In defense of skyways

Sydney  61

Sydney  62

Portland Oregon 2001  12

Portland 2003  33

Downtown Minneapolis  2

Downtown Minneapolis  4

Downtown Minneapolis  5

Tokyo 2006  186

Harrogate  32

Crossposted at streets.mn and transportationist.org Photos of skyways by author from Sydney (2), Portland (2), Minneapolis (3), Tokyo (1), and Harrogate (1) respectively.

Everyone seems to be hating on Minneapolis’s world-beating skyway network. Sam Newberg is the latest in a recent post at streets.mn:

Is it Time to Remove Those Pesky Skyways? :

“The following post shares a similar argument as an article I wrote four years ago for the Downtown Journal (in Minneapolis). I was chastised at the time and suppose I will be again. However, with the recent opening of a new, $3 million skyway link to better connect the Accenture tower to adjacent blocks, as well as the new Downtown 2025 Plan taking on the “Skyway Paradox,” I was persuaded to bring it up again.
So here goes:

Isn’t it about time to start removing our skyways? A few years ago, Jen Gehl, a notable and well-respected Danish urbanist, was in town for an Urban Land Institute presentation. He noted downtown Minneapolis was “no longer up to the beat” of other world-class winter cities, blaming the skyways for striking a “defensive posture” against nature. Save for perhaps one bitter cold winter week per year, I couldn’t agree more. It doesn’t make sense to spend more than $1 million per skyway to perpetuate this anti-world class defensive posture. Gehl’s comments made it into the Skyway Conundrum section of the recently-released Downtown 2025 Plan, so someone is listening! While the plan doesn’t suggest removal, at least they admit the problem, and that, my friends, is the first step to recovery.”

I don’t go downtown much for a variety of reasons, but pedestrian traffic-starved streets are not that reason. Following the model of Victor Gruen, downtown business interests made a decision in the early 1960s to build skyscrapers and skyways and reinforced that decisions continuously. While I am not convinced building skyscrapers was economically wise, given skyscrapers and an arterial street network on which every street and avenue is an entrance or exit to a radial freeway, skyways are a reasonable way to connect buildings. In economic jargon, while no cars downtown might be a “first-best” solution for pedestrians, we don’t live in that world. Given the world where cars dominate streets, a pedestrian-only level is a viable “second-best” solution.

  • Why should all of the modes interact on all levels. In principle, I like shared space as much as anyone, but I don’t like walking on a sidewalk next to 3 or 4 or 5 lanes of motorized traffic, why should I be confined to a narrow building hugging strip rather than travel on a strictly pedestrian level.
  • Tall buildings should generate sufficient traffic to support retail on both the street level and the internal skyway level. In Planning for Place and Plexus we have a box “Ground Floor Retail Everywhere” which estimated that if all retail trips were home-based, 10 story apartment buildings would be sufficient to generate 1 floor of retail. A similar calculation could be done for non-home based (i.e. work-based) retail trips, and given the higher density of people per square foot in office buildings, should generate similar numbers. Short buildings don’t justify skyways, but tall buildings do.
  • Skyways reduce inter-building transportation costs. This should increase inter-building activity and thus economies of agglomeration. Given the only purpose of cities is to connect people at low cost for some mutual advantage, the better cities connect people, the better off everyone is.

I have coauthored two papers about their evolution, I encourage you all to read the first: Corbett et al. (2009) Evolution of the second-story city: the Minneapolis Skyway System.
Environment and Planning B: Planning and Design volume 36, pages 711 – 724, which goes into the history of the Minneapolis system.

Could the skyways be better. Of course. Some ideas:

  • First, they can better connect to the street network with staircases or lifts adjacent to the sidewalks.
  • Second, they can follow a more regular topology. More importantly the internal skyway level network inside the buildings themselves could be far more navigable than it is. While it is fine for regular commuters who learn the ins and outs, its medieval labyrinth is horrible for the unfamiliar traveler.
  • Third, perhaps the skyway level should be on the 10th or 20th floor instead of the 2nd (The Petronas Towers at Kuala Lampur puts them at the 41st floor). This would require more coordination, but may be more useful in reducing the total amount of vertical movement required for inter-building personal transportation. It is probably a bit late to retrofit Minneapolis, but should be considered in cities newly adopting skyways.

Skyways are Minneapolis’s Cable Cars, our London Underground or Route-Master Bus, our Venetian Canals. Skyways are the iconic transportation system of Minneapolis. With all else (roads, LRT, etc.) we are copy cats. We need to embrace skyways as such, and not listen to others who want Minneapolis to fit into the conventions of relatively weather-less European cities.


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5 Responses to In defense of skyways

  1. Reuben Collins
    Reuben Collins January 9, 2012 at 4:04 am #

    Good post. I don't have strong feelings either way about skyways, but I have always found them to be a little bit more confusing than useful. I echo your observations about the system for those who aren't regular users. I can never seem to figure out how to get into the skyways, and once I'm there, I tend to get lost quickly (until I can find some windows to look outside and re-orient myself).

  2. Andrew January 9, 2012 at 4:19 am #

    Not exactly a ton of people walking in any of those photos. I wonder if during their rush hours they see the same effect we do where most people are in the skyways while the streets remain deserted.

  3. Alex Bauman
    Alex January 9, 2012 at 6:33 am #

    I agree that there is probably enough total activity Downtown to support a two level pedestrian network but I worry about class-based segregation of networks (elites in the sky vs proles waiting for the bus). This can be mitigated by declaring them public space or public private space but it will take more political will and money than Mpls will be able to muster any time soon. The physical upgrades (vertical circulation, route simplification) may be foistable onto developers and building owners, but city is usually unwilling to go against the downtown council.

  4. gml4 January 9, 2012 at 7:04 am #

    My wife worked at Target downtown for years, and used the Skyways daily for lunch and other errands. When we visit downtown on occasion, it sure is nice to be able to leave bulky jackets in the car while doing the shopping, eating and other things. I agree about it being confusing for infrequent visitors (like myself when I'm there without my wife!) more maps and /or directorys would be very helpful!

  5. hokan January 9, 2012 at 7:28 am #

    I was shopping downtown this weekend, the first time in a very long time. I found that the shops often don't have much (or any) presence on the street. Using the skyway system was confusing and frustrating. I can see why suburban malls are so popular.

    The skyways are probably great for people who work downtown, but were not so good for me.