would probably do a better job of it.

  13. Sam NewbergSam Newberg

    The city of Minneapolis has a difference in policy about when a sidewalk does or doesn’t get rerouted for a private construction project. In other words, the sidewalk is being used temporarily (through an encroachment permit?) for construction staging, but the difference is the sidewalk is either rerouted along the parking lane of the street, for example, or simply closed and pedestrians are expected to use the other side.

    Is this difference between downtown and the rest of the city, or between pedestrian overlay districts and the rest of the city? I cannot recall. Does anyone know? That may be a starting point for a change of policy.

    Then there is the discussion about whether a bike lane is closed or rerouted.

    1. Wayne

      Not sure about the official rules, but as far as how it works in practice it seems entirely random whether or not one approach vs. the other is used. The places where you’d really expect a reroute rarely seem to actually have one. I’d prefer a reroute always be the default and that projects have to argue for a full closure, but I’m sure that’s asking too much around here.

  14. Nathanael

    While I certainly encourage photos and formal complaints, this is the sort of thing where Just Moving The Damn Sign is also appropriate. It should be routine for pedestrians to relocate these signs, since they have obviously been put in the wrong place by mistake or incompetence; it’s polite to move them where they ought to be, out of the sidewalk.

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