Maryland Avenue Pedestrian Safety Meeting Recap

On May 23rd Erin Durham was killed while trying to cross Maryland Avenue at Greenbrier Street. Just a few days later on June 7th Channy Kek was killed in a crosswalk trying to cross Cayuga in the same St. Paul neighborhood. The Payne-Phalen Transportation Committee hosted a community forum on June 9th to get information and to ask Ramsey County and St. Paul what they will do to make Maryland Avenue safer for all users. Their answers would be relevant to Cayuga and all other county-controlled streets in our city.

In attendance were:

– State Senator Foung Hawj

– Ramsey County Commissioner Jim McDonough

– Ramsey County Engineer Jim Tolaas

– St. Paul Engineer John Maczko

– St. Paul Engineer Paul St Martin

– Scott Renstrom, Ward 6 Legislative Aide (representing Council Member Dan Bostrom)

– SPPD’s Sgt. Jeremy Ellison, running the “Stop For Me” campaign

– SPPD’s Officer Tom Olson, crash investigator

– 72 Community Members


Toward Zero Deaths

There have already been numerous articles written about the “Stop For Me” campaign (try here and here). However, it’s important to note, as Bill Lindeke does here, that one of the “Stop For Me” events was held right at Greenbrier and Maryland, a few weeks before Erin Durham was struck. This demonstrates how limited the impact of these events can be.

The campaign is being funded by a grant from MNDot’s “Toward Zero Deaths” (TZD) campaign, which lists “4 E’s” to reduce traffic-related deaths:

  1. Education
  2. Enforcement
  3. Engineering
  4. Emergency Services

While all of the “4 E’s” are important, the point of this forum was to focus upon engineering. That’s why we invited policy makers and engineers.


Another “Death Road” Pedestrian Fatality

I opened the meeting with a description of the crash that occurred on Maryland Avenue. This was another of the now routine and predictable collisions that occur on 4-lane “death roads” when one car stops for a pedestrian and another does not. The specific details really aren’t important. What’s important is to recognize that she had to cross 4 conflict points without any refuge to help her.


Maryland Avenue, for the majority of its length, is 40 feet wide and divided into four 10 foot lanes. It has long sections without a controlled intersection. It’s mostly residential and has an ADT ranging from 1,800 to 28,500.





Possible Solutions

maryland6Next I suggested some solutions. A simple sign reminding drivers of crosswalk laws was already denied by the city because it’s acknowledged that a 4-lane street is too dangerous to encourage pedestrians to cross. HAWK signals could be a potentially expensive solution but effective for only a single intersection.



Ramsey County is planning to resurface Maryland Avenue this summer between Greenbrier (where Erin Durham was struck) and Johnson Parkway.

What about a road diet? The FHWA lists numerous benefits and only notes negative consequences (diverted traffic) when the ADT is over 20,000. According to previous traffic studies, the ADT of the area to be resurfaced stays between 15,000 and 19,300.



A road diet would convert Maryland from a 4-lane undivided road to a 3-lane street with a center left turn lane.


Some Comments From Officials and Staff

Commissioner McDonough

  • We don’t want to have our system biased for any street users – cars, bikes, or pedestrians
  • We can’t ticket our way out of this problem

Ramsey County Engineer Jim Tolaas

  • Our first priority is safety
  • Engineering won’t be the only fix to the traffic problems on Maryland Avenue
  • Maryland Avenue is an A-minor Arterial by functional classification
  • It is a bus and truck route
  • Committed his department to doing a traffic study to see if a road diet would be possible on any part of Maryland
  • Repeatedly pointed out the threat of aggressive drivers spilling onto side streets if Maryland Avenue becomes congested
  • ADT can’t be the only metric, you have to look at peak traffic counts as well

St. Paul Engineer John Maczko

  • At Public Works safety is prioritized above traffic movement
  • Knew the state rep who wrote the crosswalk law after his wife was killed crossing a street. “She had the right of way, but being right didn’t save her from being killed.”
  • A 4-3 road diet might work on a highway that has few intersections and a consistent traffic flow throughout the day, but Maryland Avenue is a city street with many turning vehicles and high levels of traffic at specific times of day
  • “Complete streets” does not mean “all modes on all roads.” That would mean big trucks on side streets
  • Characterized enforcement tickets as “tuition payments”
  • Cell phones are the new drunk driving

St. Paul Engineer Paul St Martin

  • Confirmed that city policy is to not install pedestrian crossing signs on 4-lane streets.
  • Stated that Public Works staff would reconsider this policy


Testimony From Residents

The first three speakers from the community had the same refrain: crosswalks at unsignalized intersections on Maryland are unsafe and should not exist. While this was initially concerning, it showed that even people who had a pro-car bias understood that the street could not be functional for both pedestrians and drivers as it currently exists.

Next came a mother of two children who said she grew up in Bloomington and moved to the East Side so she could have sidewalks and enjoy walking and biking to get places. She soon found out that Maryland Avenue created an incredible barrier. “It is safer to drive than to walk in our neighborhood, and that is a quality of life issue.”

A retired 3M engineer stated that in his line of work it was never allowed to have this kind of “margin or error.” When it’s clear that a problem exists you fix it. He also said that when they take into consideration the cost of making changes they must also include the cost of human life.

A municipal engineer for another city who lives with his family on Maryland Avenue stated that there is only one real way to make streets safer for pedestrian crossings: reduce the number of conflict points. This could be done with bumpouts, but on Maryland Avenue this is impossible without a 4-3 conversion.

One well known neighborhood conservative called loudly for a HAWK at Greenbrier – partly to replace the parking loss from Edgerton bike lanes. He suggested using money from the “tuition payments” to pay for it. “You can’t do nothing!”

A professional researcher stated that when there is good data to work with there is no need to do another study. Use the data you already have.

One citizen asked whether or not there were engineering fixes to keep the aggressive drivers from being able to use the side streets, but this question never received a response.

One elderly woman had walked to the event along Maryland Avenue and stated that though she didn’t need to cross Maryland Avenue there were three incidents where a car was blocking her crossing path. She knocked on the window of one car to have it back out of her way.

Many residents reported major difficulty crossing the street and seeing children frequently running across Maryland at Greenbrier to get to the playground.


Cleveland Avenue Speed Limit

In reference to Ramsey County’s attitude in general toward safe streets, someone asked about the speed limit on Cleveland Avenue. The St. Paul City Council voted to reduce the speed to 25mph with the addition of bike lanes, but Ramsey County refused the speed limit change.

Jim Tolaas responded with two main points:

  1. It is important to have consistent speeds in an area and along a road – otherwise people will become confused
  2. The posted speed limit doesn’t really matter anyway, since people will drive the speed that is comfortable to them. The only real way to reduce the speed is to narrow the roadway.

Soon after, a resident called this “double speak” and said it was contradictory. If the posted speed limit doesn’t matter, so it was said, there would be no problem actually reducing from 30 to 25mph. This topic wasn’t pursued further since the speaker changed subjects.

What wasn’t immediately brought up is why this same line of reasoning wasn’t being applied to excessive speeds on Maryland Avenue. If only engineering can slow cars, what will be done to slow cars on what many called a “speedway”?


Forum Conclusion

At the end Jim Tolaas restated that the Public Works Department would do a traffic study and Commissioner McDonough committed to seeking some easy additions, such as a radar speed sign.


A radar speed sign NOT on Maryland Avenue


Signs of Progress?

The very next day after the forum the pedestrian signs the city said it wouldn’t install on a 4-lane road were already in place along with a radar speed sign at Greenbrier and Maryland. When I went to take a picture I immediately noticed 4 pedestrians trying to cross the street.


4 pedestrians wait to cross. Pedestrians signs are in place. Notice the memorial for the pedestrian who was killed on the left.



Drivers are oblivious or belligerent as two pedestrians cross.



Girls wait for a break in traffic.



A police car stops. Run, girls! Is this what we mean by enforcement?!?

Does the fact that nobody but the police officer stopped for these four pedestrians mean that the city was right to not install pedestrian safety signs? Or does it mean that we were REALLY right that this street does not function for pedestrian crossings and that it needs actual engineered improvements?



The key piece to follow up on is to make sure the promised study does not just consider the LOS (“level of service”) of cars at peak times of the day. Since this forum was precipitated by the death of a pedestrian and focused upon the difficulties of being a pedestrian in our neighborhood, the promised study really needs to include a multi-modal LOS, using something like the tool developed in the 2010 Highway Capacity Manual.

In addition, if this study provides data to support the argument that a road diet would cause significant overflow onto side streets, a plan should be developed that mitigates this overflow and frustrates drivers’ attempts to aggressively zoom through side streets as an alternative. While costly, MNDot estimates the cost of a fatal crash to be $10,600,000. And, of course, the cost to Erin Durham and her two children cannot be calculated.

Eric Saathoff

About Eric Saathoff

Eric Saathoff is a public school teacher living in the Payne-Phalen neighborhood of St. Paul. He is a regular walker, cyclist, transit user, and driver with his wife and three young children. Eric serves on the Payne-Phalen Community Council and the St Paul Transportation Committee.