Improved Yielding to Cyclists in St. Paul

Most days I commute to work using the Margaret Street Bicycle Boulevard. This east/west street has been a designated bikeway for a while. St. Paul recently received federal funds for some major improvements:

  1. The intersection with Johnson Parkway was closed to cars.
  2. The intersection with White Bear Avenue got a flashing HAWK light.
  3. The intersection with Atlantic got a traffic circle (more of those to come).

What I want to highlight is the incredible rate of cars yielding to bicycles that I have observed at the improved Johnson Parkway crossing.

Margaret Street Changes

Here is what the intersection looked like in August 2017:

Johnson Parkway at Margaret Street 2017

Johnson Parkway at Margaret Street, 2017

Margaret Street at Johnson Parkway 2017

Margaret Street at Johnson Parkway, 2017

 

This is what the closure location looked like just after construction:

Margaret Street at Johnson Parkway after construction 2018

Margaret Street at Johnson Parkway after construction, 2018

 

And this is what it looked like in November 2018:

Margaret Street at Johnson Parkway November 2018

Margaret Street at Johnson Parkway, November 2018

 

Cars cannot proceed through the intersection or even take a right. It is important to note the lack of any “bicycle crossing” sign. I don’t think those even exist in St. Paul. Instead, there is a pedestrian crosswalk sign.

Johnson Parkway at Margaret Street November 2018

Johnson Parkway at Margaret Street, November 2018

Why Are They Yielding?

My experience has been that if the first or second cars don’t stop, the third one will. But usually it’s the first one that stops. Now, why is this? What is it about the design that works psychologically on the driver in ways that other intersections with cyclists do not?

Here are some ideas:

  • A sign designates priority. While it specifically shows a person walking, it increases awareness that a crossing exists and it should take priority. (Now that I look again, I see a similar sign here before the changes.)
  • There are no other vehicles at this location that are supposed to wait their turn. The Johnson Parkway drivers don’t treat it like a car intersection because it isn’t one. It’s different, so autopilot is put on pause.
  • Johnson Parkway is only two lanes, so it is safe to stop. Other cars won’t be whipping around and maintaining car momentum that stresses out a yielding driver.
  • The bicycle rider can clearly be seen waiting to cross. Because there is no risk from turning vehicles and there is more protection from the curb, I am able to stop much closer to the traffic lanes than at a typical intersection. There is no stop bar keeping me behind a pedestrian sidewalk. I am incredibly visible to drivers.

Stop for Me

St. Paul has also been engaged in a “Stop for Me” campaign for a number of years, which purportedly educates the public about stopping for pedestrians. I have been skeptical about whether the program actually changes culture, fearing instead that it engenders anger toward pedestrians and police for setting up sting operations.

The experiences I’ve had crossing Johnson Parkway on the Margaret Street Bicycle Boulevard have me wondering whether a cultural change has occurred that extends beyond pedestrians to cyclists.

Grand Round Open House

Whatever is working at this intersection should be replicated. Fortunately for us, that may be possible soon. Other intersections on Johnson Parkway are proposed to be closed to car traffic in order to complete a section of the Grand Round. If you are interested in seeing this project completed with the best design, please attend an Open House scheduled for this Thursday, January 17, 5 to 7 p.m.

What do you think makes this crossing work?

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16 Responses to Improved Yielding to Cyclists in St. Paul

  1. jared czaia January 14, 2019 at 5:12 pm #

    This is great to see! I bike commute through E St. Paul as well (in the warmer months) and I have been really impressed by the Margaret crossing of White Bear Ave.

    Even before the changes at Johnson, I’ve encountered very courteous drivers yielding to allow me to cross. However, I think preventing cars from crossing there can help because it clears the view to make it easier to see pedestrians and cyclists getting ready to cross.

    Currently the transition from the Bruce Vento Trail to Atlantic Ave (goes over Phalen Blvd) is one of the dicier crossings. People drive pretty fast on Phalen and the curves near Atlantic obscure visibility a little bit – I’m not sure the amount of use justifies an overpass, but it’d be nice.

    • Frank Phelan January 16, 2019 at 9:54 am #

      During the afternoon rush, I will typically ride down the Vento and loop around Viking Electric to Forest, over the bridge to 7th (or the opposite, depending on my direction) rather than cross Phalen at Atlantic.

      If the plantings in the medians were even a foot or so lower, it would help visibility at that intersection for motorists, cyclists, and peds.

    • Jenny Werness
      Jenny Werness January 16, 2019 at 2:19 pm #

      I usually go out of my way to avoid the Atlantic crossing, for just those reasons. As of yesterday that crossing is nearly unusable anyway, because some construction activity has blocked the sidewalk prior to the crossing. No “sidewalk closure” signs or detours either!

  2. Davis Parker January 14, 2019 at 9:20 pm #

    Thanks for the post. I don’t bike on this side of St. Paul. It definitely seems like an improvement, but I am not sure it is the best it could be. It looks like the following things would be further improvements:

    1. Bike/ped refuge, large enough for bicycle + trailer, between the two lanes of traffic. Bike/ped would only have to cross one lane at a time then, with the added impact of making traffic slow by turning around the refuge. (this would have to be done without pushing car traffic into the bike lanes on Johnson; it appears there is space though)

    2. Differentiated surface (preferably different material and also paint on roadway) along the direction of the bike crossing, indicating to vehicles on Johnson the ROW of crossing users.

    3. Slight rise to the grade of Johnson at the crossing, for further differentiation and traffic calming.

    These are all things that St. Paul managed to do for it citizens (or visitors) crossing between the St. Paul Town & Country Club and their golf course across the street. Why can’t people in residential neighborhoods be valued likewise? (though actually the site lines at the T&C crossing are not very good)

    https://goo.gl/maps/AK8h1zycTU42

    • Eric Saathoff
      Eric Saathoff January 14, 2019 at 11:17 pm #

      No disagreement that it could be improved even further. However it is really working for me as is, and I wanted to have a discussion about why because I honestly didn’t expect it to work this way.

    • Eric Saathoff
      Eric Saathoff January 14, 2019 at 11:21 pm #

      Also, I think the closure (as opposed to a median) was intended to reduce car traffic on Margaret more than ease the crossing of Johnson. A median would have focused on the opposite. Doing both would have been even better but widening the street for a median would require reducing the green boulevards, and that’s where we’re getting space for the Grand Round trail. Maybe it could have worked. I

  3. Bill Lindeke
    Bill Lindeke January 14, 2019 at 9:32 pm #

    Great post. You see this same kind of yielding increase along Charles Avenue at busy streets like Dale and Snelling. It’s frankly amazing… this is the kind of design we should replicate far and wide.

  4. Frank Phelan January 16, 2019 at 7:33 am #

    Yielding to bikes? This has been a burr under my saddle, both as a bicyclist and a motorist.

    Please correct me if I’m wrong (a handy feature of both my kids and the interwebs), but by law cyclists are to operate under the same rules as motorists. Therefore, at an intersection like this, motorists are under no obligation to yield to cyclists.

    Of course a motorist should be prepared to stop without crashing into the vehicle in front, even if that vehicle were to stop suddenly. However, a sudden stop for no apparent reason makes a rear end crash more likely.

    If I as a motorist see that someone may be intending to cross, I anticipate that the vehicle in front of me will stop for that ped. If the intersection I am approaching has stop signs only for the crossing street and not mine, I will proceed through if there is a motorist or a cyclist waiting at the stop sign.

    If the vehicle in front of me stops in that situation, there is an increased likelihood of a rear end crash.

    When I’m a cyclist and a driver stops for me when they are not obligated to, it inhibits the free flow of traffic, and I have no idea if vehicles approaching from the opposite direction may not stop, given that I should not expect them to.

    The basic rules of the road are like manners, they make everyday interactions easier for all. At the adjacent Johnson Pkwy/Beech Street intersection (with stop signs only for Beech), I would never stop on Johnson Pkwy to allow a motorist to turn on Johnson Pkwy from Beech. They need to wait for traffic to clear before turning. By stopping unnecessarily, I am making a crash more likely as well as inhibiting the free flow on Johnson Pkwy. So why would I stop for a cyclist?

    • jared czaia January 16, 2019 at 9:36 am #

      Frank, that’s a really good point you make.

      I don’t have a great answer but I think when a crossing can only involve pedestrians or cyclists but not cars, yielding to either is intuitive for drivers.

      When a crossing can involve cars as well, then yielding for pedestrians in a crosswalk is intuitive but cyclists and motorists should be expected to wait.

      I completely agree that the ambiguity of who yields to who scenarios are inefficient and have potential to become dangerous situations.

      • phelan.frank@aol.com January 16, 2019 at 9:45 am #

        Per Bill’s post above mine, as a cyclist I’d be very wary of crossing in front of a yielding motorist on Snelling, given it is a 4 lane road, as I believe Dale also is at Charles.

        There are times a motorist will unnecessarily yield to me, with 3, 4, or 5 vehicles stooped behind it, really backing things up, while I wait until traffic is clear, as I would do when I’m a motorist.

    • Eric Saathoff
      Eric Saathoff January 16, 2019 at 9:59 am #

      My understanding from a Public Works employee is that if a cyclist is on a sidewalk they are legally considered a pedestrian, whether they are riding the bike or walking it. That seemed counterintuitive to me.

      However, at this particular intersection the crossing is for pedestrians instead of motorists, and I think what’s happening is that cars are stopping for cyclists as if they are pedestrians or as if it is a trail crossing.

      I also don’t expect cars to stop for me on my bicycle at a typical auto intersection if I don’t have the right of way to proceed. When they do it is confusing to me. Here it is different because of the nature of this crossing.

      • Frank Phelan January 16, 2019 at 12:23 pm #

        I’ve not heard that, that on a sidewalk a cyclist is considered a ped. In the past I was told the opposite. It’d be nice to get some clarification on that.

        I’m just going from my memory here, but it seems like most trail crossings have signs indicating to stop for peds, but no signage indicating we should stop for cyclists. I’d think that if motorists were expected to yield for cyclists, the signage would indicate that.

        Some years back, in response to complaints from motorists, there was some enforcement action against cyclists who were not stopping where trails crossed roads. This may have been on the Gateway Trail.

        The nature of the crossing may be different, but I remain to be convinced that the law is different. And in the case of Charles/Snelling, the cyclists are definitely not on a sidewalk.

        • Jenny Werness
          Jenny Werness January 16, 2019 at 2:23 pm #

          As described at http://www.bikemn.org/education/minnesota-bicycle-laws

          “20. Does a bicyclist have to dismount and walk their bike through a crosswalk?

          No, but use caution. A bicyclist using a crosswalk does not explicitly have to dismount to cross the intersection, but in some cases this may be the safest option. A person lawfully operating a bicycle on a sidewalk, or across a roadway or shoulder on a crosswalk, shall have all the rights and duties applicable to a pedestrian under the same circumstances. This means that the bicyclist must not enter a crosswalk if a vehicle is approaching and it is impossible for the vehicle to stop.”

          • Jenny Werness
            Jenny Werness January 16, 2019 at 2:25 pm #

            Personally, if I’m going to bike through a crosswalk (often the safest route, especially at high speed roads), I tend to dismount. This makes it very obvious that I’m acting as a pedestrian. But even if a bicyclist doesn’t dismount, it looks like they’re meant to be treated as peds in crosswalks.

  5. Jenny Werness
    Jenny Werness January 16, 2019 at 2:29 pm #

    This is a great overview of this intersection, Eric. I’ve been watching with interest the progress on Margaret street, and I too have been pleased with how this intersection turned out. It’s so much nicer to cross Johnson, and easier to turn onto Johnson from Margaret as well. I look forward to the improvements in store for the rest of Margaret! It’s one of my regular bike commute routes.

  6. Andrew Evans January 17, 2019 at 1:42 pm #

    Just general thoughts from someone who has been driving the length of west river road (and whatever names it changes to) in Mpls the past 5 years for work.

    Traffic makes it harder to see anyone trying to cross the street. Someone mentioned that the 3rd car usually stops, that may be because they wouldn’t be as blocked by the cars ahead and could see the person or bike trying to cross. I love flashing lights, or some signals that make it easier to see someone is about to cross.

    Having well lit intersections or lights over cross walks works great. As with the point above, or if the weather is bad, it’s terrible to see someone in non reflective clothing trying to cross. Worse yet is when there is an uncoming car with headlights right at me, and trying to see someone who may be entering a crosswalk.

    Obviously bikes move faster than people, so it helps when they don’t dart across the crosswalk assuming they were seen.

    Lights and reflectors also help, although most bikers use these unless they are students at the U.

    I never really drive streets with center spaces for pedestrians, but in general I like things that help constrict traffic or at least mediate it. I dislike city streets where it’s easy to go 45+ and pass on the shoulder. Makes things safer for everyone using it.

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