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.

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17 Responses to So Much Depends on the Next Six Weeks on Maryland Avenue

  1. Tom Quinn May 19, 2017 at 12:02 pm #

    Isn’t this what was done to Lexington Avenue about ten years ago? Lexington used to be two lanes from Randolph to I94. The traffic was fast and it was impossible to cross. I remember neighborhood meetings where the traffic engineers said that it wasn’t practical to turn it into two lanes with a center turning lane because there was too much traffic.

    Still, they gave it a try after more neighborhood pressure and restripesd it about ten years ago. It has worked fine since. The traffic has slowed and it’s safer to cross.

    • paddy May 19, 2017 at 4:42 pm #

      I think you are right. Lexington is much slower and calmer and not near as much as a nuisance any more. Now there is a Trader Joe’s at Randolph and the whole area has more of a neighborhood feel.

      I also think the city did something else to get the traffic off of Lexington about a decade ago. Hmmm I’m racking my brain and trying to think of what the city could have done. Large numbers of cars used to get on and off 35E via Lexington. And now they don’t. If I remember it, I’ll put a note up. But you are right for sure. Lexington is much much better.

      • Eric Saathoff
        Eric Saathoff May 19, 2017 at 5:58 pm #

        You might be thinking of Ayd Mill Road. Over here we have Phalen Blvd.

  2. Eric Saathoff
    Eric Saathoff May 19, 2017 at 12:17 pm #

    I have already worked on sign designs and will do an indiegogo to help fund them. Stay tuned.

  3. Daniel Choma
    Daniel Choma May 19, 2017 at 9:53 pm #

    Is there any outreach planned through the Arlington Hills Library or the East Side Freedom Library? I think both those places would are fecund community spots where the word can be spread easily.

    Since this is a county project, will they be weighting their data based on the neighborhood voices or the county voices? Many people use Maryland as a freeway through the East Side and I can see folks who usually speed through East Side being annoyed that they have to slow down.

    One thing that struck me as interesting about the Longfellow conversation was that the LCC really made an intentional effort to poll only Longfellow residents about the change even though bike lanes would be something that effects Longfellow AND the greater community. I had mixed feelings about it here, but in the case of a county project, I could see it being useful to at least collect data (especially in metric #9) that indicates from where the community voice originates

    • Eric Saathoff
      Eric Saathoff May 19, 2017 at 10:01 pm #

      They haven’t indicated the method for gaining feedback from the community. The last community meeting was held at the East Side Freedom Library. I don’t think it’s going to be hard to get the word out – everyone is going to know the test is ongoing. Right now the lanes have been ground off but the new ones haven’t been put down yet.

      What’s difficult is getting people to express their opinion. Usually only the angry show up. I absolutely think it’s a good idea to poll people at the Arlington Hills Library, as I suspect many people walk there, especially the youth. I think the Freedom Library has fewer people arrive by foot or bike, since its events have a city-wide appeal. However, it might be a good place to find friendly voices.

      I think it will be important to hear the voices of families who have children walking to Johnson High School and have to cross Maryland Ave. I don’t yet know how to connect with them.

  4. Walker Angell
    Walker Angell May 22, 2017 at 10:00 am #

    Why is a test needed? Do the engineers not already know how different layouts work and what the advantages and disadvantages are? Do the engineers not know what layouts are safer and result in fewer deaths?

    Quite often forgiveness is much easier to get than permission. If the road is changed permanently then a few people might complain a bit but everyone will get use to it quite quickly and live happily every after (and since it would be safer, more will live). If a test is put up then people will think about it more and complain more because well.., it’s change. They’ll complain because unlike with a perm change, they can do something about it.

    • Eric Saathoff
      Eric Saathoff May 22, 2017 at 10:35 am #

      Apparently safety improvements are still up for popular opinion.

      • Adam Miller
        Adam Miller May 22, 2017 at 10:44 am #

        Well, what about parking? Will I still be able to drive as fast? I’m concerned.

        (If only the commenting policy had some guidance for me on the use of sarcasm…)

      • Walker Angell
        Walker Angell May 22, 2017 at 2:34 pm #

        “Apparently safety improvements are still up for popular opinion.”

        Wow, great summation and so sadly true.

    • GlowBoy May 23, 2017 at 3:28 pm #

      I’m leaning towards this too: often what people say they want isn’t what’s been proven safe. You need to spend some time socializing impacts with the affected neighborhoods, sure, but it’s time to stop getting so bogged down in public process every time we want to make a safety improvement. We now KNOW what makes roads safer, and 4-3 conversions are about the lowest hanging fruit we have. It’s time to move faster on these.

      I am heartened that this time, even though they knew it might increase congestion (and it often doesn’t), officials decided to prioritize safety. That’s a very important step.

    • Monte Castleman
      Monte Castleman May 25, 2017 at 8:46 am #

      Engineers do know how different layouts work and what the advantages and disadvantages are.

      The 15K a day figure is a conservative figure adopted by Minnesota where anything above that requires a traffic study, so it’s the de-facto maximum here, but nationally 20K is more commonly cited figure, (Maryland east of Payne is entirely below the 20K figure according to the Mn/DOT map. Between 15K and the low 20s, where it’s safe to say that 15K will almost always work, say 25K will almost never work there’s a graduated grey area, based on such things as if right turn lanes at key intersections and bus pull-offs are provided, volumes of pedestrians and vehicle cross traffic; the number and spacing of signals and stop signs and if they’re coordinated; the volume of left turning traffic that creates a de-facto single through lane anyway.

      You can simulate this, but motorist behavior is another factor- to what extend angry motorists bypass congestion by flooring it down side streets that were never designed for through traffic, or passing in the turn lane, something I’ve seen on Lyndale Ave in Bloomington, or not paying attention to their driving and causing rear-end type crashes. How motorists on a particular street will behave is impossible to model.

      As is public reaction- will motorists show up with torches and pitchforks at city hall? In Bloomington a 4-3 lane conversion of Portland Ave is proposed. South of 90th Street the AADT is 3800. No, that’s not a typo; 3800 not 13,800 or 23,800, yet people were there at the meetings complaining about how bad traffic would get if the road was “wrecked” and how they never saw anyone using the bicycle lanes on 86th St.

      Overall my hunch is that overall, the Maryland conversion will be workable and become permanent.

      • Adam Miller
        Adam Miller May 25, 2017 at 9:05 am #

        I struggle to understand how people have so much fear of a 4 to 3 on a street Portland in Bloomington. It just seems intuitive to me how that main obstacle to through traffic on a four lane street is people making turns and if there’s a turn lane, that obstacle is removed.

        I don’t get that far south terribly often, but I’ve used the bike lanes on 86th St. They’d probably get more use if they had a buffer, but there’s only so much space between the curbs.

  5. Mark Brauer
    Mark Brauer May 24, 2017 at 11:49 am #

    Biking the Maryland “field test” – a firsthand report.

    I grew up east of Lake Phalen and biked Maryland often. This was back when it was two thru lanes with parking on both sides. While not great, it did get one across town, to/from points west. Until today I hadn’t biked on Maryland in decades. Thought I should give it a try.

    Took the Payne Ave bike lane to Maryland and headed east. The new 2.5′ shoulder striping starts at Greenbrier. Feels like it’s really only 18″ wide. Pavement is very rough. The 11′ traffic lane puts the cars awfully close. Then I cross Arcade and the shoulder narrows even more. Can’t be much more than 2′. Had to ride right on the white line to feel like I had adequate clearance to the curb – handlebar was sticking out into traffic. Got to the road’s high point at Forest, looked ahead to Earl, and could see that conditions did not change. So I bailed at that point.

    This “test zone” is definitely better for biking than the old 4-lane. Passing cars can swing partly into the turn lane if they choose to. But even on a Wednesday at 10:30 AM, with light traffic, I didn’t feel safe. Won’t be riding it again. It’s a good thing I spent decades finding alternate routes.

  6. Sam Cartwright May 25, 2017 at 9:05 am #

    Drive this several times the past few days. It is a disaster. Pedestrians are still sauntering across at any which point – usually between intersections as they wander toward the next one – and cars are using the center turn lane as a traffic bypass to get to the intersection 3 or 4 blocks ahead. Why aren’t the police doing anything about the real problem? That is the pedestrians who think they own the road and can do whatever they want.

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