Pedestrianize Nicollet Mall? or: Is transit in the heart of Minneapolis?

Oops, how’d that bus get there? (photo from HC Library)

Almost fifty years ago, the City of Minneapolis actually did something for its residents who use transit. It created an exclusive guideway for buses down the center of the main shopping street Downtown, reducing buses’ exposure to congestion and (probably) speeding up trips (a little, sort of). Since there private cars are not allowed on this street (except for one day a year for some reason) it is the type of facility known as a transit mall, and we call it Nicollet Mall.

I kinda figure this was an accident. My understanding is that the intent of the Mall was to create a more pleasant atmosphere for shopping, and I’ve never heard anyone mention that any part of the rationale was to improve transit (I wasn’t living in Minneapolis at the time, or anywhere else for that matter). It seems possible that at the time they just couldn’t conceive of a street that didn’t have any type of roadway, and since the buses were running there anyway, they might was well let the buses continue.

Ever since, a small, short debate has popped up every few years about whether the busway is a good or bad thing for Nicollet Mall, which I’d caricature as the business community on one side saying the retail would do better if cars were allowed, and Metro Transit on the other side saying no way. There’s little or no debate that the Mall itself is successful, however, not of course at single-handedly defeating the malling of America, but at being one of the City’s most popular public spaces.

A dot map of Nicollet Mall's popularity (from the City's never-adopted East-West Transit Spine Plan)

A dot map of Nicollet Mall’s popularity (from the City’s never-adopted East-West Transit Spine Plan)

Now the City has gathered three hotshot design firms to compete for the right to practice their art with the goal of making this popular space even popularer. Note that these are design firms, not transportation planners, although some of them have experience with projects that have transportation elements (streets, mostly). Meanwhile, the City’s press releases barely mention transit except to blame buses for the poor condition of the relatively new roadway.

So what does that mean for the ~20,000 transit trips on Nicollet Mall every weekday? Well, one of the ten selection criteria for the winning bid is the design team’s “Transit Experience”, so transit won’t be completely ignored. But neither is transit more than a footnote in the official project purpose, just an aside that the design should be able to accommodate the City’s official but unofficial pet streetcar project.

Surface interference on Nicollet Mall (photo by author, duh)

Surface interference on Nicollet Mall (photo by author, duh)

Is it still possible for one of the design teams to look at the numbers and propose an alternative that would actually work for the majority of Nicollet Mall users, i.e. the transit riders? Would they be able to look at all the interference caused by a surface-running busway and recommend a transit tunnel? Would they be able to look at the state of the art in busways (just a block or two east) and recommend a passing lane at transit stops? Or has that decision already been made for them, as reflected in the fact that there is no scoping phase to this project? Will design elements give priority to one limo carrying Gregg Steinhafel or one 17 bus carrying 60 Targetrons?

Like the majority of other users of Nicollet Mall, I primarily use it for its busway. Whether it was accidental or intentional, the transit component of Nicollet Mall is highly successful as measured by users. It should not be an afterthought in a new design for the street, it should be a lynchpin. Minneapolis has treated transit riders as second class citizens for too long. It has just come up with a serious Climate Action Plan with a serious goal for decreasing VMT. It’s time to start acting on it, and Nicollet Mall is a prime opportunity.

Alex Bauman

About Alex Bauman

Alex enjoys blogging on his iPhoneDroid while stuck in traffic on his 90 minute daily commute to Roseville from bucolic Staggerford.

28 thoughts on “Pedestrianize Nicollet Mall? or: Is transit in the heart of Minneapolis?

  1. Bill LindekeBill Lindeke

    Hollidazzle bus aside, there’s long been a de facto animosity between the Downtown Council and the transit system, often papered over in the desire to portray everything as going great, everyone getting along.

    Hopefully that is changing as businesses / retail begin to see transit as an amenity, not a plague, but treating transit riders who DONT work downtown with respect is vital.

  2. Andrew

    The free buses that travel Nicollet are always packed solid, but I find the pace by bus on Nicollet Mall kind of grueling. Much better to get out and walk instead.

    I really don’t understand why the downtown business treat buses and people taking the bus as a nuisance. When I was car-dependant out in the burbs downtown Minneapolis was the absolute last place I’d go. Now that I can take the bus/train it’s easier to get in and out of downtown than anywhere else in the city.

  3. Morgan

    We spoke about this at the Midtown Greenway Coalition last night with regards to how a potential streetcar’s tracks would affect biking on the Mall. Don’t forget about biking.

    I think that all of the transit modes can fit, but I think that it should be seriously considered what design elements the Mall needs in order to best program large events. If the transit mall interferes with large event programming then I think we should take a look at relocating the transit uses of the Mall.

    1. Alex BaumanAlex Bauman Post author

      I prefer a transit tunnel for Nicollet Mall in part because it would allow for a better bikeway without devastating this keystone transit infrastructure. But large events? Shouldn’t those happen, I don’t know, in a park or something? How about Bridge Square? Hennepin is like 150′ wide at that point.

      1. Morgan

        What is Bridge Square?

        Check out Quartier de Spectacles

        It’s designer is one of the finalists. There are lots of events there. It’s pretty great.

        Holidazzle and the Farmer’s Market are events that already take place on the Mall. No, neither would be better if they were located in a park. And the Farmer’s Market would be even better if in the center of the street without the buses.

        1. Alex BaumanAlex Bauman Post author

          Bridge Square is the part of Hennepin just on right bank of the river.

          I was just at Quartier de Spectacles actually. I wasn’t that impressed, and I think it is a rather different context. To clarify, the concept is impressive, the design is not. In fairness, it’s not a particularly legible space, but I think that the way they partitioned it makes it even less so. And ultimately the hillside in the central performance space is not particularly useful; with the change in elevation there must have been a better way to use that change to increase the visibility of the stage.

          Good point about Holidazzle & the Farmer’s Market. I was thinking you meant concerts or festivals or something. Although the Farmer’s Market could of course be held in a hardscaped park just as successfully.

      2. Morgan

        Oh, and about a transit tunnel. I understand that a cut-and-cover tunnel for the 12 blocks of Nicolett Mall isn’t the craziest, pie in the sky idea, and I know that Seattle has one, but I really can’t see it happening here. It’s a little too much and I don’t think that downtown is quite dense and valuable enough for it to really be considered viable.

    2. Phil

      Agree with you on the importance of maintaining the bikeability. Nicollet Mall is one of (the only?) places to catch a glimpse of true citizen cycling in the city. Just regular people on regular bikes doing regular things.

  4. Evan RobertsEvan

    The Strib used to regularly editorialize on the need to get rid of the buses on Nicollet and switch them over to Hennepin, and my thought was always “this is an editorial written by people who never catch buses” (one could be even less charitable about the imagined editorial writer, but I’ll stop there …)

    One good reason to keep buses on Nicollet is that it’s a much more pleasant environment to wait for a bus. It’s lighter and seems safer. Especially down the southern end with the hotels and apartments there’s a lot of foot traffic at various times of day. Also, if you’re a pedestrian it’s nice to be able to just jump on a passing bus rather than wander several blocks away

    If the city densifies enough that Hennepin and the numbered streets also have a nice diversity of street life at all hours of the day, then we could switch the buses away from Nicollet, because Hennepin has a larger ROW and could support faster bus lanes.

    Nicollet Mall is great, but Minneapolis should be able to support several streets with lots of foot traffic and street life around the clock.

  5. Janne

    Random thought: I don’t know how it could/would fit, but a three-lane space for buses/bikes, with a bike track (allowing bikes to go faster than buses) in the middle and that could also be used by buses for passing.

    Thinking about it, I’m not sure it could actually work for buses to pas one another (there are just too many of them), and it’s not like Nicollet would be better if the transit portion of the street were another lane wider.

    The trick of balancing SPEEDIER transit and everything else is tough. I’ve long felt that the transit users are some of the most important factors for the liveliness of Nicollet Mall — get rid of them, and you might kill the Mall.

    1. Alex BaumanAlex Bauman Post author

      Well, it does work for buses to pass each other if there are passing lanes at stops. But yes, it does remove pedestrian space, possibly an unacceptable amount. That’s why a transit tunnel should be explored.

  6. Matt

    I would love to see the buses taken off Nicollet Mall and put on Marquette and 2nd. We have (relatively) high amenity stops just a block or two away from the ones on Nicollet and it would greatly speed up the buses. Those roads were built for a high volume of buses and for buses to pass each other when stopped. Nicollet is far too slow for the buses and when the one in the front of the line gets caught up, it has a ripple effect on all the ones behind it. This leads to not one but several buses getting off schedule very easily.

    I don’t think taking the buses off Nicollet would kill the mall though. There are tons of restaurants with patios, lots of business, and a fair amount of apartments on or near the mall that would still attract plenty of traffic. It would also be much more pleasant to bike on it without always having to pass the buses that are crawling down the street.

  7. Alex BaumanAlex Bauman Post author

    The problem with Marq-2 is that it’s highly illegible for non-regular users. Do you know offhand which cross streets the C stops are at, or even which direction is on which street?

    Removing buses wouldn’t kill the mall, just make it feel much more dead. Empirically the vast majority of users are transit riders.

      1. Alex

        I would expect that this would be cut and cover rather than deep bore, and would be reasonably affordable due to the concurrent reconstruction. Yes reasonable may mean nine digits of dollars, but we are willing to spend that much on light rail for comparable amounts of riders, and on commuter rail for far fewer.

        What typically drives up the cost of tunneling is a) the uncertainty of knowing what’s under the ground until you get there and b) the disruption to surface activity. A shouldn’t be a problem as long as the reconstruction done 20 years ago was handled somewhat competently, and B is going to happen anyway owing to reconstruction. I would say the biggest issue with a cut and cover tunnel would be the shallow bedrock depth in downtown Minneapolis – if they had to cut through limestone that would make it a lot more expensive.

      2. Nathanael

        Minneapolis public transportation construction actually tends to come in cheaper than other parts of the US (NYC, LA).

    1. Morgan

      You like this word “legible”. I know what you mean in terms of way-finding but I have never heard it before with regards to civic design. Where does it come from. Am I just ignorant?

      Anyway, I don’t think that the Express bus system of A,B,C,D is any different than gates at a commuter rail station. The vast majority of customers only have one route that they ever take anyway.

  8. Sam NewbergSam Newberg

    Alex, interesting post. A few years ago I wrote a post about the 16th Street Mall and why it works better than Nicollet.
    That was before the free bus on Nicollet began, but I think two key things set Denver apart:
    1. the 16th Street Mall shuttle in Denver is a singular type of vehicle, is free, has many doors for easy on and off, and is clearly mapped for easy use – you literally hop on and off. I’ve found it easy to use on several trips there.
    2. 16th Street is literally no more than two blocks from just about any downtown Denver Destination you’d want, including most office towers, state capitol, retail centers, the convention center, performance arts venues, a big chunk of LoDo, the bus station and now Union Station, an emerging huge multimodal center. In Minneapolis key destinations like the Guthrie are much farther away, and frankly there are very few destinations north of 5th Street besides the library.
    I’m not completely convinced the success of Nicollet Mall is dependent on the transit riders that use it. They help, for sure, but there’s only so much room in the right of way, and I’d prefer a little more space for people. That said, if I could wave a magic want and put all downtown transit below ground, I would!
    However, Faith hit it on the head in the April post about Nicollet – the primary problem with Nicollet Mall are the numerous blocks that have few to no building entrances, much less buildings. The best parts of Nicollet have the most doors. Simple Jan Gehl rule.
    The best recent improvement to Nicollet is Max Musicant’s ping pong table in the 1200 block – a decidedly low-cost improvement to the street.

  9. Brad Conley

    Originally, there was a push for a covered, pedestrian-only Mall much like the suburban mall experience. Independent business owners fought back because it would have drastically limited customer access to their storefronts. From a retail perspective, Nicollet Mall (and downtown in general) is a far cry from from the hive of small, independent shops it was four decades ago (or even just a month ago with the closing of three of the last few remaining non-franchised, single-storefront shops, excluding restaurants).

    That the city is even entertaining this idea when the streetcars are moving along with implementation in the next five years is ridiculous. The city simply does what it wants to do, regardless of what the people think. Why on earth would you plan to reopen Nicollet at Lake St and then cut out the heart of the avenue downtown? Instead of pushing for a more vital space downtown for independent shops (as opposed to the Targetville it has become) it restricting interest and limiting access to what was once the retail core of downtown.

  10. Matt B

    I feel like not everyone in the comments section is acknowledging that we are going to put streetcar tracks on Nicollet Mall. That’s happening. Whichever thought experiment you want to engage in about retaining or relocating buses on the mall needs to take that into consideration. Streetcar tracks do not ruin a street for biking. You just need to pay attention when TURNING and not get your tire caught. I recently rode on H Street NE in DC. I rode right down the space between the embedded track. I don’t think the ridiculously fat tires on the bike share bike could have gotten caught even if I had tried.

    Also, I want to address a comment I saw somewhere about BICYCLISTS PASSING BUSES on the Mall. Not only is that stupid, but it’s illegal (you’d have to cross the double yellow line to do it). If you want a slow leisurely bike ride and don’t mind a little bus exhaust, Nicollet Mall is for you. If you want to go fast during peak hours, choose a different street! Nicollet Mall is a fantastic place to bike during off peak hours when the bus frequency is much lower. It’s the best way to get through downtown at night.

    I too like the idea of tunnels and grade separation, but I very begrudgingly accept that it’s not going to happen. The Marq2 bus facility is said to be at capacity during rush hour and express bus traffic has grown even in the short time since it was implemented. It is not performing up to expectations of how much time it should take to get a bus from end to end. Most hours of the day it sits empty and unused, and that’s a bummer, but Metro Transit will not put regular route service on Marq2…they’d choose Hennepin in a heartbeat. I personally don’t think Hennepin can handle any more buses than it already has without off-board fare collection and some stretches of exclusive lanes.

    1. Morgan

      Good post.

      I myself don’t like Nicolett for biking currently for the exact reason that it is slow. The lights are awful and it is not safe or legal to pass the buses. I think that bikes need a few feet that is 100% for them on Nicolett. However, with all of these transit modes crammed onto the street we lose more and more space for pedestrians and people. I do think that this is a problem.

      While the streetcar study is moving along, it is in no way a done deal. Being around a few of these conversations, I get the sense that quite a bit is wide open with regards to how Nicolett Mall will looked and be used with the new design.

      And, I would say, the streetcar will require a lot more hoop jumping than the street re-design. The City can get the money together to redesign the street relatively easily while it will take a lot more financing and partnerships to do the streetcar.

      1. Matt

        You both mention that passing buses on Nicollet is illegal and while that may be true (honestly I don’t know) in practice it is what happens. I walk or ride that way every single day to and from work and every single day the vast majority of bikes will pass several buses. It is extremely rare for me to see someone patient enough to sit behind a bus the whole journey. This is the same for bikes passing cops and taxis. If it is illegal, it is about as enforced as jaywalking (which is also extremely common on Nicollet Mall because the lights are timed so poorly).

    2. Froggie

      Since you mention H St NE in DC, I’d like to point out that I have had a few DC friends who HAVE gotten their tires caught on those streetcar tracks. Most road bikes have tires narrow enough to get caught in the tracks. I personally haven’t had a problem, but I also have wider tires on my bike (which is technically an ATB), but the problem has been noted enough to where the city is looking at east-west bicycle facilities on streets parallel to H St NE.

    3. Sean Hayford OlearySean Hayford Oleary

      Perhaps it’s naive, but I’m still hoping Minneapolis will give up on its dead-end streetcar vision and move onto making meaningful investments in the bus network. While it’s moving along, it is far from an inevitability. And it’s certainly not inevitable that it will replace the roadway on Nicollet Mall.

      As for the cyclists passing buses: it’s mildly risky, and probably illegal, but buses also pass other stopped vehicles all the time on the Mall (like the DID water trucks). I don’t really see how it’s any different for a bike to be passing a stopped bus. That said, I hate bicycling on Nicollet Mall and far prefer Marq/2 or even Hennepin.

  11. Evan RobertsEvan

    Why tunnel when better bus lanes are a fraction of the cost? I think keeping the buses on Nicollet is good for the mall. Some things that would make it better would be
    Halving the number of stops
    Letting the buses get up to 20mph (still somewhat safe)
    Signal priority for the buses
    Putting more bus lane on Hennepin so that some routes could go over there

    Widening the sidewalks on some of the numbered streets across to Hennepin, and making the, two way, might help make the pedestrian experience there better, and encourage better connectivity between the two main avenues.

  12. Kasia McMahonKasia

    I don’t really understand the logic of making downtown Grand Central Station. Most of the people taking buses downtown only went there to catch a transfer. These people do not meaningfully add to the population of downtown. They don’t eat at the restaurants or shop (outside of a few places like Target). All of the light rail lines are that are planned will also intersect downtown. I really think that if you actually built a big transit terminal outside of the few blocks that form our downtown, the streets would be empty. Whether thats good or bad I don’t know. Nicollet mall has certainly changed drastically, even in the last few years. It used to be our high end shopping street, a place where Sarah Palin could drop $50k on a new wardrobe. It’s like planners are playing sim city and sending lots of pedestrians downtown by locating all of the bus transfers there and then because so many people are downtown that we need streecar. There are currently 6 or more routes on Nicollet, what will happen to those routes? I don’t know what needs to happen, but I do know that most of the people standing around on Nicollet mall dont give a damn how many doors there are on the street and whether there’s something behind them. That being said its always a pleasure to transfer downtown, though I almost never do anything else while I’m there.

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