Perils and Possibilities: Crossing the Street at Macalester College

Editor’s Note: One of the missing voices in bicycle planning in the Twin Cities is college students who belong to a generation much less likely than their parents to own vehicles. This series of posts written by Macalester students for the “Bicycling the Urban Landscape” course are one effort to include these voices.  This piece was contributed by Ted Chisholm, a first-year student studying classics and religious studies.  A Milwaukee native, he is very interested in urban policy and enjoys exploring the Twin Cities by bike.

Crossing a street shouldn’t be dangerous. It’s a simple ritual that most of us perform daily, with hardly a thought. Look to the left; look to the right; now, check the left again. All clear? Good. Step right up – or down, rather – and walk across.

Simple, right?

The situation facing students seeking to cross Grand without the benefit of marked crosswalks

Not at Macalester College in St. Paul, where my fellow students and I face the “triple threat” of crossing Grand Avenue at unmarked, unsafe crossings. For most of us Macalester students, especially the first-years and sophomores who live north of Grand Avenue, crossing this busy boulevard is a daily necessity. But when we cross Grand, using three “crossings” that connect pathways leading from the dorms to Macalester’s Campus Center and academic facilities, we do so without the protection afforded by marked crosswalks.

At each crossing – one is located just west of Macalester’s Markim Hall, another is east of Turck Hall, and the last is just north of Weyerhauser Hall and the school chapel – traffic on Grand Avenue enjoys the right-of-way. This situation, which encompasses a lengthy stretch of Grand Avenue between Snelling Avenue and Macalester Street, presents any number of safety hazards. Although first-year students learn during orientation sessions that they must yield to traffic when crossing Grand, few do. Small white signs at the unmarked crossings, which explain vehicles’ right-of-way, are just as ineffective. Many students dart across the street distractedly, running to class or a meal, including at times – like the early evening – when traffic on Grand is at its heaviest.

The crosswalk north of Weyerhauser Hall (right) and the school chapel (left). At this location, there is a sign warning pedestrians that they do not have the right-of-way.

The absence of marked crosswalks means that none of the crossings feature curb cuts, either on the sides of the street or on the concrete boulevard that divides the eastbound and westbound lanes. This jeopardizes the safety of pedestrians who use wheelchairs or other assistive devices, and it proves a potent obstacle for students – like me – who bicycle around campus. Once, for example, I slowed my bike in advance of the first curb at the Markim Hall crossing, only to lose the momentum needed to jump the boulevard’s curb. I quickly found myself clambering off my bicycle and walking it across the boulevard, all while a growing line of cars waited impatiently for me to get out of the road. My experiences crossing Grand on foot have been less eventful, but no less confused. By the end of my first semester at Macalester, my friends and I would jokingly bet on whether cars on Grand would wait for us to cross or dart past us before we could. Clearly, traffic behavior on Grand is inconsistent at best, forcing us pedestrians to put more thought into crossing the boulevard than should be necessary.

The city of St. Paul would do well to resolve these logistical and safety hazards. In 2013, a column in Macalester’s student newspaper asked the city to apply pedestrian right-of-way to all of Grand Avenue between Snelling and Macalester Avenues, an expanse that includes each of the three unmarked crossings. Understandably, the city might balk at such a request. The intersection of Grand and Snelling Avenue, just a few paces east of the Markim Hall crossing, is busy: the city may not want to impede traffic approaching or existing it. Fortunately, the city can avoid this issue altogether, by designating at least one of the three unmarked crossings as a painted crosswalk, replete with curb cuts on both sides of the street and on the boulevard.

The crossing north of Weyerhauser Hall (to the right of the photograph) is sufficiently removed from Snelling Avenue to be only a minor obstruction to drivers

By marking an official crosswalk, the city would clarify the “rules of the road” for both drivers and pedestrians crossing Grand. Currently, drivers traveling on Grand Avenue appear to be as unaware of their right-of-way as the Macalester students they encounter on a daily basis. Most are respectful but cautious, overcompensating for student safety by stopping far in advance of students approaching a crossing; others speed past the crossings and even honk at students barring their way. A marked crosswalk would change this situation entirely.   Drivers, who hardly desire to pay a misdemeanor citation for failing to yield to pedestrians, would consistently stop in advance of students, who would undoubtedly prefer to use a safe, protected crossing. Furthermore, by designating the westernmost crossing, north of Weyerhauser Hall and the chapel, as a marked crosswalk, the city would avoid obstructing traffic near the Snelling Avenue intersection. This crossing is sufficiently removed from Snelling that its marking would be a minor inconvenience for drivers. It is so frequently used by students traveling to and from class that it would greatly improve student safety while crossing Grand.

The absence of curb cuts makes crossing Grand exceedingly difficult for assistive devices and bicycles.

No plausible alternatives exist. There are no safer, equally efficient marked crosswalks to which students may be redirected. The unmarked crossings in question are centrally located and direct pedestrians toward either the Campus Center or academic buildings. The nearest marked crosswalks, at Snelling Avenue and Macalester Street, are on the periphery of campus activity. Nor do they provide a significant improvement when it comes to student safety: according to a 2016 student blog article, the Snelling and Grand intersection is considered “dangerous” by many in the Mac-Groveland neighborhood.

By marking the north-of-Weyerhauser crossing as a legally defined crosswalk, the city of St. Paul would drastically improve pedestrian safety on Grand Avenue. Today, students must use unmarked crossings to venture into a road where automobiles enjoy the right-of-way. The confusion inherent to this situation – for students and drivers alike – is unnecessary and even extraordinary in the Twin Cities, which have a reputation for integrating various modes of transportation into safe streets. Unfortunately, Grand Avenue is anything but a safe street as it traverses Macalester College. It is time that the city of St. Paul recognizes this issue and resolves it, clarifying the rules of this busy road by marking a crosswalk.

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11 Responses to Perils and Possibilities: Crossing the Street at Macalester College

  1. Bill Lindeke
    Bill Lindeke April 26, 2017 at 10:46 am #

    Amen. This is a ridiculous situation and we need to put pedestrians first, to improve both safety and street vitality.

    • Joseph Totten
      Joseph Totten April 26, 2017 at 1:09 pm #

      The lack of ADA at these locations is also appalling. We are openly giving young, able bodies persons the ability to cross the street while telling those who are less-mobile to go further out of their way to cross! I’d accept a single marked (midblock) crossing that was fully ADA compliant before the status quo.

  2. Joe Klein April 26, 2017 at 11:16 am #

    Completely agree. A few students have been tragically hit by cars near Mac’s campus in recent years, and it’s inexcusable that an area with 2,000 students walking around regularly isn’t more pedestrian-friendly. This would be a prime location for a “Stop for Me” event if one hasn’t happened here already.

  3. Mike Sonn
    Mike Sonn April 26, 2017 at 11:27 am #

    I’d love to invite the author to our next MGCC Transportation Committee meeting to discuss. We can easily make this stretch safer by putting in raised crosswalks – the city has them at Metro State already so it isn’t a foreign concept.

    Thank you for writing from a student’s perspective.

  4. Serafina Scheel
    Serafina April 26, 2017 at 2:06 pm #

    In spring 2002 or 2003, after several rogue crosswalks had been painted there by groups unknown, the city did several tests at that crossing: (1) temporary fences along the boulevard to funnel students trying to cross Grand to the one midblock crossing, (2) the fences and a temporary mid-block median, and (3) the mid-block median alone.

    City traffic engineers complained the whole time, that a median there would prevent cars from maneuvering appropriately and make pedestrians less attentive. It was a huge improvement from how it had been. I’d really like to see it take the next step toward accessibility and pedestrian safety.

    • SuperQ April 26, 2017 at 3:11 pm #

      I think I remember those restrictions from when I lived at Grand and Cretin in 2002-2003. Being still a bit accustomed to car driving back then, I thought it was a long, but nice walk from there to Macalaster.

      This is slightly laughable given I easily walk that distance today just getting around Berlin.

  5. Andy Singer
    Andy Singer April 26, 2017 at 4:15 pm #

    I was around for some of the discussions in the early 2000s. The stumbling block was Saint Paul Public Works and their street design manual (of the time). University of Saint Thomas had better luck getting a “mid-block” crosswalk in front of the arches (around the same time). I think they simply had more political pull behind the scenes than Macalester did …because logic would say that Macalester should have the same quality of crosswalks. If you get a chance, look at these crosswalks at UST. They go across the median on Summit Avenue, have fully ADA compliant curb cuts, and have great signage (flanking both sides of the driving lanes). This should be implemented at Macalester. It’s all about organizing. If enough students, faculty, administrators and members of the public demand the city put in a better crossing, you’ll get one.

  6. Mary Jean Mulherin April 26, 2017 at 4:43 pm #

    It is a privilege to have Macalester College in our midst and we all need to care about the students safely crossing Grand Ave and Snelling Ave, also. Slow down cars! Pedestrians have right of way. We are crossing their campus with our cars.

  7. Walker Angell
    Walker Angell April 26, 2017 at 4:53 pm #

    Yes. It has always baffled me that there are no marked crossings there.

    I’d once asked a traffic engineer about the lack of ADA bits and their response was that since this crossing was unmarked that it would be too dangerous and so disabled folk should cross at Snelling. I then asked why it was unmarked and got an amazingly long response that I can’t fully remember but I think it was basically that if it was marked then it wouldn’t meet code. Are these unofficial crossings? E.G., they are look-like-crossings up to the curb but not actual crossings in the street itself?

    • John Charles Wilson April 27, 2017 at 9:35 am #

      Yes, these are unofficial crossings. Pedestrians have ROW at marked crosswalks, and any intersection of two streets is an officially implied crosswalk, whether marked or not (unless crossing is prohibited by a sign). A sidewalk (without a street), alley, driveway, or bike path crossing a street is insufficient to create a legally implied crosswalk, thus the Macalester crossings are unofficial and that’s why: 1) No ADA accommodations are legally required, and 2) cars have the ROW. Technically, if you use them you are jaywalking, but IIRC it’s not ticketable because both intersections on either side have to have traffic lights for jaywalking to be ticketable in Minnesota.

  8. Rich April 27, 2017 at 11:03 am #

    Nice article. I used to live in this neighborhood and still attend church a block away. I seem to recall that this was a compromise solution between the city and the college with the agreement that the city would build the little median as a landing spot (I think the college funded it) giving students an island to stop at in their dash across Grand. The challenge, as pointed out in the article, is the unpredictability of drivers. Whether you are a pedestrian or driver, you have no way of knowing which cars are going to stop, which makes it doubly dangerous. I don’t know that two cross walks are required, but I would certainly support a single, centered cross walk. That’s essentially what St Thomas has – one well marked crossing at the mid point of campus.

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