Just in time for boomers, more time at crosswalks

  • Article by: ERIC ROPER , Star Tribune
  • Updated: June 25, 2012 - 8:14 AM

The decision, part of a $16 million overhaul of the city's traffic system, has taken on more weight as baby boomers enter retirement age.

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“I barely made that one,” Rich Meese, 74, said after he walked across University Avenue at Central Avenue SE . in Minneapolis.

Photo: Joel Koyama, Star Tribune

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At a time when everything seems to be moving faster, Minneapolis wants to give you more time to get across the street.

Over the next year traffic lights in the city will give pedestrians a couple of extra seconds to reach the curb. The same goes for 1,300 state-controlled intersections across Minnesota. And it's all because the federal government decided that people don't walk quite as fast as it once estimated.

The biggest benefits will be felt by people like 74-year-old Rich Meese, who often finds himself two-thirds through a crosswalk when time runs out. "I barely made that one," he said on a recent afternoon after hoofing it across University Avenue SE. near Lund's.

Minneapolis' timing change is a small part of a massive $16 million overhaul of the city's traffic system, which includes new central control technology and upgrades to signal controls citywide. The added pedestrian time conforms with 3-year-old federal guidelines that say traffic lights should assume a walking speed of 3.5 feet per second. That's down from the previous 4 feet per second, a standard based on a study 60 years ago by a Yale researcher of people walking in New Haven, Conn.

Steve Mosing, Minneapolis' traffic operations engineer, calculated that at one downtown intersection during evening rush hour, walkers will get an extra six seconds to cross. The added time will likely be less at many crosswalks. For the curious, the new calculations extend the "flashing orange hand" portion of the walk. The preceding "walking man" time varies, but is never less than seven seconds in Minneapolis.

City staffers already are undertaking a massive data collection effort across the city to help with the systemwide retiming, a multifaceted effort meant to improve the experience for both pedestrians and drivers. Minnesota Department of Transportation crews also are in the process of measuring each of their intersections across the state in order to eventually change the times accordingly.

Why did the federal government make the change? John LaPlante, a Chicago-based consultant whose work informed the change, said 4 feet per second is the average walking speed, meaning about half of the population could not walk that fast. Slow it down to 3.5 feet per second, and 85 percent of the population can keep up.

The decision has taken on more weight as baby boomers enter retirement age.

"As our population continues to age, it's just critical that communities are providing safe opportunities for people to cross the street and walk to destinations, as well as for recreation and health," said Scott Bricker, executive director of America Walks, a national nonprofit that aims to "make America a great place for walking."

Ronnie Bell, chairman of the signals technical committee for the organization that issues federal traffic guidelines, said the new speed recommendations -- they are not requirements -- cover a broader swath of walking speeds.

This will certainly help

"You can't necessarily design for every person that may walk," Bell said. "But this will certainly encompass a larger percentage of the walking population and accommodate their travel speeds."

It's not just the elderly and disabled that travel slower. People with small children, like Ebony Taylor, who was wheeling baby Jayden in a shopping cart outside Lund's last week, also need more time to make it across the street.

"It's more so in the downtown area that we don't have much time to cross. I think we have like 10 seconds," Taylor said. "And that's hard when you have an infant."

City engineers expect downtown timing changes to be complete by next summer, while other neighborhoods may take longer. Jessica Wiens, a MnDOT spokesman, said their work will take six months to a year.

City traffic engineers are bracing for much larger changes than just retiming as part of the $16 million overhaul, which will be largely funded through a federal grant. It's the biggest change to the city's traffic system since 1974, when traffic control was first centralized in Minneapolis.

Just west of Target Field, inside the city's traffic management center, about 800 red and green lights illuminate three giant panels of city streets to show which signals are operational. Around the corner, a computer the size of a chest-freezer is the system's "brain," telling lights around the city to modulate their patterns based on the time of day.

The management center is getting a complete overhaul to install 21st century technology.

At each intersection with a traffic signal in Minneapolis, large gray or yellow cabinets contain the controllers that coordinate the lights. Some still have 1940s-era technology in which dials rotate to trigger light changes. The city will install 221 digital controllers that allow them to continue operating even if they get disconnected from the cenral system.

The city is also experimenting with a new pedestrian-friendly signal pattern in Uptown. At the intersections of Hennepin Avenue and Lake Street and Hennepin and Lagoon Avenue, pedestrians now have a four-second head start on cars headed in the same direction. That means pedestrians will be able to advance far enough into the crosswalk that drivers can see them before they start their turns.

Eric Roper • 612-673-1732 Twitter: @StribRoper

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