I’m Really Disliking Traffic Engineers Today

Last Thursday afternoon I was driving westbound on West 7th Street (Highway 5) in St Paul. As I approached the crossing in front of Mickey’s Diner, I saw someone crossing in the crosswalk from Mickey’s towards the bus stop on the north side.

Unsignalized crossing of four lanes of fast traffic on West 7th Street in St Paul.

Unsignalized crossing of four lanes of fast traffic on West 7th Street in Saint Paul.

As I watched him cross, I was thinking what an awful crossing that is and how much I’d hate to cross there with four lanes of quite fast traffic and most drivers fairly unaware that the crossing even exists.

A few seconds later he was lying on the ground in the right westbound lane. 3/4’s of the way to his destination.

From two cars back I was unable to tell exactly what happened. From what I could see, I assume that this was an overtaking hit. The car in the left lane stopped for him and the car in the right lane continued to overtake and then hit him. Sadly quite common with two lanes of traffic in the same direction and no traffic signals. Or even with signals and someone turning right on red — as usual without stopping, as I witnessed yesterday on Snelling and Van Buren, this time a near miss with only a few inches to spare for the pedestrian.

Traffic Engineers

To expect someone to cross 4 lanes of 50+ mph traffic safely without traffic signals is nuts. Yet that’s exactly what traffic engineers have given us.

OSHA vs Traffic Engineers

I’d guess that OSHA, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, would not allow something this dangerous in a factory or other workplace.

Why do we allow average citizens to face such human created danger when we’d not let trained factory workers?

Traffic Engineers Again

They’ve made walking dangerous, and so most people don’t do it because it feels too dangerous, stressful, and unpleasant.

I’ll spare you another bit on what engineers elsewhere do and why US roads result in so many more people being killed and injured.

Satellite image of the crossing on West 7th Street in St Paul.

Satellite image of the crossing on West 7th Street in Saint Paul.

So, what could we do differently to make this crossing safer?

  1. Force motor traffic to fit the crossing. One lane in each direction, a speed of 25 mph, 8.5’ wide traffic lanes (with no curb reaction distance) to help enforce speed, a wide curb protected pedestrian refuge.
  2. Can’t do that, you say? We could put some flashing beacons in, but I’m not sure they are really very effective.
  3. If we want to keep the two lanes in each direction then we need to put in full signals. A Green/Yellow/Red head for each lane in each direction. That’s 4 signal heads and associated poles, cables, electronics and maintenance. I’m guessing about $100k given government overpayment for stuff.

Number 3 too expensive?  Number 1 cause too much of a negative impact on motor vehicle traffic? I guess we’ve begun the process of determining the value of a person’s life.


Walker Angell

About Walker Angell

Walker Angell is a writer who focuses mostly on social and cultural comparisons of the U.S. and Europe. He occasionally blogs at localmile.org, a blog focused on everyday bicycling and local infrastructure for people who don’t have a chamois in their shorts. And on twitter @LocalMileMN

68 thoughts on “I’m Really Disliking Traffic Engineers Today

  1. Al DavisonAl Davison

    I have to cross County Road C at an intersection with unmarked crossings, and I’m just waiting for the time where I get end up getting hit to be honest. If multiple cars are coming, I just end up standing there awkwardly for up to a couple minutes trying to determine when I can safely cross. I consider it the worst part of my commute, and students actually have to cross here to get to their bus (I believe they are high school students).

    1. Al DavisonAl Davison

      I discussed the road with Erin Laberee (Ramsey County Traffic Engineer) just this past Monday about the possibility of a road diet, though I will probably have to convince both Roseville and Little Canada residents and council members that it would be a good idea. East of Snelling, County Rd C doesn’t see an AADT over 11,000 and there are a couple reliever routes that run parallel to C (County Rd B & B2). Even if traffic volumes increase over the next couple decades (say up to 15-18K), a three-lane layout is much safer for all users versus undivided four-lane roads. I hate those as a driver, pedestrian, and a cyclist.

      1. Walker AngellWalker Angell Post author

        I think those are both tough cities to deal with on stuff like this based on what I’ve heard from others and the really poor infrastructure that they both have and continue to put in. I hope you’re able to have an impact.

        I do think that the more that cities like these hear stuff from people the more they’ll begin to get it and hopefully one day actually do something positive.

        1. Al DavisonAl Davison

          I’m on the planning commission for Little Canada, and we will be starting on the update for our city’s comprehensive plan in the next month, so I working on proposed solutions for improving our infrastructure within the next few years and beyond. I’ve been studying neighboring cities and their bike and pedestrian infrastructure plans, and will keep in touch with the county since I want to see our city better connected with neighboring communities.

          The minor arterials such as Rice currently act as barriers for pedestrians and cyclists, so I’m a huge supporter of traffic calming such as 4-to-3 road diets and a greater focus on all users of the corridor (especially pedestrian, bike, and transit users) rather than just motorists.

          It’s definitely going to be difficult.. I might contact Roseville Area Schools regarding their school bus stop, as that could help me convince the county and city the need for a safe crossing at that intersection.

            1. Al DavisonAlexander Davison

              The more the merrier!

              Earlier today I did contact Roseville Area School’s transportation coordinator who said it would be nice to see a crossing there. I had to jog to get across County Rd C on my way home from work.

              I’m going to keep trying to see if a road diet could be done to further improve the road’s safety for everyone.

              1. Walker AngellWalker Angell Post author

                Something to keep in mind with school systems is that transportation is a good size budget and some folks get threatened by the thought of loosing either the budget bit or not having as many employees and equipment. Kind of a my system is bigger than your system thing.

                Others have bought in heavily to the walking and bicycling is too dangerous and many of these take to heart that there’s nothing that can be done to make it safer.

        2. Mister Mr.

          Roseville did put County Rd C on a road diet between Snelling and Victoria, so I’d say that Roseville shouldn’t be discounted from making changes to their streets.

          1. Al DavisonAl Davison

            I know quite a few residents are who aren’t fond of that two to three-lane section though (I’ll be honest in that I used to dislike it), so I imagine there will be some pushback from residents if a 4-to-3 road diet was proposed between Lexington and Little Canada Rd. I’ll keep inquiring with the county, along with contacting Roseville and Little Canada officials on the matter to see what ultimately happens in the long-term.

  2. Eric AnondsonEric Anondson

    I’d love to see some examples of something like a “best of class” examples from the entire world of situations like these: midblock, at grade, four lanes of vehicle traffic.

    1. Walker AngellWalker Angell Post author

      Outside of the US I think it’s rare in developed countries to cross more than two lanes (one each way) without stop lights. I don’t think I’ve ever seen it in The Netherlands where a typical un-signalled crossing is what I described in #1. The refuges btw are usually at least 3.5 meters, large enough for a bakfiets plus 1 meter.

      1. Eric SaathoffEric Saathoff

        So they would agree with our pedestrian law critics? On a street with multiple lanes in each direction do they have stoplights at every intersection or do they restrict crossing at intersections without lights?

        1. Walker AngellWalker Angell Post author

          It varies but generally yes (and I’m going from memory here). In London there are usually lights at every junction if there are more than two lanes. There are also a fair number of mid block crossings that will have full stop lights and often a pen or ‘jail’ in the refuge so that you cannot cross straight across but most cross traffic going in one direction and then zig over about 10 feet to cross the next bit (and which usually means waiting on another light).

          Northern Europe has fewer multi-lane roads than we do so in many places that we’ll have a 3 or more lanes they’ll only have two (one each way). And lower speeds as well.

      2. Eric AnondsonEric Anondson

        I think it’s important to see best practices for these because we’re getting more of them. For instance, near me Blake Road will be redesigned in the near future, the city didn’t buy my argument that the design should drop to three lanes from current five. I won’t rehash it, but we are going to get some midblock crosswalks in needed spots, such as linking the future LRT station to a lower income apartment complex exactly where everyone realizes people WILL walk across.

        Refuges long enough? Bollards/planters flanking the refuge? Narrowed vehicle lanes? Blinking lights at pedestrian request? What else? Are there example of good lights vs pointless lights vs overkill?

      3. fiona

        In Sydney and New South Wales in Australia the rules changed some years ago, after a coroners recommendation. Four lane unsignalised crossings are no longer allowed, and all existing ones have been converted to signals or a single lane in each direction, since.

        1. Eric AnondsonEric Anondson

          After a coroner’s recommendation? Do coroners have greater responsibilities than they do in the US?

          That is fascinating.

  3. Eric Ecklund

    For option 1, are you proposing something like this-https://www.google.com/maps/@59.959349,10.7535367,3a,75y,121.01h,77.75t/data=!3m6!1e1!3m4!1sxnIikJBi1UXyEf2kra9BxQ!2e0!7i13312!8i6656

    Hopefully that link works but if not, its a local two-lane street just outside of Oslo that narrows for a couple pedestrian crossings, and cars take turns going through the crossing in order to slow down traffic and make people aware to look for pedestrians as there is a lot of foot traffic in that area including children. For West 7th I assume you’re proposing narrowing it to two lanes through the pedestrian crossing and then going back to four lanes. I like the idea, or any of the other options as I think flashing crossing signs work pretty well (for me anyways), but then again we’re the United States of Automobiles so it’ll probably take a death or two (or ten) for something to finally be done.

    1. Rosa

      at the Greenway crossing just west of the Sabo bridge, the flashing light had basically no effect at all, but eliminating lanes made a huge, huge difference. I was using that crossing 2-6 times a day during the nonsnowy parts of the school years before and after.

      It’s a little hard to figure out how much is just the cars getting used to bike traffic and how much is the engineering, but the similarly-busy crossing on the east side (26th Ave? I can never remember the street number there) has improved a lot less over the same time period.

      1. Jackie Williams

        there is a similar crossing at 5th ave se & henipen ave e, the flashing lights have no effect and drivers will go around the one car that stopped and try to hit you.

    2. Walker AngellWalker Angell Post author

      Not quite. Those were popular in the UK, Sweden, and a few others places for a bit for traffic calming and making crossings safer. Drivers really disliked them, they create unnecessary delay, and from what I understood only marginally improved safety.

      What Dutch and others have been going to is a 3.5+ meter wide pedestrian/bicycle refuge between the two lanes. The lanes are narrowed to cause drivers to reduce speed and pay attention. These have been seeming to work well without unnecessary delay for drivers. The same design can be used for cars having ROW or for Ped/Bikes having ROW with ROW indicated by sharks teeth.

      Here’s an example where cars have ROW:

      If bicycles have ROW then the crossing path will be red and cars will get the teeth. This is an older one. Newer designs have sharper curbs alongside the motor traffic lanes.

  4. Eric SaathoffEric Saathoff

    This is the law in Minnesota: “When any vehicle is stopped at a marked crosswalk or at an intersection with no marked crosswalk to permit a pedestrian to cross the roadway, the driver of any other vehicle approaching from the rear shall not overtake and pass the stopped vehicle.”


    It doesn’t say anything about being distracted or intent. Why can’t we enforce this criminal behavior?

    1. Theo Kozel

      I think there is very, very widespread ignorance that this is the law. Just yesterday I was driving on Snelling Avenue near Randolph in St. Paul. This is a four-lane street with a 35 mph speed limit. I saw a pedestrian waiting to cross at an unmarked crosswalk and I was in the outer lane. I stopped, per the law, but literally no other car did. Cars in the other lane kept going, and cars behind me went around me. All the while I and the pedestrian gave each other awkward looks – he knew I had stopped for him, he was trying to be polite by not making me wait too long, but he could not cross because nobody else stopped.

      I can totally see why this law is not enforced. A police officer would need to see the infraction, and then would have to just pick one individual out of the herd of people who did the infraction since they can’t stop them all.

      As long as the physical environment does not support pedestrians, no law will help. It just ‘feels’ right to keep going in your car. We have for decades built our cities for ‘mono-modal’ transportation. ‘Multi-modal’ is still radical and exists only in small oases.

      1. Al DavisonAl Davison

        The ignorance regarding this law is also fueled by hypocrisy as well when the type of drivers who frequently disregard MN Statute 169.21 tend to be the ones who openly criticize cyclists and pedestrians for not following the laws.

      2. Bill LindekeBill Lindeke

        It’s also widespread ignorance of human behavior and design principles to expect people to stop and drive safely on 4-lane roads, especially undivided ones. That’s why I labeled these “Death Roads” in the past. I wish we could eliminate this kind of design altogether. There is simply no way that any amount of enforcement or education will solve the fundamental design problem here.

        1. Walker AngellWalker Angell Post author

          Completely agree. For too long US traffic engineers have lived by the credo that ‘if only everyone will obey the laws we’ll have safer roads’. EU engineers have been migrating to more of a ‘people won’t necessarily obey rules so we need to design roads to enforce safety’.

      3. Will

        Conversely, what’s the incentive to stop if you think the drivers in the next lane over won’t stop? It would feel like contributing to the dangerous situation.

        Examples in mind include the mid-block crossings along University at light rail stations.

        Fortunately, if I’m walking, I’m tall enough to see over most vehicles, but that’s not always the case and most folks are shorter than I am.

        1. Michael

          In this situation I would recommend positioning your car so that it blocks both lanes of travel. Yes, it might put you at a greater risk of being rear-ended but you’re protected by 3,000 lbs of steel. This actually makes the process easier for everyone since the pedestrian can cross more quickly allowing cars in both lanes to get on their way again.

    2. Walker AngellWalker Angell Post author

      I think the law also says stop at stop signs, stop and look before turning right on red, do not drive over the posted speed limit, no drinking alcohol before your 21st birthday, … Pot? Recreationally?

      streets.mn | A Wink And A Nod – Teaching Our Kids To Be Criminals

      I’m becoming a firm believer that cement enforces obedience much better than Laws or LE. We obey laws that we agree with and that don’t inconvenience us too much, otherwise? Not so well.

    3. Jackie Williams

      beleive it or not, most drivers are not aware of any laws. I always fear when I bike through an intersection that a car is yielding to me, I worry about the other cars that will try to go around them

    4. Hōkan

      Sometimes laws are poorly written. In the law you cite, the overtaking driver might not know that the stopped vehicle has stopped to yield to a pedestrian and so gets a “get out of jail free” card.

      1. Rosa

        Anything that results in a car hitting a pedestrian or cyclist is basically a “get out of jail free” card, though. It’s not the law, it’s the culture.

  5. Al DavisonAl Davison

    W 7th St does see a lot of traffic along this corridor, making it difficult to promote a road diet solution. With Shepard nearby with four lanes and is pretty much set up as an expressway, I wish that could be the main thoroughfare instead. The biggest problems with using Shepard would be adding access to Shepard from SB 35E and then having access to NB 35E from Shepard. The current Shepard & MN 5 interchange also has access issues.

    They would have to rebuild the interchanges which would be difficult to design and expensive (but has been discussed in articles on here before), but I’d rather see Shepard be seen as the arterial for through traffic vs W 7th. W 7th should have be seen as a commercial corridor for local ped, bike, and vehicular traffic rather than a stroad benefiting regional commuters in the first place.

    1. Bill LindekeBill Lindeke

      There was a study of re-routing traffic onto Shepard instead of W7th through tweaking the Hwy 5 and 35E interchanges. It’s very difficult and might not even accomplish much.

  6. Karl

    Did you stop to offer help? Sometimes folks need an advocate – and photos from someone clear-headed can help show what happened.

    1. Walker AngellWalker Angell Post author

      There were already 3 or 4 cars stopped with people getting out to help and at least a couple on their phones, presumably calling 911. I don’t think there was anything I could have added except congestion.

  7. Bill LindekeBill Lindeke

    That crossing gets my vote for the biggest bus-related death trap in Saint Paul… which is saying a lot!

    Thanks for calling this out. People seem to forget that Highland is not merely wealthier single-family homes. There is “another Highland” that media narratives, neighborhood groups, etc. seem to forget about completely, the 40% of people living in the neighborhood who rent, anyone taking the bus or living in the affordable housing on both sides of West 7th here. We really really need to think more about these people. They are part of our city and community too! I’m hopeful that the Riverview project can serve this population with great transit service and create safer walking conditions at the same time.

  8. Alex

    As a long term solution, of course, no more Four Lane Death Roads. As a short term solution, I think it would make more sense at locations like this if instead of an 8 foot wide median in the center, there were two 4 foot wide medians between the two lanes going in each direction. The double threat is the bigger danger to pedestrians here, so that is what should be mitigated.

    Of course, a median in the center plus a median between each pair of lanes would be even better, and that is something they could have done here if they were really concerned about pedestrian safety instead of just being concerned with appearing to be concerned.

    But in “constrained” sections, the double threat should be mitigated first. Where two cars are approaching in two different lanes, both motorists can see the pedestrian. It matters less in terms of safety whether the pedestrian can see both cars than whether both motorists can see the pedestrian.

      1. Alex

        Yes, but they’re expensive. Also there is an existing standard for signal installation that is going to be difficult to get around. The crosswalk standard seems to be less entrenched.

        1. Walker AngellWalker Angell Post author

          I guess we’ve begun the process of determining the value of a person’s life.

          Or, the value of 411 people’s lives — every year… in MN. And to what extent we don’t care about the tens of thousands of people in MN who suffer severe and often life changing and debilitating injuries — every year.

          1. Alex

            It’s not about the value of a person’s life — but thanks for implying that I don’t care if people die, that’s always a nice point in discussion. Instead it’s about the fact that local governments are already strapped for cash and are only going to get more broke in this political environment.

            It seems odd to me and antithetical to some of your other writings that you would be insisting that there is only one solution to dangerous crossings and that is traffic signals. It seems reasonable that in some cases signals are more effective and in others medians are more effective. I think that refuge medians tend to be more effective because they are better at getting all users to pay attention, but I would certainly agree that in some cases only signals are effective (particular crossings of high-speed roadways with limited visibility).

            If you are insisting that signalizing every pedestrian crossing is the only solution, I hope you consider the decades it would take to convince policymakers to dedicate the billions of dollars that course of action would require, and all the pedestrians that would die before your most expensive solution is implemented.

            Are you insisting that the perfect future prevent the good present? Or are you just arguing for the sake of arguing?

            1. Walker AngellWalker Angell Post author

              I was not directing that at you but at traffic engineers.

              I do think that every crossing of two or more lanes in the same direction should have lights. That is what is necessary to create an environment safe from errant drivers. I can’t think of a single place in NL, SE, DK, or a number of other countries where this crossing would exist without stop lights. It is simply too dangerous.

              So, if traffic engineers (and politicians) want more than one lane in each direction then they need to be prepared to pony up for whatever is necessary to protect people from the danger imposed on them by that decision and by the drivers that cause the danger.

  9. Will

    At least there’s the small island. I remember that wasn’t the case, only a “watch for pedestrians” sign in the middle. Still, it’s a horrible crossing, especially in winter. It was one (of several) reasons I did not choose to rent from the apartments across the street a few years back.

  10. A Planner & An Engineer

    Tell an engineer to get people across the street safely and they will design a safe road crossing. Tell an engineer to minimize travel time for cars and they will build roads that prioritize vehicle speed.

    Engineers are tools (pun intended – since I am one, I can make the joke). They execute the policy. They design to the standard. They operate by the rules, laws, and standards dictated to them.

    The blame should fall primarily on the government officials, commissioners, committee members, and planners who write plans and codes that identify strict standards for maintaining mobility and mention safety barely, if at all. The blame falls on citizens who elect and support these people too.*

    Whenever a road diet is proposed and there is significant public opposition. It is always the same crap that boils to one thing – a significant segment of people want to drive a few seconds faster. Anything less and it’s time for rage. It’s not NIMBY its Not On My Road Home.

    It’s probably not fair to call these people unenlightened or ignorant as much as they are just selfish. Same goes for the planners, officials, citizens, and pundits who want to scapegoat others for their failings (and/or inaction).

    *The Engineers can not go entirely blameless. They do have a duty to inform others of the consequences of their actions, policies, and plans. But like planners, and government officials, citizens, and pundits — it takes courage to stand up to political will and eloquence to change cultural norms that are based on ignorance.

    1. Walker AngellWalker Angell Post author

      I’m going to disagree. And I’ve thought about this a bit and have several friends who are engineers and traffic engineers and who I have a good bit of regard for. I also understand that some are in a tough position of standing up for people’s lives or risking their job. I also know of instances where engineers have designed poor infrastructure but have also fought behind the scenes to make it as safe as possible and that is very much appreciated.


      In most cases the engineers who would risk their jobs to stand up for safer roads report to more senior engineers. Why would their jobs be at risk?

      The standards that engineers use to design roads are produced by engineers. They should be driving the standards towards much safer roads. Instead US traffic engineers have produced the worst road system of all developed countries when safety is measured (though Greece sometimes comes close). US traffic engineers have failed and have done so year after year and decade after decade.

      Engineers wouldn’t design a boat that wouldn’t float or a bridge that would fall down. If politicians tried to get them to cut costs enough to do so the engineers would push back quite hard. Why do they not push back as hard on basic road safety that endangers many more lives? When are engineers going to stand up and say that crossing two lanes of traffic like this without stop lights is dangerous?

      When I talk to politicians about this they consistently point the finger at engineers and say that the engineers understand this stuff better. OK, so why aren’t engineers saying that a crossing such as this is too dangerous to be built (or rebuilt)?

      Why are engineers at MNDOT pushing so hard against safety improvements in the bit of Snelling discussed here: https://streets.mn/2016/04/29/st-pauls-priorities-short-sighted-and-all-out-of-sorts/ and that includes crossings of similar danger to this one on W 7th?

      Politicians can claim ignorance, engineers cannot. Engineers set the standards and design the roads. From every angle I look at this it is engineers who are responsible for our highest in the developed world death and injury rate. It is engineers who are responsible for this guy getting hit last Thursday. Engineers will likely be responsible for every single person hit, injured, or killed on the new bit of Snelling.

      Am I missing something?

      1. A Planner & An Engineer

        Engineers report to senior engineers who report to… planners or politicians.

        The people in leadership positions whose decision-making powers have broad impacts are generally NOT engineers. This is true even for City Engineers, County Engineers, and DOT Engineers who have risen up the ranks. Even within DOTs’ org charts, the leaders are rarely Engineers anymore.

        The decision-makers (who are the engineer’s bosses) lose their jobs if they don’t respond to the will of the public (and the media). That is what drives policy. The ones who deliver successful change are the ones who have the ability to influence people (and the media). For example, Janette Sadik-Khan is a lawyer and a politician. Her leadership has influenced Engineer behavior far and wide and helped pushed development of far more progressive engineering design standards (NACTO).

        Engineers lose their jobs if they don’t follow standards and policies.

        As to who decides the standards – it is the same people I mentioned before. Engineers do not set policy. Does your community have a policy to apply a mobility standard or a safety standard? Engineers have authored design guides for both. Which one is the priority? This is determined at the policy level: locally through Comprehensive Plans and Development Codes. Engineers don’t write those, they implement them. Planners write them, at the behest of politicians and committee members.

        Tell engineers “we want lower speeds” and they will design roads that lower speeds. Engineers have designed protected intersections for bikes, have standard plans for corners that require low-speeds, have an array of traffic calming strategies in their toolbox, etc. The tools are already there, authored by engineers. The leadership and political will is not.

        I think you are dramatically overestimating the power of Engineers. Engineers are not pushing standards with an agenda. They are creating standards based on the agenda they are given.

        Civil Engineers are asked far more often to make things fast* than they are to make things safe. Still today. There are a helluva lot more “Traffic Engineer” jobs than there are “Roadway Safety Engineer” jobs. Engineers don’t decide this. I never call myself a “Traffic Engineer” because I don’t ever consider motor vehicle “traffic” without thinking about “other” modes – but I’ve been called it by Community Development Directors, DOT project managers, and County Commissioners.

        Believe it or not Traffic Engineers bike to work just as often as doctors, lawyers, journalists, and baristas. They hate almost getting run over just like anyone else. Most Traffic Engineers are civil servants who want to work towards the public good (for personal fulfillment if nothing else because it’s significantly less lucrative than most other engineering gigs).

        Tell them to start quantifying live saves instead of seconds saved and they will. That’s how Vision Zero is going to become reality.

        What needs to happen now is citizens like you and me not only showing but demanding support for Vision Zero policies. Politicians need to know it matters to people more than “economic development” because otherwise freight operators and other businesses will keep getting what they want (speed over safety).

        Scapegoating and alienating engineers isn’t the answer. It’s a counter-productive copout and, to put it bluntly, it is lazy. It’s blaming pharmacists for the opiod epidemic instead of doctors, drug companies, and politicians. The pharmacists are trying to minimize the carnage within the range of their control. Engineers – same.

        *technically to minimize delay

      2. A Planner & An Engineer

        “Why do they not push back as hard on basic road safety that endangers many more lives? When are engineers going to stand up and say that crossing two lanes of traffic like this without stop lights is dangerous?”

        Probably never, because they want to keep their jobs.

        Driving is inherently dangerous but engineers are rarely asked to sacrifice mobility for safety. The are almost never asked to design with pedestrian safety as a priority. I don’t know of any “Pedestrian Engineer” job openings.

        Could engineers push for safety over mobility? Sure. But they would be sticking their necks out and risk getting fired. For just one of many examples – They would be fighting against police departments and fire departments. This happens ALL THE TIME in communities everywhere – even progressive ones. Emergency responders say no to that life-saving roundabout, and demand wider/faster turns for firetrucks, etc. Put your traffic engineer in a room with a police chief and fire chief and see who the Mayor and City Council are going to side with. Put them in the room with an economic development director who wants that new warehouse/distribution center they’re talking about building to have trucks with easy access to the freeway.

        Planners built suburbs and exurbs and continue to do things like put schools on the outskirts of cities where everyone has no reasonable choice but to drive. Politicians and citizens complain about traffic and demand travel times stay low. They ask engineers to maintain them so that they can support ‘growth’ on the cheap. Asking engineers to fix the screwed up priorities of “community building” is misguided, to put it kindly.

        I don’t think Engineers are “claiming ignorance” about an uncontrolled crossing on 40 and 50 mph 4-lane roads. That’s why engineers designed RRFBs and HAWK beacons to try to deal with this. In most cases the road was designed before a planning commission decided to plop neighborhoods on that road.

        Design for people, not for cars. That goes for cities, businesses, and neighborhoods – not just roads.

        1. A Planner & An Engineer

          I should not say never because this does happen all the time. Engineers are pushing for safety, sometimes even when it goes against adopted policies and standards. This is happening all over the country, every day.

          But Engineers do not have much power. Their plans and designs have to be approved from up above. Again, the engineers are not the decision-makers here.

          1. Walker AngellWalker Angell Post author

            Some thoughts.

            A primary bit of every field of engineering that I’ve worked with is safety. This should be so with traffic engineering. Is it? In all but one of the many meetings I’ve attended over the years with US traffic engineers I’ve never gotten the impression that safety is anything more than a word. They consistently argue for LOS — reducing delay and improving motor vehicle throughput. I’ve never heard an engineer state that a design is indeed dangerous but that this dangerous design is what was asked for.

            The one exception was for the St Paul Bicycle Plan.

            Politicians point the finger at engineers. Planners point the finger at engineers and politicians, engineers point the finger at planners and politicians. And while this kumbaya circle jerk is going on? People are being killed. 38,000 in 2015 and early predictions are for about 40,000 in 2016. Between 50% and 70% of these due to poor road design based on comparisons to other countries.

            Simply based on fatalities per capita, roads designed by US traffic engineers produce five times as many pedestrian fatalities as those designed by Dutch engineers. Roads designed by US traffic engineers are the most dangerous of all developed countries (including Greece). Is that successful design? Or gross failure?

            MN is one of the safest places in the US and yet roads designed by traffic engineers in MN produce over twice as many per capita as those designed by Dutch engineers and seven times as many as the safest province. On a fatality per mile walked we likely have 15 to 20 times as many fatalities.

            US roads are also the most dangerous to ride a bicycle on.

            Traffic engineers sole focus is road design and presumably safety for those on or near these roads. For planners road design is perhaps 1/3 of their time? For politicians it is perhaps 1/50 of their time. Engineers then are the experts. Engineers should know more about road design and road safety than anyone. Which of these three should be most responsible?

            Planners and politicians look to engineers for their expertise. As the experts is it not engineers job to guide planners and politicians (and the public) on what makes for a safe road? Safety begins with engineers and it is engineers responsibility to follow thru and continually fight for safety.

            A structural engineer would likely never sign off on a design that could result in a building floor failing, regardless of pressure from above. A naval engineer wouldn’t sign off on a boat that’s not seaworthy for its intended use. Most engineers I work with have a line they draw when it comes to an unsafe design yet I’ve not seen this from traffic engineers.

            If an engineer begins by presenting a best-in-class safe road design to planners and politicians and it is rejected because it does not allow the amount of parking that some might desire or the desired motor traffic LOS, then what?

            How much responsibility do engineers have for the roads they design? At what point should they refuse to sign off on a design that they know is dangerous? Or more dangerous than it should or can be?

            Should not engineers at least require the individuals in power above them to sign a waiver acknowledging that they are requesting a road design that is known to produce 15 times as many fatalities and serious injuries as the safer original design first presented and that they take full responsibility for any and all fatalities and injuries?

            Without such a signed waiver by an individual it seems to me that the engineer who signs off on the flawed design is then responsible.

            OTOH, if an engineer produces a design that is unsafe from the outset then any deaths and injuries are solely the responsibility of the engineer?

            Presumably an engineer produced the new design for Snelling Ave (https://streets.mn/2016/04/29/st-pauls-priorities-short-sighted-and-all-out-of-sorts/) that includes crossings similar to this one on W 7th (and that are not allowed in many other countries because they are known to be unsafe). If that engineer signs off on the design then I would hold that engineer primarily responsible (and secondarily any planners or politicians who support it).

            Do engineers begin with a safe design and force planners and politicians to fight against it or do engineers begin with unsafe but high LOS designs?


            Many fields of engineering have codes of ethics that put human safety first and foremost. Is there such a code for traffic engineering? Does it and the profession protect engineers from retribution for not agreeing to sign off on unsafe designs?


            As to standards, who writes the Green book? My understanding is that this is primarily engineers.

            Other fields of engineering seem to constantly research and improve their standards to improve human safety. Traffic engineering? How often do traffic engineers look at incidents like this one on W 7th (and the thousands of other overtake deaths and injuries) and ask how the design can be improved? And then have the standards updated?


            Finally there is this. If vulnerable users, anyone near or on a road, cannot rely on engineers to design safe roads, then who can they rely on to design safe roads?

            1. Walker AngellWalker Angell Post author

              I’m struggling, and straddling the fence perhaps, between corporate and individual responsibility.

              Traffic Engineering in the U.S. is a failed profession. It has failed, grossly, in its primary goal — safety. It has produced a product, US roads, that not only endanger the lives of those who use it, but also endangers the lives of those who do not but are simply nearby. It has produced a product with the worst safety record in the entire developed world.

              It is most certainly failed leadership within the profession. Leadership that has failed to insure that the profession abides by some level of ethics with regard to human safety, that has allowed standards to be developed and used that are known to be unsafe, and that allows people to hide behind these standards every time someone is killed or injured. It is also failure of a majority of individuals within the profession who have allowed this poor leadership to continue?

              OTOH, I know traffic engineers who I believe are very ethical, safety conscious and who are trying to change the profession.

              One individual cannot usually stand against the entire profession. How many in the profession want to see safer roads? What is being done to change the profession? Why do designs, like Snelling, continue to include elements that are known to be unsafe and where known safer designs exist and are proven?

              There are reasons that engineers are required to personally and individually sign off on drawings and documents and perhaps the most important of these reasons is the safety of the product. One of my engineering courses was solely on this. At what point do we say that regardless of outside pressure and regardless of ‘standards’ that the person who signs off is indeed responsible?

              1. Eric SaathoffEric Saathoff

                Isn’t this part of the reason there are professional organizations? If a majority of engineers sign on to a platform in their organization that prioritizes safe design over the status quo that could lead to a corporate sea change.
                Does NACTO need more membership, more influence, or is it, too, representative of a failed profession?

                1. Walker AngellWalker Angell Post author

                  NACTO seems to be going in the right direction. Few cities are members though (I don’t believe St Paul is) and I’m not sure how much influence they have. I’m currently working on a review of their new streets design book and overall it’s pretty good.

                  There is also the Association of Pedestrian and Bicycle Professionals (http://www.apbp.org) that I believe is largely traffic engineers. Again, not sure how much influence they have but glad they exist.

                  In the end I think we need to see a massive change in the traffic engineering profession in the U.S. where they begin to take responsibility for the deaths and debilitating injuries that I believe are largely the result of bad road design by traffic engineers, and for producing safe designs regardless of pushback from others.

  11. Keith Morris

    Taking the bus down W 7th to the Blue Line for the first time I was struck at how much worse this stretch is than the around Randolph to Downtown. I have a pub pass and was wondering about maybe stopping at 7th St Social, but seeing the horrible crossing to/from the bus stop and the fact that it was getting dark out quickly removed the thought from my head. I don’t know if was mentioned, but the distance between signalized crossings is absurd: nothing between Montreal and St Paul Ave. You’re much better off to go one way east only on this part of W 7th than the option of being allowed to cross and go west.

    It’s very telling that pedestrians’ lives are treated with as much thought as a deer’s, “Let’s swap out the deer graphic with a pedestrian figure and keep the XING part: good enough? Great!”.

    1. Rosa

      Any time you make that decision (the street is too hard to cross, I won’t stop) try to drop the business a note or phone call, so that next time there’s a proposal to make life better for pedestrians they have potential pedestrian customers in mind, as well as the ones who drive and park.

  12. J. Hooker

    A road diet reducing the highway to 3 lanes with a modern roundabout at the intersection would be a proven, reliable safety improvement to reduce the threats to vulnerable road users from the speeding and unsafe vehicle traffic

    A couple of other simple engineering design responses is to pinch the road through the crossing areas. Add curbs. Reduce the striped lanes to 9 to 10 feet, not 3.5M. Insert a diamond-shaped 5-foot pedestrian refuge with a couple of trees as a median. Call it a safety and beautification project.

  13. Jamie

    If you think that one is bad, look at the one at W. 7th and Rankin. I was about two steps from being flattened by a Coca Cola truck there one day. Cars stopped for me at the stop. The truck wasn’t paying attention and while I was crossing, I noticed it veering into the turn lane just as I was getting to it. I would have been killed instantly. The stop is a concrete pad. You cross and there are no sidewalks down Rankin.

    1. Walker AngellWalker Angell Post author

      Ouch. Expecting people to be able to cross there safely is totally idiotic. Charlie Zelle should spend a day there by himself and make that crossing every 10 minutes. And once an hour in a wheelchair.

      If we were seeing a change in MNDOT I wouldn’t say that. But we’re not seeing a change. We’re seeing the same flawed and dangerous road designs that have resulted in the deaths and debilitating injury of hundreds of thousands of people.

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