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.