The Draft Complete Streets Policy is a Good Start for Minneapolis

Since the Bicycle Advisory Committee (BAC) first recommended the City of Minneapolis pass a “Complete Streets” policy in 2011, the city has been slow to actually pass and institutionalize it. I’m happy to announce that things are moving again! I attended an informal gathering to review the as-of-yet not public policy draft where the general consensus was, “A good start.”

I’d walk, bike, ride a bus, or drive here. How about you?

Admittedly, it was difficult tracking down some of the history of this. I did find references to the Minneapolis Bicycle Coalition report from the BAC in December 2012, notes from the BAC recommending to return it to staff for more work in October 2013, and another Coalition post in July 2015 showing that it’s back on track.

There is no formal public engagement process planned, but the Pedestrian Advisory Committee (PAC) and the BAC have been getting periodic updates. PAC member Shaina Brassard and BAC fan club member Ethan Fawley did arrange for an informal work session to review the latest draft. City staff and elected officials indicated they’d welcome feedback, and I attended the work session with about 20 other people.

A Good Start

I found plenty to be pleased about. In particular, I like the “Default Minneapolis Modal Priority” front and center (see image). I also liked:

  • the clear call to develop networks for all modes,
  • the plan to develop performance measures to evaluate the policy’s success, and
  • an accompanying set of “Companion/Action Items” that include
    • a Complete Streets checklist for projects,
    • a winter maintenance evaluation, and
    • a planned review of signal timing (my favorite)

Minneapolis Default Modal Priority (draft) pedestrian, transit, bicycle, freight, motor vehicles

The Default Modal Priority in the most recent draft I’ve seen.

Room for Improvement

On the other hand, we saw significant room for improvement, especially around four big themes.

  1. All vulnerable road users, including people riding bicycles, should be higher priority than any motorized vehicles – transit included.
  2. The draft didn’t actually apply the default modal priority. While instances were found throughout the draft, my favorite example states “modal hierarchies will be developed for each project or initiative…” What’s the point of a default modal priority if it’s not applied by default?
  3. Green infrastructure should be referenced. The trees and landscaping “that provide habitat, flood protection, cleaner air, and cleaner water,” also makes our city a more pleasant place to walk and bike and wait for the bus or train.
  4. The policy is aimed at integrating Complete Streets into planned projects, and there’s a need to proactively address existing safety problems and network gaps. Safety issues are identified in City-produced reports on bicyclist-motorist crashes and pedestrian traffic crash trends. (These media write-ups pull out good charts, create interactive maps, and list problem places.) The City documented gaps in its Master Bicycle Plan (pp. 150-153).

Defaulting to the Default: Our Suggestions

Several smaller groups were going to meet to make more specific recommendations on topics, including the 2nd, 3rd and 4th in that list. I was part of the “default modal priority” group, along with Clark Biegler and Neal Baxter. Our team of three agreed on a few principles:

  • A DEFAULT modal priority should be the default unless there’s a PAC/BAC (or other open) review of demonstrated, documented reasons to diverge from the default.
  • COST is not a reason to diverge from the default. After all, we don’t cut out stoplights where they’re required (or even where they are unnecessary) because they’re too expensive, so why would we cut out the part of designs that save lives? [Note: We also thought it was odd the policy implied Complete Streets would be more expensive, as generally the spaces that serve people walking and biking are cheaper to build than the spaces serving drivers and their cars. Examples here.]
  • SPACE CONSTRAINTS are also not a reason to diverge from the defaults. Minneapolis hasn’t allowed this to limit our road-building in the past and this more recent – if defeated – St. Paul proposal shows we still don’t. Why begin to apply this in a policy designed to address the basic needs of vulnerable road users?

Possibly my favorite recommendation from our group reads, “When tradeoffs between modes must be made, the default modal priority will determine the final design choice.” (I can dream, right?)

What Do You Think?

I hope the other small groups who met after the larger meeting will share their own suggestions in the comments and their corrections to my summary of the meeting.

I also thank the City Council and Public Works staff for pushing ahead on this and for insisting on a good policy. I hope they’ll share what happens next and when we can expect to see a policy adopted.


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16 Responses to The Draft Complete Streets Policy is a Good Start for Minneapolis

  1. Bill Lindeke
    Bill Lindeke November 9, 2015 at 10:11 am #

    Thanks for writing this up, digging through a complex process. I love the look of that chart! I am hopeful that implementing this will become commonplace.

  2. Wayne November 9, 2015 at 10:20 am #

    I think it’s funny that the ‘modal priority’ list is basically the opposite of the current status quo. It’s going to take some work to completely flip those priorities on their head and try to make the existing (terribly) built environment conform. And I really don’t see the city council or public works caring about pedestrians or transit yet, so I wonder how much of an impact this will really have in practice.

    • Janne Flisrand
      Janne November 9, 2015 at 11:20 am #

      Wayne, I think there’s a real mix of interest and passion at the City — as is normal in all organizations. I know some city council members care deeply about this and are working hard to change 70 years of inertia. I know there are many people in planning and public works who are also working on that.

      And, there are people who like things the way they are, or can’t imagine them any other way.

      From the last six years of organizing around issues that people who ride bikes care about, I know that adopting a policy does in fact change how things happen at the city, so I’m hopeful that if we get this policy right, it will translate to change.

      • Wayne November 9, 2015 at 11:44 am #

        I really hope you’re right. From my outside perspective as a pedestrian and transit rider I have seen things steadily slide backwards in the city, so it’s easy to assume they don’t care and are ignoring those groups. I kind of wish pedestrians and transit riders had as strong and successful of a lobby as cyclists, because things have changed a *lot* for cycling infrastructure recently. I’m a bit disappointed by TLC honestly, and I’m not sure if the pedestrian groups have had much if any impact with the complete lack of respect shown for the pedestrian realm.

        I really like your suggestions in the article and if they’re accepted they’d do a lot to force the change. I just wish there were more momentum already to make these kinds of changes without waiting for a cohesive policy to be put in place at some point down the line. The fact that it has to seem like forcing a change is what worries me, because it makes it seem like the support from public works and city government isn’t there to actually stick to the policies, and with the language you mentioned in the article it seems like they’re building in loopholes to allow them to ignore the policies whenever inconvenient (which is going to be the majority of the time if they have the same priorities they seem to now). I’m worried this will be one of those ‘for show’ things where they can get some kudos and up their ranking for having a complete streets policy, even if they never end up adhering to it and it’s nothing but window dressing.

        • Nick November 9, 2015 at 1:47 pm #

          I’m a little concerned with your assertion that things are sliding backwards. I’d contend that there is still forward progress, it’s just not as fast as cycling has made it. For example, it’s becoming more common (but not yet universal) that high-traffic sidewalks in downtown get a temporary walkway around construction sites. Ten years ago, all I remember was a lot of “sidewalk closed – cross here” signs.

          It’s easy to feel like you’re losing ground when other initiatives are gaining traction, but discounting the progress that has occurred fails to gain credibility because it can come off as whining. We need to be constructive if we’re going to get airtime with enough City Council members to make any difference.

          • Wayne November 9, 2015 at 2:32 pm #

            We probably live and work in different parts of town, then, because outside of downtown it’s been a steady decline for pedestrians as far as I’m concerned. I see a lot more road construction signs placed on sidewalks in such a way that renders the sidewalk impassable for anyone but the most able-bodied (and sometimes even them as well) with no consideration given to how one is supposed to get by or notification of a need to cross the street for a detour. Sidewalks are torn up for minor repairs of something unrelated and left that way for weeks (seriously like over a month in many cases) before being repaired and reopened.

            The city has rebuilt a number of corners recently and made zero improvements to the pedestrian realm, only bringing them into ADA compliance for the letter of the law but not the spirit. I’ve seen no new curb outs or wider sidewalks anywhere in town recently. I continue to see businesses pushing the bounds of sidewalk cafes, sandwich board signs and planters on the sidwalk to end up with a barely-walkable winding path down what should be a well-trafficed sidewalk in a busy commercial area. There’s no enforcement of scofflaw drivers who block crosswalks and sidewalks (seriously, walk down E Hennepin or NE 1st Ave during rush hour and see how many cars pull out into curb cuts and just block the sidewalk for 30 seconds to a minute at a time with no regards for pedestrians). Taking rights on red and buzzing pedestrians is a completely normal and accepted thing. This city has nothing to be proud of in the pedestrian realm writ large and it needs some serious changes in attitude and priorities fast.

            But you know, people just like to shrug and pat themselves on the back because we made some garbage list for some kind progressive traits that are data based and don’t reflect the reality of actually being a pedestrian in this city. So I’m *so* sorry if it comes off as whining to you, but some of us deal with a completely different reality than you do on a daily basis and are maybe sick of being treated like subhuman annoyances in the way of drivers and having our lives threatened every time we dare to cross a street, even with the right of way.

            • Sean Hayford Oleary
              Sean Hayford Oleary November 9, 2015 at 3:10 pm #

              There are new curb extensions on LaSalle Ave (just finished now), Minnehaha Avenue (under construction this season), Riverside Avenue (two years old?), Penn Ave S (finished last year), 28th Ave S (short section by Roosevelt — finished last year). On the south end of town but within Minneapolis city limits, Old Cedar Avenue and Richfield Parkway/Bloomington Avenue were drastically narrowed to provide for a wide trail and new boulevard. Perhaps that’s more of a bike project, but pedestrians still benefitted.

              Even the ADA examples you cite are a step forward — even if not as much as could be done.

              Honestly, the only thing I can think of that is really a step backwards for pedestrians is the fact that pedestrian recall (getting a default walk signal) is not as common on new signals as it was on the ones they replaced. While previous normal behavior was to have a walk signal by default for every leg of an intersection at almost every light, now it seems to be more the standard that you get a walk signal only if walking along (rather than across) a busy street. There are other users who benefit from the flexibility gained from this, but this is probably a step back for pedestrians.

            • Nick Minderman November 11, 2015 at 6:38 am #

              You may express yourself however you feel. I’m just suggesting that efforts will be taken more seriously if we give policymakers the opportunity to acknowledge an occasional win while pressing them for more.

              As for location, I think we *do* live in the same area. I walk across the Hennepin bridge to work on a daily basis. And yes, there are definitely dangerous spots. But, for example, city staff and a couple council members were receptive to the idea of leading ped intervals at Hennepin and University. In my opinion, LPI has made a difference in Dinkytown, and would love to see them expand it where traffic light technology permits.

              I agree that regardless of whether the existing traffic lights don’t accommodate it, the ongoing study of E Hennepin & NE 1st is delaying it, or some other reason has prevented action, it should still be on somebody’s list. However, if I call someone to ask, I’d rather do it in the context of “I liked what happened in Dinkytown and want to see it expanded to intersection X”. Bringing out the torches just makes Public Works defensive. We need to create a culture in which it’s easy for them to do these projects, not one in which they’re told every project is done wrong.

              Finally, as Sean hints at below, the battle will be won intersections or projects at a time, since these are all capital projects. Expecting an overnight conversion, absent something transformational like congestion pricing, is going to lead to disappointment.

          • Justin November 16, 2015 at 9:05 am #

            I use every form of transportation infrastructure in this city regularly. Even through we’ve made a lot of progress for bikes, it is still the least served form of transportation, by far. Decades of neglect and outright hostility are just starting to turn around. Wayne’s constant negativity here, of all places, helps nothing.

  3. Sean Hayford Oleary
    Sean Hayford Oleary November 9, 2015 at 12:34 pm #

    I had a conversation about Complete Streets with a Minneapolis council member in 2012, and at the time, they basically said, “We don’t need a Complete Streets policy because Minneapolis almost never reconstructs its own streets anyway, and we do a pretty good job when we do.”

    So, I’m comforted that we’ve come this far. Although it’s true that many major projects are led by other agencies, a good City Complete Streets Policy should be applied (to the extent that it can be) to any project within the city limits, regardless of what agency is leading it.

    Janne, I agree with you about modal priority — although I wonder if by “transit” they really mean “transit users” as much as they do “buses”. In that case, it does make sense that that is side-by-side with pedestrians.

    Of course, at the end of the day, a policy can only be a jumping-off point. Most leaders will not fall on their sword in angering a large number of constituents just to defend a plan. But I’m glad Minneapolis is finding a better point to jump off of!

    • Wayne November 9, 2015 at 1:11 pm #

      It seems like constituents with cars are more vocal (or maybe just more able to get to the questionably-located and scheduled public input meetings) than those without them when it comes to giving input on projects. There’s a huge population of people out there who are impacted by the pedestrian- and transit-hostile planning decisions made who generally aren’t able to particpate in the public input process, be it because they aren’t informed or just don’t have the time. It’s nice we assume they just don’t exist because no one hears from them, but no one really goes out of their way to seek their input because they’re generally poor and disenfranchised in a number of other ways.

      Which comes back again to my point about pedestrians and transit users needing a better lobby than what they have. My hat is truly off to the various bike organizations and all they’ve accomplished here. I just wish we could get someone to care about two feet as much as two wheels (not to mention the bounty of ADA accessibility issues that come with this).

    • Sam Newberg
      Sam Newberg November 9, 2015 at 1:50 pm #

      Sean, I’m dying to know, is the city councilmember you mention still in office?

      • Sean Hayford Oleary
        Sean Hayford Oleary November 9, 2015 at 2:01 pm #

        Since it was a private conversation and may have just been a careless remark, I didn’t want to name names. But, no, the CM in question is no longer on the council.

  4. Sam Newberg
    Sam Newberg November 9, 2015 at 1:48 pm #

    I like the idea of a “default modal priority” for streets. I also like one for development. Doing either/both makes it easier to do the right thing, but make exceptions more difficult.

    We’re getting better at this, but clearly there is more work to do. Well done, Janne. Keep up the good work.

  5. Stuart November 10, 2015 at 5:18 pm #

    Can I add a few points to your suggestions?

    1. Add parking to the “Modal Priority” image, and obviously put it at the end. This should reinforce that our public ROW is mostly for people moving and private car storage is what we do with leftover space after everyone else is accommodated.

    2. Make it city policy that the city lobbies for the cities complete streets policy, even if the city does not “own” the road. As stated above, many of our streets are outside of city control, but the city still gets a say when they are re-worked.

    3. EVERY road project should reference the “complete streets policy”. Even a basic re-striping can easily improve the right of way for vulnerable users. It should not be city policy to default to what it used to be just because it is easier.

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