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

8 thoughts on “The Urban Future of Hiawatha Avenue

  1. AE Cranes

    Didn't the county increase the speed limit of Hiawatha to 40 through the 30s and 40s (streets) around the time the LRT debuted? I believe it was 35. A tad bit of asynchronistic thinking, indeed.

  2. Moe

    As a resident of Hiawatha, I'm mostly annoyed by the lack of development on Hiawatha Ave. I think a lot of the pedestrian changes were put on hold while development was taking shape. But when that development didn't happen, the non LRT part of Hiawatha was forgotten.

  3. Marketing Stupid

    The development was never going to happen because the Hiawatha corridor has never had an identity as a potential regional destination. Residents in that part of Southside are not cosmopolitan and so the feel of the commercial areas adjacent have never taken on the bohemian artist or revitalized chic gentrification that places like the Milling District and Downtown Nordeast have. Real estate bubble aside, why would you rent an apartment or buy a condo in a place that is nearly homogenous with single-family bungalows, and who's claim to fame are a few small-towney bars.

    One day this cultural conscience may reverse since the mills are prime for conversion. But let us please understand one fact, that is acknowledged by any transportation planner, existing density does not change by merely installing transit options. The building boom seen in Uptown for example came almost a decade after the transit hub and Greenway. A bit more "work" is needed before Hiawatha reaches a tipping point, and with all the new suburban like strip malls I see driving down there, I think that will be in the far future.

  4. Andrew

    After reading a lot of posts about stroads and such on I proposed a lot of these same changes at the neighborhood improvement meeting held by the county last month about Hiawatha Ave. I got a lot of engineering hemming and hawing over "guaranteed walk times" and "minimum lane distances" as excuses for why a lot of these changes can't be made. It seems the Big Book of Road Engineering in MN loves Stroads and dismises all things 'pedestrian' about them.

    I bet the big book doesn't have anything in it about engineering a road adjacent to a light rail stop with heavy pedestrian crossings. How about ignoring some of the ways the book says to do it and instead do what would make sense for the area?

    1. Sam NewbergSam Newberg Post author

      Andrew – I'm under the impression they will be able to make some or all of these changes discussed at the public meetings, but we'll see if they do or meet opposition from the traffic engineers. I'm on the Community Advisory Committee, and I'll keep the pressure on. Not sure how much difference I can make, but I encourage you to write City Council members Colvin Roy and Schiff, as well as Commissioner McLaughlin about this. It is the least that can be done considering proximity to light rail stations.

  5. Bill LindekeBill Lindeke

    notes on comment

    A good exercise is to hang out for a half hour down by the pedestrian crossing at the greenway, and watch people try to get across the street now that the Sabo bridge is out. It's incredibly bad and dangerous. Because the pedestrian / bike signal is SOOOO long, many people will jaywalk across a 50+ mph 4-6 lane freeway. I saw 10 young people, 20 adults do this in a span of 15 minutes one recent afternoon.

    See also:

  6. Nicholas Johnson

    Correction- current speed limit is not 45 mph. Instead, it is 40 mph.

    I feel Hiawatha is not a fast enough road in terms of usability. It's just too damn slow. This is not a speed limit thing, but a long red light thing. It would be better to have the lights changed in some way that will make fewer stops. Perhaps removing left turn lanes, perhaps have a computer control lights in a way that lets a car averaging 32 mph to have minimal stops on Hiawatha, when driving the full length.

    1. Sam NewbergSam Newberg Post author

      I'd advocate for that – I do maintain that better light timing and a 30MPH limit would actually perhaps be faster. However, I'm willing to accept that Hiawatha could take longer to traverse in its entirety if it was a more pleasant drive with a slower speed, more trees, more appeal and more development. Furthermore, not everyone drives from end to end. They drive a portion of it, or cross it, or increasingly arrive on foot or bike. A more livable street has far more benefits than pure speed through the corridor.

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