Hennepin/Lyndale Bottleneck Revisited

Downtown Minneapolis is surrounded by a moat. On one side, the city abuts actual water – the Mississippi River. The City and Park Board have done a good job of making that part of Downtown a welcoming and attractive place: The Stone Arch Bridge connects downtown to NorthEast, and walking paths, bikeways, and green space line the riverfront.

The other three sides of downtown are cut off from the rest of the city by highways and by the Hennepin/Lyndale bottleneck. These areas are less attractive. These man-made barriers dissuade potential downtown visitors from heading to or passing through what should be a focal point of our city.

There is some small degree of hope on the horizon: the Hennepin/Lyndale bottleneck is due for a make-over. The feds awarded the project $7.3 million and the City of Minneapolis will host a public open house on March 25 at the Walker Art Center.

The city’s project page for the bottleneck redesign states that project goals are to “improve pedestrian crossing[s]. . . rebuild traffic signal[s], improve pedestrian and bicycle crossing[s] and improve sidewalk[s]” at various intersections. It appears as though the city will leave the general shape of the bottleneck intact.

The bottleneck zone already includes some spots that, in isolation, could be considered nice bicycle and pedestrian facilities. For example, the east side of the bottleneck features a two way greenway and a separate pedestrian sidewalk. Nevertheless, walking from Loring Park to the Wedge Co-op is a generally miserable experience because 11 lanes of cars are whizzing by and because a respectable segment of the walk takes you under a highway.

The bottleneck needs a complete overhaul. It should be a place that is pleasant to walk, not just safe according to a formula. It is one of the primary gateways to downtown and should be treated as such.

Previous streets.mn posts proposed various redesigns for the area. With a public meeting just a few weeks away, the time is ripe to revisit this conversation. In this spirit, I offer a non-engineer’s idea for bottleneck reconstruction.

The bottleneck currently looks like this on google maps:

google maps

The tangle of overlapping streets/stroads and on- and off-ramps is a mess from a pedestrian’s point of view, with streets undulating over and under each other. However, if you were to knock down all the overpasses and smooth out the Hennepin Avenue dip between Franklin and the center of the bottleneck, the land does not actually vary in elevation all that much from the south to north. Therefore, it appears as though the city could construct a large roundabout in the area.

Which takes me to these three visuals:

The Circle

GAP on the Bottleneck

Columbus Circle on the Bottleneck

The top image is my roundabout vision for the bottleneck (no computer generated images here. . .). There are admittedly some issues with this idea which I have not worked out. First and foremost, could Lyndale be sent off as its own two way street on the north side of the roundabout? This would be an issue once Lyndale reached the Dunwoody Blvd. intersection – the current southbound Lyndale segment (on the west side of 94) is not wide enough for two way traffic. Lyndale and Hennepin could of course remain as they are north of the roundabout, but I liked the idea of giving those avenues some autonomy.

Next, I wonder if a highway on-ramp and off-ramp have ever entered and exited from a roundabout. I cannot think of a reason this would not work, but can certainly imagine some pushback.

The next two images are what I did to gut check the roundabout idea. The first image is a to-scale cut out of Grand Army Plaza in Brooklyn, NY taped onto the bottleneck. It fits. The next image is of Columbus Circle taped onto the bottleneck. It also fits.

Grand Army Plaza and Columbus Circle appear to have similar traffic counts as the bottleneck. It is a little hard to determine the traffic counts in each of these areas (the City of Minneapolis claims the bottleneck hosts about 50,000 vehicles a day). However, you can get a sense of scale by comparing the traffic counts of all the streets that enter and exit the roundabout or bottleneck area.

The counts for the bottleneck are as follows: 15,334; 8,587; 7, 527; 8,440; 3,832; 32,261; 29,613; and 21,624.

The counts for Grand Army Plaza are as follows: 46,885; 29,407; 15,242; 42,057; 8,661; and 13,308.

The counts for Columbus Circle are as follows: 19,675; 37,934; 19,675; 34,713.

Again, these are all the traffic counts on all the streets and ramps going in and out of the respective roundabouts and bottleneck (I skipped counts that were in the middle of the roundabout or bottleneck for consistency). Thus, many cars are counted twice (once as they enter the bottleneck, and once as they leave). It is very rough but, as stated earlier, gives some basis for comparison.

Assuming a roundabout could work in the bottleneck location, it could become a wonderful gateway to the city. The pedestrian and bicycle experience would be improved because people would travel next to five or so lanes of traffic instead of 11, and because the tangle of bridged ramps and flyovers would disappear. In addition, the center of the roundabout could be given to the Walker Art Center, which sits on top of the bottleneck. Imagine an enormous sculpture framed against the downtown skyline, welcoming people to downtown or to the Uptown area, depending on the direction of travel.

I fear that if the Minneapolis spends $10 million on bottleneck enhancements in the coming couple years, the city will put off meaningful work on the area for decades. The bottleneck does not have to be miserable – it could even be iconic. But a few improved pedestrian and bicycle crossings will not solve the bottleneck’s problems.