Minnehaha Avenue Will Test the City of Minneapolis Climate Action Plan

Hennepin County has decided to proceed with rebuilding Minnehaha Avenue in 2015 and 2016. A good plan, but not great. The much-discussed cycletrack is off the table, and the street will be rebuilt with bike lanes similar to today but with some improvements for pedestrians and cyclists alike. The Minneapolis Bicycle Coalition’s announcement shows that organization’s disappointment with the County’s unwillingness to both listen to significant public input favoring a cycletrack or to provide a meaningful cycletrack design for the public to respond. As this video on Upworthy by a mystery Dutchman shows, the county’s proposal doesn’t ensure much of an improvement for cyclists (the county will “look into” several cycle-friendly options but have yet to guarantee any besides a lane). However, I think a potentially larger issue is that the roadway will be replaced with one that can accommodate even more traffic at a growth rate of 1% per year, or 20% to 25% more traffic by 2030. This goes against the City of Minneapolis’s Climate Action Plan that seeks to reduce driving in the city. If the Minneapolis City Council is indeed serious about reducing driving as part of the Climate Action Plan, they should consider sending this plan back to the county and insist on a roadway that meets the city’s goals.

Make a road harder to drive on!? Discourage driving!? This isn’t crazy nor unprecedented. Vancouver managed to grow its population and not increase traffic. Yes, it takes considerable commitment, and even a new way of thinking. One need look no farther than three blocks to the west to see a traffic reduction because of a shift in transportation priorities. Since 2000, traffic has been reduced on Hiawatha Avenue, likely as a direct result of investment in light rail transit which allows far more people to travel the corridor with fewer vehicles. A cynic would say traffic went down on Hiawatha because the light rail operations screwed up signal timing, and there’s probably some truth to that. Nonetheless, elected officials made a conscious decision and building light rail did shift the balance of transportation usage in the corridor, and as a result traffic counts are less. So we don’t even need to look to Vancouver for guidance on this, but it wouldn’t hurt.

Keep in mind the context of Minnehaha Avenue. It is a quarter mile east of a light rail line with three stations within walking distance. At the north end is Lake Street, a roadway that the county rebuilt less than a decade ago to be more pedestrian-friendly. Lake Street has high-frequency bus service and the Lake Street Station area has had a transit-oriented development plan in place for a dozen years. At the south end is a major park and hugely popular route for biking and walking, as well as a planned bus rapid transit route along 46th Street. Residents moving in to development that has occurred in the area recently is utilizing transit to a high degree. So why are we rebuilding the street to accommodate more car traffic? This makes no sense.

I asked this very question at last week’s public meeting hosted by Hennepin County. My question was whether or not the forecast growth in vehicle traffic of 1% per year resulted in a street that was designed to accommodate more cars. Not only did I get an answer at the meeting (it’s “no”), I received a document from the County later that night saying exactly that. I’m impressed they went to such lengths to get me an answer, but I’d like to rephrase my question: “can we build a street that reduces driving?”

One of the County’s stated goals is a more consistent, predictable flow of traffic. And true to that goal, the current plan for the street will very likely result in more traffic, primarily due to the addition of left turn lanes. I’m not sure this is a good idea. For nearly 100 years we have had the mindset that growth is coming and we need to build a bigger, more forgiving road because there will be demand. It is also exceedingly easy to forecast growth in traffic (so don’t just tweak the numbers to show zero growth!). The thing is, it actually works the other way around, something called “induced demand;” By building the road, you create the demand; reduce the time cost of driving and more people will do so. This is exactly what the plan for Minnehaha is doing.

Exactly how do you discourage driving? Make it harder to do so. Yes, make the street narrower and slower and put stuff in the way. Make it less predictable and less forgiving. Guarantee through road design that it will take longer to travel the corridor. Reduce the amount of pavement dedicated to the free flow of vehicles and only then traffic may actually decrease.  The question is do elected officials have the nerve to ask for this and do engineers have the skills to design it? A growing body of evidence and best practices, not just Vancouver, suggests this is indeed possible.

So it is gut check time for city leadership, a test of the city’s priorities and if they can enforce them. The decision to approve reconstruction of Minnehaha Avenue will impact this portion of the city for decades. Why have a Climate Action Plan if we can’t enforce it? And who wants more traffic on Minnehaha Avenue, anyway? I get the distinct impression the County wants to get this damn thing done, even if it’s the wrong decision. What is interesting in this scenario is the two city councilmembers representing this stretch of roadway are not running for re-election, and thus have less to lose by not approving the current plan. Then again, if the decision gets delayed, a final plan wouldn’t be approved until current candidates are seated in office. In other words, it might take an act of God to change anything anyway.

A citizen at last week’s public meeting suggested that existing environmentally-friendly businesses, improved stormwater management and additional green spaces along the street create an opportunity for Minnehaha Avenue to be a poster child for environmental responsibility. Nothing could be further from the truth if traffic increases by 25%.

This was crossposted at Joe Urban.

Sam Newberg

About Sam Newberg

Sam Newberg, a.k.a. Joe Urban, is an urbanist, real estate consultant and writer. He lives in Minneapolis with his wife and two kids, and his website is www.joe-urban.com.

30 thoughts on “Minnehaha Avenue Will Test the City of Minneapolis Climate Action Plan

  1. Dave

    I whole-heartedly agree with this sentiment. “Win one for the bikers” is something that should be happening in America’s #1 or 2 bike city. I understand there are some inherent civic issues (ambulance and fire truck access) that come in to play here, but at some point, I feel like auto traffic needs to move down a peg in Minneapolis. This would certainly be one example. Another would be shutting down “short cuts” that cut across bike infrastructure. One example would be 22nd Ave S connecting Lake Nokomois to M’haha Parkway (http://goo.gl/maps/cFT0h). This unnecessary connection creates havoc on the bike path as well as backing up Minnehaha Parkway. There are multiple alternatives for drivers to get here, or opportunities to relocate this connection and reduce a dangerous intersection.

    1. Walker AngellWalker Angell

      “America’s #1 or 2 bike city” With Chicago, Indianapolis, and other cities putting in segregated protected cycleways and other infrastructure at a pretty fast pace, I wonder how much longer we’ll even remain in the top 5.

  2. Alex CecchiniAlex Cecchini


    Maybe the county, city, and state can make a long-range plan that defines Minnehaha and Hiawatha as a street and road, respectively. My actual wish is that Hiawatha could be a better street (perhaps a very well-designed multi-way boulevard) that complements Minnehaha, while thru- road traffic uses 62-35W (with all that additional lane capacity they just added) for the long-term.

    But, failing that, it would be great if they could define Hiawatha as a road, sink it down (along with new LRT tracks and stations), limit local access even more than it is, and allow it to be a higher speed (55 mph) road from 62 up to Lake St. Build land-bridge crossings at least as often as the major cross streets to connect the 2 neighborhoods and give some air rights for further TOD around the LRT stops.

    In either scenario, Minnehaha is absolutely a street. Designing for more vehicle capacity when Hiawatha is a couple blocks away and under-utilized (signal timing fixes in the near term can make it more palatable to drive on), is a complete and utter failure to recognize what the community and residents need. Please, Minneapolis and Hennepin Cty, please reconsider the design proposal.

      1. Alex CecchiniAlex Cecchini

        Definitely aware 🙂

        I think it just needs to be one or the other. I don’t think Hiawatha needs to be a true road north of Lake, but south of that point it could go either way for me.

  3. ella ritzman

    I am one of over 100 small business owners along Minnehaha Avenue. As independent business owners we are proud to serve our neighborhoods and city. Among other things, we offer coffee, furniture, clothing, art, home improvement, web design, interior decorating, law, accounting, dentistry, dance studios, films, vintage goods, a garden center and restaurants. From Lake Street to Godfrey Parkway, our stores comprise the majority of active commerce-Dairy Queen is the only national chain for 17 blocks-and it is a privilege to support and be supported by the vibrant people in this community.

    I have heard from many of my customers that they learned of our growing business district by spotting us while driving to work in the morning from the suburbs. They of course were avoiding Hiawatha. As much as this pains me to say, my business relies mostly on auto traffic. Quite a few other businesses echo the same. If the lights were fixed on Hiawatha to permit traffic flow we would lose quite a bit of traffic on Minnehaha. We will most likely lose an enormous amount during the two seasons of construction. It will be interesting to see how many of us will be able to survive this.

    The photo attached to this article shows a lovely cycle track alongside auto traffic and a rail system of some sort. I wish we would beautify the existing cycle track along Hiawatha which is the bike route I use when riding from Lake Street to the falls.

    Hennepin County’s plan for Minnehaha reconstruction includes narrowing auto lanes to slow auto traffic, widening the bike lanes and/or creating a 1 1/2 foot buffer between cyclists and cars. Minnehaha currently holds the title of 3rd safest arterial corridor for bicycles in the city. Having Minneapolis as the top of the heap for best bicycling city in the country (beating out Portland) would suggest that we are doing pretty darn good for our two wheeled population.

    I continue to wonder why we are trying to emulate the biking strategies of Vancouver, Portland, or Holland. Their climates are completely different as are their cultures. They are essentially dense island communities with tepid temperatures and without our sub/urban sprawl. I think our money would be better spent teaching our youth bicycle rules and safety in schools.

    1. Sam NewbergSam Newberg Post author

      Yes! An actual business owner. Ella, I sincerely thank you for your response. Your point about the pain of construction season is well-taken – it was hard to watch construction hurt business on Lake Street, University Avenue and even 28th Avenue in recent years.

      I do have a couple questions for you based on your comments.

      You comment that most of your customers arrive by car. I believe you – traffic is around 10,000 cars per day, bikes are well below 1,000 (if I recall correctly) and I’m sure pedestrian traffic is not much more than 100, if that. My question is this – wouldn’t an additional 1,000 bikes per day or a couple hundred more pedestrians help business?

      My point is, if car traffic could peak or decline slightly, Minnehaha would remain a popular corridor, and hopefully biking and walking would replace some of these trips. What if overall people moving along the corridor increased but car traffic stayed the same or declined (replaced by bikes, transit or walking)?

      Also, is it possible that someone traveling 10MPH or 3MPH might be more likely to stop on an impulse than 30MPH?

      I’m not saying I know the answer, nor am I trying to sound condescending. I’m just trying to ask questions about how a future where people drive less could help independent businesses along the corridor. I wish your and other businesses good luck in the coming years.

      1. ella ritzman

        As the street is now, the majority of the bikers are commuting to and from work. I have had many, many conversations with cyclists in all shapes and sizes-commuters, racers, leisure riders and even those who take the sidewalk if they are too uncomfortable to ride in the street. I’m curious. Which population would you see growth of 1,000 cyclists per day? Minnehaha is not the prettiest street to ride down. Most leisure riders prefer to take the slower tree lined residential streets to take in the lovely homes and yards.
        I would venture to say, based on my observations along Minnehaha and Lake Street the majority of cyclists, pedestrians and auto traffic fall into two categories-commuting and destination shopping. Lake Street was re-designed with the idea that people would walk/stroll along it’s length- a promenade if you will. This idealistic plan has fallen more than a little flat.
        Lake Street and Minnehaha are “corridors” not paths. Minneapolis is alreadys tops in the country:number five for most bike friendly, #1 for city parks, #1 fittest, #1 healthiest cities, #5 most walkable, and more.
        I live in Corcoran and when I ride my bike South I take Longfellow-an excellent street with very little traffic. If I ride to the falls I take the cycle track along Hiawatha and come back up Minnehaha.
        I think a cycle track along Minnehaha would end up a confusing mess. At 10mph speed limit the uber cyclists would continue to ride in the street as they do on the parkways.
        The neighborhood kids will still ride on the sidewalks.
        I like your ideas for Hiawatha and making it safer for peds and cyclists. Maybe the county or MET council could jazz up that corridor. Drop a pergola/dome or some sort of wind break to make it more appealing.
        I wouldn’t mind seeing them fix the enormous mess at 46th and Hiawatha. Yipes.

        1. Walker AngellWalker Angell

          Ella, the increase in bicyclists would likely be a combination of commuters and local residents. A few of the commuters would be those who move to Minnehaha from other routes but the majority would likely be new commuters who were not comfortable with any existing routes but are with a protected bike lane on Minnehaha. Most likely the largest increase though would be local residents from within about a 3 to 5 mile radius.

          Safety aside, I will almost always choose an interesting retail street over a residential street, particularly if there might be somewhere along that street that I want to stop in.

          With a properly designed cycle track I do not know why kids would ride on the sidewalk.

    2. Nicole

      I really really appreciate your perspective on this, and understand your concerns as a small business owner. The construction process, no matter what design is selected, will be difficult for those on the corridor.

      However, I have to respectfully disagree with your assessment that slowing car traffic should reduce your business flow. I know for myself, personally, I’m much more apt to stop somewhere when I’m traveling slowly by (as on a bicycle, walking, or driving a car at slower speeds) and can see what’s there, rather than when I’m rushing quickly to my destination. I’m less apt to stop if I perceive that stopping will be a pain (driving around blocks, trying to parallel park with fast traffic going by, etc).

      I can say that I’ve been living in the area for 10 years, and driving regularly up Minnehaha. I only rarely stopped at the businesses along there until I began cycling regularly two years ago, and could really see what was there, and could get there and stop easily. And truly, I’m the customer you want, because I’m already here, and I’ll come back, and if I really like it, I’ll tell all my friends in the neighborhood to stop in too. That’s not going to happen with some guy from Apple Valley who might never pass through again.

      I, too, wish we would improve the Hiawatha corridor as well, but the sad truth is, there’s nothing to stop for along it. Minnehaha already has all the pieces in place, and is already designated as a pedestrian corridor. We just have to get the street design right to bring it to the next level. It has such wonderful potential, but in order to meet that potential, we can’t be so dedicated to auto traffic that we don’t properly balance other transportation needs. A safe and comfortable bike facility means my whole family can travel there, and stop there–at the expense of routes which don’t meet those needs.

      1. Andres


        You are obviously a very thoughtful person and I appreciate your comments about your need for customer traffic. A couple of points:

        1. I agree with Nicole that I am more apt to stop at a business if I am walking or biking–I am too busy while driving to bother

        2. I disagree with your concept that bikers prefer to go down tree-lined boulevards. This might be true of a family with kids but folks who used their bikes as a their mode of transportation want to ride down streets that have stuff–coffee shops, bookstores, shops, etc. I live in the city because I have all these available to me on a human scale (as opposed to the suburbs where I would have to drive the them)

        I participated in the conversation precisely because I choose to travel down Minnehaha on purpose and have become a patron of several business *because* I have been on my bike (Moon Palace, Peace Coffee, Parkway Pizza–there are a few others that I will be scoping out in the next couple of months).

        Regards, Andres

    3. Walker AngellWalker Angell

      Ella, thanks for jumping in here with your comments. There have been several studies that have shown an increase in retail business in the U.S. when protected bicycle lanes (cycle tracks) have been installed. In NYC I believe the average is about a 30% increase in retail traffic. I’m not aware of any study indicating an instance of business declining after a cycle track has been installed.

      The primary difference between a bicycle lane and cycle track is simply that the cycle track is on the curb side of parked cars instead of the vehicle lane side. This should not impact vehicle traffic in any way that I’m aware of. It will make the cycle track side of the street (where there’s a 2-way cycle track instead of two 1-way cycle tracks) considerably more pleasant however.

      As to weather. I’m originally from Alabama and thought Minnesotans were nuts for going outside in the winter. People adjust though and Minnesotans have adjusted to the cold and snow and heat and humidity and go outside and do stuff all year round. Minnesotan’s are not unlike folks who live in Montreal, a city with weather quite similar to ours and one of the top bicycling cities in the world. BTW, I still think Minnesotan’s are nuts for going outside all winter.

      1. Alex CecchiniAlex Cecchini

        As others have stated, thank you Ella for chiming in – we appreciate hearing from you and having a great dialogue where both parties learn.

        I have to chime in here and second Walker’s points on using numerous data points from what actually happens to retail when cycle tracks or truly segregated bicycle facilities are added to streets. Just a couple articles posted recently have highlighted the results:

        Also to second the notion that major reconstruction will happen on streets every 30-50 years, an unfortunate fact for short periods of time but necessary to keep them attractive and viable for transportation. Just posing a though-provoking question here; if more commercial streets had a history of better serving people by bike or walking (and therefore more people lived within those distances), how much softer would the impact of construction be? If businesses relied less on customers arriving by car – who are clearly fickle when construction does happen – might business be less susceptible to major fluctuations?

        Beyond that, your point on car commuters becoming customers is well-taken. Brand/company awareness is half the battle in getting people to patronize a store, and when a large portion of trips taken are to/from work when people are too busy to stop to leisurely shop or grab a bite to eat, relying on commuters to come back at a later date is important. With that said, it seems that you’re valuing this quality in car commuters but ignoring the same effect for people on foot, bike, or in a bus. As Sam points out, if the number of people passing by on a daily basis remained the same, even if they were commuting “through” the corridor on their way home, wouldn’t the effect be the same? Also, I’d love to do some search engine marketing, optimization, and social media campaigns for you to help reach out to potential customers who don’t pass by on their daily commutes! 🙂

        Lastly, I don’t think resting on our laurels as one of the top US bike cities is a good idea. The US is woefully behind in walkability, transit service, and bike infrastructure – comparing to peers in global cities is far more important. Even with the strides we’ve made in bicycle mode share, (about 4.5% of all trips taken in Minneapolis from 2012) pales in comparison to peer cities and an environmentally sustainable level. Our weather may get chilly and snowy, but people have shown they will ride, and that shouldn’t be an excuse for forgoing multimodal facilities in favor of continued overly-wide lanes simply because 20-25% of the year it may be too cold for the casual commuter.

      1. Nicole

        This really hits the heart of why I’ve been advocating for (well-designed!) cycletracks.

        What the county has proposed are some of the nicest looking bike lanes I’ve seen anywhere. But, I worry that if this design goes forward, we’ve just dressed up existing infrastructure for existing cyclists. We haven’t transformed the street in a way that will draw new people to it. (And more people to the businesses along it).

        The new design doesn’t pass the 8-80 test. It remains a 20-55 facility, which essentially cuts it out for families (and thus a huge segment of potential users).

        And the “Use Snelling” comments drive me nuts. You still have to frogger across all the major cross streets, and then without the benefits of traffic control that at least you have on Minnehaha.

  4. hokan

    The engineers, who’ve been trained to evaluate the traffic safety of a corridor are wrong, because a couple of epidemiologists say so? Hmmm.

    Somebody wrote on MPR that with cycletracks they would be willing to let their 8-year old child ride alone on Minnehaha. That suggests an amazing level of delusion about what a cycletrack is and where the dangers lie for cyclists.

    The main dangers, and the vast majority of car-bike crashes happen at intersections and cycletracks will make that danger worse by hiding bikers from motorists.

    If you want to bike on a quiet street, ride on Snelling. It’s one block away and has very low traffic volumes.

    1. Alex

      Are these engineers qualified to evaluate the safety of a variety of cycling facilities? How many universities were offering courses in cycling facility safety when these engineers studied? How many universities require engineering courses that cover a variety of cycling facilities? From what I can tell, the only training these engineers had was a couple presentations from some consultants.

        1. Matt Steele

          I was just about to post that link but you beat me too it. Everyone needs to watch this. The Cult of Engineering means well, but often misses the point entirely.

    2. Dave

      As tersely as it may have been put, this is a valid point.

      Intersections with poor visibility, awareness or driver expectations are truly the danger point. The video posted by Walker is a reasonable solution, but I’m sure we can creatively design other safe alternatives which are a win for all users of the street.

      Regarding, “bike on Snelling”. First of all, if I ride on snelling, I now have to cross against traffic at every major intersection (42nd, 28th, 35th, 32nd to name a few). Why don’t I just tell all the cars, if you want a fast commute, “Drive on 55”. It’s right there, why aren’t they taking it? Probably because they find it to be more efficient, less stressful, etc.

  5. Dan Haugen

    I’m reading this in Stockholm, where I interviewed the city’s sustainability manager yesterday about, among other things, the city’s congestion pricing. The city’s population is surging, growing by 30,000 per year, and yet the number of cars on the road is falling. They’ve successfully decoupled the number of people and cars in the city. People were prepared to revolt when the city proposed its congestion pricing plan in 2006, but now people love it. The air is cleaner. The streets are calmer and safer for pedestrians, and when you do need to drive somewhere, it doesn’t take as long because there’s 20 percent less traffic.

    1. Walker AngellWalker Angell

      Do we have the alternative transportation options needed for congestion pricing to be effective? If not, what do we need to do?

      As an alternative. No Dutch city that I’m aware of has implemented congestion pricing. They’ve explored it for 30 years but always turn away. Instead they’ve done 3 things: Decreased the available through routes for cars and trucks, focused on parking pricing rather than congestion pricing (and moved parking largely to outside of city centers), and most of all, made alternatives, particularly bicycling and walking, but also transit, more appealing.

      This video includes a good bit on decreasing through routes in the center of Groningen

  6. Phil

    I did some business outreach on behalf of the MBC regarding Minnehaha this spring. I talked to about 40-50 businesses, 25 of them signed on support of a cycle track and no more than 10 opposed. The rest had questions or weren’t comfortable committing to a stance. My goal with the outreach was to gather a list of supportive businesses, and I never quite finished. During the process, the county released it’s design options and everything went downhill. Several businesses changed their mind due to the poor design that removed more trees and parking than necessary, and none had the confidence to push hard for a concept that is still unfamiliar.

    So from my experience, most businesses do want the street to be friendly to all, they do want a bike facility that will define the street and make it a destination, and they do want a better Minnehaha. They just don’t want poor design, and unfortunately this is all the county was able to (or chose to) bring forward.

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