It’s been a while since I’ve written about any urban design stuff. Part of it is because I’ve realized that real change is never sweeping, it is incremental, which can be incredibly frustrating. But I’ve learned to to have patience, as long as things look like they’re heading in the right direction. Also, as part of Fridley’s Environmental Quality and Energy Commission (EQEC), I’ve seen several of the cities’ initiatives first hand, and and I feel like they are generally heading in the right direction.
So, I should just sit back and be happy that it’s happening, right?
Yes indeed, but there are still things some things our government agencies could be doing better, let’s take a look…
Mississippi St. doesn’t exist in a vacuum. It has two major intersections at Highway 65 and University Ave (MN-47). Yet there was zero treatment done to Mississippi St. at those intersections in the design. From the layout that was presented, I created this composite of the major intersections and the middle:
When I look at this from left-to-right I think: Huh? Yay! Huh?
So while I get it that the intersections won’t change immediately, it would be nice for the people of Fridley to know that their county and state government agencies actually talk to each other. It would have been awesome for the drawings to include a “future MnDOT” inset with a 202X version of those intersections, or at least something stating that these will get changed once the output from those workshops are put into design ideas.
So I’m happy that something is happening for the better, I’m just left wanting more.
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.
No I don’t mean rename it, Fridley already has a Main St. which was probably named because of its proximity to the railroad. But if you look at Mississippi St., it truly has the potential to be the main street of Fridley.
Located on it are: city hall, the police and fire department, Fridley’s library, the Fridley Historical Society museum, Hayes Elementary School, several churches, and a few home-based businesses.
Now the bad news: this STROAD is too fast and too wide to provide any value to the businesses and residents on or near it. It is home to a dumpy strip-mall which is almost impossible to get to as a pedestrian. Mississippi St. could easily go on a road diet.
For the sheer width of the road, it could be changed from 4 lanes to 2. The speed limit could be lowered to 30MPH (or even 25) and on-street parking allowed in lieu of the extra lane. There’s probably room for bike lanes left over, and the city – or county, as this is a county road – could add sidewalk bump-outs at the intersections so it’s faster and safer for pedestrians to cross the road.
I mentioned this idea to my neighbor – whose child attended Hayes Elementary – and he remarked that the road size is warranted for (automobile based) school arrival/departure. There is a solution for this problem and it is called a school bus. You’re paying for it though your property taxes, so you might as well use it and save yourself the headache. Leave it to the school bus drivers. They’re trained to be better (and safer) drivers than the rest of us. And safety, it seems, is paramount:
Safe Routes to Schools interviewed parents in 2012 about why they drove their children to school. The overwhelming response was concern about traffic speeds, crossing busy highways and general safety.
The problem isn’t parking, it’s the fact that kids are crossing a 4-lane road with cars traveling at 40MPH. Once it’s two lanes parents will instinctively send their kids on the bus so they don’t have to deal with traffic. Then the school driveway can stay as-is because the turning radius will have been effectively been increased. Done and done.
Why not zone Mississippi St. so that all homes along the corridor can be home-based businesses? Allow residential to commercial conversions so foreclosed properties can be transformed into useful, productive places. Some of the setbacks on Fridley homes are so deep that you could literally put a business in their front yard, right next to the sidewalk:
Business owners wouldn’t have to “live above the shop” – they could live behind the shop. How awesome of a commute would that be?
My other neighbor, who is in her 80s and has lived in Fridley since the early 60s. She told me how her friend moved to Mississippi St. in the 60s to open a salon. The city should re-ignite the local economy by giving people an opportunity to spend money locally. I bet if there were a locally owned convenience store a block down from the elementary school, it would be frequented by Fridley’s youngest consumers.
Look at this imposing wall:
It could be a blank canvas for a pretty incredible mural. Guess what? There’s a wall exactly like this one on the other side of the street! Transforming what is one of Fridley’s ugliest features may also be the cheapest and easiest to accomplish.
Fridley should decide to use one and only one of its east-west corridors to quickly move cars between Central Ave./MN-65 & University Ave./MN-47. 73rd Ave. might be a good candidate as it’s a road with few consumer businesses and it already has a service street separating the houses from the main traffic area. Then other east-west STROADS can be converted back to 2-lane streets, providing the city the value it deserves. Osborne Rd. would be next on my list – which is home to a hospital, elementary school, grocery store, coffee shop, etc…
I’ve always said that University Ave. in Fridley is where businesses go to die… but Mississippi St. could be where businesses go to live!