When you think of the term “multi-modal,” what “modes” come to mind? Cars. Trains. Bikes. Trucks. Feet. Wheelchairs. Buses. Skates? Sure. Even scooters. There’s one more. You see them in malls, and outside mostly on nice days. The trusty stroller, of course!
Seven minutes is all it takes to get from home to daycare. Not even enough to break a sweat. Of course, delays are common. Familiar faces and scenes en route abound. A neighbor stops us to catch up, or the kids chase the ice cream truck. A dog and its owner are out for a morning walk. Fresh air and deliberate, human-scale speeds bookend the school (and work) day.
I’ve been doing this trip for years now. The stroller has changed as there are now two kids instead of one. But that’s about it. When the kids are unhappy, it’s rarely due to our mode of transportation. But, instead of retreating to the heated steel box once the seasons shift, we switch to our enclosed Burley trailer/stroller. Each kid dons an (adorable) insulated snowsuit. The coldest, windiest, rainiest days demand the right equipment. Rubber rain boots are the single best investment I’ve made. A balaclava is a close second.
Critically, our default each day of the entire year is to walk. Why not drive like seemingly everyone else?
Comparing Modes of Travel
Let’s compare getting the kids to and from daycare. First let’s go play by play for a typical daily drop-off in an SUV:
- Unlock and start the vehicle.
- Corral the kids and walk to garage/street.
- Strap the first kid into their car seat.
- Keep an eye on the other kid during step 3.
- Strap the second kid in.
- Buckle in and drive an embarrassingly short two-odd minutes.
- Find a parking spot after dodging other coming and going vehicles.
- Undo the car seat straps and pull each kid out.
- Turn off car. Lock it.
- Navigate the chaotic daycare parking lot on foot before heading inside.
- Turn car back on, buckle in.
- Drive home.
- Park car, unbuckle.
- Turn off car. Lock it.
I probably even left a few actions out. Now, see how that compares to using the stroller. You don’t really need to read the manual to figure out how they work. Toss the kids in and go!
- Load kids.
- Walk to school.
- Unload kids directly at their respective classroom doors.
- Walk home. That’s it. (Well, almost – more on that below.)
There’s one snag, though. What about the busy street crossings that interfere along the way?
In our case, we have to cross Selby Avenue east of Snelling Avenue to get to our destination. There’s no way around it. What options do we have? Crossing at Snelling? It’s signalized, but there are lots of trucks and high-speed left-turning traffic from Snelling to Selby and, eventually Ayd Mill Road. Crossing at Ayd Mill Road? Well, see for yourself:
No, the best option, believe it or not, is crossing at the small, unsignalized intersection at Saratoga Street. In fact, studies have shown, perhaps counterintuitively, that unsignalized intersections can actually be safer to cross than signalized intersections.
“You’re braver than I am!” I hear from a bemused stranger — another pedestrian — over the hum of a passing Silverado shod with off-road tires. She’s seen me confidently and visibly step into the street (called a pedestrian “posture”) on the one side of the intersection currently donned with a marked crosswalk. My head’s on a swivel. Fortunately, today the crossing vehicles slow when I step into the intersection. The drivers see me. I continue on my way. The pedestrian hastens to follow me, leash in hand, and we stream across the wide road, single-file.
Selby Avenue at Saratoga Street is part of a complex — and, indeed multimodal — system of intersections in the heart of St. Paul. The stranger followed me across the marked zebra crosswalk. Together we conquered the wide-set two-lane city street, but nothing about the process was pleasant. I’ve seen numerous people stand and wait for cars to stop, only to give up and go hundreds of feet out of their way to a more straightforward crossing. I think it’s fair to say people wouldn’t consider crossing here unless they had a good reason to do so. Just like during road construction, detours are a drag.
Now that we have a more complete picture and a lay of the land, let’s revise the steps of my walk-commute to daycare and be more accurate:
- Load kids.
- Walk to school, including crossing a very dangerous and high-speed road.
- Unload kids directly at their respective classroom doors.
- Walk home, including crossing a very dangerous and high-speed road.
Selby Avenue in this part of Union Park is technically a city street (as opposed to a county, state or federal road), but in practice it’s more of a highway than a neighborhood connector for local traffic. In fact, the City’s own documentation from 2015 labels it as an “arterial.” Confusingly, Ayd Mill Road itself is not considered an arterial.
(For more information on Ayd Mill Road, I recommend reading some of the excellent pieces by St. Paul’s and Streets.mn’s own Bill Lindeke, Ph.D. The world of Ayd Mill Road is worthy of a series of articles on its own, but my topic today is more focused.)
Pedestrian Rules of the Road
The posted speed limit on Selby Avenue here is now 25 miles per hour, but compliance, to my eye, has been very poor. I estimate that typical traffic flows at between 35 and 40 mph when traffic allows. (By the way, researchers at the University of Minnesota and elsewhere have shown that higher vehicle speeds lead to decreased rates of stopping for pedestrians.)
Did I mention I get routinely yelled at for legally crossing? One motorist even intentionally accelerated and swerved around me when they saw me step out. I called the police.
Minnesota law, not St. Paul ordinance, sets the rules for legal crosswalks here. Stop for a pedestrian in a crosswalk, regardless of whether it’s marked. With pass-through (and often Wisconsin-plated) vehicles zooming by, I’ve found a high percentage of drivers either don’t know or don’t care about unmarked crosswalks.
The Union Park District Council Transportation Committee (which I co-chair along with Lisa Nelson) recently held a special forum on traffic calming and pedestrian safety. We were joined by Nichole Morris of the University of Minnesota Mechanical Engineering Department, and Randy Newton of the St. Paul Public Works Department. My pet intersection might as well be put forth as a case study on the topic.
According to Dr. Morris and her team at Human First Laboratory at the University of Minnesota, knowledge of the Minnesota state crosswalk laws vary and correlate with whether a person has a driver’s license. Almost paradoxically, one is more likely to know the law if the person holds the driver’s license.
Overall, I’d say a culture change is needed, as too many drivers are willing to go at speeds higher than necessary.
Truth be told, crossing the street today was a better experience. My marine-grade air-horn remained holstered. Think of it as the car horn, but without the car. (I’ve gotten numerous compliments and amused comments on the air horn, even from drivers.) Not all motorists are evil, either. I frequently receive apologies from drivers.
How Walking Improves Neighborhoods
On the return trip, and for the thousandth time, I embolden myself to step out into the marked crosswalk in hopes of reaching the other side safely:
- Surroundings surveyed diligently.
- Heart rate up a few ticks.
- Fight or flight engaged. I’m bolder when the stroller is empty. It’s harder to be “risky” when the kids are aboard.
Sandwiched between St. Paul’s Ayd Mill Road, MnDOT’s Snelling Avenue and Interstate 94 is what could be — and should be — a walkable stretch of Selby Avenue. You may know such fine establishments in the area such as the Neighborhood Cafe, Spoils of Wear, Cahoots Coffee Bar, Rose Street Patisserie and the newest entrant, Yum! Kitchen and Bakery (try their muffins!).
As a tease of “what if,” light traffic early on Sunday mornings transforms the ambience of the whole neighborhood. Empty streets, even if they’re big and wide, aren’t inherently unpleasant. But a lot of commuter and cut-through traffic clogs these streets during peak times.
A confluence of factors makes Selby and Saratoga particularly challenging to sort out. Freight and Amtrak train tracks cross nearby. Freeways and highways are everywhere. Ayd Mill Road, a city “street,” has sparkling, but isolated, non-motorized infrastructure.
To put it bluntly, this intersection is so bad you’d have to be a little crazy to cross it. That also goes for driving! Bike riders might have it the worst. Change is sorely needed.
So, there’s a problem. What can we do about it? Is there a playbook for enacting change in your neighborhood? After all, who would know better than the actual residents of an area?
I’m newish to this whole grassroots urban “activism” and involvement role. I’ve sent emails to my (now departed) City Councilmember for Ward 1 (I got no meaningful response). I’ve called and conversed with Public Works and City staff. I’ve brought these evergreen topics up regularly at the Union Park Transportation Committee meetings. It feels good to talk things through, but that doesn’t mean you’re making progress.
Yes, infrastructure improvements take money — sometimes a lot of it. But they also require vision. In hopes I could inject some of each, I applied for funds to improve the intersection via the St. Paul Capital Improvement Budget (CIB) process this year.
City staff freely acknowledge issues with this intersection, but St. Paul has numerous other problematic crossings. Nevertheless I’ve invited City staff to come cross this street on foot during rush hour sometime. The curb cuts aren’t right by ADA standards. The crosswalks aren’t aligned with the sidewalk. Only one of four legal crosswalks is painted. Getting up to ADA snuff would seem a low bar and a good starting point. But, if you’re going to do that, what about bump-outs? Medians?
The high volume of vehicle traffic seems to make the City apprehensive about applying significant improvements to safe crossings here. However, I’d argue this area isn’t effectively getting cars and trucks through efficiently and safely. So, nothing is going well. Logically, if an intersection is bad for all road users, it might be ripe for change.
In my lengthy CIB proposal, I advocated that the City install a trial protected intersection at this location. I submitted that the City use the data from resulting studies to determine if other locations could also benefit from such investment. Public Works, as part of the CIB process, provided an estimated budget for what could actually happen here. A trail-like connection from Saratoga to Ayd Mill Trail, along with crossing medians (which would presumably remove left-turn lanes) and bump-outs was deemed a more realistic approach. Estimated cost? Over $1 million, which the City doesn’t have. Maybe someday, then?
Struck out again.
“Safety” Has Three E’s
Traffic engineers will mention the “Three E’s” of traffic safety: engineering, enforcement and education.
Paint is cheap. Let’s start by painting some more crosswalks where appropriate. St. Paul requires that at least 20 pedestrians must cross at a crosswalk in an hour of each day to justify painting it. That seems like a pretty high bar, especially with how many people I’ve seen over the years give up and go cross at the light. Complicating matters at Saratoga is the presence of just one painted crosswalk. This signals to drivers that the painted crossing is the only crossing in which I have the right of way. Being practical, this means I cross only on the less-convenient side now. Adding more paint here apparently doesn’t meet that 20-per-hour criterion.
How about a one-way conversion of say, Saratoga Street south of the intersection? Friends of ours who share the same daycare — and live right on the intersection — say they’ve witnessed numerous crashes and near-misses at that very intersection for years. They’re mostly resigned to it, but they’ve floated the idea of a one-way change to the local street to divert and simplify traffic flows and improve safety.
One-way streets tend to increase vehicle speed but can also reduce conflicts. 60% of homeowners on a section of street have to consent to a one-way conversion, and may need to put up funds for the signage and other changes. More promising, but certainly an incomplete solution.
How about those “State Law: Stop for Pedestrian in Crosswalk” (R1-6) signs? They tend to get flattened, and fast, which doesn’t help the most vulnerable street users. I’m a huge fan of sturdy bollards, but they wouldn’t fly here with the current setup, either.
I haven’t cracked the code on this. But, I continue to walk the intersection every day. Usually with a smile on my face.
Some parents at daycare now feel the need to explain why they chose to drive today. I tell them they don’t need to make excuses. But moving the default away from the SUV? That sounds like incremental progress!
Despite the challenges, I see more and more people getting out of their cars and seeing firsthand both the benefits and the drawbacks of commuting on foot.
So, if you’re like me and want to see our streets get safer and more vibrant, please get out there and lead by example. Show the drivers and elected officials you want and need improvements. Oh, and consider carrying an air horn. The reactions you’ll get are priceless.
Some video examples