So Much Depends on the Next Six Weeks on Maryland Avenue

I’ve spent years beating the safe streets drum on this site and elsewhere. Of all the dangerous streets the Twin Cities, the ones that upset me the most are the 4-lane urban arterials, aka the “Four-Lane Death Road™“. These are found everywhere in Minneapolis and Saint Paul, particularly in poorer areas of town, and I’ve been calling for an end to these dangerous streets on a regular basis, each time there’s a particularly tragic crash.

In Saint Paul, the problem of dangerous arterials is acute, and there are plenty of deadly streets running rampant through otherwise walkable neighborhoods. for years the situation seemed hopeless, and despite the best efforts of police and community members, I did not see anything changing anytime soon.

A Long-Awaited Safety Test

But this year, after much community effort (and a few tragic crashes) Saint Paul is finally starting to see some change of priorities around its most dangerous streets.

One key dynamic is that most of the most dangerous arterial streets are Ramsey County roads, and so County engineers and County Commissioners have the final say over how they are designed. That’s why it’s exciting that this summer, led by Commission head and long-time East Sider Jim McDonough, Ramsey County has agreed to do do a “field test” of a safer street design on Maryland Avenue. For six weeks, they will converting the dangerous 4-lane road into a safer 3-lane design.

And a lot depends on how the test goes. It’s no exaggeration to say that this might be the most important street design moment in Saint Paul in many generations. If the test goes well — if drivers act safely and neighbors react in a positive way — the Maryland experiment could mark the beginning of a transformation of Saint Paul’s streets, neighborhoods, and public spaces away from speed and danger and towards walkability and quality of life. If it goes poorly, it might be years or decades before Ramsey County musters the political will to tackle its generational legacy of dangerous urban street design.

A lot is at stake. So what can people do?

The field test will begin at Greenbrier.

Field Test Basics

The .pdf from Ramsey County is attached to the bottom of this post, but essentially the County will re-stripe dangerous four-lane Maryland Avenue from 4- to 3-lanes from Greenbrier (where Elizabeth Durham was killed last year) all the way east to Johnson Parkway. The “traffic counts” on that part of the street are higher than would normally be considered for this kind of street design in Saint Paul, but in this  case the County has decided to weigh safety ahead of congestion in its design priorities.  That’s a big change!

One key question that I had was this: What metrics will Ramsey County use to evaluate the “success” of the test?

The answer was a long list of data. The County will collect and evaluate the design for the first six weeks according to speeds, volumes, gaps, crashes, and bike/ped counts. they will also gather feedback from neighbors, though how this will be done remains an open question.

During the recent Planning Commission Transportation Committee meeting, County engineers seemed particularly worried about drivers cutting through neighborhoods and speeding through stop signs because any potential increases in congestion. They were also worried about drivers “passing in the middle lane” or doing other dangerous (and unnecessary) behaviors.

To me, there remain a lot of open questions about how this will go. If the “field test” is still “working” after the first six weeks, the County will keep the test in place for another six weeks, giving engineers a full three months of data to examine.

The pros and cons of “test” engineering

In some ways, there’s a great deal of exciting promise in doing “test” experiments with urban design. A whole field has popped up around the idea, variously called “tactical urbanism” or different variations of the “pop-up” prefix. Some of the best street design changes have begun with experiments, like the Broadway / Times Square pedestrian reclamation or a whole bunch of similar tests from around the country.

But there’s also a lot of potential for one of these projects to go wrong. A lot depends on outreach and engagement, fields which are not necessarily the strong suits for transportation engineers. For example, I’ve written before about how poorly the “test median” bike boulevard design process proceeded at the corner of Jefferson and Cleveland Avenues in Saint Paul back in 2011. The project was basically a disaster, and today the much-lauded and well-funded Jefferson Avenue bike boulevard has been officially “demoted” into mere sharrows. If the test had been handled better, the boulevard might be alive and well today.

Similarly, the test process for the North Minneapolis greenway had some mixed results. Despite years of outreach from a group of dedicated supporters, the backlash to some of the changes to the street might have overwhelmed much of the positive conversations that occurred around the experimental street designs. I’m sure that the folks who designed the project would do things a bit differently if they had a chance to go back in time.

This is to say that there is a lot of variation involved with experiments in street design, and the social x-factor has a wide range.

What Can East Side Neighbors Do?

A “drive like your kids live here” sign in Frogtown.

One idea I have is that concerned community members on Maryland along the test route should start a pre-emptive lawn sign campaign. A few dozen of those “slow down” lawn signs saying things like  “twenty is plenty” might send a clear signal to frustrated aggravated drivers about the reasoning behind the change in the street.

Maybe some hand-made Burma-Shave-type signs? They could say things like:

  • A New Street Can Save Lives
  • Drive Like Your Kids Live Here
  • Slow Down for the East Side
  • (or something similar-slash-witty)

These signs can’t be that expensive, and given the stakes of the outcome, would be a great investment.

What are some other ideas? Could there be some engagement, door knocking, block meetings, etc. where people get active and try to shape the conversation happening along Maryland?

If so, now’s the time. The “test” change is going to happen any day. This might be Saint Paul and Ramsey County’s one big chance to improve its streets and neighborhoods. Let’s not blow it.

Ramsey Co Maryland slides-2

Bill Lindeke

About Bill Lindeke

Pronouns: he/him

Bill Lindeke has writing blogging about sidewalks and cities since 2005, ever since he read Jane Jacobs. He is a lecturer in Urban Studies at the University of Minnesota Geography Department, the Cityscape columnist at Minnpost, and has written multiple books on local urban history. He was born in Minneapolis, but has spent most of his time in St Paul. Check out Twitter @BillLindeke or on Facebook.