On the Cedar Lake Trail, St. Louis Park Rewrites the Law

The City of St. Louis Park has a problem — a pretty good problem to have. They have two spectacular east-west trails, running through pleasant natural corridors, on their own rights-of-way. Those trails are the North Cedar Lake Regional Trail and the Cedar Lake Trail (this is often called the “Greenway”, since it becomes the Midtown Greenway at the Minneapolis city limits). But the real issue the City is having is that these trails intersect city streets and private drives at multiple points throughout the community. Unfortunately, these trail intersections have been home to serious crashes. Something had to be done.

How to make things safer? There are many solutions. You could install RRFBs or HAWK signals, to provide for safe crossing. You could install wide refuge islands, like Minneapolis did on E 28th St (below). More traditionally, you could just install crosswalk striping and signage to indicate that bikes and pedestrians may be crossing. Or, if you’re St. Louis Park, you could remove striping and demand even more emphatically that bikes and pedestrians yield to crossing traffic. And when that isn’t sufficient, you could make a video condescending to vulnerable users trying to cross legally.

28th St and Midtown Greenway

One approach: clearly demarcate that trail users have right-of-way, and offer physical protection. Permanent crosswalk striping has since been installed. Image: Google Street View.

Crosswalk signage on Cedar Lake Trail

A St. Louis Park approach: blame the more vulnerable user and try to deny their legal safe crossing.

Callous, Ineffective Policy

Bill Lindeke provided an excellent write-up of the issues in his MinnPost article earlier this week. From a local policy perspective, I think BikeMN’s Nick Mason hit the nail on the head:

“If our answer to safety is that people with limited mobility have no right to cross a less-than-safe roadway, we need to pause and consider that it’s inherently problematic. By removing those crossings [St. Louis Park] didn’t increase safety; they decreased their liability.

For anyone who’s ridden these trails, it’s clear that the methods aren’t just callous to the needs of pedestrians and cyclists — they’re completely ineffective. In my experiences, well over 90% of bicycles roll through the trail stop signs. Riding the N Cedar Lake Trail a few weekends ago, I did not see a single cyclist or pedestrian come to a complete stop at any of its many stop signs. So it’s clear that St. Louis Park’s methods to improve safety are questionable, and probably ineffective. But are they legally based? For cyclists, this is a sticky question I won’t get into at this point. But for pedestrians, the answer seems to be a resounding “No.”

Looking at MN Traffic Law

Most of the issues lie in the definitions in Chapter 169 of the state traffic code.

The definition of vehicle is actually an important place to start. 169.011, subd. 92:

Subd. 92.Vehicle. “Vehicle” means every device in, upon, or by which any person or property is or may be transported or drawn upon a highway, excepting devices used exclusively upon stationary rails or tracks.

Street vs. Hwy

I Am Traffic’s diagram showing a highway and its different (typical) components.

This is in contrast to motor vehicle, which is defined as a special class of vehicle (self-propelled). “Vehicle” is a broader category that would include trailers, buggies, and bicycles.

Next, let’s look at what makes something a “highway”. 169.011, subd. 81:

Subd. 81. Street or highway. “Street or highway” means the entire width between boundary lines of any way or place when any part thereof is open to the use of the public, as a matter of right, for the purposes of vehicular traffic.

Notably, “highway” is a much broader term in statute than it is in daily use. It refers to all types of streets or ways — and it refers to the entire area between the right-of-way lines, including the roadway, sidewalks, ditches, etc. Because we know bicycles are vehicles, and because we know regional trails are intended for their use, a trail in its own right-of-way is a “highway”.

But what about an intersection? 169.011, subd. 36:

Subd. 36. Intersection. (a) “Intersection” means the area embraced within the prolongation or connection of the lateral curb lines or, if none, then the lateral boundary lines of the roadways of two highways which join one another at, or approximately at, right angles or the area within which vehicles traveling upon different highways joining at any other angle may come in conflict.

So, we know that bicycles are vehicles, and a trail intended for their vehicular use is a highway. A crossing of two such highways is an “intersection”. This all seems fairly straightforward. But what difference does that make for pedestrians crossing, without a crosswalk?

169.21, subd. 2 (emphasis added):

Subd. 2.Rights in absence of signal. (a) Where traffic-control signals are not in place or in operation, the driver of a vehicle shall stop to yield the right-of-way to a pedestrian crossing the roadway within a marked crosswalk or at an intersection with no marked crosswalk.

Understanding the St. Louis Park Position

So, knowing that the trail crossing is an intersection, and knowing that pedestrians have right-of-way at intersections with no marked crosswalk, I wanted to understand what the legal basis was for St. Louis Park claiming they did not have right-of-way. I wrote to Engineering Director Debra Heiser to ask these very questions. Heiser defended the video, and responded to me in some detail, but didn’t provide specific statutes on which she bases her understanding. She writes:

The Cedar Lake Road Regional Trails are considered a Bicycle path intended for use by Bicycles and pedestrians.  It is designed for exclusive or preferential use by persons using bicycles and constructed or developed separately from the roadway or shoulder.    The Cedar Lake Regional trails are operated by Three Rivers Park District.

Presumably, she is referring to 169.011, subd. 6, which defines “bicycle path”. But a bicycle path is clearly a component of a larger highway, the definition noting that it is “constructed or developed separately from the roadway or shoulder.” In fact, if you read the full chapter, “bicycle path” is not something that addresses right-of-way questions at all — most references refer to the right of people in motorized wheelchairs to use such paths. But being developed “for exclusive or preferential use of bicycles” (vehicles), it sure sounds like a highway, doesn’t it?

Heiser referred me to a Three Rivers officer, to clarify the Park District’s position on these matters, but after two calls and a message left, I have not been able to reach him. Marketing manager Jacqueline Larson also reached out to me, to clarify that the video was not discouraging motorists from yielding to pedestrians when common sense dictated.

In the end, though, I feel I need to let the video speak for itself:

St. Louis Park "wrong" video

Sean Hayford Oleary

About Sean Hayford Oleary

Sean Hayford Oleary is a web developer and planner. He serves on the Richfield City Council, and previously on the city's Planning and Transportation commissions. Articles are written from a personal perspective and not on behalf of Richfield or others. Sean has a masters in urban planning from the Humphrey School. Follow his love of streets, home improvement, and all things Richfield on Twitter @sdho.