It’s Crossing the Street, Stupid

First off, apologies for the insult. The title is of course a riff on the famous 90s political truism, “it’s the economy, stupid.”

It’s amazing to me how easily we forget this little fact. Facilitating safe easy street crossings should be “job one” for any urban street design, and yet so many of our streets are effectively uncrossable for many people. This brute fact not only hurts our businesses and our public health, every once in a while it literally kills.

Here are a few arguments for why it’s so vital that people be able to safely, easily cross the street, along with some examples of streets that could be tweaked and improved.

#1: Crossing the Street is Good for Local Businesses

frogger gifToo often, the crossing the street “status quo” in our city involves something out of the game Frogger. As I write this from the second-floor corner table at the Swede Hollow Café , I have a great view of East 7th Street, a wide fast-moving street (4-lanes with parking) technically classified as a US highway. It is pretty much uncrossable.

The entire time I have been sitting here — two hours — only one person has dashed across the street. She was a middle—aged woman in a long black winter coat, and she crossed East 7th  somewhere on the spectrum between a “fast walk” and a “slow jog.” She took long strides, knees bent, head darting back and forth as she loped through the four lanes of traffic, wary of drivers speeding massive machines 50 miles per hour down the long bluff toward downtown. I call this the “Saint Paul cross-trot,” and it’s undignified.


A crosswalk on East 7th Street that only a fool would use.

People don’t realize that streets like this are bad for local businesses. If you can’t cross the street without fear for your life, that reduces the number of available parking spots by half. For example, I will not park on the South side of East 7th Street to get to the Swede Hollow Café, even though those parking spots are often available. Why? I don’t want to do the “cross-trot” across a dangerous road.

Not only does being unable to cross the street reduce the number of potential customers, it destroys the network effect of having many businesses close to each other in the same part of the city. If I’m at Swede Hollow Café, I can see the new grocery store, but I can’t get there without a long walk back and forth from the stoplight at Mariah. The chances of me stopping over there to pick up some milk and fresh celery are as slim as a leaf of arugula.

#2. Fixing the Problem Involves Subtle Design Tweaks


A useless orange flag is a sign that something is terribly wrong.

Without a deus ex machina move like a road-narrowing streetcar, East 7th Street is probably screwed. The only real solution is a 4-3 conversion that would allow the construction of pedestrian medians, and that won’t happen on the State DOT’s watch.

But for many other Saint Paul commercial streets, another world is possible. Many of these streets are almost, but not quite, crossable. These are places where the existing small businesses are hurt by designs that reduce the ability of people to access both sides of the street, to cross and walk comfortably as they shop, live, and move around urban neighborhoods.

Grand Avenue is the best example. If you walk up and down Grand Avenue on a regular basis, you see a real mixed bag when it comes to people being able to cross the street. Sometimes, it works just fine. People approach the corner by a crosswalk, the driver of the approaching car slows and stops for them, and they cross the street in relative comfort and safety.


People ignore the “no turn on red” sign on a near-constant basis at Grand and Snelling.

crosswalk creep

Keep watching

(Side note: Even here, Minnesotans continue to cross the street a bit awkwardly. Our famously passive-aggressive culture orbits elliptically around the twin centers of guilt and conformity. It’s almost incumbent on the average Minnesotan crossing the street in a crosswalk to do a little “apology dance” as they walk the 20’ from curb to curb. I’d love to hear what a choreographer thinks about this, but to me it resembles one of John Cleese’s less dramatic silly walks. You step awkwardly forward off the curb, perhaps halting while pantomiming eye contact, before a hesitation and then a series of about twelve steps out into the middle of the street. At this point, overcome with guilt at having slightly inconvenienced another person*, the street crosser developed a slight hitch in their gait, bows the head about two inches to acknowledge the inconvenience of their presence, and doubles the pace of their stride. Then, mounting the curb on the other side, the guilty pedestrian drops their eyes again to the sidewalk, finally extending their lips to breathe a sigh of relief at having escaped exposure. I call this the “cross-walk of shame” and it’s a staple of any Minnesota urban street scene.)

crosswalk-memeThe other half of the time, on Grand Avenue, things are worse. Drivers, out of ignorance, self-absorbtion or misanthropy, do not stop for someone waiting to cross the street. Following suit and traffic flow, this often leads to a cascade of peer pressure where car after car go by while the person on the corner stands there frustrated, waiting in vain to cross the street. This happens all the time on Grand Avenue and streets like it, and it makes shopping, walking, or moving a far less pleasurable experience.


Temporary bumpout in New York City


A temporary bumpout in Saint Paul’s St. Anthony Park.

That said, the solution is pretty simple. Bumpouts on the corners of intersections on Grand Avenue would do three things simultaneously. First, they would slow traffic even further by tightening the perceived (and actual) width of the street. If drivers went even 5 miles slower down Grand Avenue, they’d be much more likely to stop for a waiting pedestrian. Second, a bumpout would reduce the crossing distance, making it quicker and easier for people to get across in the first place. Finally, a bumpout would improve visibility for pedestrians by bringing them a few feet farther away from the regular sidewalk and closer to the traffic lane. It would be much more obvious when someone is waiting to cross the street, removing some of the awkwardness and ambiguity that drivers feel when they see someone on a corner.

How much would they cost? Not that cheap but given the economic impact, the safety improvements, the amount we spend on subsidizing parking, and how they would increase connectivity and walkability between businesses, it would be a great investment for the city and the community.

crossing the streetThe point is that crossing the street is an economic issue. When it’s not easy and safe to walk across a street, businesses suffer because they limit their customers and their available parking. Making it comfortable, safe, and convenient to walk across from side to side should be the first thing every urban commercial street does well. The other design factors — traffic flow, parking availability, etc. — should be considered *after* you have make it easy to walk. Bumpouts are a great way to accomplish this goal. If we design streets that prioritize crossing, our local businesses will thrive.


A terrible crosswalk situation on Grand Avenue, just one of many.

* Also note: this is silly. A driver on a street like Grand Avenue is “slowed” by an average of 0.5 seconds by stopping for a pedestrian to cross the street. Almost always, there is a stoplight waiting for them a few blocks ahead, at which point any “saved time” will be immediately lost.

19 thoughts on “It’s Crossing the Street, Stupid

  1. Daniel Phillips

    It’s amazing the number of times that I practically have to walk out in front of cars to get them to stop at clearly marked crossings (Snelling, Hamline, Uni, etc). Though I do take a perverse pleasure in making them stop and then taking my sweet time to get across.

  2. Eric AnondsonEric Anondson

    Hopkins Mainstreet is often pointed as a great little commercial street. It was just finished a 30-year redesign, Mainstreet is on the city’s pedestrian and biking plan, and it is difficult to see any of that plan except a minimal number of corner crossings with nearly zero biking accommodation.

    In fact Mainstreet just had a hit and run death at one of the busiest corners, 17th and Mainstreet.

    1. Sean Hayford OlearySean Hayford Oleary

      Mainstreet’s signals were also replaced with new equipment. OK, that’s nice. But what’s not nice is that the new signals do not include pedestrian recall, and you must “beg by default”. This is ridiculous for a pedestrian environment with narrow street crossing. Pedestrian cycles should be included, standard, on every signal cycle.

      At 7th and Mainstreet last spring, I was walking along Mainstreet, crossing the more minor 7th Ave. Although vehicular traffic going the same direction had a green light, I had a firm orange hand. The signal refuses to include a pedestrian signal unless doing a brand-new vehicular cycle. But because no traffic was approaching on 7th, it never changed. I waited for three minutes — during such time that the signal could have done a pedestrian cycle a dozen times — and finally just ignored it. This is unacceptable signal behavior anywhere, but especially in a walkable downtown.

      1. Walker AngellWalker Angell

        Yes. I would think with current technology (or even an osborne level computer from the 1970’s) that it would be possible to even do this dynamically and based on time of day.

  3. Anton SchiefferAnton Schieffer

    Another good design trick to keep cars from encroaching on crosswalk space (such as in the above gif) is to change the positioning of stoplights. Putting the lights closer to the ground and closer to the driver in general makes drivers pay more attention to their immediate surroundings. This works especially well if stoplights are positioned in such a way that the driver can’t see when a light changes if they’re in a crosswalk (similar to freeway entrance ramp stoplights).

    1. Sean Hayford OlearySean Hayford Oleary

      I’m curious about this, because I notice that Minneapolis has nearly completely phased out signals that only include the human-scale posts. All new signals have the overhead mast. I assume there is a traffic safety benefit to this.

      For what it’s worth, I have anecdotally seen many close calls when people fail to see the non-mast signal red lights.

    2. Walker AngellWalker Angell

      Good point about placing them so you have to stop to see them.

      A lot of crossings in northern Europe are raised or ‘tabled’. This helps with where to stop, slows people down, and it much better and safer, particularly for folks with disabilities, during inclimate weather as rain/snow/slush don’t build up as much and there is no gutter pan to cross.

    1. Bill LindekeBill Lindeke Post author

      It’s not. It would take a conversation about where the traffic limits of 4-3 conversions are, and changing some minds of the political leaders at MnDOT, Ramsey County, and Saint Paul.

      1. Walker AngellWalker Angell

        At what point do traffic engineers say that traffic should be subservient to safety rather than the other way around? If a moderate level of safety requires a reduction to 3 lanes or signals at every crossing or a speed of 25 mph then that’s life and people in cars will have to deal with it by choosing another route, mode of transport, etc.

  4. David MarkleDavid Markle

    When drivers often ignore a conventional printed sign, “No Right Turn on Red,” at a semaphored intersection, it seems to me that it’s time to install a red arrow light that’s synchronous with the main red light.

    At the intersection of Cedar and Riverside in Minneapolis, we’ve had this problem for many years, with westbound drivers on Riverside often turning right on red despite the sign. Supposedly this intersection is Minneapolis’s most dangerous for pedestrians and one of the worst for cyclists. Then a sign of physically larger dimension helped, but did not solve the problem. I’ve railed for years, asking for a red arrow semaphore, without results.

    One afternoon as I began to walk southbound across Riverside, my right foot collided with an automobile that was making an improper right turn on red. The angry driver stopped around the corner on Cedar and confronted me, I pointed to the sign. He said, “Oh, I didn’t see that. But you still shouldn’t have kicked my car.” Of course my foot may have entered the crosswalk first, who could say? Besides, my foot legally entered the intersection, unlike his car. And fortunately I was at least a foot taller.

    1. Walker AngellWalker Angell

      I don’t believe right-on-red is permitted anywhere in Europe unless specifically signed and this is quite rare. Same for OZ and I believe much of Asia. We should do the same.

    2. Rosa

      People in cars seem to think it’s not violent for their car to hit part of your body, but it somehow IS violent for part of you to hit their car. It’s a weird mental trick.

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