Lyndale Avenue South: A Personal Story

For me, the breaking point came during a single two-week period in June 2021. 

First, it was the red-light runner. Hauling my young twins on the back of my family’s cargo bike, I waited to cross Lyndale Avenue in the South Uptown area. The light changed; I was poised to enter the intersection, when a car traveling northbound blew not only through their red light but through our green light. 

A near miss.

Within a few days of that, it was the left-turning car. We were en route to Bryant Square Park, a few short blocks from home, me walking beside my kids as they strode along on their balance bikes. Where West 31st Street meets Lyndale, I bundled both bikes under one arm, stuffed a few fingers from each child into my free hand, and set out on a crossing signal. A car turned left from 31st toward us; I raised my voice. They kept turning. I raised my voice louder, they kept turning. Eventually, my fear spiking and the three of us stuck in the middle of the crosswalk, the vehicle slowed to a stop just feet away. 

Another near miss.

At first, those near misses seemed like just two more examples in a long pattern of danger and discontent that I’d wearily grown resigned to over my years living around Lyndale.

What was different this time: sitting in my feed was an episode of the Wedge Live Podcast, which I’d downloaded but not yet listened to, with two representatives from Our Streets (then known as Our Streets Minneapolis). The topic: Lyndale Avenue South. 

In a chain of events no doubt well-known to many readers of this website, Our Streets was pressuring Hennepin County to make good on a promised nine block pilot “road diet” conversion of the street from four to three lanes, stemming from protests that had erupted after the death of a pedestrian, Ted Ferrara, in 2019. While it might have felt satisfying for me to vent some righteous anger at the red-light runner and left-turning driver who’d caused our near-misses — and their choices certainly put my children and me in extreme danger — there were longstanding design issues that encouraged dangerous driving on Lyndale, and which the pilot road diet aimed to mitigate.

I had been generally aware of the proposed pilot, but not plugged into the details. Now, I listened intently. 

Unsafe in Any Mode

Photo by Tony Webster, Streets.mn

The seeds of my discontent with Lyndale Avenue went back years, long before the near misses with my kids in tow.

I’ve lived in Minneapolis for more than a decade, and never farther than two blocks from Lyndale — or “County Road 22,” as it is known along the Hennepin County-owned stretch that runs through the City of Minneapolis. When my wife and I moved to the Twin Cities in the early 2010s, we landed in a duplex behind the Art Materials building (now shared with HUGE Improv), one surface parking lot away from Lyndale Avenue. Later, we bought a house in the Lyndale neighborhood, a location we homed in on because it would give us a foothold in a relatively walkable, transit-rich area that could (we hoped) help us remain a single-car family.

If distance makes the heart grow fonder, with Lyndale, proximity often produced the opposite effect. By the time I moved into the area, Lyndale had long been what local urbanist (and Streets.mn co-founder) Bill Lindeke calls “four-lane death roads.” 

Though the street was lined with residences and robust commercial nodes, navigating it felt inhospitable in any mode. Crossing Lyndale on foot, I typically felt my body tense up while hustling across, craning my head left and right on a lookout for cars turning in my direction through the wide curves of the intersections. If I found myself at one of the non-signalized intersections — say, 25th or 27th streets — I’d wait for a reasonable break in traffic from one direction, edge halfway across, and teeter along the centerline as I waited for vehicles from the other side to clear away.

If the typical experience crossing Lyndale by foot was unsettling, the outlier moments downright terrified me. Once, about to cross at 28th Street, I looked up, saw the pedestrian signal turn to walk, looked down, and began to step into the crosswalk. A pickup going some 30 miles per hour steamed through the intersection. I stopped short, lucky not to have been hit.

I’ve navigated Lyndale thousands of times by bicycle — usually passing across it, and usually with that same twitching, heightened alertness. A few times I rode my bike down Lyndale to reach a business, quickly regretting the experience as cars whipped by me at what would be fatal speeds if either a driver or I veered slightly off our course. 

Though my wife and I shared a car in our early years living in Minneapolis, and I never used it for commuting, we did drive. And when we did, we experienced how hair-raising Lyndale could be even for motorists. The four-lane design encouraged drivers to “jockey for position,” to borrow a phrase from the walkability expert Jeff Speck. Though far from reckless, I habitually learned to navigate the street’s sharply discrepant speeds by a kind of slaloming: from the right lane to get past cars turning into the Wedge Co-op, the left lane through 26th, the right lane through 28th, and God knows what as we approached Lake Street. I defaulted to this method not to achieve high speeds but rather to avert cars waiting to turn, as well as all the other drivers doing their own jockeying. All the while, I’d pass the remains of the day (and night) in the parking lane: abandoned sedans, scatterings of fiberglass, cars pushed atop the curb with crashed-out, crumpled-in bumpers. 

Since I began navigating Lyndale with kids nearly six years ago, the dangers of Lyndale have become even more pronounced — and all the more so now that we no longer own a car and get around almost entirely by foot, bike and bus. 

While I’m acutely aware that being an able-bodied, white, heterosexual male shields me from the layers of surveillance, bias and harassment that make the public realm even more inhospitable for folks of color, low-income people and those who live with disabilities or without a car, the near misses I mentioned at the outset fit into the everyday challenges of being a pedestrian in an environment designed mainly around traffic flow. Hefting a stroller over berms of ice and snow in the winter. Drawing my two kids’ bodies close to share narrow sidewalks with other pedestrians. Insisting my children pause their bikes at every curb cut or surface parking lot, until I’ve cleared that it’s safe enough to roll across without getting rolled over. Hustling across Lyndale on a short pedestrian countdown in the morning dark to catch the Route 4 bus to school. 

For our family, the accumulation of these experiences has led to a rule about crossing Lyndale: After the pedestrian signal flicks over, count to 5 before crossing. 1, 2, 3, 4, 5. Now go. But beware.

The Daily Pleasures of Lyndale

Lyndale Avenue in 2019 from a Streets.mn article by Sean Hayford Oleary.

As is so often the case, though, I sense multiple stories within my own story. For Lyndale has also, always, been one of the central arteries of activity in my life. One of the joys of living in something approaching a “15-minute city” is the gradual accretion of comforting rituals and local haunts: Dipping into Nightingale or the (now-defunct) Heyday for a late-night drink. Pulling up at an open table at Third Space Cafe or Bob’s Java Hut (to work on poems), or to the open mic at Lynlake Brewery (to read them). Sampling the eats at World Street Kitchen. Getting my hair cut (Lyn-Lake Barbershop), pants hemmed (Irina’s Stitch in Time) or teeth cleaned (here’s looking at you, Fiant Dental). Climbing to the rooftop at Moto-I, or settling down to take in a game alongside the barstool raconteurs at the Uptown VFW. Hitting up Twin Town (for guitar gear) or Planet Soccer (for, well, soccer gear). Hauling the bulk of groceries home from Aldi, with a handful of specialties from the Wedge Co-op.

Step back, and it’s a small constellation of daily pleasure. Even if going to and through Lyndale Avenue doesn’t feel like a joy, the street sure is dotted with awesome businesses. For me, I wonder how much more such businesses (and future ones, and ones that tried but didn’t last) would thrive if the street didn’t feel so inhospitable to spend time on. If it were a place where we could all feel an urge to linger, cross easily from side to side, move from shop to shop. 

Which brings me back to my breaking point, which came only in the wake of so many others’ breaking points: the death of Ted Ferrara, in October 2019, killed when he was struck by a vehicle while trying to cross at the unmarked, high-speed 2500 block of Lyndale. At the time, his death was distressingly resonant to me, since I’d made many such heart-stopping shortcuts myself through the years rather than walk blocks out of my way to cross at a light. After Ferrara was killed, protests broke out and momentum ultimately gathered toward a 4:3 road diet. 

These efforts were well underway by the time I had the near misses I’ve described. At last, I went back to listen to that downloaded podcast about Lyndale, which led me to get involved with Our Streets’ County Streets for People campaign. This subsequently led me to spend quite a bit of time working more broadly on safe walking and rolling initiatives with the Lyndale Neighborhood Association and Lyndale Community School.

Photo courtesy of Tesha M. Christensen, Southwest Connector

From on-the-ground activists to elected officials, a lot of hard work went into making the 4:3 conversion a reality, and I was thrilled to see the project’s implementation. The evidence shows that the project has met its goals, both in safety and reduced driving speeds. From a personal standpoint, I’ve observed that the reduction to one through-lane of traffic in each direction seems to have almost  eliminated vehicular “jockeying.” The addition of flashing beacons and pedestrian refuges at 25th and 27th streets have made them welcoming to cross; I regularly roll through 27th on my bike to get groceries.

But serious problems persist, and for me the street still feels car-dominated, uncomfortable and unsafe. I know it because of how it registers in my body. When my wife and I got a Mother’s Day dinner at Nightingale’s outdoor seating a couple of years ago, we shuddered at how loud the traffic still sounded, how hard it was to relax and chat. While doing some political canvassing at the corner of Lyndale and Lake on a clear, crisp day last fall, a friend commented how surprising it was that so few people were on foot; no wonder, given how fast (and often aggressively) cars still charge through that intersection. Daily, I contend with crossing distances that still feel really long for this dad with two young kids. And weekly, I flinch to see the shattered remnants of car crashes that might have claimed us had we been unlucky enough to be walking or rolling anywhere nearby. 

Seizing the Moment

That’s why, for all the success of the 4:3 conversion, this moment feels crucial. With the full reconstruction of the stretch from 31st Street to Franklin Avenue in its planning phases, we face a “once-in-a-lifetime” opportunity to think about what we want Lyndale to be, for those heading to, passing through and spending time on and around the avenue. A number of visions have been advanced, with tensions between them as well as, perhaps, some areas of overlap. For the county’s part, in early June its planning and engineering team released “section concepts,” and is seeking input via this survey.

My small involvement in the campaign for the 4:3 conversion gave me the agency to connect experience to action; it marked a personal turning point. I no longer felt disempowered and intimidated by the streets around me and decisions about their design. I felt like I could help make some change in the environment that so profoundly affects the daily life of my family and of countless neighbors. My personal story of Lyndale feels like three intertwined stories: a dangerous street, a street full of possibility and a street whose design we can, in some small way, impact. 

My stories of Lyndale are just that — mine — and each user will have their own stories of Lyndale, their own unique set of needs and wants. For me, I hope that a reconstructed Lyndale Avenue is a place where my family and I can linger, breathe lighter, and relax as we move across and about it. I hope it’s a place we can ride our bikes without endangering others, or being endangered. I hope it feels more Main Street than County Road. And above all, I hope it is a place where we can put the near-misses behind us and embrace a street that works at the scale and pace of humans.

Christopher Vaughan

About Christopher Vaughan

Pronouns: he/him

Christopher Vaughan (he/him) is an educator, poet, and sustainable transportation advocate living in Minneapolis. He is involved in safe walking and rolling initiatives in the Lyndale neighborhood, and is committed to helping cities become vital, just and joyful places that welcome all people and work well at the human scale. You can find him and his young family exploring the Twin Cities on foot, bike, Metro Transit, and the occasional ride-share or car-share.