Sane Streets for the West Bank

To lively up this blog, I probably should present my plans for the West Bank as a late-nite infomercial pitch – “Are you tired of stubborn traffic jams ruining your neighborhood’s intrinsic pedestrian orientation?  Now!  Try our new and improved street network!  Buy now and we’ll throw in this woonerf absolutely free!” – but I feel compelled by the illogic of the American disposition towards transportation, distorted by decades of auto-dependence, to carefully and lengthily exposit a plan for the public spaces of a neighborhood that has been forced to endure almost a century of marriage to a mode that fits it so poorly.  I hope the post is more engaging than boring.

The Problem

The West Bank is a hub of pedestrian activity, thanks to some of the densest housing in Minneapolis, as well as some very dense employment centers (the U of M, Augsburg). Unfortunately, sometime in the 1920s, someone in the Minnesota Highway Department decided that there should be a commuter (or maybe a trucking) highway running down Cedar Avenue to Bloomington. Originally this route crossed the river at what is now called the 10th Ave bridge, but sometime in the 60s it was detoured west to head downtown, because that’s where the commuters (and trucks) were heading.

Obviously this route is redundant today, with I-35W handling the bulk of the commuter and truck traffic to the south of Minneapolis, and Hiawatha Ave having tons of room for anyone who feels like a change of scenery. Unfortunately we live in a world where the car is king, even in situations like Cedar where any logical analysis would see that pedestrians and even transit have a much greater claim to street space than automobiles.  This has led to a situation on the West Bank where most of the street is devoted to traffic lanes, attracting some 12,000 cars a day to what is otherwise a pedestrian paradise.

The Solution

Any attempt to pedestrianize a street is met with shrill protests by motorists.  But the grid in which Minneapolis is laid out offers an advantage – there is almost always a parallel street nearby that can handle the capacity as a substitute.  For that reason it is possible to both accommodate the existing (ample) automotive capacity of the West Bank and to pedestrianize the main streets, leading to greater safety and a more pleasant environment.

In addition, offering a less direct route through the neighborhood may have the effect of discouraging car traffic through this neighborhood.  As you’ll see, while my proposal includes the same amount of auto capacity as currently exists, it requires a circuitous path for cars.  In Minnesota, we are used to driving in a straight line.  I suspect that this change will make people think it’s too hard to drive through the West Bank, even if it is still the shortest route for them.

My plan, put simply, is to pedestrianize several main streets, create a woonerf network, and alter the configuration of other streets to create a new route for vehicular access to the neighborhood.

Bring it together

The plan below uses the new configuration of vehicular access that will be constructed along with Central LRT.  The biggest difference is the removal of one of the ramps in the existing diamond interchange.  I’ve also considered some of the ideas presented in the West Bank Development Plan, which may or may not be sanctioned by the city but definitely was funded by the Central Corridor Funders’ Collaborative. 

1  Pedestrian Streets

By limiting automobile access, this plan will increase pedestrian space on Cedar from about 25 feet to at least 60 feet.  A similar increase should be achieved on Riverside.  The gains for pedestrians would be even higher if a curbless design is used – since buses run at frequencies of no more than every 5 minutes, without curbs pedestrians will feel comfortable using the entirety of the street.  Do not think Nicollet Mall; because so many fewer buses run through this area, it will be much more of a pedestrian space, more comparable to Milwaukee Ave.

2 Two-lane Roundabout

The profligate land consumption habits of the interstate era should provide enough land for a two-lane roundabout to handle through traffic, diverted from Washington Ave.  I haven’t been able to find a comparable existing roundabout, but five-leg two-lane roundabouts are currently operating on smaller footprints – 200-300′ compared to a possible 400′ here – in those hotbeds of progressive engineering, Cheyenne, WY and Dallas, TX.  That said, the roundabout isn’t integral to my plan – Hennepin County can choose to waste money, space, time and fuel by continuing their plans to build a 2nd ramp to 35W here in addition to the existing ramp a block and a half to the north.  Or they could put in a signal now and upgrade to a roundabout when the flyover ramps are dangerously decrepit.

3 35W Ramps

Speaking of 35W’s ramps, some of them could be torn down if my plan were carried out.  Not only would that save the tens of millions of dollars needed to reconstruct flyover ramps every 50 years or so, but it would allow the ramp from CR-122 wb to 35W sb to be replaced with buildings that might actually add to the treasury instead of subtract from it.  With the deletion of these ramps, capacity would again be called into question, but it could be mitigated by adding a third westbound lane to CR-122 west of the proposed roundabout.

4 Washington Ave

The crux of the proposal, automotive-wise, is the rerouting of Washington-Cedar through-traffic to two routes that run in opposite directions.  The southbound traffic would turn south at an additional two lanes that would be conjoined to the existing two lanes that currently make up the ramp from 35W.  They would proceed at a bit more than three-quarters through the traffic circle to proceed on the ramp from Cedar to CR-122 that will be constructed as part of the Central Corridor project, which would be two lanes one-way towards Cedar.  Cars would turn right to cross the existing Cedar overpass, then left onto a realigned 3rd St one-way towards 19th Ave.  Cars will zig onto 19th and then zag onto Riverside, where they can continue or turn right again at 20th and head towards South Cedar.

Northbound autos have a less tortured route:  coming from Riverside or 20th, they can go up 19th and take a left at the curvy little tendril of Washington that until recently was home to Grandma’s.  My proposal would turn this one-block segment into a westbound two-lane one-way.  West of this segment, westbound traffic would be allowed on Washington Ave proper.  It’s disappointing to not fully pedestrianize Seven Corners, but the only other alternative for westbound vehicular traffic here would be 2nd St, which would require a bridge over 35W.  Since the spirit of this proposal is to minimize infrastructure and inherent costs (by replacing flyover ramps with a roundabout and replacing auto streets with low-maintenance pedestrian malls) I rejected that option, but if someone more extravagant were to propose it, I would be fully supportive.

5 20th Ave S

About 12,700 cars travel this section of Cedar on an average day (as of 2005).  That’s a lot of cars, but not more than a 3-lane street can accommodate.  When added to the 4,700 daily cars on 20th Ave south of Riverside (2005 again), the upper limits of the 3-lane’s capacity are reached, though likely the traffic level would be less than that as some cars choose Riverside and some find other neighborhoods to drive through.  For that reason I think it is safe to use a similar configuration as exists today on 20th Ave after last year’s road diet, only moving the parking lane to the center to act as a continuous center turn lane.  When the road again needs reconstruction (likely a couple decades out as this stretch was last rebuilt in 1966), I’d recommend sacrificing the bike lanes to extend the boulevards as a buffer against the heavier vehicular traffic.  The Cedar pedestrian mall and the woonerf network should provide ample and safer space for cyclists in this area.

6 Woonerven

Another crucial pedestrian amenity in this plan, woonerven would allow access for cars to neighborhood homes and businesses, but would be constructed in a way that discourages fast or reckless driving.  Like the Pedestrian Streets, each woonerf would be curbless, and would have trees placed in chicane islands sporadically to slow car traffic. State law should be changed to remove the floor on speed limits so these streets could post a 10 mph speed limit.

7 Parking Ramps

One thing that people will whine about is loss of parking, but I haven’t addressed it in this plan because a) you can complain about parking when the government provides me with slippers wherever I go and b) street parking is only 12% of the total parking supply in the area.  Furthermore, the West Bank Development Plan calls for another large ramp, likely making up for all of the street spaces.  Yes, I would eliminate all the street parking in my plan; because of the danger posed by backing into a space and because cruising for on-street parking can account for a large percentage of cars on a given street, parking does not have a place on woonerven or on pedestrian malls.  Parking could remain on Riverside, but maybe not west of 20th, where space may be needed for cars driving through to the south.

However, there are opportunity for parking structures to replace the existing street parking in the neighborhood.  I’ve included the ramp shown in the West Bank Development Plan, and added one in the large lawn in front of the Cedars housing complex.  The latter, fronting Cedar Ave, should include ground-level retail and also would be an opportunity for housing above the parking levels, sort of like Centre Village (although hopefully less ugly).  I think there would be enough space to build the structure along Cedar and still leave a large green courtyard between it and the Cedars.


The ideal time to implement this proposal is with the construction of the Central LRT, and the work on surrounding streets that has already begun.  The plan mostly only requires reconstruction of the streets proposed for pedestrianization; the streets that retain vehicular access only need re-striping and the woonerven would likely just need spot reconstruction, to add chokers and chicane islands in places.

Because of our snails-pace democracy, it is almost certainly too late to get construction started along with Central LRT.  The plan could be done in phases at a later time, though.  The woonerf network should be built first, to discourage cutting through as other streets are worked on.  Next could be the ramp work needed to re-route vehicular through traffic.  Finally, the pedestrian streets could be built, restoring the pedestrian primacy that the West Bank’s form cries out for, and which has been so long denied to the people of the area.



9 comments on “Sane Streets for the West Bank

  1. mulad says:

    Yes, Cedar is crying out for a more pedestrian-friendly makeover. The residents in that area really claim the street, so it makes a lot of sense to give it over to them entirely. Short of that, doing a 3-lane conversion or even going to two lanes with roundabouts might be nice — though I wonder whether that would actually improve traffic flow and make the street more popular for cars.

    It should be noted that the road gets used as a connector between westbound I-94 and northbound I-35W, and vice-versa, though the number of stop lights along that stretch makes that a very slow route. I used to live up in Marcy-Holmes and tried using Cedar a few times, but it never seemed fast enough. I actually usually took University/4th all the way to Huron to reach I-94. Sometimes I took Riverside to 18th/10th, on the way home, but hardly ever Cedar.

    A roundabout on CR-122 is an interesting idea. I’m not sure how the slopes work out, but the thought of getting rid of a few bridges and avoiding construction of a new one is appealing. I’d also look across on the other side of I-35W to see if the northwest or southwest connector could be removed, either of which would open up decent chunks of land for development. CR-122 could get sidewalks all the way to the Metrodome and restore a pedestrian link into downtown.

    I know there is a woonerf-like area on 21st Ave S between 4th Street. and 5th Street. Ironically, it’s mostly there to serve a parking ramp. I’d like to see more of the UMN and Augsburg campuses plastered with woonerf zones, though. I’m not sure that a 10-mph speed limit is necessary, but certainly 15 or 20 would be an improvement with regard to pedestrian frendliness.

    • There is so much space in that trench that I really don’t think slope would be a problem. The only steep slopes there today are from the 35W ramp to Washington – would would be removed in my proposal. I was also thinking of those flyovers west of 35W as removable as well, since their function would be fulfilled by the roundabout.

      I think you’re right that a lot of people driving on Cedar are headed to 94 – I’m working on a plan in my head for that.

  2. Froggie says:

    Your idea for Cedar *MIGHT* work if you remove the ramps to/from 94 East. That said, concentrating the vehicle traffic (which in my admittedly-limited experience is largely local traffic) on 20th/19th is going to make the bike/ped situation on those streets considerably worse. Anyway, it’s better from an urban planning perspective to keep a grid pattern to spread traffic out instead of concentrating it on only one or two routes.

    And don’t be so quick to dismiss the planned on-ramp from 3rd/4th St to NB 35W. Building such would reduce traffic on Washington to where the city/county could then “right-size” it through downtown. Or would you rather it stay 6 lanes?

    • You have a good point about the grid pattern dispersing traffic, but Cedar-Riverside’s position (at river’s edge and downtown’s edge) has the effect of consolidating traffic anyway. And yes, the bike/ped situation will get worse on 19th and 20th, but I think it is worth it to drastically improve the bike/ped situation on Cedar. Obviously it’s not my decision to make, except on this blog.

      I travel Washington in the peak direction at rush hour every day – the only problem is the lack of enough queuing space for turning left from Washington to 35W northbound. That causes the left lane to back up for a few blocks, but the other two lanes flow freely, suggesting one of those lanes could be dropped without much effect. That said, my plan has the same effect as a new ramp from CR-122, but is more sustainable in the long run because it removes all the flyover ramps.

  3. […] category, 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, […]

  4. […] may be) nb 35W.  Alternately, you could fit in a 400′ diameter roundabout, as I mentioned a few months back. Circle gets the […]

  5. […] effort grew out of my plan for a pedestrian-friendly West Bank, one of the centerpieces of which was the conversion of Cedar Ave to a transit mall.  […]

  6. […] Other ideas have looked at the same area, with the idea of reconfiguring ramps or restoring the street grid.  A class presentation from a group of U of M students several years ago suggested building a land bridge over I-35W and the trench with the idea of putting the new Twins stadium there.  The Downtown Action Plan portion of Access Minneapolis supports changes to the interchange area.  My proposal utilizes several of these ideas (sans new Twins stadium, of course) plus a few more. […]

  7. […] (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 […]

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