Buses and railroad crossings

Buses are required by law to stop at railroad crossings (except where exempted, such as the light rail tracks on University Avenue in the Twin Cities). This is for safety reasons, the law was implemented in Utah for school buses after a terrible accident. The Deseret News reports:

DeVon Andrus of Cedar City wrote, “I endorse everything said about the safety on school buses. However, there are a few of us who remember a day in December 1938 when the worst school bus accident in the history of the United States occurred in Sandy, Utah. As a result of this accident, laws were passed in every state regulating bus travel when crossing railroad tracks. … Bus drivers were required to stop and open the door, look both ways and listen before crossing the tracks. …”

I know “safety first” and laws like this help keep us all alive, but sometimes they are applied too much.

Railroad Crossing at Franklin Avenue SE
Railroad Crossing at Franklin Avenue SE

There is a railroad crossing on Franklin Avenue in SE Minneapolis which is part of a spur, which used to have very few trains, and now has approximately none since the building it served (Bemis Products) is being converted housing (Brickhouse Lofts). Yet the tracks have not been removed, since the railroad (I suppose) might want to use the spur as a siding to store railcars sometimes.

Dozens of times each day school buses and Metro Transit buses and Metro Mobility buses decelerate, stop, look for non-existent trains, and accelerate again. This wastes time and energy, increases the wear and tear on vehicles, and pollutes the environment (with associated public health effects that probably exceed the safety benefits in these cases).

Is there a way to either (a) get railroads to pull up their unused track and abandon the right-of-way in a more timely fashion, (b) exempt more low volume tracks from the stopping requirement? [Clearly “exempt” signs are allowed, they just don’t seem to be implemented as widely as they might be.]

Are our roads really more congested | StarTribune

Tim Harlow, of the StarTribune’s The Drive column asks if “our roads are really more congested?” and interviewed me:


Of course, almost every time a report on traffic comes out, it makes the headlines. But how do we make heads or tails out of them when they seem to contradict one another?

“They are not necessarily contradictory,” said David Levinson, a professor of civil engineering at the University of Minnesota. “They all have different data, but they are measuring roughly the same thing.”

The differences can start with how the report makers define congestion. MnDOT defines congestion as traffic flowing at speeds less than or equal to 45 miles per hour. TomTom defines it as increased travel time when compared to free-flow conditions.

The data used to compile reports comes from different sources, too. MnDOT uses loop detectors embedded in the pavement while INRIX uses GPS data. Another difference is that the INRIX report looked at traffic volume and delays while MnDOT’s congestion report details the location and percentage of freeways experiencing daily congestion.

New business or housing developments can alter traffic flow in areas, making roads that were adequate suddenly become packed, creating the perception that congestion is getting worse.

“You might see more this year because the economy has picked up, but generally it has been flat and has been for a while,” Levinson said. “If it gets too bad, people will change their behavior. … There are limits on how bad the congestion can get.”