Signal Timing Transformed My Everyday

picture of the red light

This light to cross Hennepin at 22nd stays red for an eternity (in January, or when it’s raining).


I’ve lived three doors from the intersection of 22nd Street and Hennepin Avenue South for 19 years. I have to cross Hennepin to get to 90 percent of the places I go. For 19 years, my every-day getting-around has been ruled by the insistence of that stoplight rushing drivers north and south along Hennepin, telling me to wait, wait, wait, Wait, Wait, WAIT, WAIT until it’s my “turn.” WAIT. … Ok, now hurry up and go.

Hennepin through-travelers get 75 seconds of green – no flashing red hand – but those crossing Hennepin are offered merely 10 seconds of green, before the warnings return.

I’ve been running to catch that green light for 19 years. When I crest the hill heading west from Lyndale, when I turn from the Bryant Bike Boulevard onto 22nd, when I exit my alley to head to Bryant, when I turn off Colfax on my walk home from the park, as I head to the bus stop just across the street, I always peer ahead to see if it’s green and if I should CRANK IT/RUN to catch it! sprint Yes, I curse under my breath when I miss it.

[Confession: because the red is SOOO long, I push the yellow on my bike. When I’m walking, if it hasn’t turned yellow, I’ll jog. If I see my bus coming, I play frogger.]

The Transformation

A couple years ago, during the nicest part of summer, I was walking home through the Wedge. I saw the green from a block away and sighed. I’d never make it and would have to wait minutes to cross, carrying my very heavy groceries. But then… as I approached the corner, it turned!

After a couple of days paying close attention, I was sure. The signal timing had changed, and it was cycling more frequently.

This may sound a little extreme, but it has transformed my experience of getting around.

I stopped worrying about the light. I didn’t crank on my pedals to catch it if there was any hope. I relaxed, and stood on the corner carrying my 25 pounds of groceries knowing that soon it would be my turn.

I could cross just to window shop — unthinkable if I had the long wait for the light to change. I wanted to thank someone at the City, but I was sure it was a mistake and I didn’t want to alert them to it.

I figured I was the only person nerdy enough to have noticed. I mean, it’s just a traffic light. No one pays attention to traffic light timing. I assumed that until I chatted with my neighbor downstairs. She walks more than I do, and she was even happier about it than I was. She’d already called to thank the City. [Note: She’s a better person than I am.] I discovered that even my housemate who’s not a “noticer” had noticed. She mentioned that it was easier to catch her bus to work with the lights changing more often.

Near the end of the summer, I was starting to think there wouldn’t be another winter of just missing the light, freezing while waiting for it to change. Then suddenly the lights were perma-red again, how they’d always been.

My peering ahead, sprinting, cranking, pushing the yellow, froggering to catch the bus, habits returned instantly.

Now, I fondly remember the summer when crossing Hennepin was no big deal, could happen any time. The summer when people crossing Hennepin mattered almost as much as the drivers hurtling along it.

a different picture of the red light

It’s back to being red all the time. Patience, people.


P.S. My hope is pinned on Minneapolis’ maybe someday Complete Streets policy, which rumor has it includes reevaluating red light timing.

About Janne Flisrand

Janne Flisrand spends her time thinking about how people interact with the space around them. Why do they (or don't they) walk or bike or shop somewhere? How do spaces feel? Why do people sit here and not there? Why bus instead of bike, bike instead of drive? What sorts of spaces build community, and what sorts kill it? Can spaces build civic trust and engagement?

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24 thoughts on “Signal Timing Transformed My Everyday

  1. NiMo

    Is the car in the top photo going the wrong way down 22nd or does it just look that way?

    I would say also that it would be nice if 22nd was a two way street for bikes. I’m not the only one who jumps onto the sidewalk for a block there before going back onto the road then turning Bryant. It’s especially common during the summer as there is a NiceRide station at 22nd and Dupont on the other side of Hennepin.

    1. Janne Flisrand Post author

      Hi, NiMo. I’m facing west here, so the car isn’t going the wrong way (I’m standing in the one-way section).

      I agree about hating to do that wrong-way on my bike AND that there’s no better option. For that reason, I once talked to someone at the City about making it two-way for bikes, I don’t remember who.

      The sense I got was that it’s totally OK for bikes to go wrong-way for that fraction of a block, but there were concerns about officially making it a two-way because of rider and driver expectations of right-of-way. Of course, that conversation was before it was implemented by the Greenway at Irving/Humboldt, so they may have figured out how that works by now.

      1. Hokan

        5th Street S.E. (west of 35w) is a two-way streets where general traffic goes eastbound and only bike traffic goes westbound. It works just fine.

        1. Walker AngellWalker Angell

          “It works just fine.”

          For who? Just fine for you and me and others in the Strong & Fearless category and a few in the Enthused & Confident. How about the other 98% of the population? How many parents are comfortable with their 8-year-old riding along there to school? How is it in winter?

          I’ve only ridden along there once contra-flow and it wasn’t bad. I think a total of about four or five cars came along. One was going quite fast though and riding the double yellow line which was a bit nerve wracking.

          1. Wayne

            Honestly 5th SE works fine for everyone because the ROW is narrow for cars and there’s stop signs nearly every block. The canopoy of huge old trees helps too, as well as the fact it dead ends on the east end and basically only serves local residential traffic.

            But I can see how it’d be a different matter if the traffic lane was 13′ and there were no stop signs and it was a connector to another part of town. In this case the car lane is practically useless to drivers, so it’s rarely used and when it is, it’s used slowly and carefully. We need more of that. Dead end every other street to car traffic! Let’s get the Talmadge swirls all over town!

            1. Janne

              This setting is very much like the 5th St. SE one. Because Hennepin is on a diagonal and is often congested, I assume people would cut through the Wedge. A long time ago (more than 19 years) the City made all the non-major block-fractions that butt up to Hennepin a one way TO Hennepin so people couldn’t cut through.

              This segment is exceptionally short, with probably 1/3 of a short block a one-way. Because the alternatives are all horrible — Franklin, or Hennepin to 24th, or far out of your way (first west, then south, then east, THEN cross) a lot of walking and biking people cross at this intersection, and it’s a universal practice for those of us on bikes to go the wrong way for that fraction.

              The only car traffic on that segment is local, and a lot of local traffic actually prefers to continue north on Colfax and enter Hennepin there.

              Oh, and it’s even got big trees!

  2. Walker AngellWalker Angell

    I can completely relate. For a couple of weeks I kept track of how much time I spent waiting at lights — when there was NO cross traffic. My average was 17 minutes wasted per day. Recently I did it again for a day while running errands and it was 42 minutes wasted. That was all either sitting in a car or on a bike, both much easier than standing there holding groceries.

  3. Monte Castleman

    Unless they were experimenting with a green wave on Hennepin and then backed out of it, I’m assuming they were running shorter cycles during the summer, when motorized traffic is less and non-motorized traffic is greater.

    As for wasted time at lights with no conflicting traffic, I assume these are fixed time intersections in Minneapolis, and yes, I’m annoyed by them too.

    1. Janne Flisrand Post author

      Monty, I’m sure it was an experiment, not a standard summer change. I’m nerdy enough to stand at the corner with a timer measuring… I’m sure.

      Time to have that swap back permanently.

      1. Joseph TottenJoseph Totten

        Is vehicle traffic less in summer? I’ve seen the reverse presented. Might be different because it’s a very urban area, but I haven’t seen this presented elsewhere.

  4. Rosa

    watching people playing leapfrog on Lake today (i ended up driving a lot today), I go back to thinking there should be some way for the buses to get the lights to change to allow people to cross when the bus is approaching/stopping.

    1. Nicole

      I’ve wondered about this too (I live near Lake St.). Does anyone know of other cities or transit systems that have this specifically with lights? I know increasing frequency so people aren’t worried about waiting for 10 minutes helps, but I don’t use the buses often enough on Lake Street to know their frequency, stated or actual.

      1. Monte Castleman

        The Opticom preemption system the area uses has a capability for “low priority” pre-emption, meant for busses and such. This area has just chosen not to use it. (I heard Minneapolis uses an unrelated GPS system on one street but I have no direct knowledge). Like it or not engineers have just chosen to try to do what they can to keep both buses and motorists moving, rather than do something incredibly helpful to buses that would be pretty devastating to other motorists.

        1. Rosa

          Well, given the common refrain here that “no motorist wants to hit a pedestrian” and also given that Lake is not very fast to drive on in the first place, I don’t see how it would be “devastating” to drivers. Drivers want safety and not to have to dodge pedestrians running across the street, right? Everyone keeps saying so.

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  6. Mr Engineer

    Shorter cycle lengths are good for everyone… Less time spent at red lights with no one going along the cross-street, and if you miss your green, the next green comes up quickly. Less delay! Cities should aim for 60 second cycles at simple intersections and not go over 90 seconds. The horrendous ones are those that last 2 minutes or more, usually at large, auto-centric intersections that require pedestrians to push buttons to get a walk signal.

    1. Monte Castleman

      It depends. In an isolated intresection, obviously the shorter the light is, the shortest *maximum time* a user has to wait is decreased.
      With shorter cycles, thought, the proportion of dead time when no one can use the intersection (in practice reaction time and the all-red interval) increases dramatically, so overall efficiency goes down and the *average time* a user has to wait increases.

      There’s of course the argument for increasing average times to shorten maximum times, because drivers get frustrated and irritated, and pedestrians are tempted to jaywalk if they miss a light and know they’ll have to wait a long time for the next one.

      And setting up a Green Wave can reduce overall wait times as a system, and that generally calls for short cycle lengths. That’s what I wonder if the city was trying to play around with.

      1. Joseph TottenJoseph Totten

        Really after 120 seconds signal cycle you start getting into long enough to get some red-light running, but that’s why semi-actuated lights are used in a lot of places where light cycles would be longer than such. OR why late night areas go to flashing red…

  7. Julia

    I hadn’t noticed anything at this light in particular, but I’ve noticed that quite a few lights along Hennepin between Franklin and Lake are really poorly timed for anyone not in a car. The lights at 25th and 26th to cross Hennepin are a really long wait, with very little time to actually cross the (very wide) street. Many people cross mid-block from 24th to 27th, or without waiting for the lights, because there are frequently gaps in traffic. At 25th, the walk sign doesn’t come on without pushing the button, but pushing the (inconvenient) beg buttons doesn’t actually trigger a light change (so if you push it, you’re waiting another minute and a half regardless). Overall, the traffic light placement/timing on Hennepin (and county-road Lyndale) make very little sense given the neighborhood context (higher density, walkable).

    Did you talk to the city to find out what changed?

    1. Monte Castleman

      It’s easy to figure out if the signal meets standard. The Walk interval should be at least 7 seconds (unless engineering judgment determines it can be lower, down to 4 in a specific location. The Clearance time (the flashing change interval plus a 3 second buffer time, generally the same as the vehicular yellow), should be the width of the street from curb to curb divided by 3.5 ft / second (although there’s probably a lot of older signals still using the pervious 4.0 ft / second standard.

      I’m guessing what’s going on is traffic is so heavy on Hennepin that it’s hitting the max green limit every single cycle, and it’s long enough that by that time there’s a conflicting call from a vehicle or pedestrian on the side street. So it doesn’t make a difference in the Hennepin green time if a pedestrian makes a call, it just turns on the walk light and lengthens the side street phase to accommodate the pedestrian phase.

      1. Julia

        Oh, I’m sure these meet standard. I just don’t believe the standard is set up with people outside cars in mind, except as legally required by ADA lawsuits and even then… Traffic lights are intended to control/prioritize car flow.

        The walk interval at 25th is extremely short. I’ve watched people with mobility issues and they often don’t make it across before the light changes. I’ve heard complaints from people with children as well–and both 26th/25th are on the Jefferson School block.

        Hennepin traffic can be heavy, but not most of the day. It can seem busier at 25th because the two gas stations and the nearby Kowalski’s/Walgreens both have high volumes of car traffic in and out (and a lot of dangerous driving as people block crosswalks/sidewalks without looking for people on foot). The high car traffic time is also high foot traffic time, so I don’t see why the light cycles would be longer for vehicle if there were ANY thought given to other uses.

        My point is that poorly designed/timed traffic signals are a safety and quality of life problem all along Hennepin. If traffic engineers/protocols included valuing non-drivers, then we’d see lights that function differently.

        Right now Hennepin’s lights seem designed to allow/encourage drivers to travel at deadly speeds–I’ve ridden with drivers down Hennepin, and we often cruise from Franklin to about Lake Street without missing a single light. At the same time on foot, people are forced to wait for long cycles for a very short crossing in all kinds of weather. This isn’t one of those county roads where the city seems powerless. It’s a city street along a major urban corridor, past sidewalk cafes, an elementary school, two senior living apartment/condo buildings, etc. The blocks are really long and there are also legal but unmarked crossings (Fremont, 25 1/2, etc.). It’s a total mess for walking/biking (tons of bikes on the sidewalks because people don’t feel safe biking on the street). I see frequent car crashes (or the evidence of them) at or near these intersections.

        I just don’t get why the traffic engineering choices are so hostile to those outside cars, down to and including traffic light timing (which I’d think would be theoretically easier/cheaper to improve).

        1. Wayne

          What I hate is that any time someone suggests changes to roads like Hennepin to make them better for non automotive uses, the reaction is like the sky is falling and the world will end if you so much as make the slightest concession to pedestrian use. What I really don’t get though is that there’s apparently enough support to push through bike facilities despite opposition, but almost never pedestrian improvements. Why can’t we have both?

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