The Hennepin Avenue Bridge Isn’t Just For Cars

In an unavoidable tragedy last night, an autonomous motor vehicle “accidentally” smashed itself into a slow-moving traffic obstruction, causing damage both to itself and to the obstruction.

Or, more accurately, the driver of a car crashed his vehicle into a pedal pub full of patrons and the police suspect alcohol was involved. 12 people went to the hospital. Three suffered “significant” injuries, that were thankfully non-life threatening.

Source: MPD twitter account

Source: MPD twitter account

Phil Mackey of 1500 ESPN bring us the conventional wisdom, via twitter:

I don’t mean to pick on Phil, because I think he’s stating a common sentiment grounded in a concern for safety. Sort of.

But as a society we have to re-think that conventional wisdom. Segregating cars from other road users makes them more dangerous, not safer. And the location of this “accident” illustrates the point.

The crash happened on the southbound span of the Hennepin Avenue Bridge. At that point, the bridge deck has three wide lanes, a small shoulder and wide sidewalk. Cars are almost entirely segregated from their non-car surroundings.

In other words, there are too many lanes, that are too wide and on which a driver feels no friction whatsoever. Drivers regularly zoom by at near highway speeds. I’ve done it. If you’ve driven here, you’ve probably done it.

Sure is a pretty bridge

City streets are used by multiple modes. The law allows it. Heck, we want to encourage it. Yet our streets designs encourage speed, enhancing already dangerous speed differentials.

One answer is to assume that cars are necessary and ban everything else. Another is to assume that everything else is necessary too and find ways to allow cars to co-exist them them.


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19 Responses to The Hennepin Avenue Bridge Isn’t Just For Cars

  1. David Levinson
    David Levinson June 25, 2015 at 9:58 am #

    A third is to assume cars are not necessary on some streets and some lanes. (And steadily increase that number over time).

    That won’t solve the nut behind the wheel problem, who may just ignore the laws while intoxicated. The problem here is primarily alcohol, and letting people drive (or bike) while drinking. And there are partial solutions to that problem (enforcement, liability for drinking establishments, putting breathalyzers between the driver and the ignition, taxis, transit, better medical treatment for the victims, and so on). Those can reduce the problem, but not eliminate it.

    A culture that rewards and promotes drinking alcohol in general, and just tut-tuts drinking and driving in particular, isn’t actually going to solve this problem. It will only go away as a byproduct of automation several decades from now. In the meantime several hundred thousand more people will die.

    • Adam Miller
      Adam Miller June 25, 2015 at 10:07 am #

      The issue last night may have primarily been alcohol, but there’s still a problem with that bridge’s design.

    • Alex Cecchini
      Alex Cecchini June 25, 2015 at 10:25 am #

      Honest question (not snark) but what data/etc do we use to decide how we should treat drinking and biking vs driving? Biking speeds are typically low enough that even an erratic biker poses very little danger to other users (cyclists, peds). But, I can see the argument that the speeds are high enough that they could pose a public safety issue by being erratic and weaving into thru-lanes or sidewalks (depending on what infra is being used).

      I guess I tend to think a drunk bicyclist poses low enough public danger that it should maybe be tolerated, just as we haven’t made drunk walking illegal. But I could be convinced with research. Are places with extremely high bike mode shares + alcohol consumption rates unsafe thanks to drunk bikers? Are there infra designs that can mitigate most risks (which doesn’t seem to be the case for drunk driving)?

      • Wayne June 25, 2015 at 10:31 am #

        I say we use kinetic energy as the measure of how dangerous something is.

      • David Levinson
        David Levinson June 25, 2015 at 11:38 am #

        Drunk bikers are certainly a danger to themselves. http://jama.jamanetwork.com/article.aspx?articleid=193571
        (And thus impose public costs through insurance and health care and the like)

        Of course, they can cause secondary crashes as cars swerve to avoid them as well. It is not like they bike in isolation.

        It’s all bad. Alcohol and transportation don’t mix well.

        • Julia June 25, 2015 at 5:32 pm #

          I get what you’re saying about public costs/danger to themselves, but that standard for legal prohibition seems murky. What about motorcyclists, many of whom (based on the people I’ve met/talked to) enjoy the adrenaline rush and participate in riskier behaviors than I do? What about helmet laws? What about higher-risk sports or hobbies? Sedentary Netflix binges? Soccer without shinguards?

          Plus, that article links BAC with fatality/serious injury, but that doesn’t mean that those biking were necessarily biking more dangerously. As the authors point out, alcohol consumption is correlated with being more likely to go riding without a helmet, as well as “on highways [I’m assuming legally], at night, or under adverse weather conditions.” Those, to me, are more about road design than alcohol. Sounds like the individuals may have felt emboldened to bike at times and in places where they are legally allowed, but in more sober circumstances fear.

        • Wayne June 29, 2015 at 9:21 am #

          Drivers paying more attention and driving slower probably wouldn’t have to swerve into any other traffic, so I don’t buy that excuse. Drinking and biking is still stupid, but the swerve argument is bunk.

    • Julia June 25, 2015 at 5:12 pm #

      I take issue with saying the problem here is primarily alcohol. I had alcohol last night and I likely was drunk by motor vehicle operating standards–I had a beer before reading about this drunk motorist crashing into the pedal pub and a glass of wine after.

      There are arguments to be made for/against alcohol, but the problem with drunk driving isn’t the drinking, it’s the driving.

  2. Matt Steele June 25, 2015 at 10:07 am #

    There are plenty of folks with blood on their hands besides this likely-drunk motorist. People who have the mentality of Phil Mackey shoulder some responsibility, since they don’t understand the fundamental difference of a road moving people between places, and a street that serves all users within a place. But, I can understand their confusion given the roughly 46 feet dedicated to moving motor vehicles IN ONE DIRECTION on this bridge. Freeway-scale lane widths, shoulders, reaction zones, clear zones, etc give people like Phil the misguided idea that this is a road rather than a street. Which brings us to the other group that shares responsibility for the human toll of death and destruction known as the “Minnesota Massacre” — traffic engineers and roadway designers, who sacrifice the lives of humans (plenty of which die or are maimed while in steel cages, too) in the name of speed.

  3. Monte Castleman
    Monte Castleman June 25, 2015 at 3:05 pm #

    Since the motorized traffic counts don’t justify three lanes in each direction (probably built due to traffic projections that never materialized) how about converting one of the lanes into a pedal pub lane.

    • Matt Steele
      Matt Steele June 25, 2015 at 3:07 pm #

      Yes, it seems like it should be immediately possible to re-stripe/re-sign the right hand lane to have a wide lane for bicycles, slow-moving vehicles, and perhaps buses during peak hours.

    • Eric Anondson
      Eric Anondson June 25, 2015 at 4:16 pm #

      A lane for Not just pedal pubs, but carriages, bicycles, maybe segways?

      • Keith Morris June 25, 2015 at 6:56 pm #

        Minneapolis should adopt a policy that outright prioritizes everything except cars within a few miles of Downtown. When it takes a very reasonable 26 minutes to get from the heart of Downtown (let’s say, 7th St and Nicollet Mall) all the way to Sun Street Breads on W 46th St 4.2 miles away, by bike without killing and injuring our neighbors every day or so, why are we still insisting on pushing square pegs into round holes?

        All downtown streets and bridges should look nothing close to what most do now. I’m guessing we’ll have to wait and see how many more pedal pubs are hit by cars until we decide to do some studies, but first we’ll need to budget for that in a year or so ahead.

        • Monte Castleman
          Monte Castleman June 25, 2015 at 7:13 pm #

          The square pegs are heated when it’s below zero outside, air conditioned when it’s 90, require no effort to drive so you don’t need to shower after getting to work, and can get you there (assuming to traffic) quite a bit faster than a round peg. Downtown streets are of course full of people that have to commute from the suburbs, but most of the people driving going to Sun Street Breads are city residents, so they might have different ideas and can’t be accused of being suburbanites interfering with the city.

          • Joey Senkyr
            Joey Senkyr June 25, 2015 at 9:18 pm #

            All of those things are true of buses and trains, as well. They don’t even require mental effort to drive!

          • Wayne June 29, 2015 at 9:25 am #

            So maybe if you already have so many advantages you can stand to wait a few more minutes in traffic for people without all those amenities. You’re already at the top of everything for comfort and speed, maybe letting go of a tiny bit of the speed part to make everyone else’s lives a little more tolerable shouldn’t be so abhorrent to drivers?

      • Matty Lang
        Matty Lang June 26, 2015 at 2:09 pm #

        No! Anything but the segways. They need to be shunned out of existence.

  4. Keith Morris June 25, 2015 at 6:29 pm #

    It’s unfortunately not surprising given that sober motorists drive into bus shelters, homes, trees, lamp posts, utility poles, and even cafe sidewalk tables full of people. And none of these are on the street either.

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