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.
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.
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 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.