Early this week, after five days in critical care at Regions Hospital with major head trauma, Erin Elizabeth Dunham succumbed to her injuries and died. Her story is a terrible but predictable tragedy: a woman tried to cross the street in a legal marked crosswalk when one driver stopped for her but was hit by another car driver on an unsafe road in an urban neighborhood.
I don’t need to spend much time dramatizing the story. She was hit in a crosswalk on busy Maryland Avenue on the East Side after dropping her kids off at the school bus. She was 32 years old. Apparently her kid saw the whole thing.
Infrastructural Solutions for Pedestrian Safety
As I wrote on my blog, what makes Elizabeth Dunham’s death particularly tragic is that Saint Paul has been doing a crosswalk safety awareness campaign for the past few months. In fact, this exact spot was the site of a police ticketing and awareness event at the very corner (Maryland and Greenbrier) where the deadly crash took place. (I covered the event for a Minnpost column.) As I wrote then, I think these events are a good idea and I have been helping out with the efforts, including a crosswalk sting on the street right in front of my West Side apartment building a few weeks ago.
But as this tragedy illustrates, an awareness campaign is not enough. The real answer for safety involves more than education or enforcement. We need changes to the street.
If you talk to engineers or planners, everyone knows what the answer would look like. There are really only two choices. The first option would be to widen these arterial streets to accommodate pedestrian medians, like the City and MnDOT are currently discussing along busy Snelling Avenue. For most of Saint Paul’s arterials, the expansion-and-median option would require cutting down trees, taking people’s yards, or maybe demolishing homes in many Saint Paul neighborhoods. In many places, Ramsey County has already shown some desire to do this, tearing down buildings on dangerous corners to add turn lanes (e.g. Maryland and Rice, Maryland and Payne, some intersections on White Bear Avenue, or the initial proposal for Randolph and Lexington).
My problem with this approach is that it continues to erode livability in urban neighborhoods, paves over Saint Paul’s tax base, and doesn’t really get at the root cause of crashes. (Crashes are mainly caused by two things: severity is tied to speed, and overall crash incidence is tied to speed differential and intersection complexity.) Plus this kind of approach is very expensive, involving a lot of new concrete, asphalt, and earth moving.
The other option is to “go smaller” with a 4-3 conversion, trading out two through-lanes for a center turn-lane. I’ve written about this many times before. (And then a few more times.) You’re trading speeds and complexity for a simpler-but-slower urban environment. This change also gets left-turning cars out of the way, to create continuous through lanes with more constant speeds. Many studies show that this kind of design improves safety for car drivers, and especially for people on foot. (Sometimes, this change can have minimal effect on overall automobile through-put.) More importantly, a road diet prevents exactly the kinds of situations that killed Dunham.
But 4-3 conversions come with a trade-off. Especially during peak rush hours, it creates longer “stacking” and makes congestion worse. Examples include Marshall Avenue in Saint Paul or the eastern third of Franklin Avenue in Minneapolis, which can be congested during busy parts of the day. For many drivers, the appearance and effect of this kind of bumper-to-bumper crawl is sometimes even worse than the actual change in timing.
To my mind this trade-off is worth it. The safety improvements of a road diet street, especially for the most vulnerable people on our streets, those walking or biking or playing in yards, is worth the “cost” of added car stacking. But many traffic engineers simply won’t consider a 4-3 conversion on streets where the traffic is over a certain threshold. For some Public Works agencies, that threshold might be an average daily traffic (ADT) number of 20,000 cars a day. In Saint Paul or Ramsey County, I’ve heard it said that the ADT number is 15,000 cars a day. (By comparison, Maryland Avenue on the East Side has an ADT around 20,000 cars per day, depending on where you measure.)
The Politics of the Road Diet
In a way, Collins is absolutely right. With the current priorities, institutions, and leaders in place, Ramsey County (which has jurisdiction over most of Saint Paul’s arterials) will never install a Road Diet over a certain daily traffic volume threshold.
Note: In Ramsey County’s defense, this isn’t always true.
They took the lead on installing a 4-3 conversion on Ford Parkway (ADT of about 12,000) a year ago. And a few years ago, County engineers wanted to install a 4-3 conversion on Dale Street (between Maryland and Larpenteur, ADT of 13,000), but the plan was nixed a the behest of a Commissioner because of parking concerns.
But these two exceptions prove the rule of how difficult a road diet can be. Here are some hurdles:
Three Herculean Hurdles of the Road Diet
The first road-diet hurdle is institutional. Advocates and leaders have to convince city staff, and public works engineers in particular, that the “loss” of “level of service” (LOS) is worth the “gain” of safety. Making the argument that “more congestion is OK” can be challenging, especially for people in institutions that have spent decades fighting against congestion, or who might see crashes as inevitable accidents. (One common response, at least in Ramsey County, is that any increase in congestion makes streets less safe because drivers will become angry and begin driving erratically. I call this the “LOS extortion argument,” and I don’t think it’s accurate. Rather, I think you can change and “calm” our driving culture through engineering and other efforts.)
The biggest mistake cities make is to allow themselves to effectively be designed by their director of public works. The director of public works, he or she is making decisions every single day about the width of streets, the presence of parking, the question of bike lanes. And he’s doing it in response to the complaints he’s hearing. But if you satisfy those complaints you wreck the city.
A typical public works director doesn’t think about “What kind of city do we want to be?” They think about what people complain about, and it’s almost always traffic and parking.
The one thing we’ve learned without any doubt, is the more room you give the car the more room they will take and that will wreck cities. Optimizing any of these practical considerations — sewers, parking, vehicle capacity — almost always makes a city less walkable.
The second road diet hurdle is political, involving the marshaling of political will to overcome the pushback that comes from driving privilege. Road diets are largely perceived as “taking away a lane,” rather than trading dangerous speed for safety and predictability. So when they’re proposed, drivers accustomed to speeding often get upset, and Saint Paul has a vocal “speeding driver lobby” whose figurehead has a regular column in the Pioneer Press.
Small businesses also seem to resist road diets, because there’s a perception that traffic flow is what drives customers to the store. (I feel like this perception is misleading, especially along urban commercial streets. It’s not the number of cars that matters, it’s the number of drivers who are able to safely stop and/or cross the street to access your store that matters.)
These expectations of driving speed mean that instituting a road diet requires strong leadership from an elected or appointed official like a City Councilmember, a Mayor, or a Public Works’ director. Without that kind of visionary leadership, and the ability of a leader to have tough conversations again and again with frustrated drivers or business owners, the road diet will die on the vine.
The third hurdle is a bureaucratic one, having to do with the “multiple jurisdiction problem” that underlies dangerous arterial roads. Saint Paul offers a good example: almost all the dangerous arterial roads are either County or State/Federal roads, meaning that any changes have to go through those more opaque agency bureaucracies. This means that advocates need to work twice or three times as hard to build relationships with elected leaders and staff, and that kind of work is very time consuming.
In addition, each “larger” scale of government seems to involve a re-setting of the scope along which priorities are balanced. Because the basic road diet trade-off is one that improves local safety (for people living or walking along these streets) but comes at the expense of more regionally-focused travel speeds (for drivers passing through a neighborhood from freeways or surrounding suburbs), it makes it particularly hard for County or State-level decision makers to reconcile. If history is any guide, County and State-level governments always prioritize through travel over local safety.
The Cedar Avenue Example
Still, there is hope. My favorite road diet success story is Cedar Avenue in Minneapolis’ West Bank. For fifty years, this street was a one of the worst “4-lane Death Road™” examples, a high-speed undivided four lane road rammed along narrow sidewalks through the densest neighborhood in the state. (It was designed this way due to a compromise during freeway construction, where the I-94/I-35W interchange lacked a Westbound-to-Northbound connection.) The street was deeply unsafe, and every day for almost fifty years, the design of Cedar Avenue made the neighborhood a less safe, less pleasant, less vital place.
And then they finally changed it. Two years ago, Hennepin County, with a lot of local encouragement, installed a 4-3 road diet and adding a refuge median at a key pedestrian crossing. The County made this change despite the fact that the street had almost 16,000 cars a day.
Today, traffic backs up more but it’s much safer. If you visit Cedar Avenue and compare it to what it used to be like, the road diet seems to me to be one of the biggest street design improvements in Minnesota history.
The political considerations that made the Cedar Avenue road diet possible were extreme: a large, increasingly influential East African community, strong leadership from the city, huge numbers of University students, and two recently-built light rail stations tipped the balance against reluctant engineers.
But it works. I’m sure when the decision was being made, there were people in the room saying “it can’t be done, there’s too much traffic.” But now Cedar Avenue is a much better place to walk, safer for drivers, and you can actually cross the street without fearing for your life. I’d like to think it’s the tip of an iceberg of change.
What Vision Zero Really Means
The latest widely-used term in traffic safety and street design circles is “vision zero.” It comes from places like New York or San Francisco, and refers to seemingly ambitious goals around street safety in US cities, which are setting the goal of reducing US pedestrian and traffic fatalities to the minuscule levels found in the cities of many other countries in the Global North.
But talk is cheap. The key to a “vision zero” policy will be in making exactly the kinds of trade-off decisions that I’ve described here. A commitment to the safety of urban streets needs to say that no amount of automobile efficiency is worth the lives of people like Elizabeth Dunham, who was simply trying to cross the street. No amount of increased speeds are worth running over a kid like 11-year-old Bikram Phuyel, who was hit by a driver while crossing Rice Street to get to school in 2014. No amount of LOS improvement is worth the life of Kunlek Wangmo, hit by a turning driver while crossing St. Clair Avenue with her husband by West 7th Street last year. Or Shelby Kokesch, who was killed while walking her mother from the History Center across Kellogg Boulevard earlier this year. The list goes on… “Vision Zero” needs to start focusing on these kinds of difficult street design changes, and road diets are the least expensive, most effective option on the table.
I continue to believe that road diets on arterial roads like Maryland Avenue are not impossible. It will takes different attitudes from our staffers, engineers, and elected leaders. But with the right leadership and some thick skin, we could do it this year.
The fact remains that, until we make these tough decisions, people like Erin Elizabeth Dunham will keep getting killed, sacrificed on the altar of traffic speed. Our streets need to change.