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.
It seems the most obvious solution is the one they’re not considering- create a direct connection between the bridge and Shepard Road, build a connection from Shepard Road to north I-35E, and discourage access to 7th from the freeways. (which would then make an ideal LRT corridor). Most of the traffic doesn’t actually want to be their, but is forced to by where the freeway accesses are located.
Long term it would also help if MN-5 were swapped to Shepard Road. Shepard should become the main auto corridor due to its width and it only makes sense for it become the state highway over west 7th.
As has been brought up before Shepard Road is a principal arterial and 7th is not; the extreme long term goal is to have trunk highways correspond with principal arterials.
They’re considering it, but the recent STP study put a pretty big damper on it when it found that the majority of 7th street traffic was “local.”
Yes, the solution to pedestrians being killed because of infrastructure designed solely for cars is … TO BUILD MORE INFRASTRUCTURE FOR CARS!
Tone deaf much?
Yes, that’s exactly what we need to do. Build more high speed, high volume routes for cars so motorists don’t need to use what should be local, pedestrian oriented streets to get where they’re going.
You say “get where they’re going” like points A and B are handed to us on a tablet from Moses. No, those places depend on our infrastructure “investments.”
We need to reward the short trip.
Moving through traffic off of this city street, especially to an existing high-capacity roadway, seems like a step in the right direction. Especially if capacity reductions and/or calming can be then be done on the city street.
Kinda stinks that the options are one or the other. A high-capacity, grade-separated through route is what we built I-35E for. Those in the greater W 7th neighborhood can access 35E at Randolph, W 7th, or Grand. If 55/110 were grade separated from the river to 35E you could remove the need for most of the through-traffic on either street. This would add, what, 5 minutes max to drivers who currently leave the area by 7th or to 55?
I don’t really know how developable the area around Shepard is. At a minimum, it seems like its presence between Eagle Pkwy and Jackson/Sibley is unnecessary and something better (development! parks!) could take its place along a downtown riverfront.
Great post Anne.
While I agree with driver awareness campaigns, I hold little hope for improvement from them. Lack of attention and errors by drivers is a huge issue everywhere including fairly safe countries like The Netherlands and Sweden. It only takes one bad driver to kill someone and sadly these efforts rarely reach the brains of drivers who need it the most.
We need to change how we design our infrastructure. We need to change the mindset of our traffic engineers from a focus on level of service (LOS) for drivers to consideration for ALL road users and even those nearby in shops and houses. They need to understand that humans are driving these cars and that traffic engineering is as much human science as science.
I agree that it only takes one bad driver, but I disagree that we can’t reach those who need it the most. The primary reason why people don’t listen is because there is no significant consequence. If the sentence for killing a pedestrian in traffic was the same as killing someone in a botched drug deal, people probably would pay more attention.
There are a few problems though. First is that folks in The Netherlands and elsewhere have fairly consistently stated that such vulnerable user laws, while good, actually have little impact on driver behavior and in particular on the behavior of people who are the most dangerous. Even with fairly conscientious drivers they can have little impact as too many of us think we are good drivers and that we’ll never hit a pedestrian or someone riding a bicycle.
From a U.S. legal standpoint there are also issues of proportional punishment that must be considered and that can make it difficult for these laws to actually be used effectively even when they are on the books.
Finally is an issue of instances of a true accident where there really is no fault. At least on the non-vulnerable party involved.
Moreover, these are largely after-the-fact remedies. Far better to focus on true prevention and prevention that works for all cases not just for cases of good and conscientious drivers.
Proportional punishment? In the US? You must be joking.
You do know this is the country which sentences nonviolent drug users to decades in prison, but lets men who rape multiple children out after less than 5 years?
I think that for most of us the threat of financial penalty or even jail pales in comparison to the thought of killing or injuring someone. If killing someone isn’t cause enough to make us drive more carefully, why would any penalty?
You have a far kinder view of humanity than some of us. I think the fear is absolutely necessary just by the sheer number of people I’ve had actively threaten to harm me because I was in their way. I have no illusions that this is some some Minnesota nice land of help your neighbor out. People will kill you and drive away and not think twice except about getting caught.
Hm. It’s a fallacy to assume others are like you, but when I’m driving, I very much do not want to kill or injure anyone. To add to the anec-data, I’ve heard family members express the same sentiment, which I believe to be credible.
I hear that sentiment a lot, followed by things like “So cyclists need to learn not to be out in the middle of the lane where I might hit them!” or “So parents need to watch their kids better!”
I do not see a lot of behavior that supports the idea that people actually worry much about running down pedestrians. One piece of evidence that would be nice to see: habitually stopping before, instead of in, the crosswalk.
simple ticket enforcement would work, I think – a high probability with low consequences seems to affect people’s behavior more than a low probability of serious consequences. Nobody expects to actually kill someone.
I mean, it doesn’t help that when they do, we do nothing. But even with drunk driving, the prospect of an expensive ticket seems to make more difference than the prospect of killing someone. That’s why on holiday weekends the police don’t just have extra patrols out for drunks, they publicize it well in advance. If the goal were to catch drunk drivers, that would be stupid – but since the goal is to stop people from drinking and driving, it works pretty well.
Of the prospect of losing their license and having to walk or bicycle or ride a Barbie Jeep. But I guess we can’t use that approach now even if it would be highly effective. I’d go farther and support some sort of license suspension or revocation in a car vs pedestrian crash if the pedestrian had the ROW and the crash was avoidable, and require lifetime ignition interlocks after the first DUI.
You know how I feel about people who drive their cars into humans getting to keep their licenses.
But even if we could get that to happen, I still think we should have lower-level ticketing enforcement of failure to yield, improper stop, etc. To actually change people’s habits takes lots of low-level behavior monitoring, not occasional tragedies with harsh responses.
People keep driving with suspended licenses anyway, because this is MURKA and it’s their god-given right or some nonsense. Aren’t there people with literally a dozen or more DUIs that somehow got a license back after that?
But they can’t drive if they’re in jail. IN JAIL.
I’d say, first offense, remove the license.
Driving without a license — mandatory prison for life simply as a form of protective custody.
Thanks, Anne. We need a coordinated effort to make pedestrian improvements around the city.
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