Crossing Larpenteur Avenue on foot can feel downright treacherous: four lanes of swiftly moving traffic with no medians where a pedestrian can take refuge. Even if one driver stops for you, there’s no guarantee that motorists in the other lanes will yield.

Earlier this year, the problems posed by the busy street — also known as County Road 30 — were tragically underscored when two people were struck and killed while crossing.

For all those reasons, Ramsey County, with the blessing of St. Paul on one side of Larpenteur and Roseville on the other, is converting a bustling stretch of the road from four driving lanes to two, along with a dedicated left-turn lane.

Crews also will add new bike lanes and medians at different intersections to aid safe crossing.

Reducing the number of lanes is often called a 4-to-3 road conversion, or a “road diet.” According to Hennepin County, such a conversion typically reduces crashes by 33% to 50% and leaves room for a buffer between sidewalks and moving vehicles.

Putting roads on a diet, said Erin Laberee, a Ramsey County engineer and deputy director of program delivery, makes them “safer for both pedestrians and vehicles. We do see a reduction in severe crashes. There is some increased congestion because of it, but the trade-off is worth it.”

A portion of Maryland Avenue (aka County Road 31), a St. Paul artery that sees nearly 20,000 vehicles per day, underwent a similar reduction last summer after a pedestrian fatality. Officials plan to study Ramsey County’s entire grid for more possible 4-to-3 conversions.

Hennepin County has been reducing traffic lanes on a dozen county roads in the past decade in Minneapolis and its suburbs. Six more slimmed-down roads are in the works, including Brooklyn Boulevard and Nicollet and Portland avenues, and more are under consideration.

Do we need that capacity?

The road diet concept has been around for decades, said St. Paul traffic engineer Randy Newton. But it’s the public and political appetite for safer neighborhood streets vs. de facto freeways that has changed in recent years.

“The general acceptance of it has only grown over the years,” said Newton, noting that St. Paul is examining the concept for some city-controlled streets. “It’s looking at roads and saying, ‘Do we need all that lane capacity, or can we shrink the road to better serve other uses?”

The number of walkers injured by vehicles also has grown, by more than 20% in the past decade to 1,056 in 2017, according to Minnesota Office of Traffic Safety data. Of those injured in 2017, 42 died.

Even so, at a recent open house to discuss reducing lanes on Larpenteur between Rice and Dale streets, neighbors had a lot of questions not just about safe streets but longer waits in traffic. About 13,000 vehicles travel that stretch each day.

“Change can be challenging,” Newton said. “There was a lot of concerns about the operation of the roadway.”

On slimmed-down Maryland Avenue, traffic surveys determined that cars were waiting only about a minute longer. But slimming down is not right for every street, and some thoroughfares are just too busy to reduce, Laberee said.

“There is a point where the system just breaks down and fails,” she said.

Both safe and connected

Richard Holst, chairman of the transportation committee for the North End Neighborhood Organization in St. Paul, said he’s in favor of lane reduction on Larpenteur to improve safety.

“I am more worried about my children being hit by a car than anything else,” he said. “A lot of these car accidents in the North End have been on those four-lane roads. It’s the double threat. One car stops and the other doesn’t. It seems to happen pretty frequently.”

He said that 4-to-3 conversions are a wise and economical way to improve safety for the growing number of seniors, children, people with disabilities and those just walking to bus stops.

“We need to make it safe for the people most vulnerable in our community,” Holst said.

Ramsey County Commissioner Trista MatasCastillo last year campaigned for her seat, in part, on pedestrian safety. She now regularly attends rallies and street crossings hosted by Stop For Me, a yearlong campaign to improve pedestrian safety organized by St. Paul’s 17 district councils, St. Paul Smart Trips and the St. Paul police.

MatasCastillo, a St. Paul mother of five, said she strongly supports infrastructure changes, including lane reductions to improve safety, because many drivers don’t seem to get the message. She said she’s been shocked by angry drivers honking and yelling at Stop For Me activists crossing the street, often with police officers leading the way.

“The solution isn’t enforcement, it’s road design,” she said. “Neighborhoods need to be connected, and they need to be safe.”