Aitkin had a problem.
Pedestrians trying to cross Aitkin’s expansive Minnesota Avenue, the city’s main street, made it midway before a flashing red hand made them think they couldn’t make it safely to the other side.
The walkers were so law-abiding, they returned to the sidewalk where they started instead of crossing the entire street. Or maybe they just wondered if being a pedestrian in a society where the automobile rules was a little like playing a game of Frogger and they didn’t like which side of the equation they were on.
For pedestrians, the time allotted to cross the street can mean the warning signal indicating the time is nearly up is ignited long before they reach the other side.
But technology is lending a hand of its own.
In Aitkin, the Minnesota Department of Transportation (MnDOT) listened to the concerns, including those from the main street business community, and made a wchange.
The old signals displayed a person walking and then a raised palm of a hand to show people when to walk and when to stop. Now a countdown shows the walker how much time they have left to cross the street. The changes are part of the Americans with Disabilities Act but aren’t typically applied until a street is reconstructed, like Highway 371 in Baxter last year.
Mark Korwin-Kuczynski, MnDOT transportation specialist in traffic operations based in Baxter, said the old pedestrian signal buttons, placed on the columns near the sidewalks, allowed people to push the button to signal a need to stop the traffic. Korwin-Kuczynski said those buttons do work. If no pedestrians are there to push the button and no cars waiting on Highway 169 at the red light to signal the need to change, the green light stays lit on Highway 210 to keep traffic flowing. The signal stop in Aitkin has long been known as the only such intersection light in Aitkin County.
The same thing is true for the main line in Brainerd and Baxter, which is how MnDOT refers to Highway 371. Until cars start to line up at the stop light from secondary side streets, the signal light will only turn and stop traffic on Highway 371 for a brief time. Pedestrians need to push the button to alert the signal to stop traffic for them.
“It just makes the whole system work much more efficiently,” Korwin-Kuczynski said.
The next generation pedestrian buttons are also changing how people access their ability to stop traffic. Those new pedestrian stations are a standalone pole model complete with signs and push buttons. They’ve come out from the recessed spots on signal light columns into their own.
Because of the concerns raised in Aitkin, those pedestrian stations are going in earlier and not waiting for a construction project. The new pedestrian stations were put in on Excelsior Road in Baxter.
Changes in how pedestrians interface with traffic is getting an overhaul as construction projects provide opportunities for upgrades. A noticeable change is the new raised panel embedded into the sidewalks just before they go into the crosswalk on the street. The panels, with raised buttons, are designed to let people who are sight impaired notice they are nearing the intersection. The pedestrian station makes a sound to help direct the individuals across the crosswalk. Those new pedestrian signals will be part of the Highway 371 road construction upgrades coming in Nisswa and Pine River.
The countdown for those crossing the street assumes a person is traveling at a pace of 3.5 feet per second.
Korwin-Kuczynski said: “We have received quite a few comments from the city of Aitkin and they say they really like it now.”