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
Too 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.
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
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.
(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.)
The 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.
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.
The 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.
* 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.