We Should Try a Two-Lane University Avenue

[Note: This article was originally written by Dana DeMaster and Andy Singer for the Saint Paul Bicycle Coalition.]

The current design of University Avenue has for two vehicle travel lanes in each direction (four total travel lanes), but why not examine the benefits of having a single vehicle travel lane in each direction, a parking lane with bus pull-outs and right turn lanes, and a bike lane? The Avenue’s planned minimum width of 25′ would permit an 11′ travel lane, 8′ parking lane and 6′ bike or buffer lane, creating a “Complete Street” to accommodate all modes of transportation.

Problems with the current “4-Lane” street programming plans

  • Current programming plans for University Avenue would eliminate on-street parking in order to maintain two vehicle travel lanes in each direction. This would be bad for small businesses, especially take-out and other businesses that rely on vehicle pick-ups and drop-offs.
  • Without on-street parking, small businesses may lose customers and revenue, forcing them to reduce staff, relocate or even go out of business. Because many of these businesses are minority and immigrant-owned, the negative economic impacts of job losses would disproportionately impact minority and immigrant communities along the corridor. This in turn would destabilize adjacent neighborhoods where many of these business owners and employees make their homes.
  • Eliminating parking would remove both physical and psychological protection for pedestrians. With traffic driving right next to the curb, there would be no buffer to prevent vehicles from splattering rain or slush on what will often be narrower sidewalks and no barrier from out-of-control vehicles. The proposed extra traffic lane will also make it harder for pedestrians to safely cross the avenue at numerous unsignalized crosswalks.
  • Eliminating parking would also limit access for the disabled. There are approximately 350,000 valid disability parking certificates/plates in circulation in the state of Minnesota. The primary eligibility criterion for a disability parking certificate/plate is an inability to walk 200 feet without resting or without the aid of a mobility device. Since retail building access is provided at the front of the building for most of the businesses facing University Avenue, it is critically important that on-street parking be provided so that consumers with disabilities can access and support local businesses.
  • Maintaining a second vehicle travel lane will force bicycles off of University Avenue. A substantial number of cyclists currently use the avenue for both local trips and longer commute trips through the corridor because University Avenue is the only east-west through street for bicyclists that crosses the various railroad, warehouse, and highway obstacles. The Central Corridor Bike-Walk Action Plan proposes moving cyclists two blocks north to Charles Avenue. However, Charles Avenue stops at Park Street on the east end of the corridor and does not go past N. Aldine Street on the west end of the corridor. It also lacks traffic lights at major intersections like Snelling, Lexington and Rice that would enable bicycle commuters to cross these streets during rush hour.
  • With the current plan for two vehicle travel lanes in each direction, the flow of traffic in the curbside lane will be impeded by the #16 bus stopping every two blocks and right-turning vehicles waiting for pedestrians at intersections. By contrast, maintaining a parking lane would enable parts of the curbside lane to be used for bus pull-outs and right turn lanes.
  • The local traffic studies to date have been entirely auto-centric, focused on the delay that motorists might experience if vehicle capacity is reduced. Maintaining four lanes of through traffic at the expense of on-street parking and bicycle lanes will diminish conditions for pedestrians and cyclists at a time when the city is promoting these sustainable modes and trying to reduce dependency on automobiles. Motor vehicle congestion mitigation should not drive transportation planning. At a certain level, vehicle congestion can be beneficial. Congested locations are desirable to many businesses with walk-in customers, and lower speeds reduce the risk of injury and death in the event of a collision. Congestion can also hasten the transition from automobile dependency to transit, walking, biking and improved land use. Partly for these reasons, expanding motor vehicle capacity at the same time as expanding transit capacity negates the advantages of transit investment.
  • In large part, the purpose of this LRT project is to revitalize University Avenue businesses and neighborhoods and turn them into vibrant destinations. Yet maintaining 4 vehicle travel lanes and eliminating parking reduces the avenue to a travel corridor “chute” where people cannot stop but merely pass through on their way to one or the other downtown. By making conditions worse for pedestrians, bicycles and businesses, the Twin Cities would be missing a golden opportunity to create a vibrant “Complete Street” that is accessible and beneficial to all users.

Benefits of a “2-Lane Alternative”

“Right-sizing” University Avenue to one travel lane in each direction would restore a substantial amount of on-street parking and using sections of the parking lanes for right-turn lanes (at intersections) and for bus pull-outs. This is simply an issue of “striping” or “programming” the street as the existing 25 foot wide minimum space will allow for 11 foot travel lane, 8 foot parking lane and 6 foot buffer or bike lane. We believe this programming alternative has a number of advantages:

  • It enables many small businesses to maintain their on-street parking. If well managed (through metering or short time limits), even a few spaces can successfully serve many businesses. This will help many businesses avoid failure or relocation.
  • Restored parking and bus pull-outs will make commercial pickups and deliveries to these businesses much easier.
  • A parking lane allows lift-vans and people with impaired mobility better access to small businesses, many of whom only have ADA accessible entrances in front of their stores.
  • By restoring some on-street parking, the 2-Lane Alternative reduces the amount of traffic that will be cutting into and driving around local neighborhoods looking for parking—a major concern of local neighborhood residents.
  • Parked cars will serve to physically and psychologically protect the sidewalks and pedestrians from splatter and errant, high-speed vehicles, making the sidewalks safer and more pleasant to use.
  • Reducing University Avenue to one travel lane in each direction will narrow the distance that pedestrians have to cross at numerous unsignalized mid-block crosswalks that serve the back ends of station platforms or at LRT and street crossing points. This will make it easier and safer for pedestrians to get across the street and will reduce accidents, injuries and fatalities.
  • A 2-Lane Alternative allows bicyclists continued access to University. If a bike lane is provided, it will also reduce sidewalk riding (a problem on parts of the current street).
  • By providing right turn lanes, bus pull-outs, and legal stopping places for deliveries, a 2-Lane Alternative may actually provide better automobile Level of Service (LOS). Vehicles in the 4-lane configuration will constantly be stopping in the outside lane for buses and right turning vehicles awaiting pedestrians. This will tie up traffic and cause frequent lane changes as other vehicles try to avoid these stops. All these starts, stops, and lane changes reduce the Level of Service for cars. Also, reducing the road to one travel lane in each direction will reduce the number of vehicles reaching intersections at any given time and can improve the LOS for those intersections. Many studies and literature on “4-3 conversions” or “Road diets” support these assertions.

Flaws in the Met Council’s 2-Lane Study and in the Project’s current Environmental Impact Statement (E.I.S.)

In 2008, at the request of city officials and community groups, the MET Council did a very abbreviated study of what impact a 2-Lane Alternative would have on intersection Levels of Service (LOS) at current traffic volumes and at an arbitrary 10% reduced traffic volume—assuming that LRT would cause some reduction in vehicular traffic. The study only used a traffic-modeling program called SYNCRO with existing signal timings. There was no modeling of actual pedestrian counts, buses stopping or other factors that could impact LOS.

The “PM Peak Hour” table from that study:

The study showed that (with a 10% traffic reduction) there would be nine failed intersections as compared to the current one failed intersection and thus concluded that a 2-Lane Alternative was not feasible.

The most glaring problem with the study is it compared the wrong things. It compared the existing intersection configuration to the 2-Lane Alternative.

In reality, it should have compared what is called the 4-Lane “Preferred Alternative” in the project’s E.I.S. to the 2-Lane Alternative …as both of these only have three lanes at each intersection (as opposed to four in the existing configuration).

The “Preferred Alternative’s” lack of right turn lanes and bus pullouts greatly reduces its Level of Service. Thus, the 2-Lane Alternative should have been compared to a simple SYNCRO Intersection Level of Service study of the 4-Lane Preferred Alternative. Such a study can be found in the Draft E.I.S. for the Central Corridor LRT project.

Its “PM Peak Hour” table:

You will see that the “Preferred Alternative” has anywhere from three to seven failed intersections (depending on the time frame) …as compared to nine failed intersections for the 2-Lane Alternative. It is important to note that this SYNCRO modeling of the Preferred Alternative did not include the impact of buses stopping in the outside travel lane or actual pedestrian movements in intersections, which will be quite substantial at LRT stations and greatly impact vehicle Level of Service. If these additional factors were modeled, the Preferred Alternative might well have the exact same number of failed intersections (9) as the 2-Lane Alternative. The final E.I.S. used additional modeling software to make two of these seven failed intersections “disappear,” using “optimized signal timings.” However, On pg 30, Chapter 6 of the E.I.S., it says that optimized timing “would probably not significantly alter LOS.” Thus, the real comparison, even using the MET Council’s own data, is between 3-7 failed intersections for the Preferred Alternative versus nine failed intersections for the 2-Lane Alternative.

Also, the 2-Lane Alternative study only assumed a 10% reduction in traffic due to LRT. Portland and other cities have seen as much as 30% reductions, which would substantially change both studies’ results. Rising Gas prices will also reduce Vehicle Miles Traveled (VMT) and could similarly change the results of both studies, reducing the number of failed intersections.

Regardless, even at a difference of 3-7 failed intersections versus 9 failed intersections, it is absolutely insane public policy to sacrifice the well being of an entire corridor’s worth of small businesses, pedestrians, cyclists and the disabled just to eliminate a few failed intersections.

Conclusion

Contrary to how it is being depicted by some 4-Lane advocates, we have a choice between two bad alternatives for motor vehicle Level of Service. The 2-Lane Alternative is clearly the better choice. The current E.I.S. fails to seriously consider the needs of pedestrians, cyclists and small businesses. A 2-Lane Alternative would take these important non-automotive needs into consideration. It should be more seriously studied and tried.

Despite high traffic volumes on parts of University, a 2-Lane Alternative could succeed because some portion of “Peak” traffic thru the corridor will go to the I-94 freeway two blocks away and some will disappear altogether as people combine discretionary trips or take public transit. No “origin-destination” studies were ever done for traffic on University but it is classified by MnDOT as a “reliever” for I-94 and there is substantial evidence that some peak hour traffic consists of vehicles attempting to escape congestion on the nearby freeway.

Some engineers argue that traffic will cut thru adjacent neighborhoods when faced with congestion, but there is no evidence for this and it hasn’t occurred during past periods of increased congestion, such as the I-35 bridge collapse. In fact there is no other street besides University that crosses all the way from east to west, thru the corridor and few other streets that have the traffic lights necessary to cross major north/south boulevards. Thus, a motorist’s only choice is University or the freeway and we think many will choose the freeway. The bigger danger to adjacent neighborhoods is increased traffic looking for parking on streets and alleys, if we choose a 4-Lane University and eliminate its on-street parking.

With a 2-Lane Alternative, Big Box stores worried about reductions in their traffic volumes will still be able to get ample traffic flow from Snelling, Hamline and Lexington avenues—all major 4-lane boulevards with connections to I-94 and Saint Anthony Avenue, which runs behind most of their malls.

Other cities have successfully done 4-3 conversions on major boulevards that had similar commercial configurations and levels of vehicle traffic as University Avenue, and a few of these conversions were done as part of LRT projects, such as Interstate Avenue in Portland, Oregon. It’s only “programming”– stripes on the pavement– but it could have a huge impact on the success and failure of this project and on the success and failure of the neighborhoods through which it passes.

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22 Responses to We Should Try a Two-Lane University Avenue

  1. Matty Lang
    Matty Lang March 21, 2014 at 9:59 am #

    Excellent post Andy! And it’s very comprehensive. I do want to add a bit on the Charles Avenue bikeway which some people see as an attempt to force people riding bikes off of University Avenue. I see the Charles Ave bikeway as a separate, but needed addition to the University Avenue bikeway.

    University Avenue is currently and will always be a street where bicycles are allowed. In it’s current design, this means bikes have to use the 13′ outside traffic lane which is too narrow to safely be shared side-by-side with motor vehicles. This means people riding bicycles on University Ave today need to ride down the center of the lane and motor vehicle who wish to pass need to change lanes to do so. Is this an ideal or inviting design? Of course not!

    That’s why University Avenue should be reprogramed as you write. You’ve done a great job outlining all of the reasons why a redesign is better for all road users including motorists. That said, the Charles Avenue bikeway will be a great addition and will compliment a 2 lane University Avenue nicely.

    As you write, Charles doesn’t have traffic control signals at major intersections like Snelling, Lexington, and Dale. This is true, but it’s getting something even better–medians that allow bicycles and pedestrians to cross in two steps while eliminating many of the motor vehicle turning movements at these intersections. This results in a much safer, quicker, and more comfortable crossing for people walking and on bikes.

    Even with a road diet and bike lanes on University Avenue, some people will still not feel comfortable riding a bike there. Likewise, even with an improved Charles Avenue some people will still need or want to bike on University. That’s why we need to have both available for different users and different needs.

    Now, let’s fix University!

    • Jeff Klein March 21, 2014 at 11:11 am #

      I’d rather put the efforts into putting bikes front and center on University than put the effort into Charles. Maybe that’s not really the choice, but if I had to focus on one… University, as it stands, is both necessary for bikes for the reasons described in the post, but hostile to bikes because the two-lane, no-shoulder configuration is the single worst kind of street to bike on. I’ve been accused of being something of a vehicular cyclist and even I don’t enjoy it. *If* you were to reduce it and add in a bike lane, it could even have a buffer; at that point, I don’t see why you’d mess around with Charles.

      • Matty Lang
        Matty Lang March 21, 2014 at 11:32 am #

        Jeff, it’s not an either or situation. Charles Avenue is part of a “bicycle boulevard” type network of bikeways in Saint Paul. It has nothing to do with whether or not we ought to have good complete street design on commercial corridors like University Avenue. We certainly should and the investments made on Charles do not preclude that.

        • Jeff Klein March 21, 2014 at 11:34 am #

          Ideally I agree, but don’t you think when people bring up the possibility to whoever makes decisions on this type of thing they don’t say, “well, we don’t need bike lanes on University because of Charles”?

          • Matty Lang
            Matty Lang March 21, 2014 at 11:37 am #

            Sure, some people might try to say that. We need to make the case for a complete system of streets that serve all types of users for all purposes. Charles Avenue by itself does not meet that need. It’s pretty simple.

            • Matty Lang
              Matty Lang March 21, 2014 at 11:38 am #

              And neither does University Avenue with an unprotected bike lane by itself.

              • Jeff Klein March 21, 2014 at 12:07 pm #

                Right, but my argument is that with a protected bike lane University Avenue would serve all types of users for all purposes.

                Perhaps this is all too fine a point; my apologies for that. I’d be thrilled to see University reduced to two lanes of traffic. While I’d be fine with a protected lane on University, I actually get more excited about the possibilities of reducing traffic lanes because it really makes streets more bikable for more people with or without protected lanes, *and* helps pedestrians simultaneously.

                • Matty Lang
                  Matty Lang March 21, 2014 at 12:15 pm #

                  I’m not doing the best job of explaining myself here either. My main point is Charles and University are different streets and that improving one does not preclude improving the other. Another thing I didn’t mention is that Charles is already funded, approved, and construction has started so it’s already happening.

                  The Charles Ave project was always about much more than providing an alternative to University Ave for bikes. It’s going to be a huge improvement to the neighborhoods enabling much safer crossing of Snelling Avenue, Lexington Avenue and Dale Streets where people ought to be able to safely cross at all intersections.

                  Anyway, I think we agree with each other. I just don’t think Charles needs to be a part of this discussion at all.

                  • Bill Lindeke
                    Bill Lindeke March 21, 2014 at 2:36 pm #

                    the Charles project is already funded anyway, so it’s a moot point.

  2. Andrew B March 21, 2014 at 9:59 am #

    Great article. I work on University Ave and its always been a deathtrap for people crossing the road or biking on it. I count myself lucky if I’m nearly run over only once per week.

    I figured they would reconfigure the road layout to 2-lanes once LRT went in because there will be so many more people walking around, crossing in and out of stations. Nope, same giant 4-lane roadway after construction finishes. And now with the trains running there’s not even a center median refuge if you can’t make it all the way across in one cycle.

    I have a bad feeling it’s going to take a number of pedestrian deaths before the higher-ups change to the 2-lane roadway it should have been in the first place.

  3. Sam Newberg
    Sam Newberg March 21, 2014 at 10:17 am #

    If I’m not mistaken, the City of St. Paul is looking in to options for restoring quite a bit of on-street parking. How or where, I don’t know, and I’m hoping a representative from city hall can provide an update.

    My first impression of driving down University post-construction was dear God, what have we done? We spent a billion dollars to make University LESS pedestrian-friendly? But alas, I’ll have to reserve a more final opinion until after June 14 when we can all observe how human beings use the street with rail service operational.

    • Matty Lang
      Matty Lang March 21, 2014 at 10:25 am #

      Yes, there are currently studies going on that would return some parking. However, they are not looking at bike lanes and would retain the four lane design in much of the corridor.

      I don’t have the details, unfortunately.

      • Bill Lindeke
        Bill Lindeke March 21, 2014 at 2:46 pm #

        The 2-lane + parking (with a bike lane possibly) study is being organized by the University Avenue Business Resource Collaborative and a great guy named Chris Ferguson. http://www.twincities.com/stpaul/ci_24357316/university-avenue-group-study-cutting-traffic-lanes-adding

        The business community along University really wants to put parking back on the street and given the drops in traffic along many places they think it’s possible. Not everywhere (i.e. not Snelling), but in some of the places.

        It’s my hope that we can also use this to make sure to include bike infrastructure of some kind at the chokepoints (e.g. by Cleveland) where there aren’t any other E-W options for cyclists.

  4. Alex Cecchini
    Alex Cecchini March 21, 2014 at 10:55 am #

    I’m so glad you posted this. Could not agree more. When

    Here’s the current configuration in Streetmix format for reference: http://streetmix.net/alexcecchini/48/university-ave (painted buffer = gutter pans)

    Here’s an alternate proposal since a bike lane on each side might get tricky, knowing that the curbs won’t be moved for a while: http://streetmix.net/alexcecchini/49/university-ave-re-do-parking-bike

    This makes bus-pull outs on one side either impossible or forced to do so on at-grade cycle tracks, neither of which is ideal. But buses do share dedicated space with bikes elsewhere, so it could be done. It also limits on-street parking to only one side of the street, halving the benefits to businesses (but still better than what the current design has).

    Of course, the alternative is: http://streetmix.net/alexcecchini/50/university-ave-re-do-parking-bike-remix No buffer space between parked cars and a one-way cycle track (especially a narrow one that has 2′ as gutter pan) spells risk for dooring, etc. But is that better/worse than putting the bike lane on the outside of parked cars, sandwiched between moving vehicles and still at risk for dooring?

    Either way, this can all be done with paint and planters right away. Test it out in 4-6 block sections, move the planters to a new area and monitor the results there. You’ll obviously not get the critical mass of bicyclers you would with permanent infrastructure (or a continuous route along all of University), but it can prove out the thesis that traffic will be minimally delayed (and may start getting some discretionary trips onto LRT that would otherwise have driven).

    • Bill Lindeke
      Bill Lindeke March 21, 2014 at 6:28 pm #

      you should make this a post. lots of good visuals.

  5. Walker Angell
    Walker Angell March 21, 2014 at 3:20 pm #

    Andy, great post. A question I always ask on projects is what is the LOS for bicycles and pedestrians. Why is LOS only for cars?

    Another is not to ask what will happen to traffic if we reduce this to one lane, but what can we do to reduce traffic along here by 50%?

  6. Peter Breyfogle March 21, 2014 at 4:49 pm #

    I agree that Univ avenue should be configured 2 lanes with buffered bike lane. This type of road will be much better for the retail locations on Univ. It will be a much more appealing destination vs. a road you just want to get across or off from. Thanks for the great article.

  7. Nathaniel M Hood
    Nathaniel March 21, 2014 at 5:43 pm #

    Well done! Great recommendations.

  8. Scott Engel March 22, 2014 at 3:28 pm #

    At the very least the City could test having parking on both sides of the street. Consider peak parking restrictions (6-8am, 4-6pm) allowing on street parking the rest of the time.

  9. Russ Stark March 24, 2014 at 11:26 am #

    The City looks forward to working with Ramsey County, Metro Transit, and area businesses and residents to take another look at how the roadway on University Avenue can best be aligned to maximize private investment along the Green Line and create a series of vibrant, thriving urban places. The effort is being led by the Central Corridor Business Resources Collaborative, working closely with both cities and both counties and Metro Transit.

    Different parts of University Avenue have different levels of car, truck, and bus traffic, and the issue of bicycle access is particularly prominent west of Aldine where the Charles Avenue facility will terminate on the west. As the City has reviewed the question of bike lanes on Unviersity Avenue many times, it’s concluded that the cross-section suggested by Andy is too tight for a street like University, which in a two-lane segment would have lots of cars looking to parallel park, would still have many buses and trucks, and has boulevards with an inadequate amount of space for snow storage.

    West of Transer Road, where the area and the Avenue are largerly industrial, the big challenges of a two-lane segment include heavy traffic counts and many trucks making tight turns onto and off of the Avenue, as well as many more bus routes using that segment when the new connecting bus service comes on line (16, 87, 63, 67).

    The study is an open process with no foregone conclusions as to the outcome, these are just some of my observations of the corridor.

  10. minneapolisite March 25, 2014 at 7:39 pm #

    University Ave has been massacred by suburban sprawl: there’s really little more left that could have made it worse. It’s an ugly street. It’s a boring street. And, as posted here earlier, it’s dangerous.

    https://streets.mn/2013/10/14/university-avenue-designed-to-be-dangerous/

    So much of the street is drab strip-malls with an occasional walkable destination: more than one nearby if you’re very, very lucky. Take The Dubliner for example where it’s a long walk to the next bar (the only other bar in walking distance is Tracks 8 minutes away) or restaurant.(Subway is the only option across the street unless you walk to the other end of the block to McDonald’s: no local options close by unless you hit up Bonnie’s before 2:30PM and if you’re at The Dubliner they’ve probably long since closed).

    Really the only stretches that would suffer from no on-street parking are few and far between: the few blocks of “Little Saigon” are pretty much it. Doesn’t seem like it would be tough to work around it.

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