The lowly crosswalk has a short life span in Minneapolis. But that may be about to change.
The city’s 4,000 markings must be repainted nearly every year, a somewhat Sisyphean task carried out by a jovial crew of public works employees in the dead of night. But salt, ice and plows from the recent harsh winter wasted no time erasing last year’s work, then the cold delayed resumption of painting this spring — leaving many intersections barren.
Just ask Scott Engel, a member of the city’s pedestrian advisory committee, who has been taking pictures of faded lines across the city.
“This year it’s worse than normal,” he said of the crosswalks, a tiny refuge of safety for pedestrians on bustling streets otherwise dominated by cars.
At the advisory committee’s urging, city leaders are now considering whether to transition from latex paint to the use of more durable — and expensive — materials. These heavy-duty crosswalks would be melted onto the street with heaters, in some cases, or just glued there.
“I think it absolutely should be a priority,” said City Council Member Kevin Reich, chairman of the city’s transportation and public works committee, who is pushing for extra funding in next year’s budget. “In the end it’s one of those things where I think you invest some now. I think we can reap benefits later.”
Most Midwestern cities still rely on paint for crosswalks, although Minneapolis uses it more than others. Ninety-eight percent of Minneapolis’ markings are painted, compared with 80 percent for St. Paul’s 2,000 marked crosswalks. Milwaukee, Madison and Des Moines each hovered around 80 percent in a recent Minneapolis survey of other cities.
But the story is very different in New York City, which uses heated plastic to create longer-lasting lines at nearly every one of the city’s 100,000 crosswalks. San Francisco, Philadelphia, Denver and Portland, Ore., also rely almost exclusively on durable materials.
Kelley Yemen, who used to work as a planner in New York City, is now Hennepin County’s bicycle and pedestrian coordinator. She observed that because painting is limited to the warmer months, some crosswalks painted in the fall don’t even make it to spring.
The advisory committee recommended that more of the work be done earlier in the season, although the number of crosswalk-focused employees (about three) and vehicles (two) limits how much can be done. “I was intrigued by the idea of coming up with a better system,” Council Member Cam Gordon said during a recent committee hearing.
Having barren intersections has implications, particularly as city leaders press more people to abandon their cars for walking, biking and mass transit.
“The drivers aren’t aware that that is a pedestrian crossing location, even though all intersections are crosswalks by law,” Yemen said. “It really highlights where they should be expecting them. It also communicates to pedestrians that this is … going to be the safest location for pedestrians to cross.”
The durable materials are significantly pricier, however. Steve Mosing, the city’s traffic operations engineer, said latex costs about 50 cents a foot compared with $6 or $7 for more durable markings. Those materials last upward of five years, however. The city spends about $150,000 a year on crosswalks, and Reich said he was not sure how much more the durable materials would cost.
Minneapolis has started experimenting with durable materials at several intersections, including Franklin and Lyndale avenues. Other pedestrian improvements around the city include using bollards to reduce crossing distances at intersections, timing some lights to give pedestrians a head start and using flashing beacons to warn cars of pedestrian hot spots.
Although most crosswalks are simply lateral lines, pedestrian planner Mackenzie Turner said the city is also examining whether to use more “continental”-style markings, which resemble keyboard keys.
The night shift
Reed Mayfield was recently painting crosswalks at 7th Street and 1st Avenue N. downtown, a job he has had for 26 years. He said the durable styles are good but pricey.
Most people are sleeping through what he has experienced during his long career working the night shift, from shootings to police chases and odd encounters with random people. “There’s a lot of strange things going on out here,” said Mayfield, who retired last year but has returned to help train a new crew.
He learned how to lay the paint in the 1980s using a Harley-Davidson motorcycle owned by the city. It overheated too much, he said, so the city switched to the three-wheel vehicles currently in use.
The small motorcade of vehicles drives around the city four nights a week in the warmer months, tackling up to 50 crosswalks in a shift. During the winter the team manufactures traffic signs. Potholes and oncoming traffic are the biggest frustrations during painting season.
“If you hit a bad hole, your line could look like it might hourglass,” said painter Joe Casey, referring to a line that narrows and widens. As he laid a strip across 1st Avenue, he took pains to ensure that the vehicle was lined up perfectly with the markings, then activated a nozzle attached to the side of the machine.
So is it frustrating to know your work will quickly disappear? “It never bothered me,” Mayfield said. “You know you’re going to have to redo stuff. That’s why they hire us.”