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.

Macalester Student Perspectives

About Macalester Student Perspectives

Contributing writers to this column were college students enrolled at Macalester College in Saint Paul. These posts were part of classes in the Environmental Studies, Geography, and Urban Studies Programs.