It’s hard to argue with better pedestrian safety on Lyndale Avenue South after the most recent death of a pedestrian in October. The needless death of anyone is a tragedy. But the debate over just how to make the avenue safer between Lake Street and Franklin Avenue forces tough choices among competing interests.
Local activists have made clear their ambition of taming traffic on the street. Some would simply improve lighting and add marked crosswalks at uncontrolled intersections. Others would restrict turns at stoplight-controlled intersections while the walk signal is displayed for the crosswalks that turning traffic would cross. Some go further to propose converting Lyndale from four lanes to three in this 10-block stretch, converting the center lane to a continuous left-turn lane. Their voices were particularly insistent at a community forum held by Hennepin County Commissioner Marion Greene in early December.
I’ve been mulling for weeks how to reconcile those voices with those largely absent from the session — those who depend on Lyndale for mobility as motorists. We bring our own experiences to reconciling such conflicts. I occasionally walk this stretch of Lyndale. But I never bike on it, despite biking across entire states on narrow highway shoulders. I usually substitute the safer parallel bikeway on Bryant Avenue, two blocks to the west. Yet those two-wheeled trips often end at destinations on Lyndale, such as my credit union or the Jungle Theater. I walk my bike for the last block to comply with the ordinance against cycling on commercial-area sidewalks.
I drive Lyndale as well. Unlike many readers, I’ve had the experience of hitting a pedestrian (not on Lyndale) while driving. Fortunately, her injuries were not life-threatening. I’ve also been hit by cars while biking at least three times in Minneapolis. I’ve had even more near-misses while running. So I’m sensitive to the harm a motorist can do, even well below the speed limit.
Still, I regard the city’s Vision Zero goal of no vehicle deaths as both laudable and chimeric, much like ending homelessness.
My feeling is that pedestrians have a far better case for safety improvements on Lyndale than cyclists. The needs of those on foot can much more easily be addressed than those on bikes; improvements can be made that don’t appreciably slow motorized commutes. Hennepin County is planning a painfully modest first step with new restrictions against left turns at 25th and 27th streets and changes to shorten the crossings at 27th. Those changes shouldn’t rely on the flimsy plastic tubes the county has installed but should be reinforced with solid curbing that really protects.
But let’s go further. The suggestions for better lighting, especially at the dim 25th Street, seem apt. Stripe unmarked crosswalks. Restrict turns across the pedestrian lanes at 22nd, 24th, 26th and 28th streets while people crossing those intersections have a walk signal. For the medium term, install bump-out curbing at intersections without a semaphore to shorten the crossing of Lyndale. That also prevents cars from parking so close to an intersection that they block a motorist’s view of pedestrians. Add pedestrian-activated flashing lights at such intersections to alert motorists to an imminent crossing. Some of these changes are more expensive, in part because realigning the curb requires relocating storm sewer drains. But these shouldn’t wait for the next reconstruction of Lyndale, likely at least six years away.
Our Streets, a pedestrian and cycling advocacy organization that I support, has proposed that Lyndale be converted from four lanes to three. That means one through lane in each direction, with a shared left-turn lane between them.
That configuration has worked in several sections south of West 31st Street, where traffic volumes are much lower, and in several other locations in Minneapolis and St. Paul. The problem with this approach on northern Lyndale is that Federal Highway Administration bulletins caution that they don’t work as well when traffic volumes rise above 20,000 vehicles daily. Portions of this section of Lyndale exceed that, with an average of 24,000 vehicles daily recorded at 22nd in the most recent count. Construction on Interstate 35W may have swelled that number even more.
At this higher volume, a three-lane configuration likely will foster more cut-through traffic, the feds found. And a four-to-three shift will noticeably slow drivers. A trial on St. Paul’s Maryland Avenue, which has noticeably lower traffic volumes than Lyndale, found speeds dropped by as much as six miles per hour at peak periods but trips took up to one-third longer at some locations. That can encourage short-cutting through neighborhoods by drivers.
So far Our Streets is silent on what to do with the extra space it would create by narrowing lanes to 10 feet and eliminating one through lane in each direction. The narrow lanes are intended to send a visual clue to drivers to slow their speeds. But if the freed space were converted hypothetically to bike lanes, that reverses the signal to drivers unless the lanes are defined by curbing. No curbing means any extra space likely would attract the same double-parking by cargo trucks that already makes driving Lyndale a lane-shifting challenge. However, the friction from those trucks and also from buses does slow speeds. And adding curbs to define bike lanes inhibits parking. One possibility is to put bike lanes between parked cars and the curb but the tradeoff is that makes bikes less visible at intersections to turning cars, and dollies carrying deliveries would need to cross cyclists’ paths.
Some approach the debate over allocating space on Lyndale with the attitude that cars are a cancer on society. Certainly, foot and bike transport are environmentally preferable until less-polluting methods of motorized propulsion are in widespread use. But there’s also an ableist bias inherent in that view, and for now we depend on oil-propelled vehicles to deliver food and goods to restaurants, groceries and other merchants.
Hennepin County owes us more and sooner than the meager measures it has approved so far. But they need to be well-thought-out improvements that improve safety without unduly impinging mobility.