Have you ever tried to cross Hiawatha at East Lake Street on foot or by bike? If you ever do, remember to budget some extra time to cross the five lanes of traffic, which include two lanes where right-turning cars are not required to stop. As if there was any question about who is welcome in this space, the “No Trespassing” signs clear things right up.
The intersection is multimodal–recent counts found that the intersection is used by 33,800 cars, 3,910 transit users, 2,520 pedestrians, and 675 cyclists per day–but since it is most heavily used by cars, some may view the current configuration as just fine. If you are a low-income senior living on the northwest corner of Hi-Lake and need to pick up a prescription at Cub or Target–both located in the northeast corner of the intersection–you might disagree. Similarly, a child or parent of a child who lives in Longfellow–east of the intersection–but takes swimming lessons at the YWCA on the southeast corner of the intersection, might not feel their needs are met by this intersection. In fact, more than 600 people have signed a petition supporting safer conditions for all road users at Hi-Lake and officials have responded.
The City of Minneapolis, Hennepin County, Metro Transit, and MnDOT have released a new study about the opportunities to improve the cyclist and pedestrian experience at Hi-Lake. The study proposes a variety of improvements that could be implemented immediately using resources available, plus evaluations of intersection reconstructions that would require federal funding. Currently, neither the city nor the county has funding programmed for projects or improvements.
City of Minneapolis Department of Public Works Transportation Planner Simon Blenski and Hennepin County Transportation Engineer Bob Byers presented the study results to a full room at the Corcoran Neighborhood Organization (CNO) meeting on March 3. The study documented existing conditions, identified key issues and opportunities for improvement and evaluated five concepts for reconfiguring the intersection.
The intersection as it is currently laid-out is what is called a single-point urban exchange (SPUI). A simple explanation is that there is only one traffic light, which controls left-hand turns. This type of intersection is “effective at minimizing vehicle delay at high-volume intersections,” according to the study. What is efficient for cars is not efficient for pedestrians and cyclists who must watch for cars making free right-hand turns from the refuge of the four traffic islands. It takes the average able-bodied pedestrian 3.5 minutes to pass east-west through the intersection.
What is being proposed?
The study offered three categories of improvements. The Tier I and Tier II improvements are those that the city and county could manage without hiring contractors. Tier I improvements include surface improvements such as adding speed tables–think a flat-topped and extended speed bump to slow right-turning cars. Other Tier I improvements might include measures like adding better lighting, street trees, and leading pedestrian intervals, which would allow pedestrians to begin moving through the intersection in advance of cars.
Tier II improvements would include minor change the geometry of the intersection. In order to make crossing less complex, it may be possible to remove dedicated turn lanes. Cars would still be able to turn.
Five different intersection reconfigurations were examined in the third category, Tier III improvements. One of these designs, which planners said they were leaning toward, is called a “Tight Diamond” and would add an additional traffic light and more direct cyclist and pedestrian routes. There would be room for a dedicated cycling facility along the southside of the intersection. The cost of the reconstruction is estimated at around $4 million.
Another design called the “Half Diamond with Promenade” includes the improvements of the “Tight Diamond” and goes a step further by removing the ramps on the southside of the intersection, which carry 2,000 to 2,500 cars per day versus 5,000 to 6,000 cars on the northside. Removing the ramps would mean reclaiming space for potential other uses and it would allow pedestrians and cyclists to travel east west along the southside of the intersection without vehicle conflict. The cost of the reconstruction is estimated at around $4.6 Million.
What happens next?
Although the study is finished, and there is not presently funding available to reconfigure the intersection, there are reasons to remain hopeful about the possibilities for Hi-Lake. Joshua Houdek, Land Use and Transportation Program Manager at the Sierra Club North Star Chapter was at the CNO meeting, and he was excited about the changes that would have little impact on the level of service but major benefit for other users, like those trying to reach the grocery store.
“I was really impressed with the study. I was concerned that it would only look at level of service for motor vehicles. Now, we need to work on getting the political will to move this forward,” Houdek said. Blenski and Byers said the study has also been presented to managers and key policy makers. They expect the discussion to continue.
One short-term change that may have an impact on the intersection is the closing of the Hiawatha LRT trail gap between 28th and 32nd Streets on the east side of Hiawatha. This city project is planned for 2018. Closing the gap will make it easier for cyclists to travel north-south parallel to Hiawatha and safety improvements at this intersection will be key to maximizing that infrastructure investment.
Houdek said the Sierra Club plans to support more demonstration projects to help people imagine the possibilities for this intersection during the East Lake Open Street on 24 July 2016. Corcoran resident Peter Bajurny mentioned trying to plan a parklet near the intersection. The City’s Placemaking Hub is providing guidance about how neighborhoods can lead in the implementation of pollinator gardens, street trees and many other types of improvements
Perhaps, incremental change will pave the way to embracing one of the more progressive designs, such as the “Half Diamond with Promenade.” It will be exciting to see how officials respond to the study and what neighborhood-led efforts happen this summer.
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