Four men walking in a crosswalk a la Abby Road

Street Design Standards: Time for a Fresh Start in Minneapolis

I wrote recently about near-side traffic signals, among a wide menu of options to make intersections safer for all road users. As I was working on that piece, I was struck with the question: How do those kinds of changes get implemented? For continuity’s sake, I will again focus on near-side traffic signals. If we wanted to add them to a road in Minneapolis (Bryant Avenue South, for example), how would we go about doing that?

We just don’t have many examples of pedestrian safety engineering changes (like near-side signals) here in the United States. They aren’t the standard. And, frankly, change is hard.

Roads are regulated by several different agencies and bound by certain funding restrictions. Is the road that we want to change governed by the city, county or state? Is it a State Aid Road? Does it have an on-street or off-street bike lane associated with it (or none at all)? The answers to each question can place unique restrictions on how a road can be designed and built, and this isn’t even getting to public comment and support at community meetings!

Another confounding factor is that traffic signals themselves are only kind of regulated, mainly at a federal level. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg has been talking a big game lately, and I hope even a portion of what he is discussing comes to fruition because a lot remains to be done.

Tweet from U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg from April 18, 2021.

One underappreciated initiative is an update to the Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices (MUTCD). The MUTCD is a guidance document put out by the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Federal Highway Administration (FHA). As that mouthful of an agency name suggests, pedestrians got little consideration. In fact, not one section in the manual covers pedestrian signals. The agency currently is updating the last document, published in 2009, with Secretary Buttigieg extending the comment period to get more feedback. A new section is being added for autonomous vehicles in this edition, but pedestrians are still left out. Bicycles have a section, though it is meager and definitely a work in progress.

Minnesota has its own, similar version of the MUTCD (MN MUTCD). To its merit, it does have a pedestrian section! The MN MUTCD is revised shortly after each iteration of the federal MUTCD and allows interim revisions. The current MN MUTCD has been revised eight times since the last federal update in 2009, with the most recent one completed in late 2020.

Let’s get to near-side signals for our example. The standard primary signal guidance from Chapter 4 of the MUTCD is that a signal must be at least 40 feet from the stop line, with a preference for 120 to 180 feet. The goal seems to be for a vehicle to see the signal at all points while in the intersection, presumably so if the driver overshoots the stop line (likely blocking any crosswalk) or gets caught in the intersection while waiting to turn, they know what other traffic is doing. However, this also incentivizes vehicles to creep forward at intersections to gain that extra few feet toward their destination. It similarly incentivizes turning vehicles to pull forward into the intersection so that they can turn once the signal becomes red, even if this potentially creates a turning backup where too many cars are in the intersection and block traffic from other directions.

Signal design diagram from the current (2009) Manual of Uniform Traffic Control Devices. MUTCD 2009 Edition

Note in the drawing above that pedestrian crosswalks aren’t considered at all. The struggle with a document coming from the Federal Highway Administration is that those involved aren’t naturally inclined to think about other user types, so the guidelines dictating signal design don’t consider pedestrians. A variance/interim approval process is in place to allow for a different design that still wants to technically conform to this document. In Minnesota, such a design change not covered in the MUTCD or MN MUTCD would also need a conditional use approval from the Minnesota Department of Transportation. All the paperwork!

This pivots us back to the other questions about what kind of street we are working with and how it is funded. I was particularly warned about State Aid roads, which come with extra strings. For example, Bryant Avenue South, which is currently a State Aid Road and is being reconstructed south of Lake Street, will lose State Aid designation if it pursues one of the current designs and becomes a one-lane, one-way road. State Aid roads in urban areas are required to have two traffic lanes if they are a one-way. That may sound stupid and arbitrary (it is), but that design standard comes with a lot of state money for the project. Without it, the project cost falls on the city. Again, the city can pursue that variance process, but that requires extra work and no guarantees that the FHA will approve it.

If Bryant Avenue South does lose its State Aid designation, though, the city can shift funds to plenty of other eligible roads, since Minneapolis has more State Aid roads than state funding allows, so it is more of an accounting activity than anything. For our example, though, let’s assume that Bryant chooses a different design and retains its State Aid status.

What about near-side signals? State Aid roads don’t restrict signal types, but instead just dictate terms for whether the signal portion of project cost is considered when distributing State Aid funds. So another hurdle is theoretically cleared for near-side signals.

State Aid Rules 8820.3100 Subp 5 (Traffic control signals)

A city champion?

As it turns out, the biggest barrier to implementing near-side signals is the need for a champion at the city to push this kind of design idea. I spoke with both a city engineer and the city Vision Zero coordinator, and I detect little interest in making this change. It would require extra paperwork, with few examples in the United States to turn to for data. Those things matter, as does money. Some fear this kind of change will cost a lot more to implement or that there will be a cost if the design fails and has to be undone. I disagree on the former, given that new signal posts are costing money in reconstruction projects anyway, but the latter is a valid point. Based on my conversations and observations, the city doesn’t seem to want to pilot this kind of change.

Minneapolis does deserve credit for the many positive changes it has implemented in recent years. The Complete Streets Policy and the Transportation Action Plan should give the city justification for pushing forward with much safer infrastructure designs (looking at you, Hennepin Avenue), and check out the new Street Design Guide! Almost every new road proposal now comes with pedestrian bump outs, chicanes (buzzword!), roundabouts and/or bike lanes (and, increasingly, protected ones). Dedicated bus lanes are similarly becoming part of the quasi-standard design. Asking more can feel greedy. That said, those changes also prove that Minneapolis can make big changes! Pedestrians are still the most vulnerable road user, and road design is still centered around the car.

Without many peer examples in the United States, how we do find an internal champion so we can pilot this and be on the forefront of pedestrian safety design?

Continue to show up! And tell a friend or advocacy organization to do the same. Continue to demand ear-side signals or other safety improvements on new projects. Continue to pressure your representatives. I thought that the Bryant Avenue South redesign was the perfect pilot opportunity, given that the street is regularly touted as a shining example of good pedestrian and bike infrastructure (embarrassing if true). If Bryant wants to earn that moniker, we should be doing everything we can for pedestrians and cyclists, and that includes trying out innovations like near-side signals.

In the scheme of project planning horizons, that opportunity seems to have passed for Bryant. But there is always the next project, and the next. And the next. Eventually, you find a city council member or a staffer to go to bat for you (elections coming up!). For better or worse, that’s how this gets done.

Public meetings can feel fruitless or like you are just defending against a regression in design to the status quo. Public input can truly sway staff reports, however, and pressure can change a council member’s vote on the final design. We passed the Transportation Action Plan only because of years of sustained presence and pressure. I promise: You matter, and your voice matters. And I’ll be there fighting alongside you.

Consider these actions you can take:

  1. If you agree that the MUTCD needs serious improvements, check out this easy primer and template from America Walks or Transportation for America to submit a comment. The deadline is May 14. Feel free to add a plug for near-side signals (or flexibility for more creative safety improvements in general).
  2. For a more detailed look, America Walks also recently hosted a webinar about why fixing the MUTCD is critical to safety, equity and climate. The Association of Pedestrian & Bicycle Professionals also hosted a webinar in March with information on the proposed updates to the MUTCD. For a more local perspective, streets.mn writer and Saint Paul Bicycle Coalition co-chair Andy Singer just posted about some of the details of the MUTCD here.
  3. Bryant Avenue South has several engagement opportunities coming up, and construction is slated to start in 2022. Take a look at the project website.
  4. If you want to see road designs with more innovative safety elements included on Minneapolis roads, show up for the public comment opportunities with the Capital Long-Range Improvement Committee (CLIC). This body helps prioritize projects and has the earliest influence on Public Works. The more they hear about things like near-side signals, the more likely we can get one piloted!
  5. Councilmember Lisa Goodman was the only member of the Minneapolis City Council not to vote for the Minneapolis Transportation Action Plan. The Hennepin Avenue redesign fight between CMs Lisa Bender and Lisa Goodman is going to be real, and I encourage all of you to show up for that and support safer, more accessible streets!
Peter Schmitt

About Peter Schmitt

Peter Schmitt lives in the Lowry Hill East ("Wedge") neighborhood with his wife in the attic unit of an 1893 triplex that they own. Together, they are working to reduce their carbon footprint as much as possible, including building a net zero energy passive house behind the triplex. Peter is a year round biker and pedestrian. Professionally, Peter works around the country as a solar developer.