The Minneapolis Transit Spine That Could

Downtown Minneapolis is exciting! Development and stadia and the potential for morgue-gating are bringing millennials by the dozens so it’s easy to miss the small stuff sometimes. Little things like how to handle the various bus routes that run east-west through the central business district of our city.

The City of Minneapolis currently has a bid out to make changes to 7th Street South as part of the “7th Street Transit Advantage” project which is part of a larger effort to speed up buses running along the 7th/8th Street one-way pair based off the 2010 report recommending no dedicated bus lanes in the corridor. I’m here to challenge underlying assumptions and advocate for a better street design than currently proposed.


The 2010 study identified the Metro Transit routes running east-west through the CBD:

East West bus routes through the Minneapolis CBDObviously, a few things have changed since 2009. The 50 and 16 routes have been replaced by the Green Line, the 94 moved its operations to 7th/6th Streets, and maybe a few other minor changes. But the gist is still the same: some of the busiest bus lines pass through downtown many times an hour throughout the day and the city wants to speed them up.

Look at all that beautiful pavement (Image taken by Matt Brillhart)

7th Street South today, looking west. Look at all that beautiful pavement! (Image taken by Matt Brillhart)

The study evaluated a host of alternative designs, including dedicated bus lanes on many of the area streets. It narrowed them down to three finalists: a 7th/8th one-way pair with dedicated bus lanes on each, a 7th/8th one-way pair without dedicated bus lanes, and a re-designed 8th Street with a contra-flow dedicated bus lane (eastbound) and mixed parking/traffic/bus lane (westbound). A 7th/8th one-way pair with mostly mixed traffic bus lanes was chosen, mainly due to the negative impacts on traffic from dedicating a lane to buses.

Buses would be sped up by curb extensions and additional stops where buses stack up during loading, along with better shelters improved by extending the sidewalk four feet into the street to add two new shelters and real-time information (similar to the Marq2 stations). These are necessary – the aBRT treatment should basically be a standard bus stop system-wide to improve service and comfort – but dedicated bus lanes for local routes also have a place in prioritizing surface transit.

The Failure of LOS Impacts

Here’s the rub. The report, with all its engineering goodness at the end, only calculated (cared about?) the impacts of dedicating a lane to buses on cars. Why is that a problem? Well, for starters, about 40% of folks passing through 7th Street South are in buses:

  • Vehicles using the 3 thru lanes per day: 17,600 (2010 Minneapolis Traffic Count Data)
  • Bus ridership along 7th: 12,000 (2013 Metro Transit Boarding Data) and by bus route (this is conservative since other lower ridership routes run E-W through downtown, but I did not add them in):
    •  5: 2,980 NB riders daily from 7th/Park, plus another 2,517 boardings by Twins Way = 5,500 daily
    • 94: 2,000 daily WB riders getting off at points along 7th
    • 19: 2,662 riders getting on between 7th/Park and 7th/Hennepin, 360 getting off (not counting those who get on/off outside these boundaries) = 3,000 daily
    • 22: 1,500 riders getting on/off between 7th/Park and 7th/Hennepin (not counting those who get on/off outside these boundaries)

Since 2010, Minneapolis and MnDOT decided to reconfigure the I-94 westbound exit ramp directly to 7th Street (5th Street is now permanently closed around the new stadium), which may add cars to that total. However, traffic counts coming off the current ramp/exit show only 40% stayed straight onto 5th Street (using 2011 numbers, well before stadium construction made folks detour away). Also, 40% of the cars headed southbound on 11th Avenue turn right at 7th Street, so there’s already a good chunk of freeway-exiters using 7th Street today.

I-94 westbound exit to downtown Minneapolis turning movementsEven still, if you assume that the entirety of the 40% of those who exited 94 and continued along 5th Street will now use 7th Street (instead of turning elsewhere or parking), we’re only talking another 4,000 cars using 7th Street each day. That brings the ratio of cars to bus riders to 21.6K::12k, not even 2 to 1.

2030 projections of vehicle counts (that may or may not happen) found that a dedicated bus lane on 7th and 8th Streets would delay motorists by 22 and 14 seconds (respectively) across all intersections compared to the existing roadway design, with only three intersections downgrading a letter grade in the LOS scale:

7th_8th_TransitSpineSo. We have a 5 lane street design on 7th Street (the busiest and most prone to congestion street in downtown) where 64% of the users (in cars) get to basically use all of the space (for turning movements, parking, and through-traffic). Why did the traffic analysis go through the effort of impacts of dedicated lanes on motorists without calculating the reverse? I ride the Route 94 most days, my anecdotal experience is that (during rush hours) the bus is definitely delayed by cars (waiting to re-enter the traffic stream, waiting multiple light cycles behind long queues of cars, etc). By how much? I don’t know. But if buses could shave just 60 seconds off their average travel time, we’d receive a net societal benefit equal to preserving all thru-lanes for motorists.

Equity Impacts

East West Minneapolis transit spine route service areasI ride the 6, 4, and 94 buses most days, and the demographics of the folks on those routes (most of them white, young professional, and/or student) differ from other routes I ride, particularly the ones under discussion.

Take a look at the image of the service areas for the major E-W bus routes through downtown (right). The 5, 19, 22, 14, and 9 buses run through some of the highest concentrated areas of minorities and poverty in our entire region. People who truly rely on transit, not just for peak work trips to the office, but picking up kids from daycare, stopping for groceries, and every other daily trip.

I don’t have data to back this up, but it’s not terribly crazy to say most people driving along 7th during rush hours (or otherwise) are fairly well-heeled, white people living outside the boundaries of Minneapolis. At least much higher shares than the riders of the E-W bus routes. I see no reason why a city and the Metropolitan Council focused on advancing racial equity (specifically in transportation) should ignore this obvious option on the table.

Proposed Design(s)

First, we need to hold the presses on the current plan. Without access to detailed designs, it’s tough to say how the curb extensions will function with existing traffic lanes. But knowing each thru-lane on 7th is 10′ wide today, it’s hard to imagine the plan working without buses blocking a thru-lane when stopped while significantly limiting re-design options in the future.

Transit Spine 8th St Contraflow ProposalThe 8th Street contraflow design proposed by the original study (right) was actually quite strong. It barely impacted area traffic (7th Street actually improved, 8th Street was delayed an additional 7 seconds). It was rejected to due loss of commercial loading zones and the IDS Tower having three transit lanes bordering its property.

Let’s evaluate another option. While I’m not generally a fan of one-way transit pairs (see why here), I think we can make exceptions in some cases, particularly if it accompanies significant traffic calming and place-making. The proposed design with dedicated bus lanes would look something like this:

Parking to the right of the bus lane away from transit stops.

If we’re willing to delay motorists a bit more by taking away some turning areas and parking spaces, we can get something a bit more like this:

Rendering from Chicago Loop BRT

Rendering from Chicago Loop BRT

8th-st-downtown-mpls8th Street varies in width, but could also accommodate a similar bus and protected bike lane treatment. Given the few safe connections to downtown from North Minneapolis by bike, that seems like a great goal in my book.

Obviously, we would want to update the traffic analysis with new data, potentially lower traffic growth rates, and a better LOS that weights delay by user to account for time savings of bus users (plus intangibles like calmer traffic, shorter crossing distances, and enhanced safety for cyclists). Maybe that model would say the protected bike lane option is a non-starter. Maybe enforcing the rightmost parking lane as bus-only during peak hours would be enough to achieve time savings. Who knows. But we should explore these options now before new gutters, curbs, sidewalks, and transit stops are put in place.

16 thoughts on “The Minneapolis Transit Spine That Could

  1. Bill LindekeBill Lindeke


    You mentioned this, but it’s really important. For all the talk about the city and region doing things to address equity, this is a great example of something they can actually accomplish, that would dramatically improve the lives of actual poor people and people of color (as well as many other people) at little to no cost to the public… and we’re not doing it.

    If I was a cynic, I’d guess that traditional downtown property owners’ long-time animosity to transit users (aka “those people”) has something do to with this almost unjustifiable decision.

    1. Alex CecchiniAlex Cecchini Post author

      100% agree. When I finished writing the post, I lamented that I spent all of 3 paragraphs on that section and maybe a bit too much on the numbers. The decision to nix the 8th St Contraflow proposal because “IDS tower would have 3 dedicated transit lanes bordering it” seemed very odd to me and hinted at the animosity you speak of while hiding behind “loading concerns.”

      I can see the argument that if a transit lane barely speeds up operations, why do it (but do other things like level boarding, better station amenities, offboard payment, light priority/holds to speed up service). I just have a hard time believing a dedicated lane wouldn’t make a difference, even in this short stretch through downtown.

      1. Rosa

        why wouldn’t IDS want more transit lanes? Or is it them objecting? They certainly don’t provide enough parking (bike or car) to expect that most people working there aren’t on the bus. I bused the winters I worked near there (14 & 22 are my bus lines)

    2. Julia

      Totally agree. The way the 19 is treated in comparison to even the 4 or 6 is really abysmal. It’s used for far more purposes (more kids and strollers, more groceries, more teens, more moving stuff) than a commuter bus and the waiting locations are not pleasant. There’s more police harassment (and fear of it even when the police aren’t there) at them and they are set apart from other transit points so they are inconvenient. The stops are at dreadfully dull locations (giant blank walls of boredom; when Block E is visual interest, something is very very wrong). Separating the stop points for the 19 from the 22 and 5 means that anyone who is going to a point between the lines has to pick before seeing the bus which one to commit to, rather than just taking the one that arrives first. My understanding is that it does keep the bus stops calmer, but you know what else would do that? More frequent bus service, which would be entirely appropriate given the loads they carry (in terms of both number of people and goods), they run very infrequently. It’s really shameful.

      When is it acceptable to cram so many people, including teens, into tiny spaces with loudly crying babies, jostling at each block to get on and off, for half an hour or so?

      I often transfer downtown between the 19 and the 6/4 and the difference is stark. Aside from temporary overcrowding at certain times with the MCTC crowd, the 6/4 is far quieter and far emptier. The locations to wait are far more pleasant. And compared to the busses to the suburbs where, for some reason, every single individual has a plush seat or two?!? With the bus stops often actual shelters on Nicollet (a far more interesting street geared towards streetlife, not cars?

      Until the basics, like provision of public transit, have even a veneer of equality (hell, at this point “separate but equal” would be a welcome improvement), the city’s recent talk about equity seems like more vague empty promises after decades of disparate treatment.

    3. A cynic

      “would dramatically improve the lives of actual poor people and people of color”

      Would it? Does a superficial, “quality-of-life” amenity like nicer streets (and we’re talking about downtown, no less, so it’d basically just be dressing up the aesthetics of people’s workplace a bit), or a bus that’s more efficient by a couple minutes, really count as an “improvement”? Especially to someone like the thousands of low-income people of color who’ve had their every attempt to accumulate middle-class wealth be squelched by racist financial institutions, or the corrupt healthcare system, or the volatile economy under neoliberalism, or the like?

      1. Alex CecchiniAlex Cecchini Post author

        Well, there’s the reason I didn’t try to overstate the impact in the piece.

        I would say that “dramatic” might be an overstatement. But we spend millions of dollars on specific projects to shave at most a couple minutes off motorists’ trips all across the country. Lane re-allocation is mostly free. It puts a priority on a significant portion of the street’s users (in this case) at the slight disadvantage of the other 60%. Will this single act lift thousands of Minneapolis residents out of poverty all on its own? No. No one is claiming that. But as far as transportation and land use policy is concerned, isn’t this what we should be advocating for?

  2. g bernard hughes

    i gave up my car abt 2 yrs ago & have been commuting downtown mainly by bicycle. the wide one-way streets allow motorists to view downtown as an extension of 94, so its not unusual for them to whiz past me at 40-45 mph.

    although the plans to turn the street to the south of the new dome into a bike path are commendable.

    when not biking, i am riding the 9 or the 22, & i heartily agree that it would be something to be proud of if we were more mindful of how how inequity plays out here in minneapolis, & worked diligently toward using transit as 1 of the ways to address this stain on our civic character.

  3. Randall CohnRandall Cohn

    This is great stuff. I admit that I often don’t have the patience to think through a lot of the more granular design questions like this, but it’s inspiring to see connections being made between street/transit design and equity/access questions.

  4. Adam MillerAdam Miller

    I’m trying to think of a reason why we need on-street parking on either street between 394 and Chicago and not really coming up with anything.

  5. aexx

    Equity is a great reason to do this sort of project, but it doesn’t even need to be sold as that.

    Really, a dedicated lane would be most effective during rush hour, when there are a hell of a lot of professionals riding the bus…including those that use the E-W streets.

    When I’ve crashed with friends in the North Loop on weekdays, I’ve occasionally used buses like the 14 (it uses 6th and 7th) and they’re packed with professionals getting to work from Robbinsdale, North Minneapolis, the North Loop, etc.

    I imagine that affluent folks who live near downtown (or even further out) given the chance to experience real times savings (even just a few minutes) would promote these more and more once they saw the benefits. And the great thing is that it could benefit everyone.

  6. Sarah

    Thanks for bringing renewed attention to this issue. I agree with the need to return some version of an east-west transit spine plan to serious consideration. The need for bike lanes in this area is acute, as well.

    I first noticed the issues around east-west transit when the #14 bus was relocated from 7th to 4th St through downtown a couple of years ago. That added about 10 minutes to my daily commute to the 8th & Nicollet area, which is the geographic center of employment in the downtown area. It turns out that the Downtown Council’s 2025 Plan recommends “dispersing” east-west bus due to public perceptions of safety problems on 7th St where people apparently “stand on the street and look menacing”–even though all of the other such strategies in the report involve encouraging more people to be out on the sidewalks downtown (p. 58). Quote: “Some bus stops are crowded, or even frightening”…to surburban visitors (p. 65).

    The effect of the dispersement policy is that bus riders who live in the City of Minneapolis, on the north or south sides, have dramatically lower-quality and less legible bus service than do suburban commuters who benefit from the investments that have been made on 2nd and Marquette. These are, of course, the bus riders who are more likely to be people of color and lower-income; they are also the bus riders who are likely to take transit downtown outside of the peak morning and afternoon commuting times; and they are people who have specifically chosen to live in the city and would conceivably choose to ride transit more frequently if it was a better experience.

    It simply makes sense to use transit to bring people (primarily city residents) straight to the heart of downtown, where jobs and amenities are densely concentrated, rather than to spread them out around the periphery. There’s a good reason that the Nice Ride station at the IDS Center and the bus station at 7th and Nicollet are the busiest in their respective systems–it’s a place people actually want to go, in numbers far greater than car-only access can support, and that shouldn’t be seen as a problem. It is perhaps our region’s best transit opportunity.

    Let’s not only improve bus (and bike and pedestrian) access for the existing routes, but also look at returning and concentrating other east-west downtown routes along an improved transit spine.

  7. Doug TrummDoug Trumm

    It seems like there should be mechanism to force the traffic engineers actually study the options rather than prematurely ruling out transit and biking improvements and then presenting a stilted package of options for so called public input. Given their string of boneheaded one sided studies maybe the public engagement should start with requesting what options are studied in the first place rather than lazily going with the carcentric flow out of habit.

  8. Janne

    Any suggestions about how to effectively engage in the decision-making process around this question? I’m happy to make phone calls, send e-mails, or whatever — but I’m not sure what would be helpful or how to deliver it. (Assuming there’s ANY opportunity to influence anything at this point.)

    1. Matt Brillhart

      I think our energy would be best used when the full street comes up for reconstruction, and getting something truly meaningful done at that time. My understanding is that this current plan is relatively inexpensive and it truly is “the thing that can get built now.” About half a million dollars is a pretty minor deal and I don’t think it would be productive to try to disrupt what is currently in motion.

      It’s truly pathetic that after years of planning for something much greater and meaningful, that this is what we’ve wound up with…but it is what it is. Downtown businesses/buildings threw a fit over the plans for something greater and the Downtown Council and Lisa Goodman squashed those plans. At this point, the most effective thing might be to advocate for full reconstruction of 7th & 8th Streets downtown sooner rather than later, and to keep a watchful eye on that design process, whenever it occurs.

      Does anyone know if/when 7th and/or 8th Streets are scheduled for full reconstruction or mill & overlay through this part of Downtown? Could check the CLIC reports (Capital Long-Range Improvement Committee):

      Let’s make it clear to our elected officials that the current plan, while a great interim solution, is NOT the final result for these critical transit corridors. We can, and must come up with a better solution for the E-W transit spine through downtown.

      1. Matt Brillhart

        I couldn’t help myself. From the above CLIC link, 8th Street (Hennepin to Chicago) is scheduled for full reconstruction in 2019, at a projected cost of $8.8MM. That will be one to keep an eye on. 2019 is also when the Chicago-Fremont Arterial BRT (Route 5 corridor) could be operating, though that is far from a certainty, given how the C-Line (Penn Ave N) was just pushed back to 2017 for lack of funding.

        1. Alex CecchiniAlex Cecchini Post author

          Yeah, much as some interim re-designs set back future potential by decades, the project on 7th isn’t such a huge deal. It’s relatively small and cheap, and Chicago-Fremont will need some sort of curb/sidewalk re-do along whatever downtown street is chosen (presumably 7th).

          I think Matt is right, let’s focus efforts for 2016 and 2017 when designs for both (8th reconstruction and Chicago aBRT) will be in full swing. Conversations c/should begin now with elected officials representing downtown and the areas served by those routes.

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