The Death of 4-Lane Death Roads

If you don’t know about Saint Paul’s Maryland Avenue, you really should.

To catch up, take a look at these past Streets.MN articles:

In short, Ramsey County and Saint Paul conducted a 4-3 lane conversion test on Maryland Avenue after the death of Erin Durham, who was trying to cross the street. This changed a 4-lane street into a 3-lane street with a center turn lane. What was originally supposed to be only a 6 week test ended up lasting over a year.

At this point the Maryland Avenue 4-3 lane conversion test has concluded. Ramsey County and the City of Saint Paul decided to keep the conversion to three lanes, including two pedestrian refuges that were sought by the community.

Maryland before the test


Maryland during the test


Maryland after the test

Ramsey County has posted several pages of data they took on the test here. Of particular note are the crash statistics from before and after:

crash statistics Maryland Avenue test

The number of crashes were reduced by almost 20% and additionally the proportion of crashes resulting in injury were also reduced from 26% to 18%.

Other notes from the county:

  • Average speed has been decreased
  • Travel times are reasonable
  • No significant increase of traffic on side streets

Finally, the county’s meeting announcing the final decision about Maryland Avenue had far more empty chairs than people. A controversial beginning fizzled out to a functional arterial street.

A Major Precedent

Why is this so important? Both the city and county have previously said that streets with average daily traffic (ADT) of more than 15,000 cars/day are not good candidates for this kind of lane reduction (“road diet”). On the other hand the Federal Highway Administration has only noted negative impacts from road diets when they are implemented on streets with ADT greater than 20,000, and many other cities use this number as a guideline for implementing road diets.

Maryland Avenue, however, has an ADT in this section between 21,000 and 23,000 according to the county. And it works.

In Saint Paul here are some examples of other 4-lane streets and their approximate traffic volumes:

  • Arcade Street – 11,000 – 16,000 ADT
  • East 7th Street – 18,000 – 22,000 ADT
  • White Bear Avenue – 18,000 – 23,000 ADT
  • Rice Street – 11,000 – 15,000 ADT
  • Dale Street – 13,000 – 23,000 ADT
  • Cretin – 7,000 – 15,000 ADT (Grand – Marshall), 23,000 – 26,000 (by I-94)
  • Hamline – 8,000 – 19,000 ADT
  • West 7th Street – 13,000 – 16,000 ADT (Downtown to 35E)
  • Maryland Avenue – 10,000 – 14,000 ADT (Johnson to White Bear Ave, east of this project), 22,000 ADT (Payne to Arkwright), 15,000 ADT (Rice to Jackson)

Most of the high ADTs for these streets occur in the blocks leading up to I-35E or I-94, but maintaining 4 lanes for the rest of the street is unnecessarily dangerous.

Bill Lindeke has written about these “4-Lane Death Roads” on numerous occasions. See here, here, and here.

Each of these streets is controlled by Ramsey County or by MnDOT. Each entity has their own design standards but cooperate with the city’s Public Works department when making critical decisions about street layout.

Given the success we’ve experienced on Maryland Avenue there is a clear precedent for each of these streets going forward. Unless the ADT is well above Maryland Avenue’s 23,000, it should either automatically be reprogrammed to 3 lanes (even 2 lanes?) or at least tested for a reduction as Maryland Avenue was. The safety benefits to drivers, pedestrians, and bicycle riders is too clear to ignore.

Reducing the number of lanes clearly benefits car drivers by providing a space to wait for left-turning movements – this is the main reason the number and severity of crashes has been reduced. However, the safety improvements for people moving outside of cars cannot be overstated. “Multiple-threat crashes” have not only been the cause of numerous deaths and injuries over the years, but the threat has additionally made people feel unsafe or unwilling to cross these streets. The extra space available after implementing a 4-3 lane conversion can be used for bicycle lanes or wider sidewalks.

Just like on Maryland Avenue, this change can be a win-win for citizens all over Saint Paul. So what stands in the way of this progress?


Car drivers fear they will lose time.
Homeowners fear they’ll experience extra traffic on side streets.
Business owners fear they will lose customers.
Elected officials fear they will lose votes.

Despite these fears, this needs to become the new normal for residents and visitors of St. Paul. And the successful test on Maryland Avenue provides the data to back up our engineers, our city council members, and our county commissioners.

Eric Saathoff

About Eric Saathoff

Eric Saathoff is a public school teacher living in the Payne-Phalen neighborhood of St. Paul. He is a regular walker, cyclist, transit user, and driver with his wife and three young children. Eric serves on the Payne-Phalen Community Council and the St Paul Transportation Committee.

17 thoughts on “The Death of 4-Lane Death Roads

  1. Tom Quinn

    I think it’s significant that rear end crashes more than doubled while all other crashes decreased. It appears that even traffic calming efforts won’t help inattentive texting drivers.

    1. Eric SaathoffEric Saathoff Post author

      I wonder if this will change during the second year of implementation. I think some people were used to a faster street and were not prepared to slow down.

      1. Walker AngellWalker Angell

        I think this. Our road designs have for decades encouraged fast travel by drivers with wide lanes, wide radius turns and slip lanes, clearance zones and curb reaction distances, etc. This is compared to Dutch and EU road designs that encourage cautious driving with narrower travel lanes, much sharper radius turns, extensive use of sharks teeth, tabled (raised) crossings, etc.

        It will take U.S. drivers time to adjust to driving cautiously rather and speedily.

        1. Matt SteeleMatt

          I think this perception also colors people’s reactions to how streets are working. In my neighborhood, motorists still gripe about losing lanes on Park/Portland or 46th Streets saying there’s unbearable congestion. Yet I think congestion for many people is “I can’t drive as fast as I used to.” There are times when you might only be able to drive 30 MPH (the speed limit) on Park and Portland or 20-25 MPH on the stoplight-every-600-feet stretch of 46th Street between Chicago and Nicollet. And it’s fine!

          1. Walker AngellWalker Angell

            Matt, I think you are absolutely correct. We’ve become accustomed to driving fast, turning on red fast and feeling like we are getting places fast. In reality we don’t often get places that much faster than driving more cautiously and we ignore the 40,000 people we kill every year in feeling like we are getting places faster.

            U.S. traffic engineers need to get some backbone and begin designing for safety regardless of the outcry from drivers. And, they need to understand the extent to which the outcry is based on ‘feeling’ and not on reality.

            1. Adam MillerAdam Miller

              I wish people understood how little time they save. It’s a pretty regular thing to be cruising along in the bike lane, see someone do something stupid aggressive – run a red light, turn without stopping or just speed excessively – only to catch up with the very same car at the next light. The only thing you’re achieving is danger, people.

              1. Eric SaathoffEric Saathoff Post author

                Surely nobody runs a red light unless it’s a cyclist. Let’s be real, Adam.

  2. Monte Castleman

    I know that the AADT of 21,000-23,000 was “from the county” and repeated by the news media, but I’d be curious about the actual data source for that. According to the Mn/Dot traffic volume maps It’s true closer too the freeway but athe segment in question has 15,700 to 18,600, which is likely a big difference as to whether it’s workable or not.

    1. Matty LangMatty Lang

      It also depends on your definition of workable. Around MSP that is usually defined as zero motorist delay, which should not be the measure. There’s plenty of research done that shows 20,000+ ADT work just fine in most cases:

      Quote from report: “For a short period during area road construction, Kirkland’s Lake Washington Boulevard picked up additional load and was successfully carrying 30,000 ADT. This four- lane to three-lane conversion has been very successful. Note how much easier it is for motorists to enter and exit driveway., Added border width provides motorists safer conditions. Caution, this 30,000 figure is real for one portion of this roadway, but may be beyond the comfort range of many. For a more comfortable number 20-23,000 is achieveable in most areas.”

  3. Andy SingerAndy Singer

    Nice piece. Rice Street next! …and Hamline South of the bridge over Ayd Mill (to Grand) seems like an easy no-brainer. Maybe Colossal Cafe will stop being hit by cars!

    1. Frank Phalen

      Last year I crossed Rice around 3:30, and man it was a bear. Sometimes I got off my bike to become a pedestrian, just to get traffic to stop so I could cross.

      Rice is definitely a good candidate. In fact, it already allows parking on both side, restricted only on the west side for morning rush and the east side for PM rush. For right now, the city could take down the parking restriction signs, and allow the business to have on street parking all day. I’m opposed to tax payer subsidized storage of private vehicles, but it would be a quick and dirty way to slow things down and make crossing easier.

  4. Carol Becker

    You did not state how much longer travel is now taking for people on this roadway. I can’t find a link to the study. Do you have a link to the study so we can see how much more time people are losing to this change?

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