Minneapolis Can Salvage the Hiawatha Crosswalk “Improvement” Project

The City of Minneapolis can salvage the Hiawatha Crosswalk “Improvement” project. All they have to do is send out a traffic engineer to reprogram the signals so the Walk signals automatically appear. Pedestrians deserve the right to an automatic Walk signal, particularly in a city-designated Pedestrian Overlay Zone near the Blue Line, a nearly $800 million transit investment that is approached on foot by every single rider. Hundreds of pedestrians cross Hiawatha Avenue every day, and not just to access light rail. We deserve automatic Walk signals.


An early review of the pedestrian “improvement” project appeared on this site in July. As you can see, the results of the project are mixed. The stop bars and freshly-laid crosswalk stripes are underwhelming but effective, provided the paint is maintained. The completion of the crossing along the south side of 46th Street has seemed imminent for three months and counting (finish the job!).

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That said, the project was mostly finished in June, subject to installation of new pedestrian beg buttons. And here is the rub. For approximately one month, from mid-July to mid-August, prior to the installation and programming of the new beg buttons, the signals at 38th, 42nd and 46th Streets were set for Walk signs to automatically appear. No application or beg button pushing required. And they worked splendidly! And the sky didn’t fall! And traffic wasn’t perpetually backed up as a result! Dignity for the pedestrian.


Then one day I headed home after dropping my son off at preschool and there he was. A city traffic engineer (uh, oh!), his Public Works truck parked on the curb, was busy at work on the traffic box, reprogramming the signal to require begging by pedestrians in order to cross the street. He was simply doing his job. But the crazy thing is, of all the items officially asked for as part of this project by the Standish-Ericsson Neighborhood Association and the Minneapolis Pedestrian Advisory Committee, this is one thing that didn’t require a $10 million upgrade; it just required a traffic engineer to come out and reprogram the signal to allow Walk signals to automatically appear. Which they did, for an interim period of one month prior to installation of beg buttons. How absolutely nuts is this scenario!? The interim condition provided the actual solution, whereas the final, expensive fix actually made things worse for pedestrians. I believe this is the exact definition of irony – “an outcome of events contrary to what was, or might have been, expected.”


As easy as it was for the traffic engineer to come out a few weeks ago and program the signal at 38th Street and Hiawatha Avenue so that the crosswalks signals don’t automatically display a Walk sign, he could drive back out here some day (today!) and change it right back so pedestrians no longer have to suffer the indignity of begging to cross the street. While he’s at it, why not add Leading Pedestrian Intervals? Pedestrians are not second class citizens. The City of Minneapolis and Hennepin County must stop treating us as such. It is time to prioritize pedestrians rather than merely accommodate us. The solution is so easy, and we already tested it for a month this summer (albeit inadvertently), so let’s just get it done!

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.

20 thoughts on “Minneapolis Can Salvage the Hiawatha Crosswalk “Improvement” Project

  1. Aaron IsaacsAaron Isaacs

    Here’s some additional information that may be helpful. I recently got access to Metro Transit’s boarding counts by bus stop. They show that 37% of of passengers boarding at 38th Street Station transferred from buses. At 46th Street Station, which has quite a bit more bus service, buses brought 61% of passengers to the station.

    1. Joe

      Can you explain the method? (I think I know most of it, but could you also provide by stop boardings for LRT? Then it’s just the bus alightings at the station as a % of total boardings, assuming few people use the station stop as their destination)

      1. Sam NewbergSam Newberg Post author

        Good point. What are the overall numbers of boardings? And in the case of 38th Street, how much has that changed with the addition of 180 housing units last year at Longfellow Station just across Hiawatha? I’ve observed a LOT of new riders walking from those apartments – they deserve the automatic walk signal

  2. Walker AngellWalker Angell

    Funny you posted this today. This morning I sent a letter to Ramsey Cty about a crossing in Shoreview. The button was broken for over a year (and once in my zeal to be strictly obedient to every law while riding my bicycle I waited the appropriate time at this broken crossing several times before deciding that this would be the one law I would break). They fixed it once, and it broke again.

    Earlier this summer they did what you mentioned above and reprogrammed the signal to give a walk with every cycle. Hah! Wonderful summer. Much to my dismay, a brand spanking new beg button just appeared and with it a reprogrammed signal. And all of this to cross a road with about 5 cars per hour.

    Oh, and after crossing this street I usually then get to hang a left and wait on another signal cycle. So fun.

    1. Blue

      There is no chance in hell that I am NOT going to bike or walk across the street when no traffic is coming — beg button or not. I’m not about to defer my judgment and common sense to arbitrary authority governing an empty cross street.

  3. Sean Hayford OlearySean Hayford Oleary

    I think there’s an argument to be made that pedestrian crossing across Hiawatha Avenue are generally appropriate for a beg button. That is, it’s an extremely long crossing distance (and thus long timing) with relatively few pedestrians making that crossing.

    Lower-hanging fruit might be to just get pedestrian recall (automatic walk signals) for pedestrians and bicycles along Hiawatha. That MUP on the west side gets a fair amount of usage, but legally, bicyclists are required to stop at each light (even on green), hit the button, and wait for a walk signal. That’s ridiculous.

    1. Sam NewbergSam Newberg Post author

      Sean, I absolutely agree on your second point – some of those crossing distances along Hiawatha are pretty short.

      To your first point, the new curb bumpouts reduce the crossing distance by as much as 20 feet. So while I emphatically feel automatic walk signals should appear, this reduced distance should nudge those with your point of view to allow them.

      Your reasoning is interesting and raises a very good point. Peds (and cyclists) on the sidewalk are not legally allowed to cross a street without a walk signal. For various reasons, they cross against the Don’t Walk sign even if the light is green or are unwilling to wait through the signal phase and just walk against a red. If they arrive at the intersection when the light is already green but not in time to apply to cross, they legally have to wait. This probably elevates the danger but definitely elevates the stupid.

      Crosswalk distance shouldn’t be as much of a factor as context, and this context is a pretty heavily used crosswalk near an $800 million transit investment and hundreds of new households who moved to new apartments for that proximity to transit.

      Lastly, let me remind everyone that automatic walk signals DID exist for an entire month this summer, and they worked very well for pedestrians. The formula was proven and needs to be implemented permanently.

      1. Sean Hayford OlearySean Hayford Oleary

        Well, and likewise, context might matter for the signals. Signals like 32nd, 35th, and 42nd are not likely crossing points for that $800 million transit investment, while 38th and (especially) 46th are. I would be more supportive of ped recall at those locations.

        I’m guessing here, but I think a big part of the problem with ped recall here is that these signals are overridden by trains quite regularly. This is in contrast to most of Minneapolis, which is on fixed-time signals — or even in the first ring and suburbs, where signals are a combination of detection and timing. A train crossing triggers a red light for Hiawatha Avenue, so that a green light and protected left can be provided for the E-W leg that has the train tracks. This is probably why ped recall is not enabled for any N-S crossings, except 28th St, where the tracks are grade-separated… that is, so that the signal can be quickly changed without doing the full pedestrian clearance interval.

        Similarly, those green + protected left signals are very brief. Is it worth doing a 30+ second pedestrian clearance interval for E-W pedestrians on a signal that might otherwise last only 15 seconds?

      2. Joe

        Automatic walk signals worked very good for peds, but I spent plenty of time this summer getting caught on Hiawatha Avenue between 46th and Lake Street. Even during Saturday or Sunday this summer I noticed that something was “off” with the signals. I’m sure they increased travel times for vehicles. With the LRT having preemption, minor roadways need the push button cross to extend minor approach times when needed, and keep them short when peds are not “begging”. There is no reason for a automatic ped call when it is used to cross the major approaches at an at grade intersection.

        1. Sam NewbergSam Newberg Post author

          Joe, this is exactly the reasoning I was given by traffic engineers designing the crosswalk improvement project: that if Walk signals come on automatically for Hiawatha crossings on every phase, there will be delays for Hiawatha Avenue. Why should we make traffic wait when there are no pedestrians taking advantage of the Walk signal? While I understand this reasoning (it’s true, of course!), what this does is makes driving easier and walking harder. Simple as that.

          I believe we’ve been making it easier to drive at the expense of pedestrians and cyclists for far too long. Elected officials need to hear from citizens (voters) that we demand that pedestrians be given priority for the city to truly be livable, and yes, if that means traffic must slow down, then that is an acceptable tradeoff.

          1. Blue

            More delays means more idling means less efficiency means more pollution being released in the atmosphere!

            Automatic ped signals are more beneficial in residential and commercial areas not being served by divided highways.

            1. Rosa

              Easier walking and catching the train and biking means much less pollution. And big chunks of that corridor are becoming residential – have you seen all the condo buildings?

              Plus that divided highway goes right between residential areas already. I have to cross it to get to my child’s elementary school, and our closest library.

          2. Nathanael

            I suggest that cars be required to stop and press a “beg button” before crossing the intersection. Why not? Makes as much sense as making pedestrians do so.

      3. Rosa

        Is it still true that the walk sign parallel to Hiawatha doesn’t go on even when the train gates are down because a train is coming through? I used to find that just infuriating, that cars could be physically blocked from the intersection (often with a right-turner off Hiawatha sitting in the crosswalk, but stopped so safe to walk around) and it would still say don’t walk.

        Who do we call/email to advocate for automatic walk signals at these intersections?

  4. brad

    It seems like the signals have been a bit screwy at 38th all summer–in particular, the arms staying down for trains (and thus affecting the traffic signals) well after the trains have left the station. And earlier this week, I experienced my first skipped cycle waiting on westbound 38th in a long time.

    As a biker on 38th, my biggest beef is that the eastbound 38th light doesn’t always give a regular green, it needs to be triggered. It’s never triggered for me on my bike, and I’ve seen it not trigger for cars if they don’t pull up far enough.

    I’m not around 38th and 46th during the day much, but in the mornings and afternoon/evenings, there’s always people wanting to cross Hiawatha. Especially when people get off the LRT, about half the people I see will just cross Hiawatha against the signal when no cars are coming (which happens pretty frequently, actually–some other timing issue I guess).

  5. Erik B

    Sam, I think it’s sadly funny that the pedestrian intervals were there for a month and the sky didn’t fall. Maybe the city engineers didn’t want Hiawatha to be a positive example…I kid of course……..

    1. Sam NewbergSam Newberg Post author

      Very funny. Seriously, though, I believe the fact that the city owns the signals, the county led the improvement process and the state owns Highway 55 has more to do with it. Considering the elected officials and staff involved, the effort to change this isn’t just three times as hard but multiple times – which is unfortunate considering all this talk about complete streets, etc.

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