The Anthropomorphism of St. Paul’s Bollards

Chuck Noland was marooned on a remote island. Accompanied by packages and a few dead bodies, he somehow survived. But he didn’t do so alone – he had the company of Wilson, a washed-up volleyball who stayed with him through thick and thin, until finally drifting away in the middle of the ocean, leaving the crestfallen Noland alone to face the sea.

A similar drama is playing out on the streets of St. Paul. A few years ago, the Starbucks (previously on Snelling and Selby) decided to move to the vacant lot on the Southeast corner of Snelling and Marshall. Key to Starbucks’ relocation plans was a drive-through that, presumably, would allow Starbucks to take advantage of the heavy traffic on Snelling, especially during rush hour. Starbucks’ site plan and drive-through layout survived a planning commission tie vote and the drive-through has now been operating for a year or so.

Those who voted against the plan and others who are wary of drive-throughs in urban, walkable neighborhoods knew that the proposed drive-through would be a recipe for disaster. And they were prescient: as soon as the drive-through was installed, drivers routinely disobeyed entry and exit signs, drove straight over the curb and sidewalk, queued in the bike lane, and made illegal u-turns – all in the name of convenient coffee. The bike-lane queuing was so bad that the city installed a few brave bollards to protect cyclists and pedestrians from the onslaught of caffeine-deprived traffic. And that’s where our story starts to parallel Chuck’s.

Those who value the protection afforded by those bollards, you see, have taken a few steps to raise their profile from mere plastic bollard to higher life-form. They have been named, dressed, photographed, videoed, mourned, montaged, and celebrated. They have attracted interest from across the pond (where bollards tweet, apparently). Some have died and rose again – or have been replaced – depending on your perspective.

If this all sounds absurd, it is. But it’s also not absurd in the least. To those who ride their bikes on St. Paul’s streets, it’s perfectly normal to appreciate the virtue of a simple plastic pole that at least suggests to drivers that it might not be a good idea to veer into a bike lane. It’s also not absurd to celebrate a group of brave souls (still talking about the bollards here) who are in place to try to impose order on what is plainly the worst layout for a drive-through in the Northern Hemisphere. These bollards stand for all that is right and just, and they need names so that we do not forget their service. They may lay down, but they will stand tall again (and then get knocked over).

I want to raise one question about these bollards in general and where they’re used throughout the city. There are many examples of sturdier bollards that would stand a better chance in an encounter with a car. There are huge, round bollards in front of Target, for example. And there are sturdy red bollards in front of the recently-renovated Arby’s on University. Why are these sturdier bollards more frequently used to protect buildings and the plastic bollards more often used to protect people in bikes or on foot?

Arbys Bollards

28 thoughts on “The Anthropomorphism of St. Paul’s Bollards

  1. Alex

    >Why are these sturdier bollards more frequently used to protect buildings and the plastic bollards more often used to protect people in bikes or on foot?

    Cause they are on private property, in parking lots where people are usually going less than 10-15 MPH, and aren’t subject to the same engineering rules that public roads are. If a driver hits one of those bollards at any kind of speed it will cause serious damage to the car and potential injury to the driver/passengers. If you want physical protection that’s better than these plastic things you’ll need to get a curb installed that won’t kill people if a driver makes a mistake and drives into it.

      1. Alex

        Sure, whatever is safe, but advocating for putting things on roads that will do this: to cars is dumb. Even newer cars struggle with that test, so imagine what it will do to the 10-20 year old minivan. That’s this author’s “sturdier bollards” going straight through the crumple zone of some old car.

        Not saying that this drive thru design isn’t completely stupid, or that the protection for the bike lane couldn’t be improved (don’t see why those plastic barriers can’t be designed to scratch up someone’s paint, but still bend over and not kill them), but that doing things for the safety of one group at the expense of another is irresponsible, especially when there are safe alternatives available.

        1. Jeff Christenson Post author

          Alex, I agree with you that there’re a lot of differences between a concrete barrier on a private business where cars are going slower and a plastic divider on a bike lane, and I am not advocating for concrete bollards on this stretch. I just think it’s an interesting question to ask. Cars run into things all the time and when they run into buildings, those buildings do as much or more damage than in your video. Also, if a car is wrecked in service of protecting a pedestrian or cyclist, that’s not such a bad thing is it? I mean even older cars have good protections for drivers and passengers these days.

          Here, I think the better option is to wholly reconsider the drive-through, since, as you mentioned, it’s a pretty stupid design.

          1. Alex

            A car being wrecked can mean injuries or death to the people in the vehicle. An impact like this could also send the crashed vehicle into oncoming traffic, to be hit by another car (airbags only work once). Or it could roll over. And my video was linking to the small overlap test, which older cars do extremely poor on, and would likely be the type of collision to happen with bollards by the bike lane. Some driver stops paying attention, drifts over, small-overlap hits one or more bollards, which kills the passenger. While I’m not going to pull up statistics, I’d guess that that scenario is much more likely than a driver going off the road, at high speed, into a building.

            Solely blaming drivers is also wrong, since bicyclists are at fault for about half of bicycle-vehicle collisions in MN. Drivers are at fault for the other half. Most of those, in both cases, are for failing to yield right of way. Which most often happens at intersections, not mid-block in bike lanes. While illegal, someone queuing in the bike lane isn’t as big of a safety risk as a bicycle or vehicle running a light or stop sign. If anything, queuing in the traffic lane, then turning across the bike lane might be more dangerous, since the type of collision to result from a mistake there would be a right-angle collision, sending the bicyclist over the hood of the car.

            1. Adam MillerAdam Miller

              First of wall, I’d wager that these bollards are primarily lost to people using the drive through who are almost certainly going pretty slow.

              Second, surely you can see that concern for the neglect driver (and even their passenger) over the non-neglegent person on a bike is morally grotesque.

              Finally, no bike killed these bollards. Drivers are regularly invading bike space here. They are at fault.

              1. Alex

                >First of wall, I’d wager that these bollards are primarily lost to people using the drive through who are almost certainly going pretty slow.

                So, it’s impossible that someone going at a higher rate of speed hits a mid-road bollard, their passenger dies, and you don’t care because they were violating traffic laws? That’s like saying a bicyclist that runs a red, gets t boned and dies deserved DEATH. I don’t see anyone here saying the latter, but there’s plenty of the former.

                >Second, surely you can see that concern for the neglect driver (and even their passenger) over the non-neglegent person on a bike is morally grotesque.

                Why? More people drive cars. Doing things that will specifically cause injury/death to more people is morally grotesque, is it not? Especially those who had no direct control of a vehicle, like a passenger.

                As I said before, the drive thru design is bad. Remove it for all I care. Or install a protected bike lane (curb/jersey barrier w/ impact absorber), and increase enforcement of traffic laws in the area.

                1. Adam MillerAdam Miller

                  Because the negligent person was negligent, i.e. at least minimally culpable, while the innocent person was not.

                  Harder bollards are the wrong solution here, but “careless drivers lives matter more because their are more of them” is a really bad look.

                  More broadly, we really need to stop designing streets to protect drivers from themselves. It’s a major contributor to why U.S. drivers are so much worse -as measured by the deaths they cause – than everywhere else in the developed world.

                  1. Alex

                    >innocent person
                    Negligent bicycle rider runs red, gets hit, and dies. Did he deserve to die?

                    Negligent driver drifts into bollard-bike lane. Passenger dies. Did he deserve to die?

                    I don’t think it’s as black and white as you seem to. Just because someone is on a bicycle doesn’t make them an inherently better person than someone driving or riding in a car.

                    1. Adam MillerAdam Miller

                      We’ve never once in this country designed a bike facility to protect the lives of people on bikes that we assume will bike negligently. But you say we have to for cars.

                      The negligent cyclist contributed to his death, yes. Btw, our culture regularly assumes that people on bikes were negligent in crashes. It’s nearly impossible to hold drivers accountable because of it.

                      The harm to the innocent passenger is on the negligent driver. It’s also a ridiculous straw man. We aren’t leaving bike lanes unprotected to protect passengers from negligent drivers.

                      Because someone is on a bicycle makes them inherently more vulnerable than someone in a car. It should not be hard to see that infrastructure should protect the less protected over the more protected, and people in cars have two tons of metal on their side already.

            2. Jeff Christenson Post author

              Yes, a person driving a car can be neglectful or reckless and drive a car into a solid object causing injury or death. That’s true whether or not there are concrete bollards protecting a bike lane. I did not blame drivers, either. And you’re right that there’s research showing that drivers and cyclists are equally liable in crashes, but the difference is that cyclists are only going to injure themselves (for the most part) whereas it is highly probable that poor driving results in injury / death to innocent third parties (40,000 people die every year from car crashes). And I question your notion that it’s more dangerous for a bike to run a stop light/sign (especially sign) than for cars to queue in a bike lane. If cars are queued in a bike lane, a cyclist has to merge into the traffic lane and fast-moving cars behind him or her are a huge risk. I ride in downtown Minneapolis and this frequently happens to me in the protected bike lane on 3rd Avenue.

              1. Alex

                Wouldn’t getting rear ended, even if on a bike, be less dangerous than being hit at a right angle after one party or another fails to yield right of way at an intersection? I’d wager that, more often than not, cyclists can merge over into the traffic lane safely.

                I agree that the cars shouldn’t be there in the first place, and removing them (tickets, red tow orders, etc) is easy and should be done more often.

                1. Jeff Christenson Post author

                  I don’t want to find out the relative chances of surviving a rear-end collision on a bike versus being hit at a right angle. I would wager that a lot of cyclist fatalities are rear-end collisions (though likely on higher-speed roads). In my experience having to merge when someone’s parked in a bike lane, and you’d be right to bet on me. But it’s one of the most harrowing experiences a cyclist can face, since you’re looking back to make sure no fast-moving cars are coming up and then having to take the lane, knowing there are probably cars coming up fast behind you.

                  1. Alex

                    I know, and I’ve done it because I semi-regularly ride bicycles on road. And I hate bad drivers just as much, if not more than everyone on here seems to. Get rid of all the multi-DUIs, all of the terrible old/aggressive drivers, and tow the people parked in the bike lane. I won’t be affected because I don’t do any of that shit.

                    1. Adam MillerAdam Miller

                      Here’s the thing. The terrible driver is you. Yes, you.

                      It’s me too. It’s all of us. We speed. We pass on the right (you telling me you’ve never swerved around someone turning left?). We don’t stop before turning right on red, or at the stopline/before the crosswalk. We speed up at a yellow light. We change lanes without signaling. We never yield to pedestrians in a crosswalk, marked or otherwise. We drive, park, stack in the bike lane. We text and drive. We talk and drive. We pay more attention to the kid in the back than the road.

                      I try not to do any of those things, but sometimes I do some of them anyway. We all do, because we live in a culture that views driving as a necessity and an annoyance to be accommodated. It’s why our roads are so dangerous. We drive poorly and then design to accommodate it. It doesn’t work.

                  1. Alex

                    At what speed? The situation described here is in downtown. Don’t most of those fatal rear end crashes happen on roads that are 40+ MPH? (for the record, I have no idea, just asking a question)

                    Even if there are cars in the bike lane, merging unsafely is still illegal. If you can’t safely move over, why not stop and wait for an opening? That’s what they teach drivers, so why wouldn’t the same logic apply to bicycles?

                    1. Adam MillerAdam Miller

                      Marshall and Snelling is not downtown. Snelling is a raceway.

                      Sure, just assume it’s the person on a bike’s fault. If they’d just be infinitely careful, we wouldn’t need any infrastructure at all. Totally what you were just saying about cars, right?

          2. Adam MillerAdam Miller

            People should see the things that are right next to narrow Irish roads – trees, stone walls, houses, more stone walls, barns, castles, did I mention stone walls?, etc. – no one would engineer it that way and yet drivers there aren’t killing themselves or others near the rate we do (I think).

    1. Adam MillerAdam Miller

      Funny how we’re okay with a driver driving into and killing a person on a bike but not damaging their car or themselves. Or at least our engineering standards seem to be.

  2. Monte Castleman

    Basically the de-facto speeds on city streets are about the speed where there’s a real risk of injury or death to people in cars crashing into a fixed object. Street light poles and signs on freeways are either protected with guardrails or deliberately weakened at the base so they will snap in two if stuck. On city streets it’s an unsettled issue whether to use that type or not, since unlike a freeway you have to balance with the potential danger to others of a falling light pole.

    The “flim flam” sticks aren’t a good solution. A person in a car hitting them will knock them over and can continue into the bicycle lane if s/he is too drunk or distracted to correct. When I’m on a bicycle I won’t use a flim-flam “protected” lane anymore than any other on-street lane. It’s MUPS, cycletracks, or sidewalks (where legal), or else I don’t ride. That they aren’t a good solution doesn’t mean we shouldn’t build them on a temporary basis because they’re inexpensive and others are comfortable with them, at least enough to use them. But it’s not an end-game solution like a curb is. (The Jersey barriers someone mentioned would be even better and are required on roads with higher speeds, but would impede people on foot trying to cross and have a dubious aesthetic.)

    As far as fixed bollards in parking lots, beyond the lower design speeds they’re not just to keep a mom distracted by scolding her fighting tweens in the back seat from running into the building. There are security implications for them. I don’t want to spell them out but think of the things you could do with a vehicle and a crowded building if you had nefarious intent.

    1. Jeff Christenson Post author

      OK, but look at the recent examples of people with nefarious intent using their cars to plow into people. Shouldn’t we protect them from nefarious intent as we do buildings as a general rule?

      1. Monte Castleman

        A random bicycle lane isn’t likely to become a become a terrorist target like a crowded building or pedestrian mall packed with people or a protest a person doesn’t agree with.

        If it really was intended to drive on a bicycle lane, you could just drive over onto it from the sidewalk side or else pick a lane that doesn’t have them. I supposed you could put a row between the sidewalk and the lawns, but at what point is financial cost of installing these and the cost of bicycles hitting them now and then if we have a bunch all over the place outweigh the remote possibility of a terrorist attack?

        I’ll be the first to admit we need to aggressively protect out country from terrorism by any reasonable means necessary, but at some point doing so gets ridiculous. Is our goal to bollard off every sidewalk and bicycle lane on every block?

  3. Tim Hanson

    Those particular bike lane bollards are plastic and flexible so that emergency vehicles like fire trucks and ambulances can drive over them if needed.

    The Arby’s and Target bollards have enough space for emergency vehicles to go around and get close to the building if necessary.

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