Many thanks to the Mpls Bike Coalition for last weekend’s Lyndale Open Streets. It was wonderful to experience a neighborhood commercial street in Minneapolis without having to dodge cars, choke on exhaust and expose eardrums to honking, revving and screeching. And it was surprising also to experience how wide Lyndale feels north of 31st. Nowadays when we want to cram landscaped medians, buffered bike lanes, bump-outs, light rail and 6 left turn lanes on every street, Lyndale’s ~60′ seems confiningly narrow. But in the days when the only thing you put in the street came out of your chamberpot, it must have felt grandiosely wide. Maybe the reasoning was that if your street was wide enough that no shade reached the middle, the shit would dry out quicker. Now that our streets are relatively free of shit, I’d like to propose a rule that no street be any wider than can be shaded by, say, a 20 year old boulevard tree.
But I didn’t bring up Open Streets as a launching point for a discussion of the effects of excretory matters on urban physiognomy. I bring it up because after walking 9/10s of the round trip length of the event it brought me to Common Roots at the precise moment that I was thirsty for a beer and ready to sit down, and Common Roots had free copies of The Wedge, the tiny little newspaper for the confusingly-named Lowry Hill East neighborhood. And inside that tiny newspaper was a tiny column called Pedestrian Improvements on Hennepin Avenue by CM Tuthill about how the people have spoken and she has listened to “the difficulty pedestrians have crossing streets in Uptown.” And that column inspired this post, titled with a pun but really a collection of some stuff I’ve wanted to say about traffic signal timing/programming for a while.
Leading pedestrian interval
CM Tuthill’s column highlights the concrete action Public Works is taking to address the aforementioned pedestrian difficulties – leading pedestrian intervals at the intersections of Hennepin Ave with Lake and Lagoon Sts. CM Tuthill describes it thusly:
The Leading Pedestrian Interval gives pedestrians the walk signal 3-5 seconds before the green signal for [vehicular] traffic. Pedestrians get a head start on crossing the street and become established in the crosswalk before vehicles begin moving.
I couldn’t tell from the article whether this pattern is in operation yet, but I’m looking forward to trying them out. These intersections are both terrifying, with the one at Lake infamous for the frequency with which cars crash into the salon at the northeast corner. My guess is that the biggest improvement will be at Lagoon, where cars turning right from Hennepin to Lagoon were somehow able to see a red light as a green arrow. Email 311 to tell them how great leading pedestrian intervals are and how they should be used at every intersection with a right turn lane.
Loser pedestrian interval
On the other hand, there are still lots of intersections with loser pedestrian intervals. These give pedestrians a don’t walk hand way before the light turns red. There is actually a somewhat legitimate reason to do this on a very wide road in order to halt pedestrians when their continued crossing after the signal changes would cut too deep into the next phase. Almost no streets in Minneapolis and St Paul are wide enough for this and more common are examples like Glenwood & Royalston, at the heart of Minneapolis’ Homeless District. At this fairly narrow street – with a refuge median - a beg button must be pushed before you even get to suffer the indignity of the signal timing, which gives twice as much time to the don’t walk time as it gives to the walk and flashing don’t walk combined (40 seconds vs 10 and 10).
This leads me to speculate about the causes of this sort of affront to pedestrians. The beg buttons at Glenwood & Royalston were actually faux buttons until recently. This means one of two things:
- The signal technology is so crude that it only allows certain heinous types of programming (think about the enormous signal cabinets you see at the side of the road to house the computers that control traffic lights and then think about an iPod Nano); or
- Someone actually designed it to be this way.
I shudder about equally at each of these possibilities.
Non-conflicting pedestrian walk signal
Last year I reported that only two of the 8-10 protected left turn enabled traffic signals on Hennepin – installed during the two-way conversion just a few years ago – gave walk signs to non-conflicting pedestrian traffic. There is a good amount of foot traffic downtown, and holding them unnecessarily wasted time and encouraged non-compliance (already a good strategy for pedestrians in a auto-oriented one-way grid system). The City’s zillion-dollar traffic signal programming initiative has fixed at least a few of those – the signals at 11th & 12th work now, although 9th & 10th still don’t.
Imbecilic pedestrian walk signal
The intersection of 12th & Hennepin is alright now, but for the last few months it did something very unusual. It managed to give a walk signal to non-conflicting pedestrian traffic, but the walk was active for the same amount of time as the walk for the conflicting pedestrian signal, effectively giving them a loser pedestrian interval. In other words, the pedestrian traffic that doesn’t conflict with the protected left turn traffic gets the don’t walk signal earlier than the pedestrian traffic that does conflict with protected left turns.
This situation, and the fact that it’s subsequently been fixed, indicates to me that the source of pedestrian signal timing troubles – or “difficulty pedestrians have crossing streets” as CM Tuthill put it – is due primarily to lack of attention by traffic engineers. It may be that the software used to program signals isn’t what you’d call user-friendly, but clearly it’s possible to program a phasing pattern that’s beneficial to pedestrians. Let’s hope more policymakers follow CM Tuthill’s lead and put policies in place that would force traffic engineers to learn how to use their software for everyone’s benefit, not just for cars.
A less filthy version of this post appears on streets.mn.