Robert Street medians

Is Robert Street Safer?: Exploring the Numbers Since Reconstruction

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When West St. Paul Mayor Dave Napier first decided to run for city council 10 years ago, reversing the decline of the city’s main corridor was one of his top issues.

“I could name every business on Robert Street that was failing,” he said. “I felt it was really important and worth the investment,” noting that other city leaders shared a similar vision.

And while the much-debated reconstruction has revived businesses and attracted new development, many residents remain unconvinced of the project’s second goal: To improve safety.

Data from the Minnesota Department of Transportation show that for drivers, the plan is working. 

But for people who walk, bike, or use transit, the benefits are so far a little more difficult to determine.

Why a Median?

Robert Street is a state trunk highway, which means the Minnesota Department of Transportation (MnDOT) led the design process. And prior to the reconstruction, Robert was considered a “high-crash corridor,” with significantly higher crash rates than would be expected. From 2006 to 2014, there were more than 1,100 crashes with three fatalities on the corridor.

Like roundabouts, the median was a strategy to reduce the severity of crashes, not necessarily the number of crashes. One study cited by MnDOT in conversations with the city said adding medians on streets like Robert could lead to a 12% to 22% reduction in injury crashes.

That’s because instead of high-severity crashes like T-bones or head-on collisions, streets with medians tend to see lower-impact crashes like sideswipes or low-speed rear-enders. (A 2018 MnDOT presentation to City Council made this clear.)

So, Did it Work?

I reached out to both the West St. Paul Police Department and MnDOT for data on crashes along the corridor. In analyzing this data there are some important caveats to consider:

  • Traffic was down in 2015 to 2017 due to construction, and in 2020 due to the pandemic.
  • Speeding and reckless driving have increased since 2020, both locally and nationally.
  • While crash data is compiled annually, traffic counts are only conducted every few years.

One thing we can say with relative certainty is that the proportion of injury crashes has fallen. For the four-year period prior to construction (2011 to 2014), injuries were reported in 36.4% of crashes. In the four years after (2018 to 2021), that has fallen to 29.6%. That means the rate of injury crashes fell roughly 20%, in line with MnDOT’s prediction.

There has been only one fatality since construction, a 2017 incident where a motorcyclist died after crashing into a left-turning car at Robert and Butler.

Injury vs. non-injury crashes on Robert Street.
(Data source: MnDOT)
Injury crash rate before, during, and after construction.
(Data source: MnDOT)

Overall, the total number of crashes is trending downward. But the most recent traffic data for most of Robert Street is from 2017, so we can’t say with precision how much the rate of crashes has fallen. 

But we do know that the number of crashes isn’t increasing, despite an uptick in aggressive driving as well as more economic activity on Robert Street.

And for the purpose of reducing the severity of crashes, the median is working as designed.

What About Pedestrians & Bikes?

While the reconstruction made significant improvements for pedestrians, the road is primarily designed to move cars quickly—with wide lane widths, broad corners, and signals spaced a quarter-mile apart.

Those long distances between crossings mean jaywalking is a reality. But both anecdotal evidence and data say the real danger is at the intersections.

“I walk a lot and I’ve almost been hit by cars in crosswalks even after looking back before walking multiple times to make sure they see me,” said West St. Paul resident Sara Hillstrom. “It’s clearly the walk symbol yet they still turn.” 

Napier, who said he’s walked along the corridor several times, affirms that crossing the street legally can still be perilous.

“You have to have your head on a swivel,” Napier said. “It’s very nerve-wracking.”

A report prepared for the West St. Paul Police Department by the Dakota County Office of GIS found a total of 23 reported collisions involving pedestrians and 20 involving bicyclists from 2012 to 2020, mostly at major intersections. That’s a very small number compared with the more than 1,000 vehicle crashes during the same period, but there are also far fewer people walking on any given day than driving.

There aren’t any official counts of pedestrians or bicyclists on Robert Street, but  Metro Transit boarding data can provide a proxy. For bus stops along Robert in 2019, there are roughly 835 boardings per day on weekdays, 574 on Saturdays, and 403 on Sundays. If we assume 25,000 people per day travel on Robert Street by car, that would mean that in 2019 a pedestrian was three to four times more likely to be hit by a driver than they would be to get into a crash if they were driving. 

While that’s a ballpark estimate, it aligns with research showing that high-speed, multilane “stroads” (a combination of “street” and “road”) lined with residences and businesses tend to be the most dangerous for pedestrians.

Also, the street does not have any accommodations for bicyclists. State law prohibits bicycles on sidewalks in commercial zones, and the roadway itself is not the most inviting place to ride. So the only way to navigate the corridor by bike is via a mix of side streets and parking lots.

Napier said space limitations made it difficult to create bike facilities without acquiring more right-of-way.

“We were really tight on that corridor,” he said. “We did it as safe as we could.”

Napier acknowledged that with hundreds of units of new housing being built along the corridor, there will likely be more urgency around pedestrian safety. 

“We have so much more to do but I see it being a very vibrant place in the future,” Napier said. “I know the gamble we took paid off.”

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