A push to put pedestrians first

City rolling out several strategies to make streets safer for walkers

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Artist Scott Nelson is blind, and he walks along Hennepin almost every day on routes between his garage studio and destinations like the YWCA. Cars have hit Nelson twice in Uptown in recent years, and he’s asking city officials and neighborhood groups to find more ways to improve safety for pedestrians.

“I’m continually looking for the safest route,” Nelson said.

In one of the accidents, Nelson was walking south in a crosswalk at Hennepin & 31st. He heard a teenage girl scream, he heard tires spinning on the wet March pavement, and he walked into the side of a vehicle. After the accident, the city restored a No Turn on Red sign to the corner, located in front of the Paper Source store.

“My concerns are about the new library,” Nelson said. He’d like to see more signs mandate No Turn on Red, especially near the Walker Library under renovation.

Nelson’s outreach comes at a time when pedestrian traffic enjoys a high profile in Minneapolis. The city has doubled its on-street bike lane miles in two years. By 2015, all 800 intersections in the city will be retimed for longer walking times. Many Southwest streets slated for resurfacing this summer will also receive eye-catching pedestrian improvements, modeled after strategies used in New York City.

— West 36th Street will get a new cycle track, providing a walking path and bikeway that is physically buffered from vehicles. The leading design is similar to a cycle track installed in Austin, Texas last year.

— Bryant & 46th Street will get a crosswalk with “zebra crossing” stripes most often seen in New York. (Picture the Beatles’ Abbey Road album.)

— Longer-lasting crosswalks are coming to Linden Hills intersections and Franklin Avenue at Lyndale, Nicollet and Clinton — the Franklin & Nicollet intersection is a hot spot for pedestrian crashes, with 15 in the past five years. Crews will inlay reflective material into the road so snowplows don’t destroy them in winter.

— West 31st Street will also get the durable crosswalks mentioned above, and some intersections will pilot a painted curb extension with planters and vertical delineators (the delineators look like vertical white candlesticks). The technique is used in New York.

— Penn Avenue and West 46th Street will receive curb bump-outs that shorten the distance people must walk across the street. Bump-outs are a proven strategy to help reduce crashes, said Shaun Murphy, the city’s bicycle and pedestrian coordinator.

“The less time in the street, the safer you are,” Murphy said. “It’s one of the easiest things we can be doing.”

— Uptown is also piloting “leading pedestrian intervals” at Hennepin & Lake, Hennepin & Lagoon and Lagoon & Humboldt, which give pedestrians 3-5 seconds of lead time before the coinciding green light kicks in for vehicles.

“We love them. People are thrilled,” said Council Member Meg Tuthill (10th Ward). “It gives you that extra time.”

It’s too early for city staff to determine how well the intervals are working, but a State College study in Pennsylvania showed a 50 percent reduction in pedestrian-vehicle crashes at 10 intersections where they were installed.

City staff are monitoring whether its methods actually improve pedestrian safety. The city took down 72 No Turn on Red signs between 2005 and 2009, determining that the signs were overused, disregarded by drivers, slowed traffic and didn’t necessarily improve safety. The before-and-after study showed the signs had very little impact on crashes, said Steve Mosing, the city’s traffic operations engineer. Cars making left turns are statistically much more dangerous than cars turning right, staff said.

Research doesn’t always bear out the effectiveness of highly-visible crosswalks, either. But they make pedestrians feel safer, Murphy said, and they’re important to encourage pedestrians to get out walking.

Murphy said one of the best things the city can do to enhance pedestrian safety is fill up the sidewalks. One study of 68 California cities showed safety for pedestrians increased when there were more of them out on the streets.

“Think about going around the University,” Murphy said. “Everyone slows down. When people let their guard down on a street that doesn’t have any pedestrians, those are the places that tend to get [more crashes]. … One of the best things I think we can do is get people out walking.”

Nelson, for one, is still walking on Hennepin every day.

“[We must decide] if Uptown is for cars or pedestrians,” he said. “If you give precedence to one over the other, everything follows. I hope pedestrians come first.”