Another Nicollet Mall

A deep lonely feeling can come from spending weeks on a project that will never amount to anything.  So it is with the East-West Transit Spine Plan.  Today I finally sent my comments in, hopefully driving a nail into the coffin of my obsession with this topic.  Here is the email I sent to Anna Flintoft:

From: Alex Bauman
Subject: comments on East-West Transit Spine Plan
To: Anna.Flintoft
Cc: Cam.Gordon
Date: Tuesday, December 28, 2010, 1:48 PM


Please find below my comments for the East-West Transit Spine Plan:

As a daily transit rider, I welcome the improvements proposed in the East-West Transit Spine Plan.  But all are improvements that could be made without the plan:

  • Metro Transit has the authority to make route changes without a plan, but consolidation of routes has already been called for in the Downtown Action Plan.
  • Curb extensions are already called for by the Design Guidelines for Streets and Sidewalks, which recommend recommends sidewalks 5 to 9 feet wider than currently exist on 7th and 8th Streets.
  • Metro Transit policy recommends the installation of a shelter at stops with a minimum of 40 daily boardings, which means, as the plan notes, that every stop on 7th and 8th should have a shelter today.  The plan does not explain why that has not happened.
  • Real-time displays are a standard feature of 21st-century transit systems, but I’m not aware of a Metro Transit policy for their installation.  A policy should be developed based either on average daily boardings or junctions of Primary Transit Network routes, and certainly any policy that could be imagined would call for RTDs at the major stops along 7th and 8th Sts.

The proposal to split stops at 7th and Nicollet does not have an existing plan that supports it, but neither will it be welcomed by transit riders.  Splitting the stops will reduce the effective frequency of the spine and make it more confusing, contrary to the stated advantages of consolidating service into spines.  It would benefit the plan to go back to the drawing board on ideas for this stop.

Minneapolis has had a successful example of a transit spine operating for 40 years: the Nicollet Mall.  A transit mall would better serve the goals of the East-West Transit Spine Plan, but it was not even studied. A transit mall would be a very visible connection between Target Field and Elliot Park, and would attract investment to the parking lot fields of East Downtown (8th Street in particular shows promise in this role).  The impact on automobile traffic will be negligible if 8th or 9th Sts are selected because neither street connects to a major commuter route (Hiawatha represents a small fraction of downtown’s car commuter traffic, and has the best potential of any commuter route for converting car commuters to transit commuters).  Since the beneficial proposals in the East-West Transit Spine Plan can be implemented immediately, the plan should not be approved until a transit mall can be studied as an alternative.


Alex Bauman

I know that I should be grateful for the bones thrown to transit riders in the plan – the shelters, RTDs and curb extensions will make it less of a hassle, or even pleasurable, to wait for the bus – but I just couldn’t get past the “this is it?” feeling.  Most people, I think, can deal with most bus stops.  The stops on the E-W transit spine are some of the worst in the system, but if it’s sunny, who cares?  And if it’s cold, does a shelter really help that much?

But the reason most people don’t take the bus, I think, isn’t because it’s uncomfortable, it’s because the bus is too slow.  And the E-W Transit Spine Plan does nothing about that.  Check out this graphic from the Downtown Transit Circulation Report:

The proposals in the E-W Transit Spine Plan are about the impact of transit on other users of downtown, not the service itself.  Of the eight recommendations, only one deals with service improvements, and that’s a vague goal to increase Go-To card use.  Three of the recommendations have nothing to do with transit service at all, including one that just aims to make it easier to drive downtown!

The Downtown Transit Circulation Report, which led to the construction of the dual bus lanes on Marquette and 2nd, is explicit about what it takes to speed transit service: dedicated lanes.   It includes this illuminating chart:

Transit Lane Type  


Maximum Capacity 



Exposure to Auto 



Exposure to Bus-Bus 


Mixed flow with autos 60 High Moderate
Single-width lane 

(no passing capability)

70 None High
With-flow lane 100 Moderate Moderate
Double-width lane 180 None None

There are currently 105 buses running on the E-W transit spine every PM peak hour, at least 45 of which are the local buses that will be consolidated onto 7th and 8th Streets according to the E-W transit spine plan.  The Downtown Transit Circulation Report points out that “there will be an eventual need for two lanes” dedicated to buses in each direction.  So why does the E-W Transit Spine Plan propose that transit continue operating in mixed-flow?

That is why I cling so stubbornly to the idea of a transit mall on the E-W spine – some kind of dedicated lane is necessary for transit to function here.  When I asked Anna Flintoft about why they had not studied a transit mall, she contradicted her own report, saying “bus volumes don’t necessitate bus only lanes in the E-W corridor.”  But her answer dwelt on the impact of a transit mall on cars:

“Car traffic on 7th and 8th Streets is an important modal consideration.  These are both busy downtown streets, and vehicle traffic needs to be accommodated.  7th and 8th streets provide important access to streets outside of downtown, such as Hiawatha Avenue , 7th Street N , and I-94 to the east ( 7th Street is the main route from the 5th Street I-94 off-ramp now that we have LRT on 5th Street ).  On both streets, there are many properties that require vehicular access to off-street parking and curbside uses such as valet zones, taxi stands, loading zones, etc.

“As we design streets that support increased walking, biking, and transit use, automobile traffic will continue to be an important modal consideration.”

But she skirts the truth here too.  There is no denying that 7th and 10th Sts provide important connections to streets and highways outside of downtown.  But 8th and 9th Sts do not connect to streets outside of downtown.  Here is a snapshot of the western termini of 8th and 9th:

Despite the giant right turn access lane (which may have been removed as part of the Hennepin-1st two-way project), it is actually not easy to drive from the main segment of 9th St to the confusing remnant at the top-left of this image because you have to turn left across 1st Ave anyway.  You might as well turn at Hennepin or Marquette.  Of course, nothing is going through from 7th St to 8th St – there is a one-way in the wrong direction.  At the east end, too,  9th Street dead-ends at Elliott Park.

Ok, I fudged a little when I said that 8th and 9th do not connect to streets outside of downtown – there is a ramp from 8th Street to Hiawatha Ave.  But Hiawatha is probably one of the least important streets for people who drive downtown.  It is, however, one of the most important routes for people who work downtown and take transit.  If the city wants to increase transit’s modal share of downtown commuters, Hiawatha is an ideal place to start.

My point is that 8th and 9th Sts are not important through-streets for cars downtown, except to Hiawatha, where people should be taking the train anyway.

So how about parking?  There is a smattering of on-street parking, but with tens of thousands of off-street spaces downtown, I will not listen to arguments for keeping it.  Other curbside uses may actually benefit from a transit mall – loading can still be accommodated and trucks will face less congestion without cars on the street.  Taxis will also benefit by the increased pedestrian activity attracted by the removal of automobiles.  Valets are really not very common, and all that I’ve seen can be moved around the corner to a street that allows cars (see layout 3 below).

The benefits to a transit mall really are stellar.  Besides greatly improved bus service, many cyclists prefer dealing with only the occasional bus to dodging cars left and right.  Pedestrians would benefit tremendously – my layouts below show the sidewalks at 14.5′ at their narrowest, and often around 20.  I have yet to meet a pedestrian who doesn’t prefer a quiet, car-free street to a smoggy arterial.

But the real benefit may be the boost to development that a transit mall could provide.  There is no doubt that the construction of the Loring Greenway spurred tens of millions of dollars in investment.  Many developers will believe that the same success could be found in East Downtown.  Nicollet Mall itself is another example.  It is easily Minneapolis’ densest street, and most of it was built after the restriction of cars.

Finally, a transit mall would be an ideal connection of disparate downtown neighborhoods – it would mentally and physically connect Target Field to Elliott Park (hopefully to the developers that are salivating over the ballpark area’s possibilities).

If you’re still reading, you probably agree with me about the viability of a transit mall, so let me get started on my conceptual layouts.  I chose 8th Street because it is a more direct route, it goes through to 11th Ave, and it’s more central to the core.  9th Street might work too – but we’ll never know because it wasn’t included in the study.  First an overview scratched out in Paint:

The yellow line here is the part where personal cars would be restricted.  HCMC’s front door is on the block east of Park, and the 5, 9 and 19 turn off by then anyway, so it is less justifiable to be transit-only there.  I do, however, think that it makes sense to include pedestrian improvements from Target Field through to 11th, and brand the whole route accordingly.  The large T is the existing bus garage, which would be used by eastbound buses.  The little Ts are stops in my plan – a bit fewer than currently exist, which should help service as well.  The Ps are driveways to parking facilities, the Ls are loading zones, and the Hs are hotels (kind of like Monopoly but boringer).

And here are the layouts, block by block (in each layout, the east- and westbound bus lanes are 13′ each)

At 60′, this is the narrowest segment, so to maximize sidewalk space I moved the EB stop to the other side of Hennepin (EB buses would have stopped at Ramp A just west of here anyway).  That leaves 17′ on each side for sidewalks, a big improvement over the existing 11′.

The EB stop is on the left here because the buses should stop as close to Hennepin as possible.  As a result, WB buses may have to be restricted from using the passing lane here.  Cars in the ramp will have to cross to La Salle – that will probably mean that they’ll need a signal, but I hope not.

The hotel valet is moved around the corner – La Salle doesn’t need two northbound lanes because cars can no longer access 8th.  The hotel currently has an arcade to its door.

East of Nicollet, 8th St widens to 80′ and there is finally some breathing room for wide sidewalks.  I think it is reasonable to remove the garage ramp here because it shadows a busy sidewalk, leading to perceptions of danger and general unpleasantness.  In addition, there are two access driveways to this garage on Marquette.

There is no room for an access lane for this ramp – maybe they could use the bus lanes (it’s a small garage) but maybe they’ll have to do some serious remodeling.  Frankly, the Baker Center could use it.  I made the passing lanes 11′ but they really could be 10′.

The ramp on this block could probably be reconfigured to open onto 3rd Ave, but I put the lane here to be conservative.

There is no configuring the ramp access here – it is an underground ramp smack in the middle of the block.  The loading dock could be reconfigured to open on 4th pretty easily, but I’m sure they’ll want the city to pay.  The access lane solves that problem.  By the way, the access lanes on this block and the preceding would be one-way facing each other.

This may be the weirdest block yet.  The Centre Village ramp requires an access lane, but boarding volumes this far east make it not a huge deal to give up a passing lane.

Here we finally see what we’ve been missing by providing all those access lanes for garages:  a planted center median would give this block a park-like feeling.  Anyway that’s what we would be seeing if I wasn’t using Excel and Paint to do these layouts.  By the way, shallow curbs would allow fire trucks to get through this block, although sometimes I’d rather burn up than live in a world where we let the obesity of emergency vehicles dictate the width of our streets.

The 14.5′ sidewalks on this block are anemic compared to the rest, but still wider than the existing sidewalks.

East of Park, there could be two 11′ mixed-traffic lanes in each direction, with 15′ sidewalks.  Here are the numbers, if you’re that type:

Segment Hennepin to 1st Nicollet to Hennepin Stop E of Hennepin Stop W of Nicollet Stop E of Nicollet 4th to Nicollet Stop btw Marq & 2nd Ramp btw 2nd & 3rd Stop E of 4th Stop W of 5th Park to 4th Stop btw Portland & Park E of Park
Sidewalk 17 22.5 17.5 17.5 21.5 20 16 20 19.5 17.5 19 14.5 15.5
Driveway 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 12 0 12 0 0 0
Median 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 2 0 2 0 0 0
WB lane 13 13 13 13 13 13 13 13 13 13 13 13 11
WB pass 0 0 10 0 11 0 11 0 10 0 0 10 11
Center median 0 0 0 0 0 14 0 0 0 0 11 0
EB pass 0 0 0 10 0 0 11 0 0 0 0 10 11
Waiting median 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0
EB lane 13 13 13 13 13 13 13 13 13 13 13 13 11
Sidewalk 17 22.5 17.5 17.5 21.5 20 16 20 19.5 17.5 19 14.5 15.5
Total 60 71 71 71 80 80 80 80 75 75 75 75 75

I think it could work, and I did this in my spare time.  Imagine what it could be if there was an engineer working full time on it.  Too bad it will never happen….

5 comments on “Another Nicollet Mall

  1. […] a showcase for my planning ideas, which I vainly believe to be valuable.  I noticed when writing the entry on my proposal for an 8th St Transit Mall, though, that I haven’t yet written any posts about my ideas.  Maybe the biggest reasons is […]

  2. mulad says:

    After digging into the concepts around New Urbanism, walkable communities, and the like, I’ve generally decided to embrace the slowness of buses rather than try too hard to fight their nature. Don’t think about whether people can go a certain distance in a set amount of time — rather, try to see if passengers are able to get to the businesses and services they need within a certain amount of time. Despite the slow speeds in central Minneapolis, people who use those routes can get to a lot of the things they need due to higher service frequencies and the density along the routes.

    I’m slowly looking for a new place to live, and I’m trying to keep walkability, bikeability, and transitability in mind. I generally think in terms of a half-hour one-way trip or an hour-long round trip. If I can’t get to anywhere useful in that time window, or if the buses don’t even operate often enough for the math to matter, it’s not a place I want to be.

    Still, I’d like to see faster bus service in many parts of town. Many bus stops should probably be consolidated spread a little farther apart. There should also be more limited-stop and express services — particularly ones that operate outside of the rush hours.

    • On the speed issue, I agree with you to a point – anything colored brown on the map above is a spot where it’s just as fast to walk as take the bus, and I think at that level it’s a major disincentive to bus travel.

      Take your quest for a place to live as an example. If you decide to live in Northeast, you have to add 15 minutes travel time to any southside destination, effectively making Lake St beyond your half-hour threshold.

      But you’re right that downtown, dense with destinations, should have more stops and therefore slower avg speeds than the rest of the city. I’ve tried to do that in my design here, which rarely achieves the 400m ideal stop spacing.

  3. […] although measured by quality rather than quantity I may be more successful, since a couple of my favorite posts are in that category.  (It looks like density is the most common category, followed by […]

  4. […] and 8th on the stretch east of Portland where demand for turning is low.  I have also called for a transit mall on 8th St – 9th or 10th might work […]

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