Six cars waited in a circle around Duluth's East High School flagpole and five cars lined the curb outside the main entrance on a recent afternoon as a trickle of students leaving the building became a deluge after the end-of-school bell.
As the students headed out to start their weekend on Sept. 18, they gathered at the corner to cross 40th Avenue East at Luverne Street. A boy teased a girl and then zipped across the intersection on a skateboard, past yellow-vested crossing guard Eric Braun - a new addition this school year as the first step in alleviating car-and-student congestion around the school.
Braun stood in front of stopped cars holding up a fluorescent orange flag and 16 pedestrians, four bicyclists and two skateboarders made their way across the avenue. A group of boys gave Braun high-fives, saying "You're a legend!"
Braun stepped back on the curb and another group of students began to amass on the corner as cars moved through the intersection. An adult walked quickly into the crosswalk and, noticing that, Braun just as quickly stepped into the crosswalk to stop traffic while telling the adult to wait for him. (The adult replied that he was going and if the cars hit him, "it's like hitting a moose.")
Twenty minutes later, the students and after-school traffic had vanished, except for a lone bicyclist leaving the school who pulled up to the intersection and waited for Braun to go into the crosswalk before she left the curb.
James Gittemeier, senior planner with the Metropolitan Interstate Council, watched the scenario unfold from a few feet away. "It's dramatically different than last year," he said.
Last school year came to a close with parents speaking up about their fears that a student eventually would be hit by a car at the school due to congestion on surrounding streets. Traffic regularly backed up around the school while students weaved around vehicles while crossing 40th Avenue East.
Gittemeier, who is facilitating the process to decide on solutions to the problem, said the new crossing guard helps address the danger of students crossing the intersection of 40th Avenue East and Luverne Street, the top concern expressed last spring.
Comparing his observations last spring to the students' behavior when a crossing guard was present, he said, "That was pretty amazing to see."
East Principal Laurie Knapp said having a crossing guard has been going well so far this school year.
"It's had a positive impact not only on improving the safety for our kids as they're crossing that busy intersection, but it's also had an impact on the flow of traffic, so I think it's a good addition," she said. "The safety of kids at school, our children, are our No. 1 priority and I'm glad that what we're doing right now, while it may seem small, is having a big impact. I think the kids are feeling safer and having an adult out there on the corner has made a huge difference."
Knapp said she's heard that most of the students are respectful of Braun and are following Braun's direction when crossing the intersection.
"It gives them a sense of security to have an adult out there helping to make sure the cars going up and down 40th will stop for them in the crosswalk," Knapp said.
Parents also have commented that traffic is flowing more smoothly, she said.
An adult at the intersection with a vest, flag and radio is a person of authority to the high school students and adds control into the situation, Gittemeier said.
"Students take the path of least resistance and the crossing guard creates a path of least resistance," he said.
The school's administration has been working with Gittemeier to consider other changes for the roads around the high school, such as adjusting the timing of the stoplight at London Road and 40th Avenue East to keep traffic from backing up on the avenue during dismissal time, Knapp said.
Knapp pointed out that they're working on solutions, which takes time and patience.
A plan of short- and long-term solutions will be based on five categories of issues that surfaced during a May community meeting: lack of a drop-off and pick-up zone, concerns about pedestrian safety, a clogged main school exit, poor driving behavior and a lack of student parking.
Recommendations haven't been formalized yet, but the next step is to meet with the city of Duluth's engineering department to discuss possible changes, Gittemeier said.
An option being considered is adding school zone speed limit signs on 40th Avenue East. Vehicles move fast on the avenue and "to me, that's a concern," Gittemeier said. Speed limits in school zones should be lower than 30 miles per hour because a pedestrian is more likely to survive if they're struck by a vehicle, he explained.
Changes to East's parking lot also may be considered. Gittemeier said too much traffic is being squeezed in and out of the parking lot in a short timeframe. Switching some of the teacher and student parking areas has been discussed, but a consensus on that idea hasn't been reached yet.
Another idea that may be considered is changing the layout of the entryway to the school off 40th Avenue East because it allows vehicles to move quickly around the corner into the parking lot, putting pedestrians into conflict with those vehicles, Gittemeier said. He said the distance between curbs in that area leaves pedestrians vulnerable for too long a time, and he'd like the school to add a buffer between cars and pedestrians.
The intersection at 40th Avenue East and Superior Street has some odd angles and can be less comfortable for pedestrians to cross than other intersections, Gittemeier said. He suggested that the placement of Duluth Transit Authority bus stops might be worth reviewing, to see if changes could improve access between the stops and the school.
Adding a traffic signal at 40th Avenue East and Luverne Street was suggested last spring, but would only be needed for a short time at the beginning and end of the school day during the school year, Gittemeier said. Besides the cost - estimated at about $200,000 - if a stoplight isn't needed on a regular basis, drivers may begin to run red lights and that undermines the legitimacy of the system, Gittemeier explained. He also noted that stop signs and stoplights can statistically increase the crash rates and severity of crashes at an intersection.
District officials also inquired if the school's block of 40th Avenue East could be closed to non-school traffic during the school day, but that poses challenges because of the important role the road plays for the entire neighborhood, Gittemeier said.