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Calmed traffic is neither calm nor safe for area pedestrians, bicyclists

Despite lip service to safety, most street design continues to be dangerous
Despite lip service to safety, most street design continues to be dangerous
Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images

Traffic calming. Those are the latest buzzwords in urban planning. Several projects that have developed around Saint Paul have been deemed traffic calming. The Marshall Avenue median and the Snelling Avenue median projects were deemed traffic calming because drivers would see the beauty, slow down, realizing they were on residential streets, not freeways. In addition, the medians supposedly made pedestrian travel safer, offering harbors in the middle of the street, so pedestrians could attend to traffic going in just one direction. Lanes narrowed by the median and by the addition of bicycle lanes were publicly touted as traffic calming. There is currently a study being done to determine if University Avenue, now that the Green Line is close to running, should have only one lane of traffic in each direction and added bicycle lanes to further “calm traffic.”

But, why all of the focus on what automobiles should do? These designs that put pedestrians into the middle of busy traffic, put bicyclists practically shoulder to shoulder with heavy automobiles, and place transit users on the corner of a busy intersection full of cars and a train with a bus to catch on the opposite corner all seem to be designed by people who don’t really travel much by any mode other than automobile. These drivers obviously feel that it is their duty to police their fellow drivers and make sure they slow down more, drive on other streets, or give up driving altogether. They apparently feel that when faced with a vulnerable human life, a driver will slow down and allow the pedestrian to pass, allow the bicyclist room, allow the transit rider to dash across the intersection to catch the bus. It seems to be a risky chance to play with human life. It is doubtful that the advocates for this type of design take the chance themselves.

Macalester College has been a strong advocate of both the medians on Snelling and Marshall Avenues. In 2009, the Minnesota Department of Transportation committed $197,000 to the Snelling Avenue median project, at the request of Macalester College.

The project was controversial. While Macalester representative Tom Welna said a majority of the neighborhood supported the project, his was the only voice supporting the project in a "TC Daily Planet" column back in 2009. Others interviewed seemed to be less than impressed.

In addition, comments from neighborhood online forums indicate that neighbors were not fully notified during the planning phase. These neighbors supported making Snelling Avenue safer for pedestrians, but did not believe the median was the right design. According to those attending the meetings in 2009, no other designs were considered. The Marshall Avenue median was pushed through the neighborhood in a similar fashion.

Now, a planted median and five years later, Snelling Avenue near Macalester College continues to be a dangerous place for pedestrians. At least six students have been injured or killed in recent years. The latest crash, two weeks ago, left two students in critical condition.

In a recent “Star Tribune” editorial, writers note that Tom Welna blames the city and state for not doing enough to make the intersection safe.

Yet, it was Macalester College, with Tom Welna as spokesman, who insisted on the Snelling Avenue median in the first place. It was they who insisted the money needed to be spent and would begin to cure the dangers of Snelling Avenue. The median would calm traffic, drivers would behave like they were on a parkway, not a freeway. Pedestrians would be safe crossing the street.

Many neighborhood businesses and residents did not buy into the argument that this would make the avenue safer. While their opinions did not carry the weight of Macalester College at the time, their concerns have at least been vindicated. Likely, they are the voices of people who actually walk, bike, or ride the bus in the area. Safer street design planners would do well to begin listening to those who actually experience the danger at hand rather than elitists who want to police their fellow citizens. Perhaps then, the city would actually begin to reduce the crashes between automobiles and pedestrians or bicyclists.