Why you should care about Nicollet Avenue

The 13 cities of Minneapolis

Many people think there is only one city called Minneapolis.  They are wrong.  There are 13 cities called Minneapolis, which share staff and facilities but each of which is governed its own executive who directs staff according to his or her whim.

What effect does this multiple-mayors municipal framework have?  The City can publish any number of documents that pertain to policy and the 13 mayors can all ratify those policies.  Then each of the 13 mayors can go back to his or her own little fief and do whatever he or she wants.

Why does this matter?  Well, say you are an organization that advocates for multimodal accommodations in transportation infrastructure, and say you just spent hours and hours of staff time advocating and working with the city on their Design Guidelines for Streets and Sidewalks.  Your work paid off, as the resulting policy document states on the first page that “[T]he intent of the design guidance is to foster the practice of providing complete streets that support and encourage walking, bicycling and transit use while promoting safe operations for all users.” [boldface and italics in original]  Seems like a fairly strong promise that this policy will translate in to concrete improvements that protect and encourage walking, bicycling, and transit use, right?

What policy dictates, er, suggests

Nope.  In practice, the 13 mayors are allowed to follow or ignore citywide policy in their own individual Minneapolises.  Technically their decisions can be vetoed by a majority of the other 12 mayors, but the other 12 mayors are loathe to override one of their fellow mayors’ decisions in fear that their own decision is similarly overridden someday.

Three significant street reconstruction designs have been approved since the completion of the Design Guidelines in 2008.  The first, for Chicago Ave between 14th and 28th Streets, generally followed the recommendations in the Design Guidelines.  Lane widths stuck to the 11′ required by MnDOT, with parking lanes generally provided throughout.  Exceptions were made for quirky spots, for example where intersections are offset.

The second design, for Riverside Avenue, was more of a test for the Design Guidelines.  Riverside is a relatively constrained right-of-way with heavy demand by users of all kinds of transportation.  This created conflicts between different guidelines, so in order to provide the minimum recommended facilities for pedestrians, for example, they had to ignore their recommendation to provide on-street parking whenever possible.  As a result of this compromise, a more versatile street was designed, with the potential to make more diverse groups of users happy.

The third design, this time for Nicollet Ave between Lake and 40th Sts, was approved by the City Council a couple weeks ago.  The original design was pretty much by the book, using the narrowest lane widths and including bump-outs at the corners.  After a lengthy community input process, which apparently mostly involved talking to businesses, the guidelines were set aside.  The proposed lane widths got wider and the bump-outs were removed.

Design Guidelines by definition can be set aside.  In fact, the Design Guidelines document outlines a detailed process by which the template design can be modified to meet needs specific to the segment.  The modifications on Nicollet Ave cannot be justified as specific to that corridor, however.  I haven’t been able to find any rational explanation for why the lanes ended up wider – the closest I’ve seen came from CM Glidden:

o  Driving lanes space is more than state standard width, designed to safely accommodate buses, trucks and cars at in-city speeds

Of course the state standard was developed to safely accommodate buses, trucks and cars – if it didn’t, it wouldn’t be used as a standard.  In addition, the through lanes approved by the City Council are exactly the “state standard width” of 11′; only the parking lanes are about 2′ wider than the state standards.  By increasing the lane widths, is Minneapolis now saying that parking lanes less than 12′ wide are unsafe?

The reasons given for removing the bump-outs are in fact reasons, but they are either ignorant of the function of bump-outs or are effects of bump-outs regardless of where they are located, and therefore not contradictory to the reasons the Design Guidelines strongly recommend them (the document uses boldface and italics for only one recommendation:“Curb extensions are recommended on all streets where on-street parking is allowed.”).  Here are the only reasons I’ve seen for why the bump-outs were removed, again from CM Glidden, with each reason rebutted by me in italics:

§  Effectiveness of snow removal around the bumpouts and concern for resulting loss of on street parking

This segment of Nicollet Ave does not see significantly higher levels of snowfall than the rest of the city.

§  Inclusion of boulevards and narrowing of the street from original width lessens need for bumpouts

The primary function of bump-outs is to increase visibility of pedestrians; as long as parking is allowed (and corner parking restrictions are rarely enforced) visibility will be limited, regardless of street width.

§  Bumpouts may discourage bicycle traffic;  bicycles are anticipated to be a regular mode of transportation to many properties on Nicollet

I’ve already explained why this line of thinking actually encourages unsafe cycling; more relevant is that heavy bicycle use is as specific to this segment of Nicollet as snowfall – actually increasing cycling is a citywide goal.

§  Bumpouts may need to be added in the future if streetcars are re-implemented on Nicollet (current streetcar technology recommends extending the curb to the streetcar stop for safe entrance).

This of course isn’t an argument against bump-outs but rather an acknowledgment that bump-outs will eventually be constructed.  I haven’t seen any evidence that building bump-outs now that may need to be modified in the future is any more expensive than not building bump-outs and adding them later (in fact the latter option is certainly more expensive if the street is constructed to drain to corners).

could be considered complete

So it seems the Design Guidelines were set aside not as a response to local conditions, but at the whim of a councilmember, responding perhaps to a short winter or a vocal business association.  Policy is a slippery slope; if it’s ignored once it becomes easier and easier to ignore it in the future.  That’s why the passage of Complete Streets legislation has had no practical effect on streetscapes; even if it’s led to a short-term interest in multimodal design (I haven’t seen evidence of this), in practice an engineer could include a cow path next to a highway and call it complete; a bike lane could be squeezed into a gutter and called complete; and bus riders… well, I’ve never seen any street design in Minnesota that took buses into account (pull-outs or “bus bays” don’t count – they exist solely for the convenience of motorists)…

The Minneapolis Bicycle Master Plan is more or less just Chapter 11 of the Design Guidelines for Streets and Sidewalks, and while it is much more detailed than most of the rest of the document, its recommendations can be just as easily ignored as the bump-out provision.  Bit more snow than usual?  All of the sudden there’s no more room for bike lanes on 38th.  Popular new restaurant?  Maybe those sharrows on Johnson will conflict too much with parallel parking, after all.  Some ward could elect a Rob Ford, and he could decide to ignore the Bike Master Plan altogether.

The advocacy community has worked too hard to allow their gains to be swatted away by some petty ward chief.  Cyclists, pedestrians and transit riders need to support each other to ensure that every bike lane included in every city policy document is striped, every heavily-used bus stop gets a shelter, and every corner gets a bump-out.  We probably can’t change the weak-mayor system, but we can change the mind of each mini-mayor towards consideration for bikes, pedestrians and transit.

In conclusion, I promise this is the last post I’m going to write about Nicollet.

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2 comments on “Why you should care about Nicollet Avenue

  1. Steve Gross says:

    This is ridiculous and unacceptable. I guess this is the problem with “guidelines” rather than “statutes”. Statues have the force of law. Guidelines are just suggestions.

    We need a central planning authority with the guts to truly enforce the vision. There is no excuse anymore not to use curb necks (“bumpouts”). There is no excuse to have wider-than-necessary lanes that eliminate real estate for bike lanes. There is every reason to truly embrace multi-model use of city roads. Let’s make this happen!

  2. [...] it doesn’t matter what I think – Betsy Hodges’ opinion is what really matters here.  Understandably, she will likely base her opinion largely on the attitude of her constituents [...]

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