Joe Urban | Sam Newberg, Urbanist

The Green Line is a Sweet Ride – The Problem is Getting There

Dateline: 4:49 pm June 25, 2014 Filed under:

Cruising high above the Mississippi River on my first Green Line light rail ride was something I may never forget. It felt so…right. Some may find it absurd to hear me say it is worth the billion dollars just to ride it across the Mississippi. But think about it – a meaningful transit investment connecting the state’s largest downtown with its largest University (and on to St. Paul!) makes sense, and it only took 150 years and $1 billion to do it. Despite some timing issues, the train ride itself is sweet. The problem lies in getting there. $1 billion later, the Green Line prioritizes vehicles first, trains second, and pedestrians third. I hope these issues can be resolved, though I’m not sure it will be as easy as Bill Lindeke suggests.

Here are a few examples, and some suggested solutions.

Much has been already made of the time it takes to get from one end of the line to the other. 48 minutes! Why should we fixate on 48 minutes and the tiny minority who make the entire trip from end to end? We shouldn’t, but this causes needless waiting and confusion at every station. As an example, two of the three eastbound trains I saw approaching Westgate Station had to wait more than 30 seconds for a green light before actually reaching the station. Not only does 30 seconds at every red light really start to add up, inside the train the announcement of Westgate Station occurs before the intersection. What I witnessed was when the train stops for the red light, one passenger heard the announcement and thought she was at the station, so she began to frantically push the “open door” buttons on both sides of the train, only to be patiently told by another passenger that they weren’t even at the station yet. These red lights cause delay and confusion. If I wanted to wait at a red light, I’d ride the bus.

The solution? Provide signal preemption for trains. Fix this problem and fix it now. There is no reason why a Green Line train (or Blue Line, for that matter) should have to wait for a red light. Anywhere.

No escalators at the West Bank station? Really!? Only New York City does this, and that’s because the subway is ancient. Is this some sort of discrimination against supposedly fit college students that they can take the stairs?

Solution – install an escalator.

I find it really unfortunate that the Downtown East station doesn’t have a central platform for transfers between lines. If you are traveling from the University to the airport, you must get off the Green Line westbound train, walk off the end of the platform and cross the tracks to get to the eastbound platform.

Solution – this one is tough. Too bad we can’t make the NFL and/or the Minnesota Vikings pay for the rebuilding of the station with a center platform.

At several points along the Green Line I observed an unnecessary abundance of beg buttons. Traffic engineers and transit planners need to sit down together and understand that we don’t wake up on the train. We all need to get there somehow. That means we walk, and it usually involves crossing at least one street. I find having to apply to cross the street insulting anywhere, particularly when a billion dollar transit investment is within view.


The most egregious example is found at 29th Avenue and 4th Street. If you step off the Prospect Park station platform on the 4th Street side, you are greeted by a beg button to get across one sparingly-used lane of 29th Avenue to cross.

Sam - Baby

Solution? Get rid of all beg buttons and the signal at 4th Street and 29th Avenue.

Even when you don’t need to apply to cross the street, conditions for pedestrians are lacking. Lo and behold, as our train cruised along Washington Avenue through campus, I didn’t see a soul obey the horribly timed pedestrian crosswalk signals. Why should they? Once you’ve identified whether or not a train is coming, with no cars on this street there are very few hazards, so just walk! covered this prior to the line opening, and the problem persists.

I happen to agree with David Levinson: either crosswalks should default to “Walk” unless a train is coming, or better yet, all signals should be eliminated.

I was, however, very pleased to see all the people in the Washington Avenue median enjoying themselves. The median is a landscaped area between the tracks in the heart of the East Bank, complete with tables and benches for lounging about, eating, people watching. They were being used as intended.

2013-04-25 13.27.59

At Berry Street, I sat inside the Dunn Bros and watched the crosswalk right outside the window. Passengers getting off the train would leave the platform and, rather than go out of their way to press the poorly placed button to apply to cross the street, they’d just apply common sense and look for cars streaming down University Avenue. If none were approaching, they’d just cross. This video succinctly shows what nine in 10 people I saw do. Part of the problem here is the 90-plus-second light cycle. Why wait that long if you don’t have to, particularly when the curb you’re trying to reach is 20 feet away and you can make it across in two seconds!? Doing so may be safer than waiting for the Walk sign anyway, since a pedestrian who chooses to cross “illegally” is very likely looking carefully up the street before doing so, whereas on a Walk signal one may assume they are safe only to be struck from behind by a car turning left on a green light.


Solution? I don’t really have a suggestion for this one.

University Avenue has several marked crosswalks where pedestrians must put their lives in the hands of drivers barreling down two lanes of traffic. I tested two of these crosswalks, one near Westgate station and one near the Raymond station. Keep in mind state law says cars must yield to any pedestrian in a crosswalk – but don’t jump out in front of a vehicle that cannot stop in time (good advice). The key word is “in.” I could stand next to the street all day and traffic would never have to stop for me unless I put a foot in the crosswalk. True enough, in actual practice I find that cars either know this rule, don’t see you, or don’t care – or the road is built wrong. Whatever the case, the only way I found that worked was to step in to the street. Doing so with two lanes of traffic coming at you at 35 MPH is not for the faint of heart. But it worked. I made it across without getting killed or even honked at. My apologies to those drivers who stopped for me – I didn’t smile or wave at you as if to say “thank you for stopping for me!” because goddammit I had the right of way and we were simply acting as citizens should act towards one another. It’s hard enough to get one car to stop for you at these crosswalks, but that second lane makes the situation inherently dangerous and this needs to be fixed.


The best solution to this issue is reduce University Avenue to one lane in each direction. Wishful thinking? Not if we prioritize pedestrians and transit.

Hands down my least favorite approach to any station is the lighted crosswalk at Carelton Street. This is about a half block east of Raymond Avenue, at the west end of the eastbound platform. I got off the train at the Raymond station and decided to test the crosswalk application process. After all, traffic engineers had gone out of their way to signalize this one, presumably for pedestrian safety. I pressed the button and started counting. Ten, twenty, thirty seconds passed. I finally just crossed to the sidewalk, but continued to count. It took more than one minute to change. I think flabbergasted is the right word for how I felt.


Worse yet, this produces a dangerous situation, as I witnessed standing near the Carleton Street crosswalk a minute later. An eastbound Route 30 bus pulled up and let someone off short of the crosswalk. She obviously was in a hurry to make a light rail connection. She hurried toward the crosswalk and looked back up University to see if it was safe to cross, but the bus still hadn’t left so it blocked her view. She pressed the crosswalk button…nothing. The bus driver witnessed this and honked, waving her across. She started across, making it to the platform just as a car in the left lane whizzed by. I won’t pretend to know whether that driver saw her or not. All I know is he didn’t slow down, she didn’t get hit, but the entire situation needs a solution.

This is the most spectacular pedestrian failure on the Green Line. It is probably the most fixable. Just ensure the light responds to the button within a couple seconds.

The overall layout of University Avenue leaves something to be desired. With the train occupying major fixed infrastructure in the median, often with a wall, and traffic engineers insisting on two lanes of traffic in each direction, moving traffic gets this two-lane expressway in which to freely operate, and there is precious little room is left for the pedestrian. Look at this photo. Is this pedestrian realm good enough? Would you let your child walk there? Would you walk there? Even I don’t like to, and I’m supposedly a risk-taking male in my thirties who shouldn’t mind this sort of thing. I can’t see how sidewalk seating can ever proliferate in a setting like this. We’re lucky to have trees!

2013-05-22 10.28.47

By the way, with two fast moving lanes of traffic, where do bikes go? The sidewalk. I tried biking on University for a short spell (I have the legal right to occupy the entire lane, right?) but I thought the better of it. A bikeway one block off University could work, but the destinations are on University. As a result, bikers ride on the sidewalk.


The solution? Reduce University Avenue to one lane in each direction. The curb lane can still accommodate bus stops, but give it over to on-street parking and some big fat curb bumpouts that include benches, garbage bins, and nice attractive planters, and a few bollards here and there if necessary. Reduce the speed limit of University to 25MPH, and maybe you’ll even have enough room for a bike lane. You’ll definitely get more sidewalk tables as a result.

The funniest thing I heard on my first Green Line ride was pulling in to the East Bank station, a young man looked up after hearing the station announcement and said aloud, “there’s a train to St. Paul now?” Poor guy was just trying to get to Franklin Avenue and accidently got on the Green Line not knowing it even existed.

Solution? None. The social interactions on the train are sometimes priceless.

All said and done, I strongly believe building light rail connecting the downtowns along University is a good idea, and I support the Green Line and the potential it has to transform the city around it. But we need to be able to get to it more safely and sanely. It seems as though in many places it is neither safe nor sane to reach the train on foot. It feels like the overriding question designers of this line were asking was “how do we accommodate this train and these crosswalks while still moving traffic smoothly?” when the question should have been “how do we get people to the train?” The common thread in all of the examples I’ve given is a car-first mentality (even when there are no cars present like on Washington Avenue) and a lack of acknowledgement of how humans walk in a city. Putting pedestrians first, trains (and bicycles) second and cars a distant third is possible; whether it is politically feasible is another matter. We need a people-first mentality when designing transit, because after all, people ride trains.


  1. […] I missed my post last week. This is what I meant to write. This was crossposted at Joe Urban. […]

    Pingback by The Green Line is Wonderful but a Challenge to Access on Foot | — June 25, 2014 @ 5:31 pm

  2. I crossed at the Raymond/Carleton light you describe. Pushed the beg button and waited maybe 20 seconds before crossing since there was no traffic coming. It finally turned about a minute later. You are so right — it’s crazy.

    Comment by Daughter Number Three — June 25, 2014 @ 7:17 pm

  3. […] While the Green Line has proven to be successful among riders and popular for developers, some place-related issues persist, although progress has been made on some of […]

    Pingback by Joe Urban » Blog Archive » Transit-Oriented Development: Quality Over Quantity — November 20, 2014 @ 3:08 pm

  4. […] While the Green Line has proven to be successful among riders and popular for developers, some place-related issues persist, although progress has been made on some of […]

    Pingback by Transit-Oriented Development: Quality Over Quantity | — November 20, 2014 @ 4:01 pm

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