St Paul and Highland District Council are proposing to add left turn lanes and a 10’ median to Snelling Avenue between Randolph and Ford Pkwy. The stated purpose is to slow traffic, reduce left turns, and improve safety for pedestrians.
Unfortunately, this project will make this neighborhood less pleasant, with increased and faster traffic, and will make life more dangerous for people walking or with disabilities. And while it is proposed to use 8-80 Vitality funds, it will do nothing to improve the human-scale vitality of this neighborhood, only make it feel more like a multi-lane freeway through the middle of a neighborhood and dividing it even more than it does today.
While this will indeed reduce left turns, it is questionable whether it will reduce speeds. There is little to improve pedestrian safety and this is more than offset by elements that will make it more dangerous for pedestrians. It will not improve safety for bicycle riders nor encourage more people to ride. It will encourage more cars and trucks to use this as a rat run shortcut to elsewhere, though, and this neighborhood does not need more traffic.
They Are Missing Two Critical Elements
Refuge Islands? A primary safety benefit of medians is providing a refuge for people walking and riding bicycles so that they need only cross part-way, in stages. Yet this design does not do that on major intersections and instead wants people to cross five to six lanes of traffic. Why eliminate the key benefit of medians?
Was approval based on misleading information? The minutes of the Highland District Council contain a statement that “a study found 46% fewer vehicle-pedestrian crashes on busy 4-lane roads with medians vs. similar roads without medians.” That 46% reduction is due to pedestrian refuges though. This plan does just the opposite and significantly increases pedestrian and bicycle danger at most intersections.
Where do bicycle riders go? There is no provision for people on bicycles (or mobility scooters) in this plan.
But Wait, There’s More
More Traffic Lanes and More Danger. This plan increases traffic lanes from four to five. Why does this section of Snelling need more lanes? This is not a heavy congestion area.
This part of Snelling with only 16,000 vehicles per day falls well within the FHWA recommendation for a four-to-three-lane road diet, which indicates that there is no impact below 20,000 vehicles per day and minimal impact up to 25,000. Yet this plan proposes the opposite—a four-to-five lane increase. Besides being unnecessary, this will make crossing more dangerous, not less. It increases the potential for one of the leading causes of pedestrian deaths—bypass killing where one or two cars stop for a pedestrian but another blows by them in an adjacent lane.
More Neighborhood Traffic. By eliminating left turns, some drivers will have to drive farther through adjacent residential neighborhoods. Will the increased neighborhood traffic overall and particularly on the streets that do have left turns be offset by any benefits of fewer left turns?
More Speeding. While a median such as this may normally reduce motor vehicle speeds by about 2 MPH, Andy Singer correctly pointed out to me that the elimination of left turns and increased lanes will likely cause an increase in speeds not a reduction.
1970s Thinking and Priorities?
U.S. traffic engineers have historically focused almost entirely on one thing: Level of Service (or LOS) for drivers. Not safety. Not level of service for people walking. Not reducing noise or unpleasantness for people in nearby residences or shops. As Janette Sadik-Khan recently tweeted; “Transportation is the only profession where 33,000 Americans can die in one year and no one loses their job.”
This project is like giving someone a rattlesnake as a gift but wrapped in a nice flowery box. It’s giving the neighborhood more lanes of traffic, more noise, more pollution, more danger, but my, doesn’t that new median look nice?
Sorting Our Priorities
Every street should safely, comfortably, and efficiently accommodate all users in getting where they want to go.
The only purpose of roads and streets is safe and efficient conveyance of people from one place to another. That’s it. Nothing more. All users means people walking, riding bicycles, with disabilities, and driving cars or small trucks. It includes people of all ages and abilities from 8-year-olds riding a bicycle to school or to meet friends and 80-year-olds walking to get their morning coffee.
If we can also make streets and roads aesthetically pleasing, that’s a bonus and we should because aesthetics are important.
If we have room to provide convenient storage for people’s cars then we should do that as well. Getting people from A to B requires these unique ribbons of land that we call roads. Parking, however, does not need to be in the roadway ribbon. It can very easily be in a side lot. If there is not room in the roadway for parking and St Paul believes they should provide storage for people’s cars, then they can easily purchase land for parking lots. The roadway ribbon is unique and needs to provide for those services that require its uniqueness before providing those services that do not.
Our priorities, then, should be:
- Safety for people walking or who have disabilities
- Safety for people bicycling and using mobility scooters
- Safety for people driving
- Efficiency for people walking, riding bicycles, and who have disabilities
- Efficiency for transit
- Efficiency for individual cars
- Public Car Storage
The plan proposed by Highland District Council wants the exact opposite. It first wants to improve aesthetics (#8) with a planted median, then improve efficiency for drivers (#6) with an added lane, though given the low traffic volumes this will likely make no measurable or noticeable difference. It does nothing for improving the efficiency of people walking or riding bicycles. It may very minimally improve safety for drivers (#3) and nets nothing to improve safety for people walking or riding bicycles (#2, #1) as what little improvement there is in one place is offset by greater danger elsewhere.
Let’s start with safety, then efficiency, then aesthetics, and see what happens.
1) For people walking we already have fairly good sidewalks but need to improve the junctions. Some things to look at include shortening crossing distances, tightening turning radius for motor vehicles to slow them down, and reducing speeds.
2) For people riding bicycles or mobility scooters we have nothing. We need to add protected bikeways for these users along each side of the roadway and through each junction.
3) Driver Safety.
4, 5, 6) Efficiency.
7) Public Car Storage. Though a lower priority, we should maintain as much needed storage as possible. This space also doubles as bus loading/unloading, so it remains useful or even critical regardless of parking needs.
8) Aesthetics. This is the lowest priority but it is still quite important and in some cases more important than car storage or efficiency. It is never more important than safety.
Working from the outside in according to our priorities above, we have good sidewalks as well as boulevard trees that we don’t want to lose. Next we need protected bikeways for people riding bicycles or mobility scooters. We’ll start with a minimum 7′ and then see where we end up.
This leaves us 50’ for cars or about five 10’ car lanes. We can fit in the five lanes of the proposal but that many lanes is unnecessary, eliminates all car storage, is dangerous for people walking or riding bicycles to cross, and provides no protection for bicycle riders from cars or road debris. If we follow best practice, we’d need to either reduce speeds to 25 MPH or include a curb between the travel lanes and bikeway, which would reduce the travel lanes to about 9’ 6” when also accounting for driver reaction distance required in Minnesota.
We can include the existing four car lanes plus parking on one side, but that is still very sub-optimal.
A 4-to-3 lane conversion, however, will allow for safe and efficient vehicle throughput without sacrificing parking and will still include the same planted medians as the HDC proposal.
These conversions are becoming quite popular as they often function better for drivers than a 4-lane road as currently exists here. This configuration will preserve more car storage than the proposed plan and will be much safer for people walking or riding bicycles as crossing distances will be much less—30’ instead of HDC’s proposed 64’. This will also allow the medians and left-turn prevention of the proposed plan if that is still desired.
This will allow for protective bump-outs at each junction that will improve safety for people walking and riding bicycles and improve aesthetics more than the planted medians. The overall feel of the street will be much more inviting as the nearest car is 27’ from any building and the nearest moving car 35’.
Motor traffic will flow more smoothly and efficiently as this will reduce conflicts with left turning cars and with bus stops and BRT, which will be in the parking lane on each side. And this is where we arrive at our one drawback. The proposed plan with two travel lanes would be better for buses and reduce travel times by a few seconds in each direction. This would be minimal efficiency benefit at the cost of safety for all people walking, bicycling, and using transit.
This will offer much improved aesthetics over the proposed plan as the bikeway provides a safety and aesthetic buffer between the walkway and moving cars. This can also have planted bumpouts at the end of each parking/bus lane providing, even more comfort and aesthetic enhancement.
As we’ve seen fairly consistently elsewhere that this will improve the vitality of the business environment along this stretch.
Much of the traffic here is through traffic. It’s not people stopping in at these stores or doing business here or living here, but people just driving through—using this neighborhood as a shortcut to get somewhere else. Is that something that we want to encourage?
The plan above will accomplish what the 8-80 vitality fund is supposed to be for. It will make for a safer and more inviting neighborhood. It will make Snelling into glue that joins the neighborhood together rather than a highway that divides it.
This is sadly a well trod path. Many others fought this fight long before now. Increasing numbers of people are looking for places to live where they can walk or ride bicycles to local stores, restaurants and schools. Will St Paul be left behind?