The tragic death of Kunlek Wangmo last week clearly struck a nerve with many people, especially those who live along West 7th Street in Saint Paul, where she was hit and killed by a car while crossing Saint Clair Avenue on her regular daily walk with her husband.
For Nicole Mardell, the incident brought back a personal memory from 2009, when her sister was killed at this same intersection. In a moving streets.mn article (also published in the Star Tribune), Nicole decries the lack of action to stop preventable pedestrian and cyclist deaths at unsafe intersections in Saint Paul, and asks: “Is it time to act? Or do we need another death?”
Meanwhile, Sean Kershaw set up a fund to help the victim’s family; 99 donations had been received by Wednesday afternoon. And Jennifer Pennington, a neighborhood resident, posted a Google Form on the West 7th Street Kool Kids Facebook page, asking people to identify the most dangerous intersections on West 7th Street, and to suggest what might be done to make those intersections safer for pedestrians. By Wednesday afternoon, there were 59 responses, with most of the major intersections along West 7th cited by one or more people as dangerous for pedestrians to cross.
A Google Map of the West 7th/Saint Clair intersection shows one reason why this intersection is so dangerous. With West 7th Street crossing at a diagonal, pedestrians must walk a substantial distance to cross the street in any direction. And this situation is repeated all along West 7th Street, where multiple arterials converge, as shown on this map of the West 7th, Montreal and Lexington intersection.
Looking into the Fort Road/West 7th 10-Year District Plan (2013), which includes the intersection where last week’s fatality occurred, I found West 7th Street was called out multiple times as a dangerous place for people to walk. Among specific Priority Actions called for in the plan are to “Promote traffic-calming features to slow down traffic … along West 7th,” “Investigate redesigning the intersection of West 7th Street, Montreal Avenue and Lexington Parkway”, and “Develop new West 7th lighting, utilizing the historic lantern style in the area … along West 7th between Kellogg and Grace Street”.
The Highland Park District Plan (2005), which also includes a stretch of West 7th Street, calls for multiple strategies to make West 7th safer for pedestrians by getting cars to drive more slowly. However, because it is a state highway (Highway 5), MnDOT approval is required for any changes. One recommendation for the city is to “Use signage, short building setbacks and on-street parking to accent the transition from the high-speed Highway 5 west of the Mississippi River to the urban West 7th Street east of the river to encourage drivers to slow down as they enter Saint Paul”. Another calls for the City (presumably with MnDOT approval) to “Set a uniform speed limit of no higher than 35 miles per hour along West 7th Street through Highland Park”.
Clearly, people consider it hazardous to walk on West 7th Street and cross the street. Reading some of the responses to Jennifer Pennington’s questionnaire, the perception is clear. Here is a typical comment: “West Seventh and Randolph seems to have FAR too many corners, and almost every time I try to cross there, on a WALK sign, there is a green light for traffic from the side, and I am almost hit.”
But what is being done to ensure that no one else is killed while crossing the street? Actually, there are two studies currently underway that aim to make it easier and safer for people to get around in this area.
The City of Saint Paul is undertaking a study of the West 7th/Shepard Road corridor. According to the project description, “Thousands of people enter Saint Paul from the southwest over the Highway 5 bridge every day. This fast-moving traffic flows directly onto West 7th Street, creating a hostile pedestrian environment and a barrier bisecting the community. To achieve a more pedestrian-friendly West 7th, this study will look at potential realignments of the connection between the Highway 5 bridge, West 7th Street, Shepard Road and the other streets in that vicinity. This includes potential reconstructions of intersections and local roads as well. The ideal outcome would include: improved pedestrian conditions and access both along and across West 7th Street; a redesigned Shepard Road as a parkway-like facility; and a balance of traffic between Shepard Road and West 7th Street, creating a more connected community with better access to jobs, services, park facilities and the river.”
The Ramsey County Regional Rail Authority also has a study underway to address the inadequacy of transit options along this route. The Riverview Corridor transit study is designed to determine a preferred route and transit mode to connect the Union Depot in downtown Saint Paul with the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport and the Mall of America. The final report, expected in early 2016, will recommend a preferred route and transit mode for the 12-mile route through the West 7th and Highland neighborhoods. Next steps would be further study, followed by design, engineering and construction, with service anticipated to begin in 10-12 years. 10-12 years??? Yes, that’s right.
And what about implementing the recommendations of the West 7th/Shepard Road study? According to the website, “The recommendation that results from this study will help inform the pattern of development in this area, and will be included in the results of the Riverview Corridor study of transit alternatives. Additional design and engineering work would need to be completed before any changes would be able to take place. If street reconstructions and other construction projects are recommended, funding will have to be found. No funding for any potential construction has been identified.”
Returning to Nicole Mardell’s question: “Is it time to act? Or do we need another death?” In fact, I would go further and ask: “By the time we find the funding, will there be three, or five or 20 deaths?”
Yes, Nicole, it’s time to act. It’s time to break through the prevailing business-as-usual attitude and do whatever it takes to prevent more pedestrian fatalities and life-changing injuries caused by cars. Of course, there’s no simple fix, but we need to begin by raising awareness, instilling a sense of urgency, and building a broad coalition of people who are ready to take a stand to stop the carnage.
We need to pull together the many community groups and individuals who are already working on making Saint Paul a more walkable, livable city, to create a shared vision, strategy, and action plan. We need to get all levels of government and all departments working together, coordinating their efforts, and identifying resources to make near-term improvements and to take on the longer term challenge of rebalancing our streets to provide safe passage for all modes of transportation, with special attention to the needs of the most vulnerable. One of the greatest challenges will be to change the culture of driving, getting people to shift from a behind-the-wheel sense of entitlement as primary user of the road to a recognition of shared space and shared responsibility to pay close attention and make sure everyone gets to their destination safely.
Over the next few months, I will be writing about, and seeking suggestions, for steps we might take to launch a major campaign to stop preventable pedestrian crashes. For now, I’d like to propose two initiatives. The first is an immediate response to the fatality that occurred a week ago at 7th Street and Saint Clair. This would be a neighborhood action to create a safer crossing at one of the most challenging intersections on West 7th Street. It would involve organizations and people who live or work in the West 7th neighborhood coming together to insist that MnDOT and the Saint Paul Public Works Department begin addressing the crooked intersections on West 7th. It would be up to the community to organize the project and choose the intersection to be upgraded. The City and MnDOT would be responsible for making a modest investment of time, materials and labor to design and install simple bumpouts or other traffic calming elements, using paint and bollards, as many other cities have done. Perhaps some of those who responded to Jennifer Pennington’s questionnaire would also want to be involved.
The second initiative I’m proposing is a citywide expansion of the Pedestrian Safety Awareness campaign that was launched three years ago after a Macalester student was killed crossing the street at Grand Avenue and Oxford Street. Participation has been steadily growing, with community volunteers from several district councils and Saint Paul Walks working together with the Saint Paul Police Department and the Metro Area office of the state Toward Zero Deaths campaign. Together, we talked with pedestrians and drivers about the requirements of the state crosswalk law and police enforced the law when drivers failed to stop for pedestrians crossing at intersections. At a debrief meeting after the weeklong effort, participants agreed that the 2015 initiative was very successful, but could be even more effective if it expanded to more Saint Paul neighborhoods, and was carried out throughout the year, not just for one week in August.
Next week I’ll write about the results of this year’s Pedestrian Safety Awareness Week and invite broader participation in ongoing efforts for 2016 and beyond.