2012 Best Skyway/Underground System: Downtown Minneapolis

Skyways are often derided by idealistic urbanists. Critics point to barren downtown streetscapes and blame the skyways for lack of activity. In my previous life as a naive urban planning student learning about cities, I criticized them myself. But I now think of skyways in the same way as most people probably do: just another option for getting from point A to B, an option that in many cases is the most preferable, for a number of reasons.

photo credit: Star Tribune

photo credit: Star Tribune

Its not just about winter weather. When I worked in downtown Minneapolis, I found that I preferred taking the skyways even in nice weather for a pretty simple reason: I could avoid the car-dominated downtown streets and all the crappy things that come with them, namely noise, exhaust, and stopping to wait your turn to cross the street at every intersection. Not to mention the ever-present risk of becoming the next victim of a distracted driver.

The purpose and benefit of skyways is well-described by David Levinson in his Streets.MN post In Defense of Skyways:

“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.”

In other words, skyways exist for the same reason that cities exist: to make it easier for people to get to things. As someone who prefers walking over any other mode of transportation, if the walking path that is the most expedient is also 100% free of motor-vehicles, consider me sold! Skyways get blamed for a lack of vitality at street level, but I think the more likely culprit is the wide streets full of thousands of cars. Skyways and desolate streetscapes both seem like logical reactions to an environment that devotes the majority of its public space to moving and storing motor-vehicles.

Perhaps that explains why the runaway winner for 2012′s Best Skyway/Underground System is (as it should be): Downtown Minneapolis, which came in with just under 70% of the vote. Of the skyway and underground systems in the Twin Cities, downtown Minneapolis’ clearly provides the largest connected network and the most high profile destinations. It has the best and worse of skyway design, from the beautiful and spacious Crystal Court (you know its a great public space if Holly White says it is) and the surrounding connections, to the cramped, dark passages in retrofitted pre-war office buildings (some examples in Bill’s photos here). It has grown and evolved over time almost exactly as logic would predict, with connections being added where the most people will benefit. In a city with a rigid street grid full of straight lines and right angles, the skyway offers a nice dose of something different, something approaching the organic street pattern of medieval cities.

2012 Best of Survey Results: Best Skyway/Underground System

2012 Best of Survey Results: Best Skyway/Underground System

The only other major vote getter in this category was the Gopher Way, the University of Minnesota’s system of (mostly underground) indoor, pedestrian-only building connections. There’s really not much to like about the Gopher Way beyond its transportation utility. Its mostly-underground corridors are cramped and void of natural light. Its also an area where unlike downtown Minneapolis, the alternative walking route usually involves a stroll through a pretty nice campus mostly free of motor-vehicles. But unlike downtown Minneapolis, the sidewalks on the U of M campus can get pretty congested with pedestrians, so some underground redundancies in the pedestrian network come in handy there.

The Gopher Way tunnel system- useful but bleak

In closing I’ll mention that the write-in votes against skyways and all the survey takers who didn’t vote in this category together accounted for just about 7% of the vote. Critics of skyways may have some fair points, but clearly there is a lot to like about skyways too. They’re here to stay, so lets think of ways to make both our skyways and our streets better.


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8 Responses to 2012 Best Skyway/Underground System: Downtown Minneapolis

  1. Bill Lindeke
    Bill Lindeke December 24, 2012 at 7:17 am #

    I'll just go on the record as saying that this whole category is wrong. :)

  2. Sam Newberg
    Sam Newberg December 26, 2012 at 3:31 am #

    And Spencer, bringing up David's defense of skyways as low-cost inter-building transportation systems is odd given they are not only redundant with sidewalks but also cost more than $1 million a pop. I don't see the cost savings given the underutilized ground floor space throughout downtown and the social cost of bifurcating the pedestrian realm.

  3. Sean Fahey January 4, 2013 at 9:54 am #

    It seems like there aren't a lot of defenders of the skyways, but I want to lend my vote of support to our glass tunnels in the air. I used to live in Stevens Square, and for years caught an express bus out to Minnetonka from downtown. In the summer I would walk outside to the bus stop by Orchestra Hall and it was great, people were out and about and there was a lot of energy. In winter, I would walk to the Convention Center, and hop into the skyway to get to my bus stop. I'd see the some of the same people every day making their last-mile commutes, pouring into the skyways from the parking ramps, or jumping in after a bus ride.

    Rather than people keeping their heads down and fighting the cold winds and ice, they were getting coffee and talking to each other. Sure, it's not like being outside in the summer, but we have six months of winter in this town and skyways are a great alternative to fighting the elements. When I would come home from work I could hop in the skyway by TCF, and go grocery shopping at Target and walk back home in the relative comfort of the skyways.

    The downside is that only businesses that can afford a 1st and 2nd floor presence seem to do thrive. Caribou and Dunn Bros usually have ground level locations very near skyway locations. Target, Macy's, Barnes & Noble can have the best of both worlds. I don't know if there's a good solution to that problem, but it would be a shame to force everyone out into the cold for the entire winter.

    • Bill Lindeke
      Bill Lindeke January 5, 2013 at 10:29 am #

      Here are some thoughts on climate & skyways: http://tcsidewalks.blogspot.com/2012/01/climate-a

      • Sean Fahey January 6, 2013 at 4:46 am #

        I really enjoyed that article, and there is a lot there to discuss and things I want to think about more. I’m skeptical that the skyways were built without any regard for the weather. I don’t have access to read the Byers thesis on that, but I am curious to find out more. From the list of major skyway systems on Wikipedia it seems to me that the skyway systems grow large in cities of extreme hot or cold temperatures. Even if the only genesis of a city’s skyway was expanded retail on a second level I bet more research would show systems in cities with extreme temps have greater skyway growth and support. Shelter from the weather could be an emergent benefit of a skyway system that is important to Minneapolis even if it is really true that nobody was considering weather at the outset, which I doubt.

        We agree on the big problem of the skyway system, and that is the privatization of everyone’s ability to get from one place to another and how our interactions with each other are locked down by the owners of this environment. Minneapolis sidewalks are not safe from this either. DID workers are always hassling people, Peavy Plaza is going to become a “safe” patio for downtown, and have you seen what they’ve done to the bus stop at 7th and Nicollet? I moved to Golden Valley about 10 months ago, and that was my stop for the 14. It is certainly the most racially tense area of downtown, with wide-eyed suburban dads bravely shuffling their families to Target Field amid the dark and dangerous mass of undesirables. I’m sure the segregation line is going to solve our social problems, it’s worked before!

        I don’t know the solution to private control of the skyways, but nobody is stopped from entering the skyway that I have ever witnessed. Everyone is allowed to use the skyways. Obnoxious drunks are usually ejected, but that’s true on the bus system as well. The hours of operation are terrible, and you hit dead ends and get lost if you don’t know which building closes at which time, but entering the skyway during business hours isn’t much of a problem. I usually just pick the closest building with a lobby and look for the escalator. Usually the building is connected. It’s doesn’t take long to learn the system, building that map for yourself is kind of fun. The system often allows you to cut through blocks and avoid traffic lights. Even with its serpentine path you can walk from one side of downtown to the other in less time than somebody walking on the street. The skyways have utility to the workers and residents, make biking on the streets easier with less people jaywalking, and encourage walking around!

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