A woman walked across the tracks as a Green Line train with its horn blaring rolled into the station. Two teens dashed across three lanes of University Avenue against a red light, dodging traffic while trying to reach a city bus. Two women with kids in tow walked between the tracks and across Snelling Avenue from one platform to the other, not using crosswalks.

Such misbehavior has been documented by three University of Minnesota graduate students as part of a semester-long project exploring factors that lead pedestrians to circumvent the features at rail platforms designed to keep them safe. They also found places where those protections fall short.

“We saw people jumping over gates,” said student Ryan McCoy. “We expected to see somebody jaywalk. We did not expect to see people walking down the middle of a six-lane highway, right down the center between the tracks. It’s the cost of compliance. What’s likely: getting hit or having to wait 30 minutes? With the train, they don’t understand the risk.”

McCoy and classmates Brian Fitch and Justina Cline were inspired to look at pedestrian safety at light-rail stations after Shana Buchanan was hit and killed Aug. 31 by a Green Line train near the Westgate Station. In April, Senate employee Lynn Thomas was killed by a train while crossing University Avenue at Snelling.

The trio found that station design might be one factor that has led to 45 accidents and the two deaths since the Green Line began running a year ago.

Many of the stations along the Green Line are split, with the westbound platform on one side of an intersection and the eastbound platform on the other. Passengers have to walk across one to three streets and up long ramps to reach a platform.

At the Westgate station, for example, there is no direct access to the eastbound platform from Emerald Street. Riders have to walk to Bedford Street, cross University Avenue, then walk a block back to the station. That tempts riders to hop the wall at Emerald and walk in unsafe places, either on the tracks or in the street.

“The ramps and barriers don’t make sense for the routes users would take,” Cline said. “You need to match the users’ goals with what you want them to do.”

Better signs would help

A painted route marker and better signs would help, the group says. Larger signs visible from several hundred feet may discourage shortcuts because riders would know how much time they have to reach the platform via the proper path.

Some signs were below eye level, and riders looked right past them. Others were not obvious or provided contradictory information. For example, the group found one sign that directs exiting passengers to a pedestrian path with a “don’t walk” sign immediately above it. Another plays a warning sound before a train is visible and does not indicate the direction the train is coming from. As a result, pedestrians ignore it, the group said.

“There are some design modifications that could make the Green Line safer,” Fitch said.

Of course, all the safeguards in the world will not be foolproof, but the group hopes safety improvements can be made on the Green Line and incorporated into plans for the Southwest Light Rail line and the proposed extension of the Blue Line.