Changing a deadly street

Steve Brandt’s column “What to do about deadly Lyndale Avenue” (Feb. 6 issue, page B6) is disappointingly fatalistic about the status quo. While conceding Hennepin County is failing and needs to do more, he warns against “unduly impinging mobility” and suggests there’s an “ableist bias” at work in this debate. First, this is a too-narrow and privileged conception of what it means to be disabled (there are disabled people who don’t drive). Secondly, this is not about creating winners and losers. Driving is by far the fastest and most convenient way to get around the city; there’s no serious proposal that puts that status at risk.

St. Paul’s Maryland Avenue is a better prototype for a three-lane Lyndale than Brandt seems to think. He’s vastly underselling the Maryland Avenue road diet by saying that “trips took up to one-third longer” during last year’s three-lane trial. Here’s what it means in reality: On average, car trips took an extra 40 seconds during rush hour and 20 seconds during off-peak periods. In response to another of Brandt’s concerns, Ethan Osten, an aide to Ramsey County Commissioner Trista MatasCastillo, explained to me, “We also saw very little short-cutting through neighborhoods.”

And here’s another important detail: Despite the fact that traffic volumes on Maryland Avenue exceed federal guidelines for a four- to three-lane conversion, the trial was a success. Ramsey County made the three-lane design on Maryland permanent. And traffic counts on Maryland (22,600) are similar to Lyndale (24,200). It’s not unheard of to discard suggestions from the feds; Seattle uses a limit of 25,000 when considering streets for a road diet.

I’m one of thousands of people who don’t just experience this stretch of Lyndale during the peak of rush hour. It’s our home 24 hours a day. We can hear the car crashes from our bedrooms. This is a vibrant neighborhood street that Hennepin County has designed to function like a desolate four-lane suburban highway.

There are more than 2,600 car-free households in the neighborhoods adjacent to Lyndale Avenue from Franklin to Lake Street. We have more walkable destinations and are better served by transit than any other place in the state. The status quo is impinging on the mobility of my neighbors in ways you can’t measure in mere seconds. Even people who drive to work choose to live here because it’s nice to be able to walk to a bus stop, a restaurant, a grocery store or a museum. None of us are spared the danger: In October, Ted Ferrara had just exited a car at 25th & Lyndale when he was killed by a driver.

As a pedestrian, I try to be forgiving about my too-frequent brushes with vehicular homicide. I know drivers on Lyndale are often distracted by concern for their own safety — dealing with the high-speed reckless behavior of other drivers. In addition to reduced speeds, a center turn lane as part of a three-lane design can tame some of the chaos (e.g. the swerving in frustration at being stuck behind a left-turning vehicle). We’re all safer, drivers included, when streets are designed to facilitate efficiency and predictable behavior from the people we share the road with.

Brandt concludes that the goal of achieving zero traffic deaths is “both laudable and chimeric, much like ending homelessness.” Believe it or not, there really are places that have tried and succeeded at eliminating chronic homelessness and achieving zero pedestrian deaths. We should make a real honest effort to be among them.

While it’s true that a four- to three-lane conversion won’t by itself bring us to zero traffic deaths, it’s the bare minimum we should expect from Hennepin County on an urban neighborhood street. We shouldn’t resign ourselves to the idea that this version of Lyndale — as it’s been designed for the past 60 years — has to be the same deadly street we give to future generations. We can all afford to trade a few seconds for safer streets. 

John Edwards

Lowry Hill East

John Edwards is the founder of the neighborhood news blog Wedge LIVE!