Darkness had just arrived as I set out for the co-op on Central Avenue in northeast Minneapolis one recent evening. The cold air seems good for my head, which feels a little overheated these days.
I passed a heavy-set Latino man walking a step slower than I on the sidewalk, but he caught up to me on the curb at the Lowry Avenue intersection. I stared up at the street light above us, watched it go yellow, then red. A couple seconds passed.
I took a step off the curb, for some reason still looking up at the light and not down at the ground.
“Wait,” I heard the man say behind me. “Stop.”
Before I even knew why he’d said anything, I froze. And a black sedan blew through the intersection at 35 miles an hour, a dark missile passing just under my hooded eyelids. The blurry object looked like a mid-2000s Dodge, which was a coincidence, because there was no way I could’ve gotten out of its way. Had I taken that next step, the one this kind guardian angel instructed me to postpone, I would’ve been on the car’s hood. Splat.
Had I stepped into that crosswalk I’d be in a hospital—that is, if I’d lived—and this light-runner would be in jail or on the lam. I thanked the man who saved my life, then shook his hand, which was easy because I couldn’t get my hands to stop shaking for the next 15 minutes.
“Why was he going so fast?” I asked.
“These people,” the man said, waving his hand in a swinging, circular gesture, “they are all crazy.”
Damn right, sir. I’ve spent a lot of the past month on long walks through Northeast. On almost every major thoroughfare of this quadrant (Broadway, Central, Johnson, Lowry, and University), I’ve watched drivers speed, make dangerous lane changes, roll through stop signs, look down at their phones, and, on a daily basis, blow through red lights.
Don’t take this personally, but: A bunch of you are out here driving like selfish, overconfident, homicidal assholes, and the net effect of all these dangerous decisions is… what? Shaving 180 seconds off your commute to happy hour?
I’ve come close to getting hit a half-dozen times, and in each near-miss, it was clear it was my turn to go. As a friend’s grandmother used to scold: “The morgue is full of people who had the right of way.”
The intersection where I almost got plugged out of existence, Lowry and Central, was the site of 11 car-pedestrian crashes from 2007 through 2016, three of them “major,” meaning someone suffered serious bodily harm. (Let’s assume it wasn’t the driver.)
It’s sort of hard to accomplish that, hurting a human body badly, unless you’re moving at a good rate of speed.
“If they’re driving below 30 [miles an hour] and a car hits you, you’re likely to break your ankle,” says civic geographer and “sidewalk philosopher” Bill Lindeke. “If they’re above 30, you’re likely to be killed.”
And about 6,000 American walkers were in 2016. That’s a 27 percent increase from 2007. Meanwhile, all other forms of transportation are getting safer; road deaths fell by 14 percent during that same decade. Our cars are smarter, safer, and more crash-ready than ever. And yet it’s never been a more dangerous time to step off a curb.
Lindeke has his guesses as to why: We’re still obsessed with SUVs, which offer victims no mercy, plus we can’t stop looking down, eyes off the road, seeking directions/restaurant menus/texts/tweets/Grindr meet-ups.
My near-death experience came as no surprise to Kevin Reich, who’s represented Northeast on the Minneapolis City Council for most of this dangerous past decade. Reich’s been trying to make streets safer, but explained the crazy-making hurdles: Minneapolis has almost no control over its streets. Outside one stretch of Hennepin Avenue, none of the city’s major streets belong to it. Lowry Avenue is a county road, meaning it’s under Hennepin’s guardianship.
And Central? That’s technically a state highway, a long stretch of 65 that just happens to slice through foot-traffic-heavy neighborhoods where people get groceries, stumble out of breweries, and teach their kids how to ride a bike.
To fix that intersection, Reich would need Hennepin County and the Minnesota Department of Transportation to take out their wallets. (So far: not interested.)
Reich, who got around without a license until age 30, is proud of his artsy, creative, entrepreneurial little corner of Minneapolis. He knows a lot of these people. Admires them. Worries about them getting home safely.
“It’s not even a matter of, ‘Do we want to attract urban millennials who want to live and get around in a walkable, bikeable neighborhood,’” he says. “They’re already here. It’s not a matter of, ‘What if we’re going to grow bigger, and denser?’ We already are.”
Not long ago, Minneapolis Police ran a traffic sting on Johnson Street, cracking down on speeders. Cops handed out 150 tickets in a matter of days. If any of those drivers learned a lesson, they’re not showing it. Not in treating University Avenue like a drag race where every competitor must, by rule, be holding a 24-ounce cup of Caribou Coffee at all times.
Both Minneapolis and St. Paul have signed up for “Vision Zero,” a national program aimed at “eliminating fatalities and severe injuries” to bikers and walkers. City bureaucrats and engineers are studying our poorly drawn, horrifically outdated curbs and crosswalks, finally trying to figure out how to help people get to the other side. There's even a pledge, one calling on drivers to “Slow down while driving and be alert to people walking and bicycling,” among other edicts.
I’ll add another: Running late? Just show up late. (Don’t you dare grab your phone to text “running late.”) Say you’re sorry when you walk in. Let whomever you’re meeting roll their eyes. Know that you might’ve spared a life.
And a vulnerable one, at that: Lindeke’s research into who’s getting hit by cars suggests victims are overwhelmingly likely to be poor, a person of color, a woman, elderly, or disabled. Those are the people moving through the city without cars—often because they can’t afford one.
“They’re just trying to get around,” Lindeke says. “There’s an equity angle to it. But then again, everyone’s vulnerable. Hey, even Mike Mullen can get killed out there.”
He really, really does not want to.