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
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:
This 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).
In 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).
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:
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.