Blame Our Streets

Last Sunday, December 20, 2015, while dozens of volunteers, elected officials, and staff and supporters of the Minneapolis Bicycle Coalition gathered to celebrate what has been an incredible 2015 for biking in Minneapolis, just a few miles away in St. Paul a tragedy was unfolding as another pedestrian was struck by a vehicle – this time a mother and a small child who were trying to cross a busy, four-lane street. That terrible crash is a stark reminder that for all the recent successes, there’s still a lot more work that needs to be done to make our streets places that are safe for everyone to use, no matter if they’re on foot, in a wheelchair, on a bike, or in a car.

Image of Lake St & 41st, left, and Maryland and Albermarle, right

The tragedy especially hit home for me as the father of 13 month old child, as I live near a similarly-sized street to Maryland Ave – Lake Street in Minneapolis. Obviously a lot of the details are still coming out about what happened, but initial reports seem to indicate that while three lanes of traffic stopped, one driver went around the stopped cars at high speed and hit the mother and child as they crossed. Having myself attempted many times to cross at an unmarked crosswalk with my baby along Lake Street only to have only one or most frequently no vehicles stop, it’s not hard for me to see how something terrible like this could happen.

Framing the narrative

In what now looks like a very poor bit of timing on the part of the Star Tribune, this victim-blaming article (unfortunately from a reporter who is usually very on the mark when it comes to walking and transit issues) about pedestrian injuries and fatalities was run on the previous day. The article is a prime example of how framing an issue can have a huge impact on public perception of blame in a crash, and how that can lead to a narrative that blames cyclists or pedestrians for their injuries or deaths, rather than making us think about how our road design, driving habits, and driving culture lead to a large number of fatalities and injuries on our roads every day. By focusing on what the article even admits is the least likely reason for pedestrian deaths (“Such risky behavior has caused the percentage of pedestrians killed while using cellphones to rise from less than 1 percent in 2004 to more than 3.5 percent in 2010…”) it lets drivers, and most importantly the way we prioritize use of our streets off the hook.

The article is also a good example of trying to shift the blame to the victim by noting that they weren’t wearing a helmet, or reflective clothing, or some other failing. Highlighting these issues serves to shift the culpability away from driver behavior and street design and on to the person who was injured or killed. That’s not to say that we don’t all share responsibility when we’re on the road – cyclists and pedestrians should of course follow traffic laws and act predictably – however the lack of “proper” clothing or other accouterments on a pedestrian or cyclist doesn’t remove the onus from the driver to drive defensively and be aware of their surroundings and other road users, or for the city to take a critical look at how our infrastructure encourages bad driver behavior by design.

The article oddly ends with a number of examples of pedestrians (none of whom appeared to be texting or otherwise distracted) being forced to wear reflective clothing because of inattentive drivers or even being “clipped” by speeding drivers while in a crosswalk, including this quote from a pedestrian downtown:

“I put my phone away. I act appropriately. I don’t want to be blood on the sidewalk or a statistic.”

Unfortunately, despite what the article implies, it’s not enough for pedestrians to be aware of their surroundings if those surroundings are sending a signal to drivers that it’s ok to speed, take corners fast, or encroach on pedestrian space.

Our streets are failing us


Floating bus stop (Photo: Adam Coppola Photography)

The elephant in the room in all of these discussions are our streets themselves. Both the Star Tribune article on pedestrians and the Pioneer Press article about the most recent crash don’t talk at all about how the design of streets play a role in encouraging bad behavior, however it’s obvious that streets designed to move the largest amount of automobiles quickly through a neighborhood are by design not serving the needs of pedestrians and cyclists, and are also by design dangerous for all users. That we need to “improve” our streets by grafting on solutions like HAWK signals or those embarrassing orange flags should be seen as admissions that we have created a street that doesn’t work for everyone. What’s needed is a focus on building our streets to a human scale, in a way that makes it clear that the top priority is people – not cars.
The City of Minneapolis is working to build out a Complete Streets policy that would help guide just that sort of street design moving forward, and has already placed a lot of emphasis on building streets to meet the needs of the most vulnerable users first. While this is a great start, and I hope to see this progress into an even stronger final policy document (and one that’s actually adhered to), this only addresses new or redesigned streets – not the hundreds of miles of streets we have in our city that aren’t due for reconstruction any time soon.

That’s why campaigns like Bikeways for Everyone matter, and why the push for protected bikeways matters so much to me, as it should to everyone who bikes or walks in Minneapolis. The city installed 6 miles of protected bikeways this year, and are on track to surpass our goal of 30 miles by 2020 – the City in fact has passed a plan calling for more than 48 miles in the next few years! That’s 50 miles of improved streets that deemphasize moving cars as quickly as possible. Still just a drop in the bucket overall, but an amazing step forward, and an acknowledgment that the safety of all road users is important in Minneapolis.

This matters

alex-babyAt the end of the day, this is about people. For me personally, it’s about being able to bike or walk around my neighborhood, or wherever I need to go with my 13 month old son, without the fear of being injured or killed just because we’re not in a car. We spent this summer biking to daycare, going for walks around our neighborhood, and visiting a number of local businesses on foot or bike because our neighborhood is older with narrow streets that signal to drivers to slow down and pay attention, and with lots of other people out biking and walking. We have great off-street trails, and with new facilities like the Oak Street bikeway near us, even on-street paths to get us where we need to go safely. These things make a huge difference in not just making life more fun, but also enable us to save money by having only one car for our family, and to live healthier by walking or biking as transportation.

I recognize that I’m very lucky to live where I do, and while I know there are a million ways in which it could be better (looking at you, Lake Street!), we have a number of amenities that other parts of the city do not. It’s on us as residents of Minneapolis to push our policymakers and our city to make sure that we are growing our city in a way that serves all residents, that is equitable, and that gives everyone the ability to feel safe in their own neighborhoods no matter how they choose to get around.

A version of this post was crossposted on the Minneapolis Bicycle Coalition blog.

Alex Tsatsoulis

About Alex Tsatsoulis

Alex is a Minneapolis resident, dad to two kids, and multi-modal advocate with a passion for making bicycling, transit, and walking fun and accessible for all. Alex's favorite bus line is the 21.

27 thoughts on “Blame Our Streets

  1. Alex

    I’ve seen the exact same behavior from cyclists as the driver who hit the pedestrians in St Paul displayed — one cyclist yields to a pedestrian at a crossing in Loring Park and another cyclists passes on the left, threatening the pedestrian. I could easily see something similar happening on Oak St (though I’m not sure how many unsignalized crossings it has).

    So how does infrastructure help this issue? It seems like more of an enforcement or cultural thing.

    1. Wayne

      Three things:
      1) it’s not right no matter who does it, let’s get that out of the way, however …
      2) a cyclist is going to be going slower and is far more likely to be able to stop before colliding with someone like that
      3) even if they weren’t able to stop and did hit the mother and child, the survivability of that collision is orders of magnitude greater than being hit by a speeding car

      So to call your comment apples to orange would be a kindness since they’re still both fruits.

      That said, I’m all for greater enforcement, but it needs to be attenuated to who is causing the real bodily harm–mostly cars. I get really sick of people crying about cyclists also engaging in some kind of behavior like they’re the only ones who need to be punished when they are not the ones killing people on a daily basis. The ‘bikes too!’ argument is tired and just a misdirection to distract from the true villains here.

      1. Alex

        I agree, but how does building bike infrastructure impact the behavior of the true villains? Assuming there is no amount of bike infrastructure we can build that will prevent anyone from driving ever, and realistically in a city with an adequate supply of bike infrastructure and transit a substantial amount of traffic will still be in private vehicles, how will bike infrastructure help prevent double-threat crashes?

        I’m responding to the connection in this piece between pedestrian safety and the protected bike lane network advocated by the MBC. Will they advocate more for protected bike lanes on four-lane roads as a means of reducing double-threat crashes? How will MBC’s interest in pedestrian safety affect their advocacy for a PBL on 3rd Ave S downtown?

        1. Alex TsatsoulisAlex Tsatsoulis Post author

          The end goal of bicycle infrastructure isn’t to prevent people from driving, but rather to give people who want it an alternative to driving that is easy, convenient, and safe.

          Bicycle and pedestrian improvements go hand in hand, but aren’t necessarily the same thing. A street that has been narrowed and calmed, and is easier to walk along and cross is very likely easier to bicycle on since there’s slower vehicle traffic, and the street design itself signals to drivers to be aware of other users. Protected bikeways can help raise awareness of other users for drivers, indicate that they are operating in a shared space, calm traffic, and in some instances (such as 26th and 28th) serve to shorten crossing distances for pedestrians, while making them more visible to drivers. Will infrastructure alone solve these sorts of crashes? No – but it can go a long way towards slowing traffic, making drivers more aware of their surroundings, and making it clear that drivers operate in a shared space where others have the right of way.

          The Coalition isn’t a pedestrian advocacy group, but I personally think that most improvements that make a street safer for bicyclists of all ages and abilities also make a street safer for pedestrians. This piece is written from my personal perspective as someone who bikes and walks in Minneapolis, but you can get more of a sense of where the Coalition will be focused in the coming years from our new strategic plan:

  2. Keith Morris

    Streets like Lake are way overdue for improvements. Every block here should have a painted crosswalk, traffic signals should be more frequent (or better yet and much cheaper: install four-way stops).

    At Lowry and Central, where Lowry currently has the same setup as Lake west of Central, I noticed a scarf on the curb encroaching slightly into the travel lane. Motorists were slowing down where they used to speed on through. Perhaps brightly painted cardboard stuck along the curbs is all it would take in the meantime to calm traffic a good deal.

    1. Monte Castleman

      Stop Signs: Can you imagine how apocalyptic traffic would become and the blowback from the 80% of Minneapolis residents that own cars if there was a stop sign every block on Lake Street. Plus, typical motorist behavior between a string of stop signs is to stomp on the gas between them to make up time (hopefully looking for pedestrians lulled into a false sense of security first). These is why stop signs for traffic calming are discouraged by the MUTCD.

      Scarfs and Cardboard Sticks: If this were installed everywhere drivers would start ignoring them and they would loose their effectiveness. That’s why you often see orange flags on a new sign, but they are eventually removed. When everything screams at you it just becomes noise and is all tuned out. This is the second reason why

        1. Wayne

          Put stop signs and roundabouts along the entire length of 31st too. YOUR ABILITY TO SPEED THROUGH MY CITY IS NOT WORTH MY LIFE AND LIMB. SLOW DOWN AND DEAL WITH TRAFFIC, IT’S NOT THE END OF THE WORLD.

            1. Wayne

              How many of the people that live along 31st do you think are the ones speeding along it to get somewhere else? How many of the 80.3% do you think want cars speeding along the road they live on? How many of the worst roads in the city are designed and maintained by the county or some other agency that prioritizes the speed of through-traffic over local residents?

            2. Jeremy

              I don’t get this argument. Are you scoffing at Wayne’s desire to see traffic calmed on 31st? What’s your point in this thread?

              1. Monte Castleman

                Traffic calming would negatively impact anyone that drives there. For the most part this is other city residents (Except for maybe going home from Abbott there’s pretty much zero reason for someone from the suburbs to use it). The motorists on 31st that live elsewhere in the city have as much right to call it “My city” as the people that live on 31st.

                1. Jeremy

                  So it’d be safer not to calm the streets, because people will speed up and brake all the time? That is theoretically less safe than cars just bombing down the streets? (Yes, Minneapolitans bomb down streets all the time – it’s not limited to out-of-towners.)

                  What does “negatively impact” mean?

                  1. Wayne

                    “negatively impact” means Monte thinks his being able to speed through urban neighborhoods is more important than the lives of people who live in them. There’s no reasonable explanation for his knee-jerk opposition to any traffic calming even in places where he doesn’t live or drive on a regular basis.

                    Also his argument is pure garbage anyway. If you design the street properly the drivers are unable to drive the way he’s describing. But somehow ‘people will misbehave no matter what you do’ is supposed to deter us from making any kind of improvements and just leaving things in the worst possible state for pedestrians and cyclists. No thanks, I’ll take a supposedly-futile uphill battle for safety over the status quo any day.

                2. Wayne

                  Unbridled speeidng negatively impacts people that LIVE THERE. I’d think taking the impact to people who live somewhere over transient passers-by might be a little more important to someone who is obsessed with the american dream of a little single family home castle.

                  Also assuming the only traffic is for Abbot is dumb, they’re not the only employer in this part of town. Not to mention with the lack of cross-town highways (thankfully) people will use it to cut back towards the SW metro when there are no good highway options or traffic there is worse. You’re just spewing a bunch of assumptions to defend an indefensible argument that prioritizing through-traffic somehow trumps the safety of local residents. It doesn’t You’re wrong. Stop squirming.

                3. Adam MillerAdam Miller

                  Nope. I reject your assertion that drivers really want to put others at risk and kill pedestrians. Having to drive safer (i.e. slower) is not a harm to drivers and with proper caliming won’t even bother them.

                  What’s frustrating is going slower than the context suggests is safe. Calm it right and it can work for all.

                  1. Jeremy

                    Are you rejecting my assertion or Monte’s? If you thought I implied that drivers want to kill people, I didn’t, though I do think that car driving encourages the kind of selfish and risky behavior that often puts ped and cyclists at risk.

                    As to the rest, I couldn’t agree more. The whole “will negatively impact” is really code for “will impinge on ability to speed”, i.e. it will take longer to get home, so that is really, really, really bad for the poor drivers. They would be inconvenienced, which is, like, the worst thing ever.

                    For all Wayne’s indignation, I tend to agree with him.

                    But Monte’s avowed interest is cars and traffic lights, road signs and other car-related paraphernalia, so I expected as much.

      1. Matt SteeleMatt Steele

        Fairly certain “It’s in the MUTCD” is not a reason to do anything. If anything, it’s probably best practice to avoid doing what the MUTCD suggests.

        1. Monte Castleman

          Because we should do the exact opposite of what 80 years of engineering experience suggests? Better remove all the stoplights in the city where the intersections have warrrants and put up them at all the intersections that do not.

          1. Wayne

            When that ‘engineering experience’ has been focused solely on moving as many cars as possible with no regard for the people who live on these streets and has led to the bloodbath we call our road system, yes I’d say ignoring it is a good first step.

    2. Wayne

      Maybe we just need to get guerrilla urbanist and start throwing random obstructions into busy streets where people drive unsafely. When they’re removed, throw a new one out there. If the city/state/county/whoever can’t keep us safe in our own neighborhoods, maybe it’s time for some community action to take back our streets from speeding commuters who think 10 seconds of their time is worth more than a human life.

      1. Monica Millsap RasmussenMonica Rasmussen

        As a person who likes to walk as a mode of transportation to everything- work, shopping, dining, etc- I have watched the results of “traffic calming” in my neighborhood with obvious interest. I’ve said it before, too, but as a pedestrian, I feel that traffic calming has actually had the effect of making me feel less safe. I truly believe that people who are driving are lulled into a sense of security themselves by streets that are designed to “calm” their driving- they see this as an opportunity to distract themselves by texting, making/taking a phone call, checking social media, or whatever, because they believe that they will have time to stop if something happens, like another car stopped in front of them or a pedestrian running out in front of them. Drivers also seem to believe that when streets are designed in this way, that it is ok for them to stop randomly (for sometimes unknown and unseen purposes), and other drivers seem to understand this as a norm as well, so think nothing of just going around a stopped car.

        If we truly want safer streets, design streets that force drivers to pay attention to their surroundings, attend to the traffic around them. Streets designed to force drivers to pay attention might also reduce the random stopping that drivers do here. Perhaps we could become a place where a driver who is stopped is actually stopped for a purpose. This would have the effect of other drivers not speeding around a driver who is stopped for a pedestrian.

        1. Nathanael

          This is an example of the principle that streets need to *appear* dangerous in order to cause drivers to pay attention. There should be obvious hazards at all times.

  3. Pingback: Sunday Summary – December 27, 2015 |

  4. Eric SaathoffEric S

    I live near Maryland Avenue but moved a little further away partly because I didn’t feel safe crossing Maryland with my kids (or Arcade St).

    I’m currently on the Transportation Committee and we are planning to work as a group with districts 5, 2, and 6 to create some sort of comprehensive plan for Maryland Avenue to increase safety for non-motorized users.

    There are significant challenges, however. Maryland Avenue has some of the highest traffic volumes in the city – particularly right around I35E (28,500). It also has several pinch points where it is the only east-west option nearby (particularly at 35E but really just look at a map of Maryland Ave between Lake Como and White Bear Ave).

    The only serious solution I can see to this issue is to reduce the traffic lanes from 4 to 3, but how do we do this with such high traffic volumes and no alternatives to direct the traffic? One thing that’s missing is a bus going down Maryland between the lakes (the 3A serves west of 35E and the 64 serves east, but nothing between Rice and Arcade).

    Maybe traffic will be reduced when the Cayuga project is complete and more people will be exiting 35E at Cayuga than Maryland, but I don’t think this is will be much different than the people who used to exit at Pennsylvania.

    What suggestions do you have to improve this road and make it functional?

    1. Janne

      Eric, I’ve been consistently surprised at the traffic volumes that can be accommodated by a road makeover (4-3 as you describe). I also know that the city and county engineers west of the river set a significantly lower threshold for when they will consider such a makeover.

      I don’t recall the numbers, although they’ve been shared here before. I suspect these are on the high end, but that doesn’t mean the committee shouldn’t push for that.

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