Most US cities, Minneapolis and St Paul included, are in dire need of traffic calming and complete streets. Critical streets are dangerously overbuilt: corners have been widened, lanes widened, streets widened. Over the last half century, Herculean governmental and financial efforts have been thrown at reshaping our cities for driving at the expense of those on foot.
We all know this. (Those of you who read this site probably do, anyway.) We all know that we should work overtime on traffic calming, road diets, sidewalk extensions, lane narrowing, and a whole host of other design approaches that might begin to undo some of the damage to our walkable urban fabric. City leaders say that this is one of their goals. Improving walkability is in every comprehensive plan that I’ve read, and it’s the premise of many of the debates we seem to have online, at seminars, and at meetings. We all know we need to make our cities safe for people on foot.
But when it comes down to any one particular project, the situation seems to change. A proposal goes out for traffic calming (say, on South Nicollet Avenue), and all of a sudden each parking space becomes crucial to the city’s economy, each lane of asphalt becomes vital to the regional transportation network, and (I’m sorry but) there’s no money to do anything at this time. It’s rare to follow through on our good intentions, to turn words into actions. We might say we want to make our streets safer for vulnerable pedestrians, but talk is cheap, and change is hard, and that goes double for concrete.
That’s why I’m here to provide you with three things any city can do, at little expense, to dramatically improve walkability without touching a hair of the actual roadway. Any city could make these changes and improve safety for everyone overnight, without taking away anyone’s parking spot or extra traffic lane, and without spending a dime on concrete removal or bituminous anything. These changes would all be big strides forward to increase safety in our neighborhoods, and they could all be achieved without anyone’s property rights being adjusted even in the slightest. Read ‘em and weep:
#1 Red Light Cameras
Picture a motion activated camera mounted on a stoplight at a particularly dangerous intersection that snaps a photo of cars breaking the law by running the red light. The technology is pretty straightforward. They take a picture of the license plate of the car breaking the law, and send a ticket to the address associated with that car. At one level, the cameras seem like a no brainer. They’re a very cheap enforcement tool for a highly dangerous behavior. Who is going to defend people speeding through a red light at an intersection full of pedestrians? That’s extremely dangerous, and puts people on foot at great risk. That’s practically indefensible…
… unless you’re the Minnesota Supreme Court. As you may remember, Minneapolis installed red light cameras for a short time back in 2008. (One example was at the Franklin and 3rd Avenue intersection, one of the city’s most dangerous for bicycle accidents.) After an outcry by civil libertarians (who presumably enjoy speeding through stoplights and threatening to maim people trying to cross the street?), there was a lawsuit and a court decision. The court declared that the cameras were unconstitutional because of something or other. (You can read the decision here.) Personally, I don’t get how these are any different from parking tickets. Red light cameras made our cities much safer by providing cities with an extremely cheap enforcement tool, targeted very specifically at the areas that posed the most danger to pedestrians. They were a good idea then, and they’re a good idea now. Someday I hope we have legislation in place that allows this efficient and effective traffic calming device to go back onto the stoplights of Franklin Avenue and dangerous corners everywhere.
#2 ‘No Turn on Red’ Signs
Turning on a red light might not seem like a big deal to you, but try telling that to Cleo Thiberge’s family. (You’ll have to learn to speak French first.) She was the victim of a particularly shocking tragedy earlier this year on the corner of Grand and Hamline Avenues, involving a car speeding around a corner in the most walkable part of St Paul. Studies show that most accidents occur at intersections, and most accidents at intersections occur with vehicles turning corners at speed. Corners at intersections should be the focus of attention for cities thinking about improving their sidewalks. Of course, bumpouts are the real solution. But that’s expensive, and a ‘no turn on red’ sign does the job at a tiny fraction of the cost.
There’s a comfort dynamic here too. As a cyclist, or a pedestrian, whenever I’m on the corner of an intersection, and a car starts crawling through the crosswalk trying to turn on red, I have to do the awkward fender dance, trying to share space with a two-ton unstoppable stinky noisemachine invading the pedestrian realm. Sometimes this leads to militant pedestrianism; more often, it leads to a depressing stroll. If we want to actually encourage people to walk around our cities, we need to do more than plant a tree or two. If our hypothetical walker has to hurdle a hood every time her or she crosses the street, we’re not doing our jobs.
The thing that’s irksome is that, when cars are turning on red lights through frequented crosswalks, the benefits for the motorist are marginal at best. We are exchanging a few seconds of someone’s commute for a degraded pedestrian space all across the board. There’s no real reason to do this, other than to make marginal differences for traffic flow. New York City and the Netherlands have blanket bans on turning on red, but most cities could begin addressing this problem by posting signs at any corner that meets a sufficient pedestrian density threshold. With a bit of enforcement, it would be cheap and effective.
#3 Ban Cell Phones while Driving
I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: there’s no such thing as a good driver. (There’s only someone paying more or less attention.) That’s because the science on cell phones is pretty sound. That’s the main reason why, last year, the National Transportation and Safety Board (the ones responsible for keeping airplanes from crashing) held a press conference and called for a national ban on cell phones while driving. (That decision must have taken some guts.) The policy recommendation was based on a decade of study of accidents due to distraction, and fits with lots of neurological and attention studies that show that people who drive while on the phone are bad at noticing their surroundings.
To say that the announcement was met with the collective sound of chirping crickets in every city across the US would be an insult to crickets. Both the cell phone and car industries were shocked, resisted the legislation suggestion, and basically nothing happened.
But that doesn’t change the fact that a person driving a car while talking on the phone is far more likely to plow into somoene crossing the street than someone whose phone is turned off in their pocket. As I’ve pointed out before, as phones become more and more ubiquitous, this problem will only get worse. Nine states ban hand held phones while driving. (Including Nevada!) If your city was serious about improving safety for pedestrians, they would too.
Talk is Cheap. These Changes are Cheap, too.
Most everyone likes to say they support traffic calming, promoting walking, and increasing safety. Doing any or all of these three things would make immediate progress on those goals at minimal cost to the city. They are all steps that begin to change the culture of automobile dominance on our streets, the kind of attitudes that allow people to creep through the crosswalk, honk at bicycles taking the lane, treat speed limits signs as minimums, or drive blindly through the curb cut out of the parking ramp downtown. (“Caution! Car approaching!“)
At some point, as a society, we have to ask whether saving an extra few seconds on a car trip is worth making all of our crosswalks and sidewalks dangerous. We have to ask whether or not that phone call is worth getting someone killed. Maybe next time one of our political leaders says that they we want to make walking a priority, they could actually do it. The tools are there. They’re not expensive, and they don’t have to involve re-making the street (though that would be nice). All of these tactics are the equivalent of “calling the bluff.” Sure there are some political challenges, but if cities and governments really meant what they said, they’d do one or all of these things. Until then, I’m giving myself permission to remain a bit cynical.