Hundreds of kids travel between Burroughs Elementary School and the fields across 50th Street during gym class. Even in the middle of the day, and even with huge packs of children crossing at once, cars are speeding through red lights and creating safety hazards, according to adults who escort the children.
“One literally ran into my flag,” said volunteer Mike O’Brien. “I tapped on the hood.”
Another trouble spot is at West 50th Street & West Minnehaha Parkway, where heavy pedestrian traffic can cause drivers to become impatient.
“In the last five years people’s attitudes have really changed,” said Cory Dawson, who has escorted Burroughs children through the intersection for at least a dozen years. She said she’s been yelled at three times in the past year.
“People will speed up to go through the yellows,” she said.
At a community meeting in September, Dawson choked up as she told about one close call. The walk signal flickered on, and Dawson gave the signal to cross. As a young girl started walking, a car came screaming west on 50th and her mother quickly yanked the girl out of the way.
“A couple of years ago I could hardly even talk about this,” she said. “That little girl should have been dead right in front of me.”
At least two others in the room said they had also experienced close calls.
Last May, Becky Wardell-Gaertner was walking north at dusk on Minnehaha Parkway, crossing 50th Street with the walk signal, when a car coming behind her made a left turn.
“It knocked me down, and I bumped my head really bad,” she said.
A group of residents met with city and county officials Sept. 17 to discuss the issue. City staff offered to plan a speed study to help find solutions.
Residents suggested flashing pedestrian lights. Shane Morton of the city’s Traffic and Parking Services division said those types of lights continue to yield complaints, however, because they don’t force drivers to stop.
“It’s a huge infrastructure dollar amount for not commanding anything out of the vehicle,” he said.
Lynnhurst residents have advocated for retiming the lights at 50th & Minnehaha for about a year. Effective this summer, the lights now turn red in all directions, and give walkers about three seconds of lead time before changing green for vehicles. At the September meeting, some suggested increasing the amount of pedestrian lead time.
Residents said they noticed that walk signals at 50th & Minnehaha appear to be malfunctioning and inconsistent. Morton said he would look into the issue.
Another suggestion related to student drop-off in the morning. Parents said they are allowed a 10-minute window to drop off their children before school starts, so traffic is often backed up in the morning. School staff alerted parents last year to alternate drop-off locations, and parents thought it was worth repeating this year.
Others called for additional police enforcement. Wardell-Gaertner said additional law enforcement deployed in the past has “really worked.”
Lynnhurst resident Peter Nussbaum said about 15 years ago, the neighborhood advocated to restripe 50th Street so that it was a single lane in each direction instead of two. At that time, they found drivers hitting 40 miles per hour, he said. During a period of heavy police enforcement, Nussbaum said something like 85 percent of the tickets were issued to residents of Lynnhurst and Fulton.
Morton said the posted speed limit is 30, and he said none of the schools in Minneapolis have signage asking for reduced speed when children are present. Staff don’t place much value in the signs, he said, because studies show they don’t significantly influence driver behavior. He said people generally feel comfortable traveling at speeds 15 percent over the speed limit.
A Minnesota Dept. of Transportation report shows pedestrians hit at 40 miles per hour have an 85 percent fatality rate, those hit at 30 miles per hour have a 45 percent fatality rate, and 20 miles per hour yields a 5 percent fatality rate.
Morton said a speed study would show how fast most of the traffic is traveling — he guessed it would be 32 or 33 miles per hour.
“For a cop to pull somebody over at that, it’s questionable,” he said.
Council Member Linea Palmisano said she’s nervous about police pulling cars over in an already chaotic driving environment. She said she likes the idea of promoting alternate places to drop off kids.
Matthew Dyrdahl, the city’s bicycle and pedestrian coordinator, suggested “walking school buses” and other ideas to encourage more biking and walking to school. Some schools release kids who bike or walk five minutes early, allowing them to get a head start on the bus and pick-up traffic.
“With a lot of pedestrians around, that changes the driving mindset,” said Kelley Yemen, the county’s bicycle and pedestrian coordinator.
But parents said students are already crossing in big packs, and parents escorting large groups of kids still encounter heckling and red light running.
“Until we address the safety issues, I’m a little hesitant to encourage kids to bike and walk,” one resident said.