The Fight for Pedestrian Safety

Getting even a modest pedestrian improvements can be an uphill battle. We have a design bias and process that is inherently unfriendly to pedestrians and bicycles. While we’ve made great strides in the last decade, it’s still a constant (and frustrating) battle.

Take a recent incident in Minneapolis as an example; a simple concrete median that protects pedestrians and bicycles is about to be removed. The median was added after a dozen communities meetings, a lengthy engagement process, broad-based community support, and the backing of local City Council members.


Median at 26th/28th Sts.

Why is it being removed? Because a guy in Public Works doesn’t like it. Apparently cars keep hitting it. And therefore, it must be removed? This may seem like a small deal, but it’s not. It’s an example of the uphill battle that bike and pedestrians advocates are up against.

The system – as it is currently structured – it designed at every corner to favor the automobile.

It’s so omnipresent that we often forget it exists. I was walking back from the St. Paul Farmer’s Market in walkable Lowertown this last weekend and I was stopped in my tracks at the corner of 6th & Sibley Streets as a car whizzed by.


For those unfamiliar, this is great neighborhood that most any urbanist would love. It’s mixed-use, dense, has wide sidewalks, on-street parking, outdoor cafe seating, good public spaces, and plenty of eyes on the street. Yet, despite all these gains, there are still plenty of anti-urban transportation hold-outs present in the design.

Problem 1: The Corner


This corner radius was designed not to improve the safety of pedestrians, but to help cars make a right turn without having to slow down. This is a classic example of highway design being imposed on our downtowns and it’s omnipresent across America. The goal of a city street should not be to maximize traffic flow.


This is Traffic Calming 101.

When a street has a wider curve, vehicles can move around it much faster. When coupled with one-way streets, this can be even more dangerous. Simply reducing corner radius can have a huge impact. This (cheap) design element improves pedestrian safety.

This is a very simple, cost-effect way to improve walkability downtown. We need to start designing our downtowns for people, and not a thoroughfare for commuter traffic.

Problem 2: One-way Streets

The verdict is in, and it’s been in for a long time. Yet, these multi-lane one-way couplings still exist in most of our downtowns.


I don’t like writing about this because it’s so obvious. One way streets are bad for everyone except speeding cars. The struggle is that most our American downtowns are held hostage by a commuter culture. Politicians and traffic engineers are hesitant to disrupt that culture. It’s a shame, because they should.

Eric Jaffe at CityLab lists the most obvious reasons:

  • Livability: vehicles stop less on one-way streets, which is hard for bikers and pedestrians.
  • Navigation: one-way street networks are confusing for drivers, which leads to more vehicle-miles traveled; they also make it tough for bus riders to locate stops for a return trip.
  • Safety: speeds tend to be higher on one-way streets, and some studies suggest drivers pay less attention on them because there’s no conflicting traffic flow.
  • Economics: local businesses believe that two-way streets increase visibility.

One-way streets are a transportation relic that need to be expelled in almost all cases. We need to value livability, navigation, safety, and economics above the desire to travel fast in an automobile.

Problem 3: Unneeded Turn Lanes


Every turn lane imposed on the urban environment where it is not needed does three things:

  • Increased crossing distance: pedestrians are in the intersection, where they’re most likely to be injured, for 10 to 13 more feet.
  • Reduced size of sidewalk: creates less space for people to walk or a business to have outdoor seating
  • Eliminates on-street parking: removes an important safety buffer, and each on-street parking space is one that doesn’t need to be expensively built off-street.

Again, this is difficult to write about because it’s so obvious. The dynamic needs to shift, and it needs to shift quickly.

The intersection I’m describing is actually okay for walkability – when compared to what most American intersections looks like. The fact that only three problems exist makes it one of the better one. This is a problem. And, we shouldn’t have a system where these auto-biases are built so ubiquitously. We shouldn’t have system where – after lots of effort and community support – an infrastructure improvement can be overruled because a person at Public Works doesn’t like it.

The American transportation system is designed at every corner to favor the automobile, and it’s a system that needs to end.

58 thoughts on “The Fight for Pedestrian Safety

  1. Lindsey WallaceLindsey Wallace

    I take issue with the fact that many employees in Public Works live in the suburbs and bring a suburban mentality to their work. I think Minneapolis should only hire urban planners who live in Minneapolis. Full stop.

    1. Sean Hayford OlearySean Hayford Oleary

      For better or for worse, that practice is no longer legal, thanks to our now-sheriff Rich Stanek, who successfully got a bill about 10 years ago for the “freedom” of employees to live wherever they please.

      The City may have the option to offer incentives to people who wish to live in Minneapolis, but they can’t make a hiring decision based on it, or make it required. I’m inclined to agree that living where you work would provide better insight. Then again, even within Minneapolis there are obviously vastly different perspectives between speed vs. safety, parking vs. bike lanes, etc.

      But the battle for hiring within a city might be better fought first for police, where I think there’s a more obvious relationship between the community you live in versus the community you serve.

        1. Sean Hayford OlearySean Hayford Oleary

          In general, I think charging for parking at market rate. I have no idea what they charge now.

          However, bear in mind that many leaders will want the most-qualified candidates (in conventional terms), not simply the candidates who are most “walking the walk” in their personal lives.

          1. Wayne

            I’d argue a traffic engineer building city intersections who drives everywhere and lives in a suburban environment isn’t qualified, let alone most qualified. We’ve got to stop pretending people can design roads straight from a book with no context on how they’re actually used and end up with something safe for all users.

            1. Lindsey WallaceLindsey Wallace

              I agree. And I think whether someone “walks the walk” should be very important when it comes to hiring decisions. It certainly has been a large factor in all the jobs I’ve gotten. I’m a public health professional and the fact that I bike to job interviews has always been a crowd pleaser, since it demonstrates that I actually value the things I’m saying I value.

              I guess this also comes down to who is doing the hiring. If the hiring manager is also an engineer who lives in the suburbs, they’re probably more likely to choose someone with a similar mindset. They may be reluctant, even, to hire an engineer who lives in the city and walks/bikes everywhere.

              1. Sean Hayford OlearySean Hayford Oleary

                Since the practice is illegal anyway, I’m not sure we need to debate it too deeply.

                I think there are plenty of things you could do to support a bike/ped/transit mindset without making an absolute restriction on where you live. (Which, as Monte notes, may not be all that effective anyway, since there are plenty of auto-oriented areas of Minnepolis.)

                Ideas that come to mind:

                1. Pay for trainings that relate people to a complete streets/living streets mindset
                2. Charge more for parking (Matt)
                3. Provide a free bus pass
                4. Provide bike amenities, like secure indoor parking and showers
                5. Require engineers to go experience projects in each mode.

                (Of course, if you watch the engineer talking in this video — not Chuck Marohn, but the original video within — you can see that #5 might not be nearly as effective as you’d hope. Engineers may be geeking out at the details and experiencing things in a totally different way than the average pedestrian. I’m not an engineer, but even as a casual street nerd, I tend to zero in on LED lighting, well-oriented truncated domes, and new APS buttons too.)

                1. Rosa

                  just make the job description have a certain percentage of work days include non-car transportation, how about? If it doesn’t specify bike/walk it would be ADA compliant, and should certainly come under some existing job requirement, like understanding user experience or something.

                2. Monte Castleman

                  2) The problem is that if the cost is small, on an engineer’s salary they’re just going to pay it since it’s a small price to pay for the convenience of driving to work. If the cost is large, they’re going to work for some place where the cost isn’t large. Maybe you don’t want those type of engineers designing sidewalks anyway, but you don’t want to limit your talent pool for engineers designing sewers and bridge beams.

                  3), Similarly to 2, with what engineers make, aside from the psychological appeal of “free”, a bus pass isn’t going to be that much or a lure.

                  And engineers do geek out on details, I think it’s what attracts them to the engineering profession because there are certainly easier ways to make a living. I wound up realizing I didn’t have an aptitude for the advanced math and physics (It took me several tries to pass Calc II and I gave up on Calc III) so I dropped out of engineering school, but when I was 8 I’d ask my parents to drive on certain roads so I could see the street lights.

                3. Monte Castleman

                  As an anecdote, I’ve talked to the engineer in charge of the LED freeway lighting conversion several times. He seemed really geeked out about it, not just doing his job; seemed excited that someone from the public noticed and cared and looked up my online footprint.

                4. Wayne

                  Number five is the only one I see possibly having much of an impact on the actual quality of the finished product. Maybe number one, but training is easily ignored and often used as goof-off time when it’s required yearly professional training someone doesn’t care about.

    2. Walker AngellWalker Angell

      I agree with the sentiment but this could also severely limit the quality of job applicants and eventually the overall quality of the organization. People live in the suburbs for a number of reasons from that simply being where they could find an affordable house when they first purchased to a spouse who works for a suburban company to needing to live near a relative who needs frequent health/security checks. There is also the issue that some of our worst problems are Ramsey County (or other county) roads so even here you’d end up with a lot of people who are in Ramsey County but also in suburbs or exurbs.

      Would it work to require engineers and planners to constantly use the infra within their area? IMO, every Ramsey County engineer should be required to ride a bicycle along every mile of Ramsey County road each year and do so during various hours from 7a to midnight or 2a. Each should perhaps ride half during spring/summer/fall and half during snow season each year. I’ve seen carful’s of Ramsey County engineers at Red Robbin and other places within a couple of miles of their office in Arden Hills. Why do they not ride bicycles or walk?

      Perhaps similar for walking? Except maybe require each to cover a certain number of miles each year so that over a five year period they cover all and arranged so that among all engineers every mile is walked every year?

      Similar for mobility scooters and hand cycles so that they annually and eventually for every mile or road experience what reality is for people with disabilities?

      1. Monte Castleman

        That, and those that are willing to live in the city (rather than taking their talent to a private company or a suburb), on an engineers salary are probably going to live in a nice house in Kenwood or Highland Park and drive a car everywhere. Maybe “city” engineers would be appropriate to design sidewalks and bicycle paths, but do you really want only a subset of the talent available to hire to design bridges and sewers?

        Is it really feasible for a normal person to ride every mile of every county road every year. Considering that around the chain of lakes is a really long ride for a lot of people?

    3. Nathanael

      Who’s the DPW jackass who is trying to remove the median which was put in after a long public process.


      His behavior is COMPLETELY unacceptable. He is not there to second-guess the mayor, city council, and dozens of committees. His action is rogue and cause for firing.

      1. Nathanael

        It needs to be firing-for-cause too. With a negative recommendation letter. People like this need to have difficulty getting jobs in the same field.

  2. Mike SonnMike Sonn

    We are still fighting Ramsey County over Randolph & Lexington. At least we stopped the city/county from using 8-80 funds to tear down buildings and *really* widen the road, but the county still wants to move curbs and add extra through lanes (but we’ll be getting bike lanes so we should be happy, right?!)

    And I fully agree with Lindsey. The lead engineer lives in Eagan and Public Work’s office is in Arden Hills. At our first community meeting, the engineer said “Well, I drove through the intersection for the first time today.” WHAT?! You’ve you been designing this road based on what then? An engineer should be forced to site for two days at an intersection (I’d argue longer, but I’d even take just one day) and watch. See how people interact. See how pedestrians scramble across to not get killed. See how many people use the bus stop they want to move further away from Trader Joe’s.

    Ugh, this is how the process is truly broken. We build for cars first, then we figure out if we can make the bike/ped/transit thing sorta kinda fit in to shut up the neighborhood transportation committee.

    1. Lindsey WallaceLindsey Wallace

      Are you kidding me? They wanted to use 8-80 funds to tear down buildings and widen roads? That is insane.

      Someone should hire me to be an urban planner. My qualifications include reading a lot of Streets.MN, writing a blog about biking, and having read The Death and Life of Great American Cities. Oh, and I actually live in a city. I think that makes me pretty qualified. More so than the people who are actually doing this job for our cities.

      1. Nathanael

        You are more qualified than the people who are doing the job.

        Unfortunately the US is suffering an epidemic of credentialism, so they want people with useless degrees. You might have to jump some hoops, pay for expensive classes and get some dumb certifications in order to get a job as an urban planner. Even though you don’t need to learn anything.

  3. Sean Hayford OlearySean Hayford Oleary

    I was all with you until the attack on turn lanes. I’m not in favor of turn lanes at every single intersection; however, there are a few places where they can really improve safety:

    1. Left turn lanes at intersections (on two-way streets) — on a four-lane street, they avoid excessive lane changes that cause side-swipe crashes. On a two-lane street, they avoid people passing on the shoulder to overtake a car that’s stopped to turn left. Passing on the shoulder is extremely dangerous behavior for pedestrians, and it’s very common in Minneapolis.

    2. Right-turn lanes where a high volume of right-turning cars or a high volume of pedestrians crossing have a similar benefit as left-turn lanes: they’re a place out of the way of through traffic for cars to queue while they wait for pedestrians. This avoids cars behind making lanes changes and causing crashes.

    With traditional bike lanes and well-designed right turn lanes, bikes and right-turning cars diverge rather than cross, decreasing the risk of right hook crashes (good examples throughout the city, but WB Riverside approaching Cedar is one). Since space was limited here and it’s a protected bike lane, I know they’re just dumped into a mixing zone, which is a little less well-defined.

    When space is ample, you can divide up a large number of lanes pretty well. For example, Wisconsin often does up to 4 refuge points on a wide street.

    1. Wayne

      “Right-turn lanes where a high volume of right-turning cars or a high volume of pedestrians crossing have a similar benefit as left-turn lanes: they’re a place out of the way of through traffic for cars to queue while they wait for pedestrians.”

      Spoiler alert: they don’t wait for pedestrians. Just this morning I had to give the finger to a car full of old people who tried to run me down in the crosswalk from their dedicated right turn lane.

      1. Monte Castleman

        Since the old people deliberately tried to run you down, I assume the police were called and attempted murder charges filed. And the police explained the statute that requires you to make obscene gestures at motorists (rather than you just feeling like it).

        1. Wayne

          Oh your mockery must mean I was never in any danger right? Because thousands of people aren’t injured or killed in that extract situation, right? Just because law enforcement doesn’t take a real public health that seriously doesn’t mean I need to have your snide remarks on the matter. But you know, all us city folk hate your freedom to own a house and drive Monte.

          And I did very much make an actual gesture coupled with the words to match. Which I’ll gladly throw your way if you drive like that around me.

          1. Rosa

            forget danger, how about property damage? An acquaintance stopped by yesterday for a completely different reason, and had just been hit by a turning car (in our neighborhood, out in the suburbs.) He was fine, knocked down but the car was going slow, so he’s OK.

            But it broke his phone, which was in his pocket. Smart phones aren’t cheap. Can you IMAGINE the response if pedestrians routinely put a couple hundred dollars of damage on cars? it makes my “arm the school kids with rocks” idea look tame.

            1. Scott

              I’ve found a good solid whack on the rear fender or trunk tends to get their attention. Interestingly, it really makes some people mad when you whack their car good and hard, but you can tell it really surprises almost everybody. Perhaps they will learn to pay a little attention next time. And, it has the added advantage of being kind of fun.

              I’ve also found that carrying a really big metal pole tends to increase the odds of cars stopping at crosswalks. I used to be a sailing school instructor, and occasionally had to carry a 26′ aluminum mast from our storage facility to the boat launch. When you have six feet of aluminum tipped with stainless steel preceding you into the intersection, it’s amazing how quickly motorists can figure out that they probably ought to follow the law and stop before you shove 70 lbs of aluminum and steel rigging through their windshield.

              Again, good humor.

              1. Wayne

                I’ve given plenty of thwacks in my day, and had more than a trivial amount of people feel this was offense enough to warrant stopping their car, getting out and threatening me with physical violence. Because I slapped their car after they nearly killed me with it. Then again, the same has happened with hand gestures or words alone, so …

                I HATE AMERICAN DRIVERS.

                1. Nathanael

                  I think the 70 pound aluminum pole might help with that, too. Anyone who got out of your car and threatened you while you were carrying a 70 pound pole… would probably back off, even if they were suffering from rage.

              1. Sean Hayford OlearySean Hayford Oleary

                How can you possibly know it wasn’t deliberate? And does that matter? For property damage sake, it should not.

                Rosa — I hope your friend was compensated for his phone and any injury by the motorist or the insurance.

                1. Monte Castleman

                  Well, that’s true, I don’t. But I like to think that motorists don’t deliberately try to run down pedestrians. But a pedestrian damaging a car is obviously going to be deliberate.

                  The law places a lot of emphasis on intent and motivations. If I’m throwing rocks through people’s living room windows, shouldn’t the consequences be different than if I was playing a baseball game next door and a fly ball got out of hand?

                  1. Rich Passmore

                    My example, mentioned elsewhere in this post…I did indeed whack a car with my umbrella, scratched the hood and all that. The driver was an older woman who was so spooked by the sound and motion that I don’t think she realized what I’d done to her car until she got home. She hadn’t actually hit me yet so one could argue I was throwing stones, but it sure felt like I needed to get her attention before I flew up onto her hood or worse.

                  2. Will

                    I’m just alerting the driver to my presence and defending myself from harm. It shouldn’t be a chargeable offense in that case, but there may be some overzealous officer to take that stance.

                    1. Wayne

                      the same officers who refuse to enforce any laws that protect pedestrian safety or prosecute drivers that kill/maim pedestrians? yeah it’s a pretty good bet they’ll be on the side of ‘property damage’ claims for scratching someone’s car as it hits you.

                  3. Wayne

                    you might not like to think it, Monte, but that doesn’t make it not true in some cases. there are real life monsters who accelerate towards pedestrians and think it’s funny to watch people run for their lives. but of course it would all be very much a mistake when they actually hit one, officer, yes sir, just an “accident.”

                  4. Rosa

                    You have no idea how many times people have swerved at me, or accelerated toward me in obviously threatening ways. Making eye contact and everything.

                    And of course all those years I worked Sundays at the Star Tribune and rode my bike home along Washington Avenue with the car traffic, there were plenty of people who rolled down their windows to shout things at me like “Get off the road!” and “Streets are for cars!”. Or, what’s worse in some ways, encouraged/allowed their kids to do that, or to throw stuff out the window at me.

                    How many incidents do you have to hear about before you believe people?

                2. Wayne

                  because no harm to a pedestrian is *ever* deliberate to apologists for car violence. it’s always an “accident” that “no one could have seen coming or stopped.

                  and I like to walk with my keys out in my hand. Not my fault if a car drives into my hand when I’m walking.

                  1. Rosa

                    He just brushed himself off and kept walking, glad he wasn’t hurt. I’m not sure he noticed the broken phone right away.

              2. Rosa

                If a car comes close enough to a cyclist or pedestrian that the cyclist or pedestrian can hit them with something in their hand, they were or were about to hit that person with a deadly weapon.

                Also I can’t believe you just compared hitting a PERSON hard enough to break the stuff in their pocket, to vandalism.

              3. Nathanael

                Reckless driving is a crime in most states — often a felony. For some reason drivers never get prosecuted for it, even when it’s bloody obvious they were driving recklessly.

        2. Nathanael

          It’s very hard to even get the license plate numbers of the attempted murderers in cars. Otherwise we would be reporting them a lot more often.

      2. Sean Hayford OlearySean Hayford Oleary

        You think it’s worse with right-turn lanes, or it just isn’t necessarily better?

        Nicollet Ave in Richfield used to be 4-lane undivided, no shoulder or turn lanes, and cars would regularly cut in front of peds at corners, because they didn’t want to stop in a live travel lane. In fact, when driving, a couple of times pedestrians would wave me on to finish my turn when I attempted to yield, even though I was crossing the sidewalk. I assume they were just so accustomed to cars whipping around the turns.

        Other factors, like too-big curb radii, probably contributed. But I think motorists were especially eager to complete the turn fast to avoid blocking traffic.

        1. Wayne

          Personally it seems like people feel *more* entitled to a quick turn uninterrupted by pedestrians when they have a dedicated lane, but maybe it balances out with the pressure of worrying about the other assholes behind you honking when it’s a shared lane. Pedestrians always lose in the end, though. But I’d prefer we take as little extra space as possible for it, so no turn lanes please.

        2. Monte Castleman

          That really is a big psychological factor for me (and thus other people) when I drive. Even though I have a legal right to be there, I feel bad when I block a through lane while waiting to make a left or right turn, and thus get a lot more impatient than I would otherwise.

          1. Rosa

            everyone does – plus maybe some fear of getting rear-ended. It’s a real cultural problem. We feel worse about “impeding traffic” than risking people’s lives.

          2. Wayne

            well imagine being on foot and fearing for your life when you DO take the few seconds allotted to you to walk across the street because someone’s gotta turn over you because they might be upsetting someone behind them.

  4. Eric AnondsonEric Anondson

    Those corner radii reminded me of the turn radii in Edina after the France Ave “pedestrian friendly” redesign. I think they are rounded enough that you could drive the corner at 25 mph.

    1. Eric AnondsonEric Anondson

      Replying to myself here, I can’t locate it but didn’t do a post on the France Ave project? I remember Scott Neal, city manager, responded that since the project wasn’t finished he wouldn’t respond to the criticism.

      I’d love the author of that post to do a follow up now it is complete.

      1. Sean Hayford OlearySean Hayford Oleary

        I suppose I could, but nothing major has changed since I did the post. I believe they threw some caulking in the worst of those bike lane expansion gaps. They did also remove the bike lane stencil symbols in the shoulder on the far side of the intersections — so it’s at least a little less likely to attract flak from motorists for bikes to be in the travel lane (where the bike lane is about to end).

        I think behavior with blocking the new crosswalks is also slightly better, but still a good chunk of people who are blocking them.

        The arbitrarily removed crosswalks (like at Parklawn) were not replaced, and no trees have been added since that post. The plantings (shown in the post) have matured somewhat, and are looking pretty good.

        1. Eric AnondsonEric Anondson

          It was clear that there wasn’t going to be much changing after your “review” of the work, so it was disappointing Scott avoided commenting. It was clear the city was very happy that they got even that much done to improve France and wasn’t in any mood to read about how it fell short.

  5. Rich Passmore

    I think that as long as police continue to abdicate their role as traffic law enforcers, there has to be much more attention paid to slowing cars down, especially in congested areas where there is a mix of bikes, pedestrians and cars. After cars running red lights, my worst fear is cars making a left turn, looking left for cars coming from that direction and totally ignoring everything coming from the right. I lost a good umbrella whacking a car on the hood as the driver was about to roll over me in the crosswalk as they were intent on that oncoming traffic from the left.

    1. Wayne

      It’s pretty sad when there are some things we’re practically begging the police to do that they’re not, meanwhile and other things we’re begging then to stop doing that they won’t.

      I mean, I’m just saying. And if they can’t be trusted to do their actual job, rewrite the state law to make camera enforcement legal.

      1. Nathanael

        Many police departments need to be liquidated and we need to start fresh with new police departments.

        When you have a *so-called* police department that routinely violates numerous laws, assaults people, puts pedestrians in danger, while refusing to arrest other people who commit assault and battery with cars, *while* covering up crimes committed by cops and protecting criminal cops from arrest…

        You should just get rid of it. It’s not fit for purpose. And the organizational culture is so rotten it can’t be fixed.

        Fire everyone, shut it down. Start a new police department, fresh.

        I don’t think most of your PDs in Minnesota are *that* bad. NYPD and LAPD are that bad and should be liquidated immediately.

  6. Walker AngellWalker Angell

    Constant vigilance will be a constant need.

    Shoreview did a great job of building a bunch of stuff but sometimes recently it’s seemed that they’ve viewed their job as done and can go back to life and LOS as normal. An email yesterday gave me renewed hope though.

    The Netherlands is experiencing an increasingly vocal internecine battle between citizens and traffic engineers. The newer engineers graduating from their prime engineering uni Leuwarden are not as pedestrian and bicycle focused as older engineers and some newer construction is not proving as safe or comfortable as what many consider the prime designs of late 90’s through maybe 2012.

    There’ve been similar concerns in Copenhagen.

  7. Keith Morris

    This whole debacle points to the need for the city to immediately adopt a policy which requires traffic engineers to walk and bike on their creations during rush hour. That way, it doesn’t matter if the engineer is from Blaine or Seward; neither will enjoy crossing unmarked crosswalks on busy high speed streets or l biking down streets with fast and heavy traffic. I see no reason why this couldn’t be implemented, unlike the residency requirement. In the meantime, why not the reach out to these engineers who want to remove these medians and cross all of these intersections on 28th and 26th, while also biking the stretch of protected bike lanes and west of where they end to see and feel 1st hand how broken the current infrastructure is?

    1. Nathanael

      Good practical idea for a requirement.

      No engineer permitted to start formal work for a design for a section of road without walking every route through it and biking every route through it (and, yes, driving every route through it). Mandatory due diligence. Should only take a few hours.

Comments are closed.