What if we closed Hennepin?

What if we closed Hennepin Avenue S. to through cars? It is illustrated in the adjoining map.

The Design

Suppose you created a Hennepin Transit Mall, similar to Nicollet Avenue in downtown or Washington Avenue at the University of Minnesota, with room for bikes, pedestrians, and a high-quality fixed-route transit service connecting Uptown with Downtown (with a flyover/short tunnel somewhere to cross I-94).

Hennepin would be closed at I-94 on-ramps, at 22nd, 24th, 25th, and 26th. The closure in my plan would be half-block (or less), enabling the road to still be used for local access traffic, but not through traffic. The space devoted to car movement could probably be reduced to one-lane in each direction from 26th street to Franklin Avenue, with the rest of the space for streetcar/bus lanes and on-street parking, bike lanes, and sidewalks. Where the road was physically closed, there would be a small pedestrian/transit plaza.

Why would we do this?

(1) There are plans to run a Streetcar down Hennepin (forecast to carry 11,000 – 13,000 riders) plus there are existing buses. If the streetcars and buses had a more exclusive right-of-way, they could provide better service and carry more riders. The road is not able to accommodate the streetcar (at current standards of design and levels of service) and all the existing traffic. If the community truly wants transit to be the primary mode from Uptown to Downtown, the Right-of-Way needs to be turned over to transit.

Streetcars will make left and right turns awkward at best, especially with high traffic counts. Current vehicle traffic counts on Hennepin (2011) are 25,927 two-way at Hennepin just north of 25th street. Lyndale currently carries 14,680 two-way just north of 26th street (though the counts on Lyndale are highly variable, and just a few blocks north it supposedly carries 24,000).[I don’t believe that if we closed Hennepin, all of that traffic would switch to Lyndale, though certainly some would].

(2) Hennepin creates a large number of awkward intersections even in the absence of a streetcar. It violates the existing street grid. It is congested. There is a case in the transportation literature called the Braess’s Paradox which says under certain circumstances, removing a link can save overall travel time. I do not know if Hennepin is such a case (and even if it were, it might only be under certain traffic conditions), but the congestion creates spillovers. There are other paradoxes in transportation about traffic signals, and so on, but the main point I think is that this added capacity is less valuable than elsewhere because of the awkwardness of the network. Roads and cars have problems when intersections are not at 90 degrees and have more than 4 legs. To fix that, traffic engineers at some time in the past further bent the street grid.

New York had this problem with Broadway, which cuts a diagonal through the regular street grid. Its solution was to close it to through traffic i.e. to disconnect it in many places.

(3) More capacity leads to more traffic, less capacity leads to less traffic. This is the phenomenon of induced demand, and is well established, the best local example for which we have evidence is the case of the I-35W Bridge after its collapse.

(4) Closing Nicollet to private vehicle traffic downtown has not seemed to hurt economic activity there.

Why would we not do this?

(1) Lethargy.

(2) Businesses on Hennepin will complain. Neighbors on Lyndale will complain. [Businesses on Lyndale might quietly rejoice with the additional traffic though]. Change is hard.

(3) Removing the link will increase distances for drivers who continue to use their cars to travel between I-94 and Uptown. My estimate is total distance per trip will increase by less than 800m (0.5 miles) for cars, as the hypotenuse does not save more distance than that, depending on where you are going.

(4) Hennepin is the next major arterial at the approximately 1 mile grid spacing, removing it would maim the arterial system. [Comment, since Lyndale and Hennepin come together at I-94, the arterial system is largely ineffective anyway.]

What would happen?

Based on evidence about induced demand, some traffic would disappear and some traffic would reroute to alternatives. Substitute routes should see an increase in total traffic. My guess is the most affected route would be Lyndale. If my posited design were implemented, short sections of 22nd, 24th, 25th, and 26th Streets would also see more traffic as travelers from the North peel off from Lyndale to reach places on Hennepin that would have been accessed differently.

There would be fewer traffic conflicts at the remaining Hennepin Avenue intersections, though it wouldn’t go to zero, as sections of the route would still be open.

It gives us an opportunity to straighten the grid. Colfax, Dupont, and Emerson can be reconnected as through routes. We can also remove or modify a number of the traffic calming measures in the neighborhoods abutting Hennepin, as the spillovers would be of a different nature.



9 thoughts on “What if we closed Hennepin?

  1. Nathan

    This is a very interesting idea, and one that merits discussion, particularly with the increasing likelihood of a streetcar on Hennepin. I think there are some challenges this proposal does not address including the inconvenience this places on people who commute by car on Hennepin to the East Isles, East Calhoun, Linden Hills, Cedar-Isles-Dean neighborhoods, as well as portions of St. Louis Park. That traffic will have to go someplace, and Lyndale is not a viable option for much of that traffic. Additionally, the pushback from the Lake-Hennepin businesses will be intense. If I'm driving from the burbs to grab dinner in Uptown and Hennepin is not an option, I'm more likely to stop at LynLake than continue on to Lake-Hennepin. I'd like to see parking removed from Hennepin and bike lanes, 3 lanes of traffic and a streetcar installed.

    Great article, thanks!

  2. Anders ImbodenAnders

    It's pretty cynical to just write off businesses' legitimate concerns by saying "change is hard." Were this actually happening, the businesses most likely to go under as a result would be the small independents that don't have any cushion as it is. Who knows what the real economic impact would be in the long run, but in this alternate universe where we remove tens of thousands of vehicles a day from Hennepin Avenue, I see a lot of empty storefronts. I walk, bike, or the ride the bus to work along Hennepin every day, and while the status quo drives me bonkers, I don't think saving 5 or 10 minutes is worth cutting off a key lifeline to small businesses.

  3. Matt SteeleMatt

    The only concern I have is that Hennepin is the main connection between Lake/Lagoon from the west to 26th/28th Street from the east. Some other logical connections in the grid would have to be strengthened, especially to help deal with what would likely be a large increase in left turning traffic from 26th to southbound Lyndale, and Lake to northbound Lyndale (which could really affect the thriving corner).

    Otherwise I love the idea, especially if closure could involve a cut and cover tunnel for future transit!

  4. Andrew

    "Lethargy" and "inertia" may be synonymous in this case.

    I do think the idea gets at an important tension between perceptions of access and urban autocentrism. Hennepin does provide automobile access in the area discussed, but this arguably interferes with pedestrian access (flee! flee across the crosswalk!) and bicycle access (get thee to Bryant!). Transit access isn't bad at all, but access across modes is just not pretty to look at. The key of course is Hennepin's autocentrism – it is off the charts car friendly and especially so among business/property owners. Minor rebellions have resulted from proposals to remove parking down near the co-op grocery store and businesses generally present a reactive and unified front with regards to any proposal, really, that is perceived to impair auto access.

    It would be intriguing to try and sell local stakeholders on the idea of damming up Hennepin's on-ramps. The street has a wide ROW and the streetscape in general indicates a prioritization of automobiles (many driveways, cluttered sidewalks, minimal and sporadic streetscaping). Would Hennepin look underutilized then without the constant flow of cars? Put another way, do people have a sense for how many cars on Hennepin is comfortable, and do they respond to this sense? In this case there *is* inertia, and it would take a large external blow to derail it. Would it be too much irony for a streetcar project to do the trick?

  5. Janne

    As someone who has lived15 yards off of Hennepin for 16 years and who uses this stretch frequently, I love this idea. Hennepin carries a lot of cars — but contrary to Anders' point, I don't think their destination is typically the businesses in Uptown, but rather through traffic to points beyond (i.e. SLP). Highway 100 is available for those trips. Due to the cramped [free] parking in Uptown, I think increased bike/ped/transit traffic would actually benefit those local businesses rather than pushing them out of business. If that increase in non-single-occupant-vehicle traffic could also create a reduction in demand for parking, we'd could see even more pop up, and some chronically vacant spaces put back into use.

    I think that the idea of straightening out the grid (Dupont, Colfax, Emerson, etc.) will receive massive resistance. They were "bent" only a few years ago, maybe 10? And, the bending reduced the total amount of pavement and created new, lovely gardens and spaces for people. I don't see any benefit to undoing that.

    Matt's concern about the impact on Lake/Lyndale (and other Lyndale intersections) are also really important. Lake/Lyndale already struggles with the people/car balance.

    My other question — how does Uptown become reconnected with Downtown across I94? Does the bridge and closing the ramps create "new" real estate that can turn into businesses or apartments or offices? One of the biggest challenges between connecting the two areas now is that horrible expanse of pavement/no-mans-land between Franklin and Loring Park.

  6. Relativityboy

    An interesting idea, and one I support – but I would answer the Hennepin/Paradox question with a definite 'NO. It's not'.

    The Hennepin/Lake intersection is near the middle of a very large 'freeway – free' zone. In-fact a freeway was planned to go directly through that location last century. Lake an Hennepin are natural high traffic streets.

    The 'only .5 miles' isn't so much a distance argument as a 'time added/saved' argument. It holds for bikes, who are not as affected by traffic signals, and would for cars in other cities (who might go farther and add an un-regulated right turn in exchange for fewer stop-signs)

    But, in a town like Minneapolis with its un-coordinated stoplight system, blocking red lights (no turn on red) and very poor overall maintenance and design I believe every quarter mile added invariably increases travel time (discounting freeways).

    I think closing Hennepin to through would increase travel time for cars. But it would be worth it!

  7. David Greene

    This is definitely an idea worth talking about.

    I don't have any idea how this would affect businesses. I would need to know a lot more about their customer base profile. Do most customers live in the area or do they come from outside the neighborhood? My guess is that for many of the bars and restaurants it's the latter. Much of the retail business may be the former. I know that I walk everywhere when I shop so I don't need Hennepin auto access to access the business I patronize.

    I live in The Wedge and every day I use Hennepin to access 94. Lyndale would almost certainly get a lot more crowded during rush hour but that's not necessarily a reason to dump the proposal. I could take the bus a lot more but it is less convenient due to frequency problems.

    I agree with Janne about reconnecting the grid. While I usually prefer such action, in this case I don't think there's really a compelling reason to do it. Access will still be available via the current routing and we would lose some very nice small pedestrian spaces.

    Once Central Corridor opens I will be using 94 much less. However, closing Hennepin is a non-starter without improved transit service along the corridor.

    What I'd really like to see is the Como-Harriet line extended back out to Hopkins (much of the right-of-way still exists and is in public hands) and connected to Central Corridor via Hennepin. Not gonna happen in my lifetime, unfortunately.

  8. Dave

    Hennepin is closed starting at 7PM tonight, so check it out to see what it looks like in reality.

    I think a reasonable alternative would be shutting down Hennepin on all weekend nights/major game days. Allow food trucks to pull in before the shutdown and allow cross street traffic. This would be much like what happens downtown Austin, TX on 6th Street, which is their entertainment/bar district.

  9. Jon

    Interesting proposal. A significant piece of a necessary conversation.

    I like Dave's idea of closing the street on weekend nights/other times and would suggest taking it a step further. Why not stage some real-time mock-ups of the proposal? or several mockups of several proposals? Choose blocks of time (a day, weekend, week, month, whatever) where the proposal(s) could be put into practice on a temporary basis. Busses could stand in for street cars, bike lanes and other traffic markings could be laid down with chalk or something else that's quick and temporary, and we could all get a sense of what this would actually feel like.

Comments are closed.