The Urban Future of Hiawatha Avenue

It is time to create a more humane, livable Hiawatha Avenue. I believe a portion of Hiawatha Avenue should become an urban boulevard that unites neighborhoods rather than divides them, particularly near light rail stations where pedestrian counts have steadily increased since light rail service began and development continues to occur.

More exciting is Hennepin County, through its Minnehaha-Hiawatha Community Works program, is actually pursuing some efforts to make improvements to Hiawatha. They are proposing improved pedestrian crossings at notably at 32nd, 38th and 46th Streets. The latter two intersections are near light rail stations where, based on observations of people scurrying across the street at rush hour, pedestrian crossing improvements are sorely needed. The proposed changes by Hennepin County are good; they include curb bumpouts, increased “pork chop” size (sounds tasty, right? but pork chops they are actually the island between through-lanes and the right turn lane), straightened crosswalks (ADA compliant), lengthened walk signals for crossing Hiawatha, widened center medians (in case the signal still isn’t long enough and you get marooned), and the possibility of restoring the southern crosswalk across Hiawatha on the south side of 46th Street (ironically removed right after light rail service opened to accomodate a second turning lane on 46th Street). These proposed improvements are wonderful, and are necessary first steps towards making Hiawatha a better street in the future. But we must do more.

Hiawatha is a “Stroad,” in the words of Chuck Marohn. Marohn writes about our 45MPH world where stroads are neither streets nor roads and do nothing well – they are not fast and access-restricted enough to move traffic efficiently nor slow and humane enough to concentrate density in a pleasant urban environment. The physical layout and speed limit of Hiawatha means it does nothing well, and it has a lousy pedestrian environment.

It isn’t ridiculous to imagine an “urban/urbane” stretch of Hiawatha Avenue. I propose the following:

1.   Reduce the speed limit to 30 MPH (at least between Minnehaha Creek and 35th Street). Enforce it. Slower traffic makes for a more humane urban environment. Slowing the traffic by 5 or 10 MPH will only marginally increase the time it takes to drive the corridor – a small sacrifice to make a huge improvement to the overall environment.

2.   Allow parking on Hiawatha Avenue. Use the existing shoulder.  This will serve three purposes. It will allow people to park near the light rail station, and I guarantee it will be used. It will allow for parking near current and future mixed-use developments near light rail where off-street parking may be at a premium. Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, it will slow traffic on the street.

3.   Plant trees along the street that will actually one day create a pleasant, leafy canopy. This will increase the property value of development near train stations, create a more inviting pedestrian enironment and will simply look nice.

4.   Build crosswalks a different color than the roadway. Crosswalks of a different color (or different paving material) makes them more prominent and makes crossing the street on foot safer.

5.   Reduce curb radii – make corners sharper to slow turning cars.

6.   Make Walk signals come on automatically, perhaps a second or two before the light turns green. We’ve covered this before at – one need not “apply” to cross the street.

7.   Add crossing gates for sidewalks, not just traffic lanes. It makes a pedestrian feel unimportant. And straighten the sidewalk – there is no reason for the sidewalk to divert around the crossing gate when the traffic lane gets to proceed in a straight line.

8.   Increase walk signal timing so an old lady or family with small child can make it across. (check, Hennepin County plans to do this)

9.   Increase the size of center islands and pork chops, so pedestrians marooned feel a little better sense of safety. Wider pork chops and curb bumpouts also reduce the distance across the street, making it more friendly (check, Hennepin County plans to do this as well)

Like I said, proposed improvements by Hennepin County are fantastic first steps, but we must keep our eye on the ball and demand more. The benefits are many, including more attractive development sites near light rail. Most of all, we’ll have a more livable city.

Sam Newberg

About Sam Newberg

Sam Newberg, a.k.a. Joe Urban, is an urbanist, real estate consultant and writer. He lives in Minneapolis with his wife and two kids, and his website is