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.

24 thoughts on “On the Cedar Lake Trail, St. Louis Park Rewrites the Law

  1. Adam FroehligAdam Froehlig

    As we discussed the other day on Twitter, I don’t think your usage of those statutes would hold up in court. The only way to remedy this is to clean it up in state law and actually define whether a MUP crossing a roadway is considered an intersection or not.

    1. Sean Hayford OlearySean Hayford Oleary Post author

      I still disagree with your assertion that “for the purposes of vehicular traffic” implicitly means “motor vehicle”, even though motor vehicle is separately defined. They would have said motor vehicle if they meant motor vehicle.

      I’m not a lawyer, of course, and this is a layperson’s reading — although totally in-line with what I learned in LCI training and from bike law resources. As of yet, I’ve not gotten any more specific of a defense as to why these crossings aren’t intersections.

    2. Adam FroehligAdam Froehlig

      I should also add that (and another reason for cleaning this up in state law): stringing the three statutes together the way you did makes it run directly in contradiction to 169.21 Subd 3(a) when it comes to pedestrians.

      1. Sean Hayford OlearySean Hayford Oleary Post author

        Subd. 3(a) relates to crossing mid-block — not an intersection. Looking at the three statutes together indicates that this crossing is an intersection, not mid-block. Fundamentally, isn’t there a difference between wondering across the street from one house to another, versus crossing in the path of a public way (trail) at its intersection with another public way (street)?

        There’s still clarity to be made — like, when the MUP is in the right-of-way of another street, is it a separate roadway or a sidewalk?

        1. Matt SteeleMatt Steele

          Subd. 3(a) exists to allow for jaywalking at non-intersections, with the presumption that all yielding and liability is placed upon the pedestrian. It has nothing to do with yielding and duties at intersections.

    3. Sean Hayford OlearySean Hayford Oleary Post author

      Ultimately, though, I agree that state law changes would be better.

      However, SLP is the only City I’m aware of anywhere in the metro that explicitly says pedestrians don’t have right-of-way at trail crossings. In fact, I note that the City of Plymouth actually removed small sections of trail to avoid creating a legal intersection at a similar crossing. (The results are still tragic and unacceptable, but they clearly went to great lengths to avoid creating a legal intersection.)

    4. Walker AngellWalker Angell

      Adam, for those of us who don’t follow Twitter so well, can you outline your case against Sean’s. Does it trump Sean’s or simply run head long in to it leaving a grey area.

      1. Eric AnondsonEric Anondson

        As I recall (someone correct if I’m wrong) Adam pointed out in the Twitter conversation that there is a statute that defines MUP in ways that can be interpreted as “not a highway”, and thus when meeting a roadway midblock do not create an intersection.

        Which gets to Adam’s point above that we need legislative clarity. I agree with that. Having neighboring cities interpret how a regional transportation route is regulated so radically makes it fundamentally an expensive “penalty trap” where novice users can get punished for doing it one way in one city but the neighbor city sees as illegal.

  2. Matt SteeleMatt Steele

    Anyone who thinks vehicle means car, that highways are spaces for cars, that intersections are where cars can cross and turn, and that cars are what constitute traffic, suffers from a debilitating condition known as “windshield mentality.”

    This debilitating condition skews one’s ability to comprehend and clearly interpret clean-cut state law.

    This debilitating condition suggests that when motor vehicles and other vehicles/traffic mix, the problem must clearly be “anything keeping cars from going fast.”

    This debilitating condition results in cities attempting CYA maneuvers and the exclusion of those outside of cars in known places of conflict.

    This debilitating condition entrenches the Minnesota Massacre, the largest public health crisis of our time.

    Windshield mentality kills.

  3. Dave Bucklin

    As a frequent user of the trail, the crossing at Wooddale Ave S. is especially harrowing. People are either getting on or coming off of Hwy 7 and often travel at freeway speeds. At least there’s a bit of an island in that case. All the crossings you mention are anxiety-inducing in my experience. I wonder what it’s like for the drivers. RRFBs and HAWK signals would be a step in the right direction, but I’ve seen drivers cruise through them in Uptown (with people in the crosswalk). Ultimately, I’d prefer a bridge like the one over Xenium in Plymouth. I’m sure that’s expensive, but it would (legally) achieve SLP’s goal of zero liability.

    1. Nick

      I’ve seen a lot of people go through the flashing red (when activated) at SE 10th Ave & 5th St. SE. I blame part of that on the city’s signage, which says “Stop for Pedestrian in Crosswalk”, so when people don’t “see” pedestrians, they just tend to keep going. It should say “Stop Flashing Red Signal” or something like that. And of course would need to be enforced, which is pretty unlikely. But poor or confusing signage just adds to poor outcomes.

      1. Paul

        I was nearly hit at that intersection about a month ago because a car didn’t notice the lights flashing. A few more feet over and I would have been on his windshield.

    2. Walker AngellWalker Angell

      An underpass is usually a better option since it allows riders to gain speed going down to help propel them up the other side (and provides shelter during rain/snow storms). It’s critical though that it be wide and open enough to provide social safety (and allow higher speeds).

      1. Eric AnondsonEric Anondson

        Just keep MNDoT away from the design stages of the underpasses, after their insane mess of the design for the Wooddale bridge over 7, I’m not trusting.

  4. Nick

    I believe Three Rivers has plans to grade separate Blake, Wooddale, and Beltline. So, safer but not solving the problem.

    1. Eric AnondsonEric Anondson

      They do, with additional funding from Hennepin County for some of it I recall, these bridges and tunnels won’t solve the murky room cities are taking towards reading the statutes, but it will solve the crossings at these spots. There isn’t a plan yet to make the 11th Ave trail crossing in Hopkins any better and it is fairly terrifying to cross.

      1. James WardenJames Warden

        The Shady Oak Station area recommendations call for a signalized intersection at 11th. Not grade separated, but still would be an improvement.

      1. Sean Hayford OlearySean Hayford Oleary Post author

        I don’t have a good picture of it, but there’s a great example on York Ave at ~73rd (just north of the YMCA) of a rebuilt trail underpass that’s created a really beautiful space.

        It used to be a regular culvert, closed-off underpass. Now, instead, York was made into two bridges (northbound and southbound), and the former median space is now a nice light-filled space with public art and benches. I’m sure it wasn’t cheap, but it’s a great “best practice” for bike/ped underpasses.

  5. Alex

    St Louis Park’s anti-bike/ped trail crossing treatments are symbolic for why I left Minnesota, the place I was born and raised and where most of my family lives. It seems like any time there is a conflict between modes in MN, the official solution puts the onus on bikes/peds. This is less true in Minneapolis than it used to be, as a result of a lot of time and hard work by advocates, but the improvement even there is inconsistent, as the pedestrian refuges on 26th/28th are showing. Outstate and in the suburbs, there is simply no support for any infrastructure that impedes the movements of vehicles in any way (obviously there is support in MN for bike/ped infrastructure, but not when it interferes even slightly with motor vehicle movement).

    Now I live in a place where there is an extensive and well-used trail network with almost no stop or yield signs on it anywhere. There is a crossing of a busy street on my daily commute, and every day motorists yield to me despite my deferential movements.

    Yielding to bikes/peds is a cultural thing, but that culture can be reinforced by infrastructure. After Minneapolis started striping crosswalks about 8 years ago, I noticed that more people there started yielding to bikes & peds. St Louis Park of course is moving in the opposite direction, building bigger and wordier stop signs for trail users. This is a bad move because it discourages biking and walking, but also because it is pissing into the wind. By far the prevalent policy worldwide and even in the United States is to require motorists to yield to bikes & peds. Until everyone who drives in St Louis Park has lived there long enough to know their contrarian policy, they will continue to observe the global standard yielding to trail users.

  6. Rosa

    So I’m wondering, if they’re asserting people should skip the “mid block” crossing that is supposedly not an intersection or crosswalk, and go down to the nearest legal crosswalk…would it help to get a lot of people to detour over to that next corner, and film all the cars failing to yield there, and demand enforcement there? If it were more work to enforce their understanding of the law, maybe their understanding would change.

    1. Sean Hayford OlearySean Hayford Oleary

      Good point. And for that matter, even if their interpretation of the law were correct, why the focus on pedestrians’ (alleged) duty to yield at Beltline, but not motorists clear duty to yield at Wooddale? (Where a marked crosswalk exists.)

      1. Rosa

        I don’t really care what their intent is, I’m just wondering if there’s a way to make the crossing safe for people not in cars.

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