Before I get into any questions like “What the heck is a split phase intersection and why would you have a favorite?” Let me give you some back-story… I’ve been attending a series of workshops revolving around State Highways 65 & 47.
Luckily, I learned at the meetings that my fellow residents share the same opinions! I was delighted at the first two meetings. Do I think MnDOT will actually listen? Probably not, but that’s when we’ll sick Mayor Lund on them 🐕
Another big issue brought up at the workshops is how the intersection timing across both 47 & 65 favors traffic going north and south. Residents that are actually trying to just get to the other side of town find themselves waiting endlessly.
So what’s up with split-phase intersections? Well, let’s define it first:
A split phase intersection is one where one side gets a green light and green left turn arrow, then the other side gets a green light and a green left turn arrow.
They aren’t known for their efficiency – they’re a band-aid for poor road design. But I think I’ve found one of the better ones which others should emulate.
Fridley’s Split Phase Intersections
There are several split-phase intersections in Fridley. MN-65 & Mississippi St. is the most notorious, however there are split-phase (or rough equivalents) at MN-47 & 57th and MN-47 & Mississippi.
Most of these are in place because of road geometry. The state highways (65 and 47) are so damn wide that there can’t be two left turn lanes running simultaneously without cars crashing head-on. 4-to-3 lane road diets could alleviate those problems, but until then let’s look at the signal timing – a software problem we could address today.
None of the split phase intersections work well for residents in Fridley, whether they’re driving, walking or biking. So let’s look a well-timed example to copy.
County Road 10 & Able Street
I used this intersection twice daily by car or by bicycle for 4 years. It is on the way to my kids’ day care provider. I didn’t like it at first… in my car when you leave Highway 65 and go on County Road 10 west, it’s the first signal you’ll encounter.
More often than not the signal would be green and then I’d see it change to red as I was approaching. I’d silently curse to myself (trying to watch my mouth as a new Dad). But after going this way about a dozen times, I realized something. I’m almost always going to see the light change from green to red because it’s constantly changing all the time. This is a good thing because it won’t be red for long for either the people on County 10 or Able St.
The first question traffic engineers will probably ask is “how much traffic goes through there?” It’s sees 20,000 vehicles per day on average. Keep in mind the times when I was using this intersection was always during rush hour, 7-8AM and right at 4PM.
So why not try it for a week or two? Signal timing is software, not hardware. Yes, 47 & 65 carry a bit more traffic (30,000/day), but if traffic backs up on 47 or 65 one of two things will happen:
MnDOT will change the timing back
People will find another way that is less congested
#2 is the option residents are shooting for. Remember when the 35W bridge collapsed? If I recall correctly, traffic was a little nutty for about a week, and then… Poof! Everyone found a different way about town and traffic wasn’t drastically worse than when 35W was wide open.
We should at least give this cheap-and-easy timing change a shot. Got any other ideas for these roads? Share them in the comments.
Let’s take a moment and look at two political philosophies and how they can even be applied to something as simple and mundane as a road (re)design. It may seem like somewhat of a reach, but stay with me for a story of regulation vs. self-regulation.
Alan Greenspan himself did not foresee the housing crash coming. His mantra had always been that the market should (and will) self-regulate. He may have, at one point during the crisis, re-considered his libertarian ideals, as the situation left him “in a state of shocked disbelief.”
I saw Alan Greenspan on Charlie Rose (relevant conversation at 51:16) where he discussed the 2008 mortgage crisis. I suspect that in the aftermath he did some research going backwards to see what could have been done to prevent it. He mentioned a change at the NYSE in 1970 that allowed broker-dealers to become incorporated. Prior to this, broker-dealers were required to be partnerships where all partners had “skin in the game.”
Greenspan postures that the partnerships inherently caused all partners involved to look closely at each investment to carefully assess the risk. In a partnership, losses meant a loss to their customers, a personal loss to his or herself as a partner, and all other partners involved. Needless to say, lending was done much more carefully. Voilà, some self-regulation that we sorely need today.
What does any of this have to do with road design? Everything…
The Democrat: Regulate
Conventional wisdom leads many to believe that that you don’t need to change a street physically to make it safer – even if it has a record of poor safety. Instead, just add further regulation to the mix.
I’ve heard these complaints in person, during a road redesign proposal by Anoka County for Osborne Road. Citizens questioned the road redesign, even if it was just re-striping – not major construction. They insisted that for the safety of the kids crossing the 4-lane road to get to school, all that was needed is more police enforcement to set the tone.
Police can’t do traffic enforcement 24/7, so another way to regulate is with speed cameras. But some studies have argued in certain cases that the safety effects of cameras have proven to be statistically insignificant. I’m not saying that the cameras definitely won’t make the street safer. My concern is that the cost to install, maintain, and operate cameras is expensive, and we can do something cheaper and easier to provide safety.
The Libertarian: Self-Enforcement
Why not instead undo a little bit of what we’ve done with our infrastructure. It may seem counter-intuitive, but we can make things simpler, more cost effective, and more self-regulating…
First the road geometry can be changed to what is appropriate for the target speed. The current road design standard has wide lanes to give drivers a wide berth so they can make corrections before potentially causing a crash.
The roads have an extra-wide “clear zone” on either side – wide shoulders followed by an open area of grass free of “fixed objects” such as trees. This is to provide a margin of safety, but in reality the extra space simply makes the road feel faster. Probably because we’ve given many of our roads the same geometry as a highway.
We need to narrow the lanes and make the roadway feel “closer” in the cases where a slower speed is desired. Some studies have shown speed reductions of as much as 3MPH for every foot of lane narrowing. Let’s get rid of the highway geometries on 30MPH roads.
However, I feel this particular study does not draw from other cities past experience well enough. At the study meeting it was mentioned that the city of Crystal lamented that they did not do the 3 lane option for the full length of the roadway. I see the same sort of trepidation here.
Why not lower the speed limit to 30MPH? Residents in attendance at the meeting were obviously concerned about the speed as they’re asking for more enforcement. The real answer to enforcement is self-enforcement and the road diet would provide that. But why not lower the speed limit to 30? The odds of a pedestrian fatality at 40MPH is two times of that at 30MPH – and lets face it, travelers on a 35MPH road are going to be driving 40MPH.
I’m disappointed that the road starts with double-wide lanes at MN-47 and MN-65. I understand this is to accommodate the double left turn lanes from those roads onto Osborne. The real solution would be to reduce those to a single left turn lane and decrease the cycle time on those traffic signals so the single left turn lane does not back up. I realize this is MnDOT territory, and not likely to change.
Different East/West Treatment
The proposed treatment of the western side of Osborne is very different from the (preferred) treatment on the east side of Osborne.
Rather than creating a left turn lane(s) into lots that don’t yet exist, just use the 3-lane treatment for the entire roadway. Better to have a flexible system that accommodates existing users (like bicyclists) rather than reserving roadway such as dedicated left turn lanes for future development that doesn’t exist today.
More planters and crosswalks
For a consistent driver experience, and a much friendlier pedestrian experience, I’d suggest duplicating the planter option on all offset Fridley/Spring Lake Park cross-streets:
Adding more crosswalks and medians (stuff in the road) will help let drivers know that this is a complex environment with students, kids on bikes, emergency vehicles, hospital visitors, cyclists, pedestrians – all of which gives a clear indication to drivers that they should not be speeding through.
Given the relatively narrow width, east-west travel would seem quick and easy. However that’s not the case because the city is divided into 3 by two state highways, MN-65 & MN-47. The segregation effect that these highways have on our community is immediately apparent by looking at our political wards:
It’s not a matter of being on the right or wrong side of the tracks per se. It’s a matter of being on the right or wrong side of the highway. I’m not suggesting we need to increase our east-west traffic capacity. For those corridors I suggest just the opposite. I’m suggesting the highways intersecting Fridley should be repurposed and consolidated.
We seem to have reached peak car, and MnDOT budget shortfalls have been the norm for many years. It’s time to start “Doing Less With Less.” Less cars means we need less roads, but Fridley could use more streets. Confused? Let’s take a look at some history.
Looking at our Neighbors
Our neighbor to the south, Columbia Heights has been around longer, having been incorporated in 1921. Columbia Heights developed its business corridor around Central Ave., a natural extension of the way the street functions in Northeast Minneapolis.
University Ave. through Columbia Heights is much more of a road than a street. It quickly moves traffic at high speed through the rail yards, into and out of the city.
Fridley seems to have evolved differently. Being a classic post-World War II suburb, much of its planning and infrastructure happened in the 1950s. The “old roads” in Fridley were East River Road (original home to Bob’s Produce) and University Ave., where city hall resides. Both of these roads straddle the railroad which the city self-identified with more, before passenger rail travel was abandoned. University Ave. became the de-facto place for Fridley businesses. But through the years MnDOT has made the road steadily wider and faster until today where it has become a place where businesses go to die.
How can we reverse the effects?
Looking over at Central Ave. in Fridley, it has a different history. It wasn’t until 1953 that the “expressway” was added, bisecting Moore Lake. Previously Central Ave. (what Fridley old-timers such as myself call “Old Central”) went around Moore Lake. The “expressway” portion through Fridley is to this day mostly devoid of businesses, looking much more like a road than a street.
Having two major thoroughfares one mile apart from each other is stupid. They both are within 5mph of each others speed limit and have the same number of traffic lights from 694 to highway 10. They both try to move cars quickly, and they both try to provide business value. But the truth is they’re not doing a good job at either task. We’ve got two STROADs, the futon of infrastructure, not comfortable for sleeping or sitting. Both of these roads are servicing cars moving through Fridley instead of to Fridley. If we use a triage process and make some smart choices, it can be fixed over time. It’s time to assign each of these one (and only one) job and reclaim the value they can offer…
Through my analysis it has become somewhat clear that we should take the cards we’ve dealt ourselves, the path of least resistance. My suggestions is to combine MN-65 and MN-47 on the alignment that is currently MN-65 from Interstate 694 to US Highway 10, as shown by the route below. Combining MN 65 & 47 into one route for a short distance would let the other become an “Avenue” again with actual useful stores, businesses, and residences. Because of the way these roads evolved through the years, it may seem like a circuitous route, but cars are fast and convenient, and so is our road network.
This route highlights a trip from 53rd and University to Egret Blvd. and MN-47/US-10. The “old route”, straight up University, was 1.5 miles shorter and 2 minutes faster, but what is it worth in total to the well being of our city? (2 minutes!)
Central Avenue south of 694 can remain the street it has been, and could even slow itself down and add more development (more value). The same could then occur on University Ave. north of 694. University could be where businesses go to thrive, rather than die.
This change would let both University and Central become useful streets and roads in certain places, but not try to do both at the same time.
In Christopher Alexander’s A Pattern Language, he explains how raised paths literally elevate its users to a status above the automobile. I suggest doing this for the entirety of the trail along Old Central Avenue, from it’s split from MN-65 on the south end to 81st Ave. NE on the north. It is an important bicycling and pedestrian connection that is also serviced by Route 10.
It would not require any changes in existing traffic controls – there is only one traffic signal on this route (seen at map marker “A”):
Since this signalized intersection is at a T it really bears no relevance, the trail is not intersected by the road. All of the other intersections are 4-way stops. A raised path would provide smooth passage for bikers & walkers, with their newly elevated status. At intersections, the raised path would remain as the crosswalk, effectively becoming a giant speed-bump to calm traffic and make people more aware of pedestrians. Similar to these types of raised “zebra” crossings:
For cyclists, gone would be up-and-down whoops of the endless curb cuts. A smooth, straight ride to bring you down the road. This also is a benefit for people in wheelchairs or scooters, as the ADA recommends a straight of a path as possible.
I don’t expect something like this would happen right away, but it should at least be on the city’s radar for when the path is repaved.