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Risky Hennepin and Ramsey County streets are increasingly being put on ‘road diets’

Both counties are aggressively replacing four-lane street designs with a three-lane concept, where turning traffic takes up a center lane.

photo of protest on lyndale ave
At first glance, the idea of change on Lyndale might seem hopeless.
Photo by Tony Webster

At 5 o’clock last Friday, at the peak of rush hour, a group of safety advocates stepped out into the middle of busy Lyndale Avenue in an attempt to cross the street. Under normal circumstances, they knew that they’d be taking their lives into their hands. This was the exact block where 54-year-old Theodore Ferrara was hit Oct. 13 while trying to scramble across the busy four-lane street that carries traffic through the dense Wedge and Whittier neighborhoods and beyond. He died three days later.

At first glance, the idea of change on Lyndale might seem hopeless. The Hennepin County arterial street has very high traffic volumes — more than 24,000 cars a day. But recent moves by Ramsey and Hennepin Counties this year are signs that the conventional wisdom about four-lane roads might be changing. Both counties have become more aggressive about implementing three-lane “road diets,” as engineers and policy makers have begun to push the boundaries of where safety measures might work. These new designs, on streets like Broadway NE and Maryland Avenue, might be a sign of a safer approach to urban streets in the Twin Cities.

Why four-lane roads are deadly

Almost all of the deadliest streets in Minnesota cities have one thing in common: They are four-lane undivided roads in walkable urban neighborhoods. These kinds of streets are particularly dangerous because they allow drivers to change lanes and speed around slowing or stopped cars. As anyone who has ever driven south down Hennepin Avenue well knows, without a turn lane, left-turning traffic can clog up the center lane for blocks, and drivers routinely speed and swerve amid the chaos.

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It’s these unpredictable encounters that make four-lane roads so perilous, and the speed-inducing design quickly turns deadly when pedestrians get involved. While state law requires drivers to stop for people trying to cross the street at a corner (even without a striped crosswalk), the four-lane design means that often drivers will whip around a stopped car and hit the poor soul trying to get across the street.

Traffic engineers live with the deadly outcomes because four-lane roads can handle higher volumes of car traffic, especially at intersections with stoplights. The three-lane “road diet” street design, where turning traffic takes up a center lane, also creates more congestion at busy intersections. Because of the traffic concerns, for years the conventional wisdom stated that three-lane designs only worked to a certain point. On any road with higher volume than, say, 16,000 cars per day, a safer three-lane would was not seen as possible, because it would create too much congestion and driver frustration.

Pushing the traffic-volume envelope

Or at least, that’s what the engineers thought would happen. This year, at least in the Twin Cities, the industry standards are beginning to change. In the wake of persistent crashes, first Ramsey and now Hennepin County are implementing four-to-three-lane conversions on arterials with far more traffic than in years past.

“Honestly, the foundation really was set a few years ago when [the county] did the Johnson-to-Payne section [of Maryland],” said Trista MatasCastillo, who represents the area on the seven-member Ramsey County Board. “It came from the community response, and people pushing because of a pedestrian fatality there. When we have fatalities, it really gives us an opportunity to pause and reflect.”

The case MatasCastillo references was particularly tragic, when a woman named Elizabeth Durham was killed by a driver of a Prius while trying to cross Maryland Avenue after putting her son on a school bus. After Durham’s death, neighbors on the East Side began pushing the county to rethink how it prioritized pedestrian safety. Soon after, county engineers tried out a yearlong test of a three-lane road design on Maryland Avenue near the site of the crash. After a year of data collection, and some community back-and-forth about traffic versus safety, the changes became permanent.

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This year, Ramsey County went further, making the three-lane design change on a busier part of Maryland Avenue even closer to the Interstate 35E on ramps. The new design pushes the “ADT envelope” — the threshold of “average daily traffic” where three-lane designs are considered to work well — well beyond the previous standards.

(For the record, the threshold varies by city and county across the country: In Chicago, the limit is 18,000; in Seattle, it’s 25,000 cars per day.)

photo of maryland ave
Engineers tried out a yearlong test of a three-lane road design on Maryland Avenue. Later, they made the change permanent.
Trying out a road diet for a road with more than 22,000 cars per day is unprecedented in the Twin Cities, but this summer Ramsey County quietly rolled out the new trial on Maryland Avenue.

“So this street was really dangerous, “explained MatasCastillo. “Public Works said people were driving average speeds at 47 mph. It is completely residential on both sides of the road. You have people’s front porches, and cars going 50 miles per hour. There were accidents frequently and pedestrians being killed.”

The new design has been in place for months, and even with the high traffic volumes, few drivers have been complaining to the county.

“It actually works,” explained MatasCastillo, who lives just blocks away from the Maryland test. “The commuters’ lost time was minimal, it feels safer, and people can walk.”

As with their other test designs, Ramsey County’s Public Works Department has been collecting ongoing data to evaluate the traffic impacts of the change. According to Erin Labree, the deputy director of program delivery for the county, they are collecting information about speeds, crash rates, congestion wait times, turning patterns, and traffic on neighboring side streets to try to evaluate whether drivers are speeding through the neighborhood out of frustration.

“Traffic volumes are really high, higher than what we thought a three-lane could handle,” said Labree. “It’s really on the high end, but we did trials to see how it functions, and it functions relatively well. The peak hour in the morning and the evening is when we see congestion occur, but at the other the times of day it operates really well — plus there are the added safety benefits for people trying to cross the road.”

Even better, crashes are down on Maryland Avenue compared to how it was working in the past. Results are so encouraging that new three-lane designs are being rolled out in other places. After a series of tragic crashes this summer took the lives of three people crossing the street, county engineers have installed road-diet conversions on Larpenteur Avenue and McKnight Road on the north and east borders of St. Paul.

“Our takeaway from the Maryland Avenue project it that it has been a success,” said Labree. “We are looking at more of our four-lane undivided roads in the county, and because traffic volumes [here] are on the higher end of what we have on other roadways, we really expect to do more of these conversions.”

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Change comes at last to Broadway NE

Not wanting to be left behind, a similar road diet revolution is gaining traction in Hennepin County. In northeast Minneapolis, where busy-but-dangerous four-lane roads have been the norm for generations, a new three-lane design is pushing past previous engineering boundaries. Earlier this fall, the county installed a new three-lane design on a key stretch of Broadway Street NE, dramatically calming traffic on what was once a chaotic car sewer.

“[The county] was scheduled to do a straight mill and overlay, curb to curb,” explained Kevin Reich, who represents the area on the Minneapolis City Council. “But a lot of conversation had gone their direction from constituents, residents, and some of the business folks about how it functions.”

Broadway NE carries around 18,000 cars per day, fewer than Maryland, but the county’s decision to adopt the three-lane design means that big changes might be coming for other dangerous arterial roads throughout Minneapolis.

“Broadway had been a mini-freeway from the perspective of many constituents, and they were hoping that some of these conversions could make it feel safer, and make some of traffic patterns work a little better, there are dedicated turn lanes that make it better for go and flow,” explained Council Member Reich.

According to Bob Byers, an engineer for Hennepin County’s Transportation Planning Division, the Broadway road diet is the highest volume three-lane design the county has ever done. As he explained in an email, the new design has been working surprisingly well, and they’ve heard mostly positive comments from community members.

“Staff has been driving the corridor during the peak hours,” explained Byers. “The travel times appear to be very similar, within a minute or two, of what they were when it was a four-lane. This is most likely due to the chaos and left turn blocking that occurred as a four-lane [road].”

The next step for safe arterials?

The new horizons for making street safety change means that design change might finally be coming to some of the Twin Cities’ most dangerous streets, like Hennepin, Lyndale, Franklin, and Lowry Avenues in Minneapolis, or Dale, Hamline, or 7th Streets in St. Paul.

“Dale Street,” replied Trista MatasCastillo when I asked her about what streets might benefit from the next road diets. “It comes up every single day, [but] it is currently not in the plan. I keep bringing it up. I hope we can do it before someone dies, that we can do these [design changes] not only in response to death but proactively.”

For the people who took over Lyndale Avenue last Friday, holding signs with messages like “Just Tryna walk ’n exist” or “Lives > Lanes,” the changes can’t come soon enough. Even during rush hour, it should not require a coordinated mass movement to simply and safely cross the street.