MINNEAPOLIS, Minnesota, USA

It was Saturday afternoon and I needed to mail a letter to Japan. Most post offices close at 1 p.m. on Saturday, but I figured at least one would be open. Minneapolis is a big city after all, right?

The USPS website directed me to the following branch, open until 11 p.m. on Saturday. What great news!

US Post Office
TWIN CITIES
5001 NORTHWEST DR
SAINT PAUL, MN 551113032 (map)
There was a catch. This post office branch is located at the Minneapolis-St. Paul Airport (MSP). The thought of 10-miles of highway driving and dealing with airport parking seemed more trouble than it was worth. So I grabbed a book and my Metropass, hopped on a bus to Downtown, and caught the Blue Line to the airport. Upon arriving at Terminal 1 Lindbergh Station (map), I re-checked the directions; according to Google Maps, it would be an easy 6-minute walk to the post office. I headed out the door and could instantly see the USPS eagle logo across the way.
The Google Map directions proved to be inaccurate, so I improvised, making my way past a low building that led to the a wide stretch of pavement. This was the exit for the airport’s main parking garage. I was encouraged by the clearly marked crosswalk painted on the ground. Few cars were exiting the gates, so I easily made it across. At the end of the crosswalk I reached a two-lane road with cars whipping by at near-highway speed. There was no crosswalk, no bridge, and no discernible option for getting to the post office by foot.
Below: The promising crosswalk in front of the airport parking payment gates would lead to a (legal) dead-end.
Minneapolis St Paul MSP Airport post office parking gates
One thing was clear: a sign on the edge of the road that read: “No Pedestrian Crossing per order of Airport Police” (or something to this effect. I didn’t take a picture of it for fear of being arrested. I’m a bit of a coward in this regard. In the post-9-11 world, I’m terrified of taking photographs of airports, police officers, oil tankers, or anything that could conceivably be construed as an act of pre-terrorism. I recall an Australian tourist who told me that his camera was confiscated by police in New York City for taking photographs of the George Washington Bridge).
Below: The path described by the yellow and red lines is 350 meters. The red section is just 75 feet, and is both dangerous and illegal to cross.

MSP airport USPS post office walking directionsI’m a law-abiding man, but I’m also a stubborn man of principle, especially when the principal in question is my right to move from Point A to Point B using my feet. Here I was, standing a stone’s throw away from the post office, and there was no safe or legal way to get there. I had traveled 10 miles from my apartment, a 50-minute trip via public transportation. I wasn’t about to turn back because of a mere 75 feet deemed uncrossable by airport police. To avoid breaking the law I suppose I could have hired a taxi, but I doubt they would have taken such a cheap fare. I elected to break the law, of course.

After a few moments, a gap in the traffic appeared and I sprinted across the road. When I reached the post office I  felt covered by a veil of suspicion, as if my lawless pedestrian ways would be detected by the car-driving staff and customers. After mailing the letter I went back outside and re-crossed the road, breaking the law for a second time.

It is frustrating that the only post office open on Saturday afternoon in the Twin Cities is inaccessible to people without cars. It is even more frustrating knowing that it would be accessible were it not for a stretch of just 75 feet. This “transit gap” is one of the most egregious I’ve ever encountered.

The issue of pedestrian safety and the “right to walk” has been gaining attention over the years. Stories like mine are an annoyance to people who enjoy walking and have a preference for public transportation. However, such stories can become a matter of life and death for low-income people who cannot afford a car and must live car-free in a car-oriented world. In an infamous case, a mother was convicted of vehicular homicide for “letting” her 4-year-old son get killed by a drunk driver:

“A 30-year-old woman in Marietta, Georgia was convicted of vehicular homicide this week – and she wasn’t even driving a car. The woman was crossing the street with her three children when a driver, who had been drinking, hit and killed her four-year-old. The driver, Jerry Guy, was initially charged with “hit and run, first degree homicide by vehicle and cruelty to children,” Elise Hitchcock of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported. “Charges were later dropped to just the hit and run charge.'”.Source:  Georgia Mom Convicted of Vehicular Homicide For Crossing Street With Kids, Streetsblog USA, July 14, 2011

The United States is a strange place.

We have so many safety rules and regulations, yet we seem intent on making walking as difficult and as dangerous as possible. Much of the blame obviously lies at the feet (or tires) of our car culture. But some blame should be attributed to our inability to accept low-tech, provisional solutions. For example, in a developing country, the solution to crossing a small creek would be to lay a piece of scrap wood across the water. In the United States we would have committee meetings, environment impact studies, consultation with ADA standards, and ultimately the project would be deemed unfeasible. All this, when a single piece of wood can do the trick.

Granted, this is a bit of a straw man, but I believe there is some truth in it. Furthermore, I have seen examples of makeshift pedestrian solutions that would never be found in today’s United States.

HANOI, VIETNAM

Vietnam is famous for its dense motorbike traffic. Many pedestrian crossings lack stop lights, and people wade across multiple lanes of traffic, comfortable in the knowledge that the drivers are aware of them and are expecting them to cross. During my visit to Hanoi I was initially terrified of crossing the street, but I soon got the hang of it and found it to be fun. In the following example, the traffic is lighter than usual, but it’s easy to focus on the single pedestrian as she calmly navigates within feet of the moving vehicles.

I don’t advocate Vietnamese traffic patterns – in fact, I anticipate they will pose a major challenge for the country as motorbikes are replaced with automobiles – however, I include this to illustrate that the behavior of vehicles towards pedestrians is markedly different in Vietnam compared with the United States. When I was at the airport in Minneapolis-St. Paul, crossing that 75-foot road was a somewhat reckless act because the cars were not expecting me. In Vietnam, crossing the road would have been far easier.

Another amusing example of pedestrian life in Hanoi can be seen in the two pictures below. This ladder is part of the path recommended to me by Google Maps when I asked it for the most direct route to my hotel. I laughed when I saw the spindly iron ladder hanging from a concrete wall. I tugged on the ladder to test its strength, then merrily scaled the wall – all in the spirit of adventure and research. Even this mini-adventure was safer than what I experienced at MSP airport.

TOKYO, JAPAN

Japan, which is far more modernized than Vietnam, also has its share of low-tech solutions to pedestrian access. In a previous post I wrote about the tunnel near Shinagawa where most are forced to duck.

Similarly, just east of peaceful Senzokuike Station 洗足池駅 (map), there is a footpath that passes directly under the train tracks. The clearance is quite low, maybe 5 feet, so you have to crouch pass through the short distance. Furthermore, the only “ceiling” separating you from the passing trains is a thin metal grate and the railroad ties above it; this made it especially exciting to stand under the tracks as trains passed by. Despite the spartan appearance and awkwardness of crouching, this path gets plenty of use due to its convenience. Like the ladder in Hanoi, it stands out as something unlikely to exist in modern America.

FIRST CLASS COUNTRY

When it comes to walkability and public transportation, the United States is embarrassingly far behind most “first world” countries. And developing countries, too. For instance, the subway from the airport to the center of Bangkok is far better than anything New York City airports have to offer. Given America’s abundant, flat land, it is understandable that sprawling, car-oriented suburbs would grow at the expense of public transit investment. But what isn’t understandable is why American road builders go to such lengths to make walking difficult. Walking is one of the most simple activities in the world. Yet so often in this country it is more difficult than driving a car.

Why do I need a car to mail a letter?

Links & more:

Injustice at the Intersection, DISSENT, December 18, 2014

Pedestrians Dying at Disproportionate Rates in America’s Poorer Neighborhoods, GOVERNING, August 2014

Atlanta: Unsafe at Any Speed; Transit Fatality Raises Issues of Race, Poverty and Transportation Justice, By Laurel Paget-Seekins (2012)

Below: Senzokuike 洗足池, in Tokyo, is a lovely pond that gives the station its name.

Crossing the street in Hanoi at night:

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