2012 Best Skyway/Underground System: Downtown Minneapolis

Skyways are often derided by idealistic urbanists. Critics point to barren downtown streetscapes and blame the skyways for lack of activity. In my previous life as a naive urban planning student learning about cities, I criticized them myself. But I now think of skyways in the same way as most people probably do: just another option for getting from point A to B, an option that in many cases is the most preferable, for a number of reasons.

photo credit: Star Tribune

photo credit: Star Tribune

Its not just about winter weather. When I worked in downtown Minneapolis, I found that I preferred taking the skyways even in nice weather for a pretty simple reason: I could avoid the car-dominated downtown streets and all the crappy things that come with them, namely noise, exhaust, and stopping to wait your turn to cross the street at every intersection. Not to mention the ever-present risk of becoming the next victim of a distracted driver.

The purpose and benefit of skyways is well-described by David Levinson in his Streets.MN post In Defense of Skyways:

“Skyways reduce inter-building transportation costs. This should increase inter-building activity and thus economies of agglomeration. Given the only purpose of cities is to connect people at low cost for some mutual advantage, the better cities connect people, the better off everyone is.”

In other words, skyways exist for the same reason that cities exist: to make it easier for people to get to things. As someone who prefers walking over any other mode of transportation, if the walking path that is the most expedient is also 100% free of motor-vehicles, consider me sold! Skyways get blamed for a lack of vitality at street level, but I think the more likely culprit is the wide streets full of thousands of cars. Skyways and desolate streetscapes both seem like logical reactions to an environment that devotes the majority of its public space to moving and storing motor-vehicles.

Perhaps that explains why the runaway winner for 2012’s Best Skyway/Underground System is (as it should be): Downtown Minneapolis, which came in with just under 70% of the vote. Of the skyway and underground systems in the Twin Cities, downtown Minneapolis’ clearly provides the largest connected network and the most high profile destinations. It has the best and worse of skyway design, from the beautiful and spacious Crystal Court (you know its a great public space if Holly White says it is) and the surrounding connections, to the cramped, dark passages in retrofitted pre-war office buildings (some examples in Bill’s photos here). It has grown and evolved over time almost exactly as logic would predict, with connections being added where the most people will benefit. In a city with a rigid street grid full of straight lines and right angles, the skyway offers a nice dose of something different, something approaching the organic street pattern of medieval cities.

2012 Best of Survey Results: Best Skyway/Underground System

2012 Best of Survey Results: Best Skyway/Underground System

The only other major vote getter in this category was the Gopher Way, the University of Minnesota’s system of (mostly underground) indoor, pedestrian-only building connections. There’s really not much to like about the Gopher Way beyond its transportation utility. Its mostly-underground corridors are cramped and void of natural light. Its also an area where unlike downtown Minneapolis, the alternative walking route usually involves a stroll through a pretty nice campus mostly free of motor-vehicles. But unlike downtown Minneapolis, the sidewalks on the U of M campus can get pretty congested with pedestrians, so some underground redundancies in the pedestrian network come in handy there.

The Gopher Way tunnel system- useful but bleak

In closing I’ll mention that the write-in votes against skyways and all the survey takers who didn’t vote in this category together accounted for just about 7% of the vote. Critics of skyways may have some fair points, but clearly there is a lot to like about skyways too. They’re here to stay, so lets think of ways to make both our skyways and our streets better.

Spencer Agnew

About Spencer Agnew

Spencer is an urban planning and real estate professional. He is a graduate of the Master of Urban and Regional Planning program at the University of Minnesota. He lives in Minneapolis, where he enjoys biking to work, playing soccer, and dreaming of the day when Rapid Bus service replaces the Route 21 local on Lake Street.