Why isn’t anyone talking about an Olson Memorial Bikeway?

Some people think that Minneapolis has more than enough off-street bikeways. I’m not one of those people. Though I’ve been cycling the mean, car-choked streets of this city for over ten years, I’m never more comfortable on two wheels than when I’m on one of our off-street trails. Streets are intrinsically pervasive, so there are only so many opportunities for off-street infrastructure, and I’m not holding out for the day when the entirety of all my trips are in the comfort of an off-street bikeway.

But where there is potential for development of an off-street bikeway, it should be snatched up. That’s why I’m puzzled that no one has mentioned the idea of building a bikeway along Olson Memorial Hwy. It should be a no-brainer – long segments of this road have wide open space buffers along them that are currently used for absolutely nothing (with the exception of one pigeon perch). Where the open space buffer (obviously intended as future interchange space) is missing, there’s a 30′ wide frontage road, which can easily give up 10′ for a two-way lane separated with candlestick bollards (the aerial google had up as of this writing shows exactly 8 parked cars on the 4500′ of frontage road on the south side of the highway west of I-94). So substantial segments of this bikeway (around half) would be separated enough to have the feel of an off-street bikeway.

morgan-knox olson bikeway

The I-94 overpass is a trouble spot, as MnDot built it with 105′ of roadway and only 15′ for sidewalks (7.5′ on each side). There is a significant amount of right-turning traffic onto the frontage roads on either side, though, so it seems like one of the through lanes could be converted into a second right turn lane, allowing the through lane on the overpass itself to become a two-way lane. The eastbound outside lane appears to be 14′ wide, which would allow a nice buffer.

i-94 overpass olson bikeway

East of I-94 it gets a bit tighter. The open space buffers are ample for the first block, but after that it’s hampered by a bank drive thru on the north and another road on the south. Still, there are options here. In the short term, one of the lanes from the horrible frontage road stump of Royalston can be used for a two-way cycle track. If some engineer demands two lanes at the intersection, the center line can be moved and one eastbound lane reallocated to westbound (or whatever direction you want to call it). Royalston, after all, gets by with one lane in each direction for the rest of its short length, so it should be fine here. In the long term, however, this area should be reconfigured so that the frontage road stump of Royalston no longer exists. Here’s my idea for how to do that, or here’s what the Southwest Transitway Station Area Planning process came up with.

olson royalston bikeway

A curb cut will need to be built to connect to and across 7th St, probably using the huge porkchop island to cross into the HERC block. At that point it’s within the boundaries of the Interchange project, another long stretch of government-owned land that seems to have been planned with no consideration of locating bike facilities there. It’s been hard to find a detailed or consistent site plan for this project, but this one is the latest I know of. There appears to be a good chunk of open space, probably underneath a future Bottineau viaduct, on which to site a 12′ trail approaching from the west. Depending on how the grades end up working, the trail could then share space with one of the redundant motor vehicle access points, leaving only a short gap of what is presumably open space to connect to another motor vehicle access point. There may be a few tight squeezes here, but brain power is cheaper and usually even easier than buying power, so overall this is an excellent opportunity.

Moving across 5th St, it would have been nice to reserve some space on the Shapco block for bikeway, but it seems that they needed to maximize the amount of grey and beige they could fit on that site. There should be enough space on 5th Ave N, though, as the existing roadway is about 50′ wide. That leaves room for 18-19′ thru + parking lanes (the existing parking lanes are 8-9′ wide) with 12′ for a two-way bikeway with a bollarded buffer. The tricky part here is the rough paving surface – it looks like it’s just asphalt that’s been laid on top of brick haphazardly throughout the years. Hopefully they could do another layer on top for a temporary fix, but if not, it’ll be a long wait before the street is reconstructed since it’s not on the CLIC report at all.


The next segment is most iffy part of the whole proposal. The bikeway would need to cross the huge chasm created by the I-394 stump and the Cut. There is, of course, an existing pedestrian bridge, but it’s only 6 or 7′ wide, so would either need to be a dismount zone (yeah right) or extensively modified. It may be possible to cantilever the existing ped bridge – I don’t have a solid grip on this process, but I believe it has been done on this type of bridge (concrete girder) before. If 5′ could be added, it would still be a bit narrow, but doable. Unfortunately no amount of cantilevering will fix the squeeze point at 2nd Ave N, where the ped space is shoehorned into 6′ between a building and a concrete wall. I’m hopeful that eventually the road space allocated to the viaduct here can be reduced, especially since much of it seems to be going to a merging lane that ends before long anyway, but that is certainly a long-term prospect.

After that we’re in the home stretch. 3rd & 4th Sts already comprise a bikeway known as the Hiawatha Trail extension. I can’t leave well enough alone, or rather, I think we deserve better, so I would advocate for protected facilities here to replace the existing paint stripe. Any type of protection will do, but I have a thing for the type of curb-separated two-way bikeway popularized in Montreal (and since spread to Seattle). These are generally better than protected one-way lanes because of their size (i.e. 14′ or so rather than 8′ or so). This makes them more visible, which makes them more legible to users, easier to understand and avoid for other roadway users, and it also makes it possible to plow with standard equipment.  When the alternative would be a one-way protected lane on each roadway of a one-way couplet, it also is more legible in that you can just assume the facility is on one street rather than have to keep track of which direction is on which street.

I’m not aware of any near-term plans to rebuild 3rd St, so it would have to be retrofitted to handle this facility. This can be done by reducing it to two traffic lanes, which should be done throughout Downtown to maximize the comparative advantage of transit, biking and walking (Minneapolis has an extremely high private car mode share for its job density). Then lanes can be slimmed to provide about 15′ for a two-way bikeway with a candlestick bollard buffer.


When the street is reconstructed, the sidewalks should be widened to at least 15′ to accommodate the streetlife that hopefully will someday exist here. Then a parking lane should be dropped, since terminal facility availability and cost are a big part of that crazy huge private car mode share. We still have room for an ample bikeway, with two through lanes and a parking lane to ensure the smooth flow of traffic. 3rd-st-rebuiltIf all the elements I’ve discussed here are carried out, Minneapolis could have a high-quality, low-stress, legible bikeway bisecting the city. Cyclists would have a comfortable, no-turn ride from Wirth Park to Minnehaha Park. Even if the connection over I-394 and the Cut are found to be unfeasible, a bikeway along Olson would still connect to the wide bike lanes on 7th St, providing an excellent route through Near North. But none of that will happen until the conversation starts, and maybe I’ve done that with this post.

Minnehaha and the sad state of Twin Cities streets

Today on streets.mn I write about Hennepin County’s half-assed new design for Minnhaha Ave, and their pathological use therein of one of the dopiest beasts in my menagerie of pet peeves: bus pull-outs. On probably one out of every four bus trips I take, I witness some schlub motoring recklessly around a bus and into some crosswalk, careless about the pedestrians that might be there that he or she has no way of seeing. That’s every other day I witness this personally, and spend most of my time on the bus staring at a piece of paper covered in ink markings.

There are other horrors of the roadways that I experience on a daily basis in Minneapolis. Related to the Crosswalk Plunge described above is the Half-cocked Hook, where a motorist completes most of a turn but slams on the brakes right before entering the crosswalk that’s occupied by a pedestrian that the motorist didn’t care to look for. This happens to me daily. Literally every day. Of course I already described in probably my greatest ever piece of writing that slimy piece of human garbage known as the Crosswalk Creep. I encounter this scum I would say once or twice per mile of walking.

All of this adds up to some truly terrifying (in the literal sense) and constantly frustrating walking conditions in Minneapolis. So why not just ride a bike? Well, because I encounter at least one bike lane blockage per ride. At least one driver buzzes me per ride. And on top of that, bikes also have to deal with Half-cocked Hookers who have no idea how to judge the speed of a cyclist so they delay their turn until just when the cyclist is entering the intersection. On a bike I probably get that every second or third ride.

This is not an inherent quality of city life. I’ve walked in countless cities that are more congested but don’t make me fear for my life with every step. This is an inherent quality of living in one of the most sprawling cities on earth, where there are entire municipalities of people who think it’s their god-given right for the government to provide them with an unclogged road to anywhere they want to go with a free, easy to find parking space at the end of it, and without having to pay a dime in taxes for it. That’s why a bike lane here and a bump-out there isn’t good enough. No, when the walking is deadly and the biking is deadly and the buses are only good for homeless shelters, but the streets are kinda bumpy, you don’t take new revenue and put it into filling potholes. At least you don’t if you’re a leader with integrity. You put it into the modes that have been marginalized and underfunded for decades. At least you do if you’re a leader with integrity.

That’s why it’s frustrating when there’s an opportunity to entirely rebuild a street, because that’s exactly when they should be optimizing streets for these historically marginalized modes. But instead we see stuff like the design for Minnehaha, which is much better for pedestrians, about the same for bikes, and much worse for buses. There has been some progress in the last 10 years, but we’re coming from way behind, so we can’t afford to let any opportunity pass us by.

Giveth and Taketh Away

A pleasant surprise awaits weary crossers of the Plymouth Bridge, after many months of narrow laned, jersey barriered tribulations, as they drift down the gentle sand plain bluff:


What’s that in the distance? Through the hazy heat lines of a brutal Minnesota summer I think I glimpse an oasis on that bridge:


These are easily some of the most badass bike lanes in the city. They took one of the four previously-existing 12′ lanes on this bridge, made 1-2′ of it into a big ole candlestick bollard buffer, cut off a good 4′ of that heinous gutter pan, and left a solid 6′ of riding space.


Such a quality facility should not exist in a void, so it’s too bad that the City didn’t put in sharrows or advisory lanes on 8th Ave NE when they resurfaced it last year. At the very least they should extend the lanes to the lanes at Marshall. The roadway appears to be 44′ there, which makes it a bit tight, but surprise surprise the parking on the north side of the street is rarely used, fronting as it does two blocks’ worth of parking lots. Would it really be a big deal to cut the parking on the north side of the street and extend these awesome lanes to Marshall?

…Taketh away

Just because I can’t be entirely complimentary, here are also photos of a cop cam taking up the entirety of the bike lane on University on Frat Row:


I’m all for spying on frat houses (although this cam was strangely aimed at the U’s new pseudo-frat dorm), but maybe they could have used one of those three through lanes? Or how about that sod farm to the right? To be fair, the bike lane symbols have long since warn away here, so maybe officer Bulleigh from Andover just assumed this was a shoulder, not a bike lane.

If Washington Ave doesn’t deserve bus lanes, what does?

According to Hennepin County, around 7,500 bus riders will travel on Washington Ave at peak hour (4:30-5:30 PM) between Hennepin and 35W on an average weekday in the year 2035. For some perspective, that’s about the same amount of cyclists estimated to ride the Washington Ave Bridge on a typical day, which is the busiest location for cyclists in Minneapolis. To be honest, I’m not really sure where Hennepin County got that number, but they mention something about Metro Transit estimating 30 passengers on an average peak hour bus, and if that’s true, that means around 5,000 riders are commuting by bus on this segment of Washington at peak hour today, which would seem to rival the number of cars.

These numbers are fuzzy, obviously, but it seems clear that a large number of people are riding transit on Washington Ave. So why isn’t Hennepin County proposing a layout that would benefit that mode? In fact the four proposed layouts actually make things worse for transit by moving most bus stops to right-turn lanes, where they face the delay of having to pull in and out of general traffic, and where riders face the safety threat of vehicles turning right around the bus.  Besides the sheer number of existing transit trips, there are other reasons that a responsible analysis of options for Washington Ave would include dedicated bus lanes, which I’ll detail below.

Preparing for battle

Preparing for battle

The Gateway Ramp is a major bus layover facility. Part of the fuzziness of the bus rider numbers above, I think, is that they assume average occupancy for the buses running on Washington, about half of which actually pick up and drop off most of their passengers on Marquette or 2nd, so run mostly empty on Washington as they access the Gateway Ramp to lay over. Even if they’re not carrying passengers on Washington, though, it is important to the passengers they pick up later that they not encounter congestion, so their eventual passengers will benefit from dedicated facilities that allow them to be picked up reliably. In addition, the Gateway Ramp has been apparently been designated as a layover facility for an unspecifiedly enormous number more buses so that the City can do what it wants with the Nicollet Hotel block. That likely means that 30-60 additional buses will be soon be traveling on Washington between the Gateway Ramp and Hennepin Ave, relying on a congestion-free route to deliver timely service. (The Gateway Ramp is also a convenient place for the up to 6,000 employees in Ryan’s recently proposed development to catch an express bus.)

Clustering transit and providing dedicated lanes on Washington will maximize the impact of transit investment, create a more legible system, and improve route spacing. Hennepin County’s analysis provides a depiction of the bird’s nest of transit routes on Washington:

Page 13 from DRAFT Traffic Operation Analysis - Apr2013This diagram should set off alarms at Metro Transit. If transportation engineers need to create a diagram like this to understand the network structure, what chance does a lifelong suburbanite retiree who just bought a condo on Washington have? Bus lanes would offer reassurance to confused riders that yes, they can catch a bus on this street. If Metro Transit were to use the bus lanes for its various archaically routed local services that use Washington for a portion of their trip already, it would be able to focus shelter improvement money on this one street instead of spreading it between several (not that there is any apparent shelter improvement on the downtown segments of these routes currently). This would also have the effect of maximizing frequency (a rider traveling between 7 Corners and Hennepin could catch any of 3 routes), adding legibility (riders would not have to memorize where the 7 & 22 turn off of Washington), and spacing (the thousands of new housing units being added to the Mill District face a long walk to convenient transit service).

These advantages are recognized and supported by the City of Minneapolis, which recommends reorganizing downtown transit to cluster along three corridors they call spines (a biological metaphor that becomes less apt the more spines you have). The buses running closest to the riverine edge of downtown are left as they lay, probably out of inertia. Yet these services would benefit from “spining” too, and perhaps more, since lower-frequency services will gain more from higher effective frequencies due to clustering. I have made a table of the number of buses at the peak hour on Washington Ave by segment and direction, based on data from Hennepin County, but adding a spine scenario, which assumes the 3 and the 7 proceed along the length of the corridor and the 22 travels on Washington east of Hennepin (it also adds the 14 west of Hennepin as it travels today but was not included in the Hennepin County data for some reason; I’d add that it may make sense to add the 14 to this spine west of Chicago or 11th Ave S).

pm peak bus load avg headway washingtonIn the segment where reconstruction is imminent (outlined on the table), average headways are expected to be three minutes or less at peak hour in 2035, and are currently under one minute for all but one block in the westbound direction. The spine scenario brings average headways in each direction to under 3 minutes, and by 2035 both directions of Washington will carry a bus  less than every 2 minutes. These are really substantial bus volumes, unlikely to be exceeded by any Nicollet Mall, Hennepin, or the main E-W bus spine. So why are those streets candidates for bus facilities (even if they’re half-assed ones), but not Washington?

Of course, most of this service could cluster on 3rd or 4th Sts instead of Washington, but those seem to have fewer advantages and more disadvantages. Briefly, Washington connects better to the remainder of the routes on the east and west ends, which means less delay caused by turning. 4th St is an awkward distance from the LRT stations on 5th St, too far for first-time users to see the transfer stop from the station, and also too far to really work as combined effective frequency, yet not spread enough for the larger portion of downtown to benefit. Washington is convenient to the two fastest-growing neighborhoods in the state, and with this effective frequency could provide easy access for the residents of these new dense buildings to regional transit (LRT or Highway BRT). Finally, in order to fit (ideally two) bus lanes on 3rd or 4th, you need a curb-t0-curb width that leaves too little space for sidewalks. Currently the sidewalks are reduced to 10-12′ on these streets, whereas the wider right-of-way on Washington would allow for ample sidewalks in addition to the bus facilities.

But assuming we continue our practice of ignoring the huge current use and future potential of bus transit, why should we prioritize transit rather than bikes or cars? Well, Washington is actually not as connective for cars & bikes. OK, there are a pair of big freeways on the each side of Downtown that make it a convenient route for cars, but even those are duplicated by other exits a few blocks away (or will be soon). In terms of surface connections, it’s also not very useful for cars. As I’ve argued before, and as residents tend to agree, Cedar is inappropriate as an auto commuting route. North Washington has some destinations, but is superseded by 2nd St by the time it gets to Plymouth Ave (certainly North Loop destinations don’t generate enough car trips to justify 3 lanes).

For bikes, too, Washington is not ideal as a through route. Of course the U of M is a big destination, but to reach it from Washington you need to turn at least twice and/or carry your bike up the stairs behind Willey Hall. A better U of M connection to Downtown is CPED’s (possibly abandoned) proposal for a path in the trench that would connect to the LRT trail at Curry Park, which would maximize connectivity and have the greatest separation. Even if you could somehow create a surface route between Washington and the U of M, it would likely be slower than a trench route and the LRT trail because of the left turn and all the stoplights. Anyway, the LRT trail is likely to be at least as important a source of bike trips into downtown as the U of M (or at least that’s the goal), and Washington both connects poorly to it and is out of the way for people trying to access the core (requiring two left turns).

3rd St would work best for a regional bike facility that goes through downtown (unlike West River Parkway, which bypasses it), especially because 3rd St offers connections to the Northside that Washington doesn’t. As noted above, Washington itself kind of peters out as a frontage road to I-94 north of Plymouth Ave, but even the parts that are there will be difficult to retrofit for bike facilities – certainly it wouldn’t be able to do any better than duplicate the lanes that exist on 2nd St N. 3rd St, on the other hand, connects directly to the LRT trail on the east, and with some additional cantilevering of the sidewalk along the 4th St Viaduct could connect directly to the Cedar Lake Trail and be extended across the Cut and through the Interchange to the bike lanes on 7th St N, basically the main bike route between Downtown and the Northside (it could also connect to the off-street trail that could logically be placed along Olson Hwy, but doesn’t seem to be in anyone’s plan for some reason).

washington or 3rd bike routes

Of course people will still want to use bikes and cars to access destinations on Washington Ave. Bus lanes actually work really well for this since they are used heavily primarily at the peak hours, and at other times they can be flexed for other uses, including parking. A bus lane works much better for bikes than a general traffic lane because there are typically far more gaps between buses than cars. At rush hour on Washington you wouldn’t want to bike the length of the street, but the minute gap between buses will allow you to bike on one of the ample adjacent facilities on 1st, 2nd, 3rd, or 4th, then up one of the north-south bike routes (for example 1st, Hennepin, Nicollet, 4th, 5th, Portland, Park, or 11th), and then the one or two blocks remaining to your destination. I would suggest 16′ shared bus-bike lanes, separated by a solid white line except for the 150′ or so before right turn intersections, and symbolized by a diamond. 5-6” advisory bike lanes could be striped to guide cyclists toward the left side of the lane to minimize the amount of leap frog, and a 1-2′ mountable curb could be placed between the Shared Bus-Bike Lanes (SBBLs) and general traffic lanes to provide a buffer for cyclists and to discourage the spread of congestion by stupid or greedy motorists.

Would all this fit? For the most part, yes:



SBBL configuration

SBBL configuration

You can add SBBLs and fit within the right-of-way and have sidewalk space at least as wide or wider than most of Hennepin County’s proposed layouts and what is there now. SBBLs are an ideal compromise solution that provide for the existing and future demand of cars and transit, but also provide a more comfortable space for bikes and opportunities for parking. It is a shame that Hennepin County only does planning for transportation by car instead of transportation for all, or there may have been a possibility for a holistic solution that would be appealing to a larger group rather than their special-interest focused layouts.

If a street that carries 15,000 transit passengers in a typical day – as many as some light rail lines in the US – doesn’t deserve dedicated bus lanes, what street does? Is it realistic to expect that the maybe 50 miles of light rail being developed in the Twin Cities will be able to shift the millions of daily trips here to a lower-emission mode? Buses are crucial to our current transit system and will continue to be crucial to our future transit system, which represents our best hope for achieving environmental and equity goals through transportation policy. If one of the cycle track options is built, I will certainly enjoy riding it to Grumpy’s every once in a while. But if the Washington Ave process means that the Twin Cities is just shifting from focusing all transportation planning on making it nice to drive to focusing all transportation planning on making it nice to bike, I’m taking the first bus out of here to someplace that plans transportation comprehensively, without mode bias, and with an eye towards societal goals.



Downtown 2025: The Future is Now

King of the Urbanists Steve Berg has written the Mother of Downtown Plans, which was released last week to much copying of press release in the local media.  In this plan Berg has given us the answer to why his summer break from MinnPost turned into a forever break – the plan is an intimidating 111 pages that comprise a whopping 329 MB pdf!  Most of the pages are a disjointed but pleasant collection of HD images, so the plan ends up being a pretty quick read.  David Levinson has snarky comments on all 10 initiatives recommended in the plan, but I’m going to hold it to four.

In the future we will all be tube men

Double Downtown’s Residential Population

Sounds impressive, but Downtown is already on the way to doubling its population.  By my count, Downtown added around 5,000 units in the last decade – the DTC says 15,000 units will need to be constructed in the next 15 years to achieve a doubling of population, which would require doubling the rate of construction.  That doubling seems to be in the works, though, since around 2,000 units have been proposed or are currently under construction Downtown.

The 15,000 units needed to double Downtown’s population are “the equivalent of three large residential towers each year”, according to the plan.  But it could also take the form of low-rise buildings like the 6-story stick-built ones currently proposed in several places Downtown.  At the average unit density of recent low-rise proposals (120 units/acre), 15,000 units could fit on only 125 acres.  My long-languishing Potential Population Project found 150 acres with a high potential for development in just half of Downtown, which was as far as I got before I flaked out on the project.  So it seems likely that most developers will opt for the cheaper type of development, which is fine as long as they don’t skimp on soundproofing.

The ambitious part of this initiative is to achieve an occupancy per unit of 2.33 persons (a 35,000 person increase in population from adding 15,000 units).  That’s a lot higher than the current average household size Downtown and would require a lot more 3 bedroom units than Downtown currently has.  The plan calls for a school to be built to attract families, which seems logical, but I’m not sure developers will follow the cue.  My guess is that for larger bedroom sizes to be built, there has to be a policy incentive or direct subsidies – not surprising that the plan didn’t call for those.

Curbless Mall and Gateway Park Expansions

The issue of Downtown park development is near and dear to my heart – the Nicollet Hotel Block in particular has been a favorite of mine for years – but it’s a bit too big for this post so I’m gonna hold off for now.  I’ll only address the park expansion part of the Plan as it relates to the concept proposed for Nicollet Mall.

The Mall of All I Survey

Their concept kicks off with a map showing how the Mall will annex territory north and south, becoming the imperial capital of colonies stretching from the Sculpture Garden to the Mississippi.  There’s nothing particularly controversial about that – that was basically the idea behind the Loring Greenway – but the Plan doesn’t specify how it will leap the hurdles that prevented a Greater Mall in the past.  The first and foremost hurdle is the nightmare that is the Bottleneck – it’s tough to create a unified pedestrian corridor with a giant concrete trench running through it (a similar but lower hurdle is on the north end at Washington Ave).

But on another level, maybe a bigger problem with the concept is the scale – their proposed corridor is almost 2 miles.  Considering the differing environments of the various segments of their proposed corridors (I can think of three environments for four segments – 1. Sculpture Garden and Loring Park are Parkland 2. Loring Greenway is Residential Pedestrian Mall 3. Nicollet Mall is Commercial Transit Mall 4. Gateway Park Expansion is Parkland) it makes more sense to think of Nicollet Mall as a centerpiece of a branded pedestrian network.  Think of it as a network of Street-level Skyways, or Groundways.  The advantage to this strategy is that if anyone ever wants to improve the pedestrian realm of a block that’s not on the Downtown Council’s corridor, there will be policy support for it.

Whatever form it takes, I really like the idea of a curbless mall.  Nicollet is really more of a transit or taxi mall as it stands, with prime real estate effectively off-limits to pedestrians due to the curb barrier.  As sidewalk cafes get wider and wider, pedestrian space is shrinking, for example at Zelo, where there’s maybe 5 feet between the tables and the light poles.  You can imagine how that can get uncomfortable when there’s a convention of biker twins in town.  It would be nice to just look back to see if a bus is coming and step over if there isn’t.  Alternately, all the buses could play obnoxious chirpy music constantly.

Frequent and Free Downtown Circulator

Maybe I’m misunderstanding the plan, but it seems to me that the Downtown Circulator is the one purely terrible idea here.  So you want a vibrant street scene and robust transit options, but you want to provide a vehicle that is faster and easier than walking and sucks funding away from regular transit routes?  I guess it makes sense if the circulator goes to more outlying destinations, but even in those cases it seems to be duplicating service.  I’m not sure that fares are high enough that they are a deterrent for tourists considering transit.

The Free Ride buses seem like a reasonable compromise.  It costs nothing to run them, for one thing, since they’re a part of regular routes.  They look like regular buses, so they’re confusing enough that they’re less competitive with the simple act of walking.  The plan calls for features on the Downtown Circulator – “wide doors, roll-on features and zero emissions” -  that should be extended to all local buses anyway.  Adding Free Ride segments on Hennepin (using the 6?) and on 7th & 8th (using the 5?) would a accomplish everything that a Circulator would, without the drain on transit funds.

Most controversial element: demolishing a parking ramp

Traveling in Moderation, part II: Multimodal Mad Town

Having posted the first Traveling in Moderation, a thought popped into my head:  traveling 270 miles really isn’t very moderate.  My great-grandfather left Traverse County only once, for a church-group trip to Pennsylvania.  Our modern standards for travel have been explosively expanded by the availability of cheap oil, and will contract as oil gets more expensive.  So I suppose I should be flying now while the flying’s cheap.  Anyway, let’s get back to Madison…

As built, Madison is one of the most walkable cities in the Upper Midwest.  Most streets are narrow, and the wide ones almost all have crossable center medians.  The grid shifts with primary travel patterns, and is often sliced through with diagonals, for more efficient paths.  The destination density seems pretty good (although it is hard for me to tell with small cities) – grocery stores are pretty well spaced, and walkscore is fairly high excepting some Suburban Hells on the Far West and East Sides.

The result is a good mode share for walking.  Of course, university towns tend to be walking towns and Madison may not be exceptional among its peers (it’s topped by Columbia, South Carolina, which is so walking-friendly that it’s responding to an increase in pedestrian fatalities by ticketing more pedestrians).  Despite a natural advantage for pedestrians and a municipality that seems to have more consideration for pedestrians than most, drivers do not necessarily have a lot of respect for pedestrians.  Williamson Street, north of the Capitol, has 20′ tall pedestrian crossing warning signs on just about every block that are routinely ignored by drivers (and, as Jarrett Walker points out, actually distract drivers from any pedestrians that may be trying to cross).

Look sharp

Ah well, Americans will be Americans.  Madison still has much infrastructure of interest for pedestrians.  I’ll take you on a short tour of Pedestrian Madison, with some side trips to Bike Madison.  Any such tour must begin with State Street, which a prominent Twin Cities urbanist recently dubbed “the best street in the Midwest.

State Street is similar in layout to Nicollet Mall – a two-lane roadway reserved for bikes, buses and taxis is flanked by wide, attractive sidewalks with frequent benches and quality bus shelters (and without pointless meandering) – but there are two important differences.  One is that retail is still alive on State Street, with storefronts packed with the sort of shops found in Uptown Minneapolis.  Think American Apparel, Urban Outfitters and Ragstock.  I say packed because the density of retail is such that second-floor stores are not uncommon – and that’s without any skyways.  Related to skyways, and like them possibly a reason for the tenacity of retail here, is the fact that most of State Street is lined with buildings of the classic Storefront vintage of the 1880s-1920s.  That gives it a more “authentic” feel but frankly is also mostly more interesting, since buildings are much smaller you don’t have the monolithic giant empty glass lobbies that line Nicollet.

State Street is a great street

The Mall of East Campus

Moving down State Street to the University, take a left after the library onto the East Campus Mall.  Though this mall has been under construction for the last three years, those segments that are finished display a streetscape that is even higher quality than State Street, in part because East Campus Mall is a full-on pedestrian mall, whereas State Street is merely a bus mall.  However, East Campus Mall is missing something that State Street has in spades: pedestrians.  They may be deterred by the construction, but probably more by the lack of retail on East Campus Mall and the fact that it isn’t really a crucial connection.  I’m probably overstating it – in comparison with State Street, it’s meager, but there is still plenty of pedestrian activity on East Campus Mall.  For the record, I don’t know if there’s a West Campus Mall.

Look both ways

Before you get too far down East Campus Mall, pause a moment at University Ave.  Although its intersection with East Campus Mall uses colored pavement to highlight the pedestrian crossing, University’s streetscape is generally bleak.  But look closer, and what at first appears to be a wide expanse of one-way concrete has some interesting, skinnying features.  On the north side of the street is a bus-right-turn-only lane, conveyed simply with a solid lane marking and a diamond symbol, with occasional signs permitting right turns.  Between the bus lane and the general traffic lanes is a bike lane that appears to be about 8 feet wide.  Then, on the south side of the street is another bike lane, this one contraflow and protected with a low, mountable, concrete divider separating it from the general traffic lanes.  (See this photo for an overview.)

Generally I’m not very excited about contraflow bike lanes.  University – which is the half of a one-way couplet that’s closer to the heart of campus – may be one of the better candidates for it though.  Considering the high demand for cycling in both directions on this street, they may have had an ineradicable salmon problem anyway, and merely made it safer by making it official.  What I really like about University Ave is the simple, functional way they handle the with-flow bike and bus lanes.  Why mess around with experimental markings when drivers already know to stay away from a solid line with a diamond symbol?

In the green

For now we want to avoid the University Ave traffic, so keep going down East Campus Mall and go up the on-ramp to the Southwest Commuter Path.  Once up there, be careful – while this path, which was carved out of one of the abandoned beds of a double-tracked rail line that slimmed down to single track, is signed for pedestrian use, it’s only striped for cyclists and isn’t really wide enough for both modes.  Clamber over the brightly painted crossings at the corner of Regent and Monroe and follow Monroe to the southwest.

crosswalk envy

In a few blocks you’ll get to a nice little 1920s retail strip similar to ones you’ll find in the neighborhoods of the Twin Cities.  This strip has a couple examples of Madison’s revolutionary attitude towards pedestrians, which subscribes to the bizarre theory that walking should be viable even outside of Downtowns or Universities.  The first clue is the refuge median in front of the new – ahem – Trader Joe’s on the first floor of a condo building.  The great thing about Madison’s ubiquitous refuge medians is that apparently police actually enforce the law in them.  As the picture shows, it actually does snow in cities other than Minneapolis.  Go a block up the street for maybe a deeper indication of Madison’s commitment to pedestrians, where a construction site required closing the sidewalk.  Instead of forcing pedestrians across the street, they also closed the parking spaces and built a concrete enclosure temporary sidewalk.

Before we finish our tour we need to hit Willy Street east of the Capitol, so let’s grab a B-cycle at Regent and Monroe and take the bike path along the shore of Monona to the intersection of Wilson, Williamson and John Nolen Dr.  The B-cycle station is before the intersection, but after you dismount, notice the bright red bike boxes at this intersection.  Cars actually stop behind them, and cyclists actually use them – possibly because the paint allows people to actually see that there’s a bike box there.

Stop in for a drink at the Cardinal bar, in that 5 story redbrick building in the background

Begging for change

About a block behind the bucky-red bike boxes is the last innovation of our tour.  The three-leg intersection of Jenifer and Williamson Sts is designed so that only buses, bikes and pedestrians can access Jenifer from Williamson.  This was presumably done to cut down on cars driving through on mostly-residential Jenifer, but the restriction also provides a slight transit advantage.  Or would, except the traffic signal seems to be programmed to give as much time as possible to Williamson St.  When I pressed the beg button to cross Williamson, I counted full minute without any signal change.  (Of course it changed after I’d already crossed about halfway.)  Neither Jenifer nor Williamson seem to have enough traffic to justify giving Williamson so much priority; hopefully they can reprogram to make the signal change a bit quicker and the intersection will be more helpful.  Frankly I don’t know why any pedestrian would use it currently; there is a striped crosswalk about 60 feet southwest that would be much quicker for crossing Williamson.

The last stop on our tour will be Capitol Square.  We’ve walked and biked long enough for now, so I think I’ll save it for next time.  But as we walk towards the square we’ll go up King Street, which is one of my favorite streets in Madison and worth a few more blathers.  King is on the opposite side of the Capitol from State (which was originally also named King), and the two share a basic form – somewhat narrow, lined with 2-4 story buildings.  What I like about King is that it shows how nice an everyday street can be – just make sure it’s not so wide that you can’t see across it and even if you give two-thirds of the street to cars, it’s still not bad for pedestrians.

Hail to the king

10th Avenue Freeze Out

Seems like the whole world walking pretty

And you can’t find the room to move

Well everybody better move over, that’s all

-The Boss

There’s a road over there on the north end of Downtown, or maybe on the south end of the Northside.  Nobody very much goes there, unless they’re looking for some vintage clothes, or maybe some cheap hand-me-downs from Target.  Unless your office is on this street, you poor souls walk this road every day.

Typical 10th Ave N

On one of those walks I saw a machine running towards me.  It was a truck like a mountain, piled high with teenagers looking bored.  This machine was painting lines on the street, turning it from a dusty speedway into something a little more like home, something you can live on.

Another day another dollup

Except that at first the bike lanes were more like something you can park on.  Then about a month after the painting truck came through, a crew came along to change the signs.  It didn’t change much for one stubborn guy though, who still parks in front of his house every morning, even though there’s a place for him not in a bike lane just around the corner.

So now it seems the whole street’s biking pretty.  But I still can’t find the room to walk.  They even got little pictures of bikes on one section of pavement.  Not 10 yards away, a busy crosswalk is just a worn spot on the pavement.  No zebra.  No stop line.  This in the city whose policy is to always mark crosswalks at signalized intersections.

Stop me if you've heard this before

A few steps down, 10th Avenue gets between an office building and its parking lot.  Each morning and night you can see people running across, hurrying even if they’d rather take it slow.  Some of us like to dream about marked crossings even when there’s no light, but for now the city just says no.

Portland would mark it

Not long after that, the sidewalk ends.  This end doesn’t whimper, it explodes with weeds as tall as trees and sand dunes that sweat you like the sahara.

Here's where that crossing would have come in handy

Money comes up from Washington looking for people who move without motors, but it seems you still need a machine to get it.  Out of millions of dollars, all but a few pennies went to bikes.  The night is bright, but the sidewalk’s dark, and maybe one of these days the city’s gonna get the picture.

Mooneapolis, A.D. 2030

How to cross the street in February

The council voted yesterday on the items that came out of this cycle’s committee, so it’s probably a bit late to report on what went on in the Transportation & Public Works meeting.  On top of that, the Star Tribune, in their fitful effort to cover Minneapolis, scooped me on a few items.  One was the new civil fines proposed for failing to shovel snow, which I’m excited about.  The idea that we’ll be able to walk a block without sinking to your ankles in snow is one more reason to get excited about winter.  Maybe with the proceeds of this fine the city will be able to afford to finish their plow jobs, instead of leaving icy piles of plow debris blocking every crosswalk.

Speaking of the city affording stuff, I’m obstinately writing this post about the 10/25/11 TPW committee despite having been shown up by professionals because of one item:  the Infrastructure Study presentation.  Basically, Public Works looked at four major transportation infrastructure components and compared their condition to their funding level with the goal of coming up with an eye-popping number to report as a shortfall.

It all begins with the Pavement Condition Index (PCI), or Evidence A that engineers’ confidence in the omnipotence of math is why they shouldn’t be trusted with absolute control over our public spaces.  Here is how the presentation describes it:

The Pavement Condition Index (PCI) is a numerical index between 0 and 100 that is used to indicate the condition of a roadway. It is a statistical measure and is based on a visual survey of the pavement. A numerical value between 0 and 100 defines the condition with 100 representing an excellent pavement.

A 101 point scale would be fine if they were using lasers to measure the pavement surface to discern the level of distortion.  Sending Chuck in his Trail Blazer to glance at the road on the way to McDonald’s is not going to result in a reliable measure, and even a careful visual survey will not reliably tell the difference between a PCI of 71 and a PCI of 72.

Road to Mooneapolis

But the PCI is what we have, and in Minneapolis it’s the low end of the index that is seen more and more.  In fact, the presentation contains an apocalyptic chart showing the descent of many of the cities streets into a gravelly moonscapes within 20 years.  The presentation doesn’t clearly describe, however, what we’re sacrificing back to the elements.  It mentions four networks – 206 miles of Municipal State Aid (MSA) streets, 632 miles of Residential streets, 70 miles of Local streets, and 378 miles of Alleys.  The MSA streets, mostly the heavily traveled arterials such as Hennepin or Nicollet and including many Downtown streets, are fed by the state and projected to remain in roughly the same condition.  It’s Residential streets and Alleys that are going to crumble.  Local streets tend to be a)industrial streets, b)leftover bits of MSA streets or c) the slightly more traveled Residential streets that aren’t vital enough to be MSA routes – circa 2030, they will also be a lo0se arrangement of tar chunks, duct tape and car parts, but there are only 70 miles of them.

Chart Fail

The presentation is interesting, but with one exception it doesn’t really explain how we got into this mess.  (The exception being the Pavement life cycle chart reproduced at left, which terrifyingly predicts “Total Failure” after 16 years if pavement isn’t attended to.)  The problem is less one of underfunding today and more one of overfunding several decades ago.  Around 70% of Minneapolis’ residential streets were built in a 15-year binge from 1967 to 1982.  I don’t know for sure how this indulgence was financed, but a 1966 Citizens’ League report suggests that it was paid for with bonding, which of course is ultimately paid for with property taxes.  So more or less, the city just increased its budget for the massive push to pave Residential streets, and once they were paved the total budget just shrunk, or, more likely, went to other things.

Paved with intentions to pave

So now the city would like to double Public Works’ capital budget to address this crisis of crumbling Residential streets.    Residential streets mostly don’t provide corridors for transportation, except as the very beginning and end of trips.   Instead, both in terms of use and area, their primary function is to provide parking for the residences along them.  It’s difficult to justify expending community resources on such a local benefit, and according to the Citizens’ League report, Residential streets used to be financed mostly locally – at the same time the council decided to jack up property taxes to pay for smooth parking on side streets, it reduced assessments on abutting property owners from 2/3rds to 1/4.   (The local share seems to have been reduced to about 5%, if you can trust my math and this document.)

Smooth paving on side streets, like some rural roads, is probably not necessary for our society to function.  But like subsidies for corporate relocation or sports stadiums, localities feel like they need to shell out in order to be competitive.  I’d say it’s reasonable for people to pay for their own parking spaces, but any proposal to use local money to fund local streets is sure to be met with fury, and it certainly wasn’t mentioned in the presentation.  But if we ever start having a grown-up conversation about how to adjust our life-style to our declining economic situation, I hope that free parking is on the table.

Push me to blink

A quick word about another TPW committee item:  authorization for Public Works to spend $4,000 to convert a pedestrian crossing light “from constantly blinking to user activated.”  Apparently neighbors “observed that many drivers, having become accustomed to a continuously flashing pedestrian light, no longer stop for bicyclists and pedestrians at this location.”  They noticed that drivers yield more often a nearby user-actuated crossing light (no numbers were offered in the RCA, so apparently they took neighbors at their word).  Just another example of the expense we go to in order to avoid enforcing motorists’ legal obligation to yield to pedestrians in a crosswalk.

Bonus Regulatory, Energy and Environment Committee item

Bicycle Regulations

Minneapolis will amend its traffic code to explicitly define bicycles as vehicles, and therefore include them in the definition of Traffic.  Vague statements in favor of clarity were included in the Request for Council Action rather than an explicit rationale for the revision.  My first thought was that this will now guarantee that cyclists can be charged with violations of the traffic code, although Gary Schiff says the goal is to “make it easier to issue a ticket to someone parked in a bike lane.”  I just hope it won’t settle the Great Crosswalk Debate in favor of requiring cyclists to stop and yield in a crosswalk.

Bonus Community Development Committee item

Minnesota Statewide Historical and Cultural Grants Program (a/k/a Legacy Grants Program)

Warehouse District atmosphere

Staff is recommending that the City apply for a grant from the Minnesota Historical Society to help implement the Warehouse District Heritage Street Plan, which recommends rebuilding several crumbling patchwork streets mostly in the North Loop with brick pavers in an effort to restore their appearance as existed at a certain point in history.  The summary from the Request for Council Action is worth quoting in full:

Funded with a 2010 Legacy Grant, The Warehouse District Heritage Street Plan set out a detailed street-by-street plan for preserving historic infrastructure in the Warehouse Historic District. The Plan provides a practical, forward looking, and historically-sensitive approach preserving and rehabilitating historic streets and loading docks while improving pedestrian accessibility, and enhancing stormwater run-off by increasing sustainable practices within the Warehouse Historic District. The completed document was approved by the HPC in August of 2011. The document is a detailed street-by-street plan with specific trouble-shooting for how to preserve the remaining historic materials and industrial infrastructure, while accommodating the American with Disabilities Act (ADA) requirements and addressing the need for street and sewer repairs. The plan will be used to inform the individual site decisions that property owners, design professionals, and the City will need to make when properties in the District are rehabilitated. It is also being used as the guiding document for the design and development of City capital improvement projects for the reconstruction and repair of specific streets and alleys.

Now that the plan is completed, CPED and Public Works are beginning work toward implementation with a focus on reconstruction of 6th Avenue North. One of the challenges identified in the plan is that original brick material will be deficient to reuse throughout the district due to breakage or removal from past utility cuts. In order to reconstruct 6th Avenue North with full brick replacement, Public Works will need to find similar brick from other city streets under reconstruction. This grant will be used to salvage, palletize, transfer, and store subsurface brick from other City projects where the brick is similar to that in the Warehouse District. One possible removal project will occur in 2012 with the first phase of Nicollet Avenue South reconstruction.

The Plan is worth looking through, especially Chapter 5, or the design concepts for specific streets.  In one sense this is good news, because the sooner Minneapolis has more experience with textured pavement surfaces, the more people will realize their traffic calming effect.  The bad news is, if the first removal project won’t happen till 2012, it could be awhile before these plans are realized – and the North Lo0p badly needs new infrastructure.  I’m looking out my window at a big pile of brick pavers torn up as part of the new Lunds construction at 12th and Hennepin – Public Works, would it help if I gave you the number to Zeman Construction?

One gate open, another closed

The Hennepin-Lyndale Bottleneck was invented by Thomas Lowry to prevent people from walking between the densest and the second-densest neighborhoods in the city, forcing them to ride his streetcars between Downtown and Uptown.

This charming billboard was located approximately where the gaping maw of I-94 is today.

Ok that’s not true.  The Hennepin-Lyndale Bottleneck sorta just happened, either as a planning mistake, or a product of topography or geography, or maybe due to ideas of transportation efficiencies that were revised as newer, deadlier means of transport were popularized.

Our ancestors seemed to view the Bottleneck as something as a town square, lining it with elegant apartments, important churches, art museums and monuments.  But nothing is so important to Americans as automobility, so the freeway builders didn’t spare the area (although the Lowry Hill Tunnel may be the only gesture they made to the cities they were cutting through, or maybe it was just cheaper than an aerial alignment), more than doubling the paved area and making it nearly nontraversable without a vehicle.

So today the Hennepin-Lyndale Bottleneck is a giant unwieldy mess, which of course means that I have a giant unwieldy plan to fix it.  Unfortunately the giant- and unwieldiness of the plan means it is literally half-baked at this point, so I’m just going to comment on the City’s recent efforts to clean up the mess a bit.

Loring Park Gateway open

'proposed' is now existing, sorry for the confusion

This corner wasn’t bad before, by Bottleneck standards anyway.  But it was awkward, routing cyclists on a sharp turn around a bus bench,  and apparently didn’t accommodate some movements, as indicated by the desire path from this corner over to where the sidewalk continues north up Hennepin.

The addition of bike lanes to 15th St (or whatever it’s called there) was an excuse to spruce up the corner and rationalize the placement of the various elements (it seems that the pesky bus bench has been rationalized out of existence, although there is still a shelter at the stop).  That’s because the city wanted to use this intersection to test out what they call the European Left Turn, which sounds a bit like Wisconsin Yoga but is more like a New Jersey Jughandle for bikes.  It’s good to see more separated bike facilities, but this seems to be another case of the City encouraging sidewalk riding.  I like the connection to the Poem bridge, but that also reminds me of the Loring Bikeway bridge, where the City spends a bunch of money creating a circuitous bypass that everyone ignores in favor of the old, direct route.  Why couldn’t they just have striped a bike lane in place of the left turn/through lane?  Is it really important to retain that queuing space for four or five cars?

The other problem with the European Left Turn is that it presumably will add bikes to an already-crowded corner.  The queue at the corner is often five-deep, and while the realignment of the various paths has better separated bikes from peds, the new curb cut placement has led to a new issue:

A few more creeps*

Luckily the city is well aware that the average American motorist is a creep; that is, she has a tendency to creep past the stop line and into the crosswalk.  So the plan is to not only widen the crosswalk to incorporate the new curb cut position, but to install green colored pavement to delineate it.  The project page implies that the colored pavement has been demoted to paint.  Considering the snow will start to fly in a month or two, that means the demotion may have been extended to the crosswalk itself (like most crosswalks in town).  As the photo above shows, something needs to happen here or the new curb cut will be unusable.

All this realigning, paving and striping did not manage to fix the biggest problem with this intersection: signal programming.  Bikes and peds get the hand when the southbound traffic is stopped for the left turn phase for northbound traffic.  So they have to waste time waiting for the man to let them cross again, even though they don’t conflict with left turning northbound traffic.  This situation is all too common in Minneapolis (see almost every stoplight on Hennepin Ave) but because some lights do keep the man lit up when not conflicting with left turns (see the lights at 5th and 7th on Hennepin), I can only blame it on ineptitude or apathy (some would suggest disdain) for pedestrians on the part of traffic engineers.  In the spirit of Organization before Electronics before Concrete, this change in signal programming should probably have been made before planting the pretty flowers, and should be made before installing the new green pavement or plastic or whatever.

The Wedge Gateway closed

Another change a bit further south down the Bottleneck has somehow made the area even less usable for cyclists.  The sidepath abruptly ends at the ramp to I-94 from Lyndale Ave, and apparently the City was concerned that cyclists would continue on to where ever they are going despite the fact that the City had not made provisions for them to do so.  The solution was to make it more obvious what cyclists are not supposed to do:

Poof! And it's gone

See for yourself how well it’s working:

2 cyclists ignore the new stripes

So here’s an idea.  If people want to bike here, maybe a facility should be built that allows them to do so.  The sidepath could be continued down to Lyndale at the expense of no more than 10 often-unused parking spaces. As part of the same project, raised crossings could be built at all of the intersections, magically transforming the sidepath into a two-way cycle track.

Alternately, the City could continue building overpasses and restriping to prevent people from taking the paths they want.  Bloomington took this route on Lindau Lane, where pedestrians ignored their pointless, capricious, impeding crossing bans.  Bloomington responded by spending $50m to grade-separate the roadway (they blew Orwell right out of his syphilitic grave by calling the project the Lindau Lane Complete Streets and Safety Enhancement project), because everyone knows the best pedestrian environments are created by driving a wide, roaring freeway through the heart of a neighborhood.  Here’s an idea of what the Hennepin-Lyndale Bottleneck may look like, if a Lindau Lane-style complete street strategy is pursued:

The Hennepin-Lyndale Bottleneck will feature easy auto access to the Riverfront

*I actually fudged this photo- the supposed creeps have the green light.  But I’ve encountered the crosswalk blocked by creeps several times so far, I just haven’t gotten a picture.

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.