Minnesota’s Deadly Pedestrian Refuge Islands

The way St. Paul Public Works and the Minnesota Department of Transportation (MnDOT) design pedestrian refuge islands is awful. It’s symbolic of how oblivious and uncaring they are about pedestrian and bicycle crashes. It’s also one of many indicators that little has changed in this state during the past 20 years.

Consider these pedestrian refuge islands in other states

This one in Indianapolis, Indiana, uses steel bollards (with plastic shells) and reinforced concrete to protect their pedestrians and bikeways.

Note in the last photo how the first bollard was hit by an errant driver, most likely, causing some minor cracking around the base. If a pedestrian or cyclist had been waiting for the light when the car hit, this bollard probably saved their life.

These steel bollards in Boulder, Colorado, protect a pedestrian refuge “pork chop” island between a slip turn and an intersection. Slip turns are horribly unsafe for pedestrians. But if you’re going to create an island next to one, it’s best to protect it with steel or concrete. That way, when drivers go into the turn too fast and roll over or skid out, they don’t kill or badly injure someone who is standing on the island waiting for the light to change.

Boulder also protects its pedestrian mall and some of its bikeways with concrete jersey barriers, which they often have artists decorate. A concrete jersey barrier will stop a car cold. A group of eight or 10 of us once tried to move a small one just a few inches that was placed on the Lilydale trail. We couldn’t budge it even a millimeter. State D.O.T.s and city public works departments have thousands of these things. They are often used to protect construction sites and road or construction workers. Or they are used to protect government buildings from truck bombs … or the type of terrorist vehicle attacks we saw in France, Germany and Spain

This combination of bollards and curbs creates a small pedestrian refuge in Tuckahoe, New York. Even this small town’s public works department knows how to design a proper pedestrian refuge.

These are some serious protected pedestrian islands and bikeways in New York City, again using jersey barriers, reinforced concrete and steel bollards — some of them retractable stainless steel that can be lowered for maintenance or emergency vehicles.

And this beautiful refuge island in Berkeley, California, features huge steel bollards that would stop a truck.

Aside from Berkeley, California, all of these places have winter and roads that require both maintenance and snow plowing. But their respective cities and states care about pedestrians and cyclists and actually protect them from cars and trucks. This is what one should expect from a pedestrian refuge island. The word “refuge” means “a place that provides shelter or protection from danger or trouble,” and that’s what traffic islands are supposed to do — protect pedestrians and cyclists from deadly motor vehicles.

Here’s how St. Paul and MnDOT design pedestrian refuges

This temporary pedestrian refuge on West 7th Street across from Mississippi Market has been hit so many times, it’s a miracle that no one has been killed. City workers must replace the signs and useless plastic poles on it every few months. An engineer at St. Paul Public Works told me these plastic poles cost $100 apiece when installed. The signs cost more than that. So MnDOT must spend at least a thousand bucks a year replacing signs and poles at just this one refuge.

Instead of spending $1,000 a year on Pelham Avenue’s poles (which errant drivers routinely knock down), the city just lets them lie there and disappear like broken teeth.

It doesn’t much matter because the poles don’t actually protect anything — physically or psychologically. They’re just cheap, bendable plastic.

And here’s a brand new “pedestrian refuge” on Jefferson Avenue where the Ayd Mill Trail ends. A car recently hit it, leveling its sign. The city’s new refuge design has even done away with the curbs at each end in favor of a tapered ramp. Public Works staff tell me that it’s tapered for snowplows.

MnDOT just did the same thing on Cretin Avenue where it crosses I-94. It’s one of the most horrible places for a pedestrian to cross the street in all of St. Paul. Again, these so-called refuge islands lack curbs even in the most important areas (where cars are coming at them) and are tapered at the ends. They have no bollards, concrete walls, jersey barriers — no protection of any kind. The taper actually helps an errant driver get their car airborne so they can decapitate any pedestrian who happens to be waiting. The islands don’t protect anything. It was a colossal waste of taxpayer money even constructing them. But they are typical of an agency that wastes hundreds of millions of dollars on useless, environmentally destructive crap year after year.

Clearly, this is the new state-sanctioned design for pedestrian refuges. No one from St. Paul Public works or MnDOT bothered to get a variance from the state highway manual to design a proper refuge island and, based on the responses to my inquiries, no one showed the slightest interest in changing the manual to mandate a safer design.

  • “It’s for the snowplows — to save them from hitting curbs and damaging plow blades,” an engineer told me.
  • I’ve also been told, “We don’t like to use jersey barriers because cars hit them and they have to be moved back slightly.”
  • Or, among other nonsensical excuses: “We have to protect motor vehicle drivers so we can’t use bollards or jersey barriers” (even though we see them used throughout the city and state in other on-street applications).

Clearly our city and state agencies care more about their plows than human life. The arguments in favor of Minnesota’s dangerous refuge designs are totally inane. I can hear them saying: “Oh, you’re permanently crippled or dead because a car hit you on one of our refuge islands? Well at least we saved some money on plow blades … and we had to protect the driver who hit you from being injured by a bollard!”

I’m hereby putting our city’s Public Works Department and MnDOT on notice: These pedestrian “refuges” are useless, horrible and don’t protect anything. They’re worse than nothing because they imply that a pedestrian or cyclist standing on them is safe. Yet the agencies designing them have made zero effort to actually protect pedestrians and cyclists, and they’ve wasted tens of thousands of taxpayer dollars in the process by building these pointless pieces of garbage.

Sooner or later someone is going to get hit and badly hurt or killed on one of these. When it happens, if the victim survives, I hope they hire the best lawyers in the state and sue the living crap out of the responsible agency. Based on their complete disregard for non-motorized human life, the engineers and agency officials designing these things should also be charged with assault, battery or manslaughter. They can’t say they didn’t see it coming or fall back on their own stupid manuals. If the state manual is really the problem, then change the damned manual!

In 20 years, it feels like we’ve made no progress at all. Based on their actions, our street and road departments are as car-centric as ever.

Andy Singer

About Andy Singer

Andy Singer served as volunteer co-chair of the Saint Paul Bicycle Coalition off and on for 13 years. He works as a professional cartoonist and illustrator and has authored four books including his last, "Why We Drive," which examines environmental, land use and political issues in transportation. You can see more of his cartoons at AndySinger.com.