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It's Getting Safer to Walk in St. Cloud

August 16, 2010 By Conrad deFiebre, Transportation Fellow

Whether for healthy exercise or simple thrift in a struggling economy, walking is growing in importance as a means of everyday transportation. Unfortunately, much of our autocentric infrastructure hasn't caught up with the trend.

Pedestrian injuries and deaths are on the rise in Minnesota even as overall traffic casualties have fallen to 65-year lows. Of the 421 killed in our state in crashes last year, 41 were on foot, up from 25 in 2008. In the past decade, 357 pedestrians died in Minnesota. This year's pedestrian death toll is at 19, just one behind last year's pace, according to the state Office of Traffic Safety.

Some of the blame for this can go to drunken pedestrians, who comprised nearly a third of the fatalities on foot last year. Almost as many victims were walking on busy roads at points without crosswalks or signals. But driver inattention, excessive speed and, especially, failure to yield to pedestrians as required by state law were ruled contributing factors in half of all pedestrian crashes in Minnesota last year.

"Compliance rates at crosswalks in Minnesota are horribly low," said Marc Culver, a traffic engineer with the city of Maple Grove. "The only way you're going to get drivers to stop is to put a red light in front of them."

And that's what St. Cloud, Minn., has done with a new, cost-effective technology that safeguards people walking across six-lane Hwy. 23 without an overall slowdown in vehicular traffic. It's a crosswalk signal system that blinks off most of the time but flashes yellow, then red, when pedestrians press a curbside button. Blake Redfield, the city's traffic systems manager, said it grabs motorists' attention better than simple crosswalk signs or always-on yellow flashers.

St. Cloud installed the system, the only one of its kind so far in Minnesota, last fall as part of a wider redesign of the area around a new public library, Technical High School and the Lake George recreation area - all big pedestrian traffic generators. It replaced a full-blown traffic signal at low-volume 12th Avenue with the new crosswalk lights.

The change was a compromise with the state Department of Transportation that allowed the city to add a new traditional traffic signal two blocks away on Hwy. 23. Tom Dumont, MnDOT district traffic engineer, said the state didn't want two regular
traffic lights so close together on a trunk highway. The solution required a waiver from federal officials, who only this year have included the new crosswalk systems in their traffic design manual. MnDOT is revising its own manual and will likely follow suit in the next few months, Dumont said.

And that might pave the way for places like suburban Maple Grove that have been laid out almost exclusively for the safety and convenience of motorists to make walking amid the autos less perilous and more pleasant. Culver said he is interested in installing the new-generation crosswalk signals at two places in Maple Grove, but has neither the funding nor the authorization to do so.

Based on results in St. Cloud and other places, including Fargo, N.D.; Tucson, Ariz., and states such as  Alaska, Delaware, Georgia and Virginia, the systems reduce pedestrian accidents up to 50 percent and cut other crashes as well. That's an important consideration as Minnesota's population ages, becoming more fragile and slower to cross the road.

No pedestrian mishaps have been reported in the 10 months the new lights have been flashing in St. Cloud, Redfield said. There's a bonus for taxpayers, too. The new systems price out at $70,000 to $80,000 per crosswalk, less than half the cost of traditional traffic signals. 

My only complaint about these innovations is the bird-brained acronyms engineers slap on them. The St. Cloud signal is called a HAWK (High intensity Activated Cross Walk). Tucson, which has dozens of the installations, also boasts of its PELICAN (PEdestrian LIght Control ActivatioN) and TOUCAN (TwO groUps CAN cross), which accommodates both pedestrians and bicyclists.

Whatever you call them, though, they look like a smart adaption to the changing ways we get around.

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