Obviously, it was sad. Last week I had the ill fate of attending a police press conference at the corner of Cleveland and Jefferson Avenues in Saint Paul’s Mac-Groveland neighborhood. I had no pressing business that afternoon and, because I’d always wanted to see what one of these pressers was like, I scooted across town.
Earlier that weekend, on a Saturday morning, a bicyclist had been hit by a car crossing the street at Jefferson Avenue. He was in critical condition in the hospital. The newspaper reports on the crash were the usual vague narration, sprinkled with hints of victim-blaming. I was curious what the police had to say.
It was raining as I got there, exactly on time on a grey winter day, and I saw my friend Michelle bicycling up the street as I walked over to the corner. I noticed the two police officers getting out of their red SUV, lugging a bag behind them, and watched for a few minutes while a few TV reporters and their camera crews began setting up in front of a Jefferson Avenue stop sign. There were two or three TV crews and a young reporter from the University of St. Thomas paper, where the victim was enrolled.
Eventually, they began. The officer introduced himself, spelling his name carefully — Sergeant Mike Ernster — before reading a prepared statement before the cameras. It didn’t have answers. It seems to me that investigators were hampered by a lack of information, especially as the bicyclist was in critical condition and couldn’t describe his side of the story.
After the statement, the Sergeant asked for questions.
Here’s the exchange that took place:
FOX 9 reporter, Rob Olson: Is it true that he [the bicyclist] was at fault because he didn’t stop?
Saint Paul Police Sergeant Ernster: That is correct. As far the investigators know from statements gathered on the scene originally, the bicyclist was westbound on the sidewalk. He did not stop for northbound Cleveland traffic which would have meant he was at fault. Yes.
FOX: What’s the message then, out of that for bicyclists?
SGT: The message should be… one thing I should say is that he was also not wearing a helmet at the time of the accident. For bicyclists to wear your helmets and when you’re riding, ride with due care and follow the laws of the road. Even if vehicles see you, it doesn’t necessarily mean… you still have to stop and ride with due care.
ME: What can you tell me about these things here? [pointing to the high-visibility yellow flashing light signs at both crosswalks]
SGT: These appear to be for pedestrian safety. I do not recall seeing these, they were new to me when I pulled up at the intersection. It appears that they’re motion activated, where you push a button, they alert the drivers that the pedestrian wants to cross the street. In this case, I don’t think the bicyclist was moving, he would not have had time to press a button. He was also on a bike.
FOX: Busy road isn’t it?
SGT: It can be, it’s a very populated area, coming from a business district.
FOX: Is there anything else happening from here, or is it pretty cut and dry?
SGT: At this point it appears pretty cut and dry. It’s a tragic accident. It could have been prevented but things happen and unfortunately this gentleman paid the price for it.
SPPD Public Relations guy [motioning to the press]: OK. Thank you.
ANOTHER REPORTER: Any idea how fast the bicycle was going?
SGT: As far as the bicycle speed, I don’t know. It was mentioning that he was trying to slow down for the intersection but I don’t know what level he slowed down to. All the information that was gathered about the other driver, the driver of the motor vehicle, witness statements pretty much say that it was normal driving conditions. There was no reckless driving involved. It appears everything was pretty normal right up until the accident.
FOX 9 guy: I get the sense, you see it with bicyclists, they tend to just kind of cut through if they think there’s no cars here. You see that a lot.
SGT: We don’t know if there was distraction involved. You can see on westbound, he’s actually coming down a hill. He might have gathered more speed than he thought. We could guess all day long, we don’t know what happened.
I don’t want to pick on the Police Sergeant, the driver, nor the FOX 9 reporter, Rob Olson. Sergeant Ernster was very considerate, and I have a lot of sympathy for him in doing what must be a difficult task. We even chatted very briefly about street safety in other cities. He had just been to a city in Canada where, he told me, he was amazed at how quickly and regularly drivers stopped for people crossing the street.
Likewise, the reporter’s reaction is what you’d expect. At least from the drivers’ perspective, many bicyclists do “just kind of cut through” at intersections if they think there are no cars there. And most importantly, Sergeant Ernster’s last statement about not knowing what happened, that “we could guess all day long,” offers the best summation. It’s certainly a tragedy.
The funny thing about this event, for me, is that nobody knew the history of the corner, nor of the highly-visible flashing yellow signs that were surrounding us the whole time. It’s ironic because, of all the corners in the entire city of Saint Paul, Cleveland and Jefferson has probably been the most discussed. The spot where the crash occurred, and the spot where we were standing, had been the exact site of the great Cleveland median scandal, subject of multiple front-page stories in the Pioneer Press and Highland Villager, and the site of a heated debate over how to design a safe street for bicycling in Saint Paul.
The History of Cleveland and Jefferson
It just so happens that I have a description of the design debate about this intersection, which took place from 2008 to 2012, in one of the chapters of my PhD dissertation. Here you go:
The background for the Jefferson Avenue Bike Boulevard illustrates how infrastructure projects can develop long timelines as they encounter political and logistical hurdles. The concept of a bike boulevard in Saint Paul was first proposed following the announcement of Minneapolis as one of the [Non-motorized Transportation Pilot] NTP pilot cities, after project proposals were opened to Minneapolis and its neighboring cities. In order for a project to qualify for the pool of Federal funds, it had to offer a geographic connection to bike routes in Minneapolis. In Saint Paul, this requirement left few options for potential routes: near either of the two bridges over the Mississippi River, and towards the North of the city by the University of Minnesota campus. City staff quickly targeted the Southwest quadrant of Saint Paul near the Ford Parkway Bridge to Minneapolis, as a destination for a new East-West bicycle route through Saint Paul.
One of the key requirements for designing a bike boulevard was a continuous East- West street that was not also a main arterial with high traffic volumes. Only a few streets met these qualifications; the initial site targeted Highland Parkway, a calm residential street with a continuous median lined with trees. Plans were drawn up in 2008; however, quickly during the public input process for the proposed Highland Parkway Bike Boulevard, neighborhood opposition coalesced around a series of concerns, including traffic and safety. At this point, city staff quickly began considering other options, and settled on Jefferson Avenue as a backup option, a more-trafficked but still continuous residential street. Apart from its continuity as one of few streets bridging the freeway and railroad corridors, Jefferson also had the added benefit of fronting an elementary school, a church, a city park and a playground, all places that might benefit from traffic calming. The proposed route would stretch from West 7th Street on the Southeast side of the city all the way to the Mississippi River on the southwest Side of the city, before continuing on to the bridge to Minneapolis.
However, as it moved through its public hearing process, and the proposal was brought before neighborhood groups and committees of active local residents, and momentum on the project quickly ground to a halt. At one meeting in particular, the public works staff’s presentation on the proposed project was derailed by a boisterous crowd and, as one attendee described me, the information meeting was turned into a public forum where proponents and opponents lined up on opposing sides.
One flashpoint emerged over the design details at the intersection of Jefferson and Cleveland Avenues, one of the locations where the boulevard would cross a major North- South traffic corridor. Many bike boulevard designs in Minneapolis and elsewhere install “median diverters” that disallow through traffic from turning onto the boulevard, while simultaneously providing a median for bicyclists and pedestrians to cross the busier arterial. As it happened, the proposed Jefferson Avenue median diverter at Cleveland fell directly in front the home of a connected conservative political activist, who proceeded to generate stories in the media about the bike project and its funding structure (particularly the “unelected” non-profit agency). A good example was the castigation of the project by a well-known radio host:
The St. Paul City Council has decided to go ahead with a $1 million bike lane project on Jefferson Avenue, from Mississippi River Boulevard to West Seventh Street, that gives bikers the important connection to the Sam Morgan Trail, named, I think, for Sam (The Squeeze) Morgan, an Ultimate Fighter or kickboxer.
What this means is that hypocrites who have a car or two in the driveway at home will now put on the Italian racing suits with jerseys that look like the labels on olive jars and turn Jefferson into a slogfest of starts, stops, bump-outs, speed humps and something at Jefferson and Cleveland called a pedestrian refuge, where, if you are a pedestrian, it sounds like you are stranded or given some sort of green card status until you can be rescued and brought safely to one side of Cleveland or the other.
At the nadir of the controversy, an anti-boulevard activist filed a document request demanding the correspondence of anyone working on the bike project, and Bike/Walk Twin Cities staffers spent time compiling years worth of emails mentioning the NTP funding process and releasing them to the public.
Eventually, the project stalled and was delayed. Yet city staff, the bicycling advocacy community, and political leaders in Saint Paul remained interested in using the available Federal dollars to fund the infrastructure improvement, and in 2012, a watered-down version of the project passed through city committees and was approved by the City Council. Construction is finally occurring during the summer of 2014, just within the viable timeframe for using the NTP funding.
(That’s the description from my dissertation.)
The main thing that was stripped of the original bicycle boulevard plan was the proposed diverter median at Cleveland and Jefferson, the very place where this crash occurred. When it was finally passed in 2012, a bunch of other traffic-calming traffic circles were also removed from the Western end of the project. Today, at least on the unimproved and un-median’d part of the street, the Jefferson bike boulevard isn’t much better than nothing at all.
We can’t know if engineering changes to the corner would have prevented or mitigated the crash that severely injured Steeves. That’s very important to put out there. The police don’t know what happened, and neither do I. (As a witness to a car crash once myself, I can tell you that when you repeat remembered events more than once, as I did on the phone to two insurance companies, details can quickly become hazy.)
But there are better and worse ways to design bicycle boulevards, and this intersection can provide a useful case study, especially if we compare it to Saint Paul’s other lengthy bicycle boulevard project on Charles Avenue, which has the kind of “median refuge” treatments that were removed on Jefferson.
The key thing for the Charles design is that, precisely at the places where it crosses busy arterial roads, it has a “diverter median” every time. At first, these kinds of design treatments can seem a bit scary. In fact, at the time it was passed, one of the City Councilmembers voted against the project because, according to the news report, he was “worried about use of an unsignalized crossing at Snelling, saying, ‘I think somebody is going to get splattered.’”
As it turns out, bicycling safety is complicated. Though they’re unconventional, in my experience the Charles medians are very safe to use for pedestrians and bicyclists. Car traffic slows down and, even on extremely busy Snelling Avenue, tends to stop for people crossing the street. On top of that, they provide a “refuge” halfway through the street that allows the vulnerable non-drivers to focus on one direction of traffic at a time.
What to do about Jefferson today?
It’s impossible to say, but I have to believe that a similar median at the Cleveland crossing, like the one originally proposed, might have prevented or mitigated the impact from last week’s crash. The point isn’t to navel gaze about history, but merely that bicycle boulevards can be done well or poorly.
As Mike Sonn pointed out in his Cassandra-like column from a year ago, Jefferson Boulevard ought to be improved. Steeves’ tragic crash isn’t the only recent incident on this street. In October, a young woman riding a bike was hit by a car at the signalized intersection at Jefferson and Snelling on her way to a meeting about bicycle safety. (A good friend of mine was bicycling right behind her, and told me later that night that, “It could have been me.”) As Mike says, he’s seen many crashes on this street this summer (during the city’s chaotic construction season) and riding there offers an experience where he is “routinely harassed, buzzed, yelled at, swerved at, [and] stopped short in front of.”
The details of Evan Steeves’ story make this particularly tragic. As the Rob Olson’s story for FOX 9 shows, he was a smart engineering student working on LED lighting technology and remote control systems. According to his Caringbridge site, he has started intensive physical therapy, but because of the brain injury, the walking exercises make him dizzy and very tired. You can go online and support him there.
It’s incumbent on cities to do the job right when designing bicycle boulevards. Steeves’ is just one of the lives that’s been impacted by design decisions, where each traffic circle, median, or other calming measure that is removed erodes the safety of the street. When added up, these cuts negate the very purpose of bike boulevards in the first place. I’d love to make sure that every future bike boulevard project looks more like the Charles’ Avenue design, and that we leave the compromises of Jefferson Avenue behind us for good.
And a whole bunch from my personal blog, in chronological order from 2011 – 2014: LiveBlog from the January 24th Mac-Groveland Community Council Transportation Committee Meeting, Liveblog of April 4th St Paul City Council Meeting on the Jefferson Bike Boulevard, Reading the Highland Villager Op-Ed Extra! #3, Last Minute Amendment Strips Traffic Calming from Jefferson Bike Boulevard and Jefferson Bike Boulevard Illustrates Frustrating Pace of Change