Traffic calming on Park and Portland: a good start in overcoming the complexities of multiple jurisdictions

The corner of Park Avenue and 14th Street, where a cyclist was killed by a truck driver in 2009.

Park and Portland Avenues, Minneapolis’ twin one-lane north-south STROADS, were scheduled for a “mill and overlay” next year. (For those that don’t know, a mill and overlay is when they scrape off the asphalt surface of the street and lay down a fresh coat of blacktop.) It’s a great opportunity to change the lane configuration (the white stripes), and last week Hennepin County released their plan for how they’re going do accomplish this.

We’ve written about Park and Portland a few times on this site, and in my opinion, Minneapolis’ one-way collector streets are a big problem. Here’s what I wrote about the two streets back in April:

Anyone who goes for a walk down any of these roads will immediately note that cars move very fast. From a driver’s perspective, this is their chief benefit. You can “zip” through the city on Portland Avenue at nice 40+mph clip. Speeding with few relatively stoplights from Longfellow to Uptown is so much easier on 26th Avenue than any other option.

The downside, though, is what happens if you’re not in a car. For anyone living in any of the homes along these urban express routes (what Chuck might call stroads), the steady stream of fast moving cars is terrible. Cars are loud, and pollute the air. But even worse, they move really fast through neighborhoods filled with people. Mothers clutch children to their hips. Yards go un-played upon. Nobody walks down these sidewalks if they have any other choice. Property values along Park and Portland go down…

All these things are subtle and hard to quantify, but the effects are very real. Living along these streets is far less pleasant than it should be. In a sense, the people who live on, walk along, or bike down Park and Portland are paying the cost, while people driving in cars from points South reap the benefit of a few minutes traffic time. That’s something that might be good for commuters from Richfield, but it’s bad for Minneapolis neighborhoods.

To use baseball terminology, the actual plan that the county released isn’t a home run, but it’s a solid ground rule double in the right direction for making South-central Minneapolis into a walkable, bikeable urban neighborhood. I’m glad to see these changes, and hope that people attend Thursday’s public meeting and/or comment in support of the proposal this week.

Park and Portland as they are currently configured are overbuilt and dangerous, while simultaneously being one of the key bicycle routes through the city. Ideally, I would have liked to see the county offer to install a parking-buffered cycle track along the entire route. Instead, the current plan keeps parking along the edge of the street, putting cyclists out next to traffic. But, crucially, it also installs a wide buffer on the side of the bike lane, which will greatly increase the safety and comfort of this key bike route. (A vastly disproportionate number of Minneapolis cyclist deaths have taken place along these two roads.)

The other disappointing part of the plan is that it retains a three-lane narrow bike lane configuration along the most dangerous parts of the route, where the streets come into downtown and at the intersection with Lake Street.  These are precisely the spots where cyclist fatalities have occurred, and it would have been nice to see safer plans in these two areas.

The current proposal, which maintains a dangerous bike lane as it enters the downtown. (This was the area of 2009’s bicycle fatality.)


The current proposal where it meets Lake Street, and awkwardly switches to a three-lane road for a few blocks.


The Complexities of Street Control

The Park and Portland examples illustrate one of the most persistent problems with changing the culture of road design in US cities: multiple and overlapping jurisdictions. When you drive, bike, or walk through any city in the country, you don’t really realize that all the roads are designed, maintained, and funded by different government agencies. Depending on where you are, you might be traveling along a road controlled by the city, the county, the state, or the federal government. For example, while most local Minneapolis streets are designed and built by the city’s Public Works department, streets like Park and Portland are controlled and built by Hennepin County’s Public WOrks department, composed of completely different people. Streets like St Paul’s Snelling Avenue are designated state highways and run from the state DOT building. Meanwhile, parts of other streets (East 7th Street) are designated US highways and operated and designed by the Feds in DC.

All this complexity means that, even if you succeed in getting good design manuals or plans or ideas incorporated as city policy, you’ve only begun to change the culture of road construction. For any county road, you have a whole new set of traffic engineers, and a whole new group of public officials with very different priorities. As you move higher up along each scale of government control, each new bureaucracy offers a new set of political and institutional challenges. The jurisdictional complexity of actually changing a city represents the kind of challenge that would make Kafka cringe.

That said, compared to how these road re-designs normally play out, the Park and Portland plan offers a great example of teamwork. I think a lot of the credit can go to Minneapolis’ unique Bicycle Advisory Committee (BAC) process, which is a monthly meeting of people trying to build better bicycle infrastructure down at city hall. One of the things that makes these meetings so productive is that each meeting has representatives from all of Minneapolis’ different wards, from the city Public Works department, and (most importantly) representatives from the state DOT, the city parks department, and other pertinent agencies. These meetings really improve the level of communication between different institutions.

In particular, the committee gets informed early in the process about different projects going on at different levels of government. For example, the BAC was informed some time ago about which county-controlled streets were coming up for maintenance work. This allowed advocates and city staff to start having conversations about changes to design at a very early date, before things were set in stone. (Often, one of the main obstacles to changing urban design is simply a lack of communication between different agencies. If nobody is informed that a street is being re-designed, the plans are usually complete by the time anyone hears about the project.)

The proposed re-design of Park and Portland Avenues, while not perfect, will do a great deal to make it safer to bike and walk in the neighborhood while retaining plenty of space for car traffic. They’ll calm traffic along two busy and dangerous Minneapolis streets that sorely need it.

At this point in the process, anyone interested in improving these public spaces should take a minute to publicly comment in support of the proposed plan. While it might seem that these comments aren’t very important, public officials pay a lot of attention to the number and tenor of these statements. If the number of people expressing concerns outweigh the number of people commenting in support of a plan, it provides a lot of space for the kind of half-baked compromises that destroy the integrity or continuity of a project.

Maybe someday in the future, the city and county will find a pot of money that will allow a full cycle track treatment of Park and Portland. I really look forward to that day. I can easily imagine a pleasant stroll or bike ride riding down these streets, which used to be wide, green boulevards lined with fancy homes. A cycle track would be comfortable and accessible to people of all backgrounds, ages, and skill levels. It’d be a great amenity for a part of the city that has been neglected during most of the last 50 years.

Until then, the current plan is a large step forward, and offers a good example of how cities and counties can work together to create better cities and neighborhoods. Way to go Hennepin County! Keep up the good work.


5 thoughts on “Traffic calming on Park and Portland: a good start in overcoming the complexities of multiple jurisdictions

  1. ben

    If you're going to remove a lane why not go with the cycle track separated by parking and then apply the mixing zone treatment at turns as they did in NYC?

    Is this because of plowing concerns of the county?

  2. Jeff

    An improvement for sure, not perfect, but maybe it will actually be tolerable to bike on Portland/Park now. I stopped biking on these roads after a couple near misses from bad drivers.

    The biggest problem I see is not that the streets are one-ways, but that the timing of the stop lights encourage traffic to drive at 40-45 mph in order to hit the green wave, a speed way too fast for a residential neighborhood, especially one with a narrow bike lane. I think I actually timed the lights once at nearly 40 mph. If the lights were timed at, say, 25 mph, then traffic would rather quickly slow down as they realize that it is pointless to drive much faster. Losing one of the traffic lanes would also make it that much more difficult to weave from one lane to another in order to make the next green light, which will help lower speeds as well. Any proposal by the city/county that does not address the ridiculous speed of this street by at least 10 mph will in my book be considered a failure.

    The lower speed might encourage some traffic to divert to 35W or other streets, however it will probably have minimal effect on traffic north of 35/36th streets because there are no ramps to 35W.

  3. kai

    why is the bike lane still on the left side on portland sometimes? switching from left to right side at 36th seems ultra dumb.

    also it seems really really stupid to go from 2 lane to 3 lane right around lake street (ahem)…impatient drivers using the extra lane to accelerate around slower traffic. especially if the 3rd lane emerges on the bike lane side of the road (can’t quite tell how it would work – or are they just turn lanes??)

  4. Bill LindekeBill Lindeke

    More useful clarification from a reader here:

    – First off, an additional “complexity” that you didn’t mention is Minnesota’s Municipal Consent Law, which except for certain Interstate highway projects (exemplified by the Crosstown Commons project), gives municipalities de facto veto power over road and highway projects in their jurisdiction. In this case, the city of Minneapolis would have to sign off on any road projects that the county or MnDOT proposed within the city limits, including along Portland and Park.

    – Second, while your statement about different roads potentially having different jurisdictions is generally correct (1st paragraph under “The Complexities of Street Control”), you do have some errors in here. First off, while certain streets in Minneapolis are county state aid highways and under the jurisdiction of Hennepin County, Minneapolis Public Works still does the construction and maintenance work on them. Same thing with state routes like Hiawatha Ave (and Snelling Ave in St. Paul). While they’re under MnDOT jurisdiction, MnDOT contracts out to the city for maintenance and upkeep. This is why the signals along Hiawatha (and Olson Hwy too for that matter) are to Minneapolis-standard vice MnDOT-standard. The only Minneapolis roads that MnDOT directly constructs and maintains are the freeways.

    – Third, US Highways (i.e. 61, 169, etc) are *NOT* operated and designed by the Feds in DC. This is a common misconception. US highway routes were created to facilitate common number designations across state lines for interregional travel. It does not provide special status or jurisdiction for those roads. Those roads, like the state highways, are under MnDOT control and jurisdiction. That said, streets like Arcade St (a better example than East 7th in St. Paul) are still maintained by the local jurisdiction because MnDOT also contracts out to St. Paul for work on what would otherwise be state highways….this applies to Snelling Ave too.

    – Even the Interstate highways fall under MnDOT maintenance and jurisdiction, although unlike US highways, these do have a special funding status from FHWA, and MnDOT retains maintenance over the Interstates physically located within both Minneapolis and St. Paul.

    I hope this clears up some errors in what is otherwise an excellent article.

  5. Dale

    Thank you for the thoughtful post Bill. I agree that this plan is a solid ground rule double. Good, but not great.

    As a resident of the Central neighborhood, I am somewhat disappointed that I am not seeing more advocacy for the conversion of these roads back to two-way streets. If not now, then in the future. At the risk of making enemies with the biking community (most of the administrators of this site), I suspect that is because this community is primarily interested in bikeability of these roads rather than the livability of these roads. But as anyone who has driven (or biked) on 26th or 28th or Blaisdell knows, the two-lane portions of these one-way streets are not much more calm than Park or Portland.

    Also, there is no traffic volume justification for keeping these roads as one-ways. Induced demand plays a huge role in the traffic volumes of these roads. There are a number two-way roads that carry similar or greater volumes with much calmer traffic, the most potent example of which is Portland Avenue itself, south of 46th Street.

    The one-way configuration of these roads, coupled with their generous highway-like widths, will still encourage speeding and will continue to undermine the property values, livability and the reknitting of these neighborhoods’ urban fabric.

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