The road was dedicated to Northside resident and socialist Governor Floyd B. Olson in 1951, but it was older than that. As near as I can tell, construction of the modern-day Olson Memorial Highway began in the late 1930s. That makes it one of the first urban freeways in the Twin Cities.
(For some reference, it’s earlier than the very early Hiawatha freeway, which is in fact the same road — Highway 55; and given the transit routes, there are a lot of parallels between the two situations.)
Yet a recent decision by the Minnesota Department of Transportation (MnDOT) makes it seem like nobody’s learned anything from the decade of living with the Blue Line and Hiawatha. To me, it’s a real shame because MnDOT has a chance to begin making up for years of infrastructural injustice in this part of “near North” Minneapolis. Instead, Minneapolis is going to miss its chance to add walkable transit in a part of the city that could really use it.
The story so far
Two weeks ago, the Minneapolis City Council voted to give “municipal consent” to plans for the proposed Bottineau light rail transit (LRT) line through North Minneapolis and into Golden Valley. Like all such votes, it was the only specific piece of leverage that Minneapolis had in its negotiations with larger, more powerful levels of government like MnDOT or the FTA. But it’s rarely used because it’s a “nuclear option,” an up-or-down vote on the project. Other than Lake Elmo, cities typically hold their nose and vote to approve projects, even if they don’t like many of the details. The vast majority if the time, so people say, something is better than nothing.
It happened again at Minneapolis City Hall. In spite of years worth of pleas from the Mayor’s office, the City Council, and pedestrian advocates [see also the attachment at the bottom], MnDOT refused to narrow Olson Highway, which runs at-grade due west out of downtown into the suburbs. Both (!) of Minneapolis’ LRT stations will be located directly on this highway, so a lot depends on getting the design details right.
Instead, thanks to MNDOT’s intransigence, it seems like this project is going to get it all wrong. The three big problems with the transit plan are pedestrian safety, transit design, and traffic flow. To make a long story short, the current plan creates a dangerous and unnecessary situation that will minimize transit use and development in the city, in the very place where we need it most.
#1. Safety Dynamics
The first is a safety issue. If you’ve been paying attention to light rail’s safety record over the past six months, you know there’s a recurring problem. People keep darting into traffic, bicycling in front of the train, falling into the stations, or trying to cross the tracks at dangerous times.
Working on a story earlier this year about the tragic crashes (and their three dead victims), I interviewed a few people from Metro Transit. At one point, the station designer for both the Green Line and Southwest light rail (SWLRT) tried to explain why designs were difficult:
It’s quite an in depth process in terms of trying to get all the stakeholders, internal and external, together and really trying to understand and get into the mind of the pedestrian, and how they would want to cross the roadway and the tracks.
To me, that’s a subtle way of saying that different agencies have different interests, and not all of them revolve around transit or what’s best for the neighborhood.
Instead, LRT station areas remain unsafe today because of the classic “design by committee” problem”, compounded by liability and bureaucratic complexity issues. The station area is designed by the transit agency, the connecting streets are designed by the City, the arterial roads (like Penn Avenue) fall under Hennepin County jurisdiction and the Olson Highway is “owned” by MnDOT, which can do whatever it wants to the road design. The result is a design that does nothing well, especially safety.
Hiawatha Avenue is the clear precedent for this case. You have light rail stations and urban neighborhoods directly abutting a busy, aging, stoplight-laden MnDOT highway. (NOTE: It’s worth pointing out that Hiawatha has almost 50% more traffic than Olson, and often fewer lanes.)
As Hiawatha shows, arterial highways and LRT don’t get along that well. The “street” still forms a formidable barrier in the neighborhood, as crossing on foot or bicycle remains unsafe and unwelcoming, creating a dangerous situation. People will dart across the highway to try and catch trains, and they’ll get hurt.
#2. Messing up the TOD
The main thing that transit projects get wrong is not create walkable station areas. This is especially important directly next to the station, exactly the part that this project is getting wrong.
One of the best discussions I’ve heard about this is from the Strong Towns podcast where Chuck Marohn chats with Ian Rasmussen, a New York City planner-type. In the discussion, Rasmussen describes the importance of station planning when thinking about transit-oriented development (TOD). Basically, he makes the case that how you design these station spaces makes or breaks a transit project.
Here’s the quote where Rasmussen describes the typical “five-minute walkshed” approach to transit planning:
So it’s not just that everybody within five minutes is a good candidate for walking. The people located closet to the destination have the highest percentage [of walking to take transit], and it falls off as you get farther away.
Combine that with the idea that a walking path has to be interesting to induce pedestrian traffic, interesting, comfortable, safe, and so on. Shopping mall consultants have known this for a long time, that if there’s 3-4 empty stores in a a row, people will turn around and walk the other way.
Well, if you get off train and the first 90 seconds of your “transit-oriented development” is through the parking structure, and then the houses don’t even begin until the 2nd or 3rd minute, it doesn’t matter what you do. It’s never going to be special, because what will happen is you will own a car and drive it into that parking lot. Basically, whatever you get to first… When you get off the train, whatever you see first, the parking lot or the mixed-use building, that’s what’s going to succeed.
Rasmussen is talking about parking lots, but the idea of a 7-lane road is exactly the same. If the first thing people see when they get off the train is a freeway, they won’t want to walk around the area. And very few people are going to want to live within walking distance of the light rail station if they have to share their backyard with seven lanes of speeding cars. This plan takes the transit potential of huge investment and flushes much of it down the toilet.
#3. What do you need for cars?
Finally, there’s the issue of automobile transportation. Olson Memorial Highway currently handles about 24,000 cars per day within Minneapolis’ borders.
An engineering friend of mine told me that level of traffic could be well accommodated by a 5-lane design. For example, this is the same level as Lyndale Avenue south of Franklin, or Washington Avenue through downtown. And, while neither Lyndale nor Washington are anyone’s ideas of pedestrian paradise, they’re not 7-lanes wide and they do serve their surrounding urban neighborhoods far better. (More importantly, changes will soon make Washington more pedestrian and bike-friendly.)
Another wrinkle is that, according to the Strib report, the “posted speed limit” along here is going to be 35 mph. Yet with 3-lanes in each direction, and no on-street parking, the design speed (the speed at which the road signals you are safe to travel) is going to be higher than 35. Every driver implicitly understands that if you have 3 lanes in one direction, you can safely drive at 50 miles per hour.
On top of that, the construction of I-394 through this part of Minneapolis in the late 1980s makes the Olson Memorial traffic malleable. People can easily drive the mile to 394 to get into or out of the city, which makes this 7-lane road a transportation luxury (not a transportation necessity) for the places it serves.
(Frankly, I suspect that a key reason why MnDOT isn’t considering narrowing the road is that this is the highway that leads directly to the corporate headquarters’ for United Health and General Mills, both companies with tremendous political influence. The idea of narrowing the highway to the golf courses and Fortune 500 HQs to improve the city’s most historically disenfranchised neighborhood is not in the cards.)
A chance to fix a 70-year-old problem
Transit planning is nothing if not compromise, and trade-offs have to be made. But given the lack of a clear automobile transportation need for this extra pavement, and the safety issues that have addled the region’s existing light rail stations, you’d think MnDOT would place a higher priority on transit in this long-overlooked part of Minneapolis.
The key idea: you get the traffic you design for. Making a $1.5 billion transit investment is not something you should do lightly. If you really want to change urbanism, transit has to be done in tandem with a de-emphasis of the freeway system.
This case is ironic because Floyd B. Olson was a champion of Minneapolis’ working poor. The year after he died in 1937 was the year that the Sumner Field housing project, the first public housing in Minnesota, was built at the very site of the proposed Van White station. It’s an interesting juxtaposition, because ever since it became the center of public housing in Minneapolis, this area has been a political football, with various agencies trying to demolish, improve, or change its character.
(The Sumner public housing was torn down and replaced with the current “Heritage Park” project in the 90s by the Minneapolis Public Housing Agency, but that’s a whole different story.)
No agency has done more to demolish this neighborhood than MnDOT, and it all began with Olson Memorial Highway in the late 30s. During the construction of the public housing here, someone took the opportunity to demolish half the buildings along the street to widen the road. (This is the same time the Minneapolis farmers’ market was constructed in the area, by the way.)
The erosion of the historic fabric of the area continued with the 50s’ road expansions (like Penn Avenue) and the construction of Interstates 94 and 394. This area, which used to be a relatively continuous working-class neighborhood, and one of the few places people of color could buy a home, is almost unrecognizeable from what it looked like during Olson’s day.
Yet today MnDOT has a chance to undo a bit of the damage they have wrought. Just like Rondo and the Green Line, the Bottineau LRT is an opportunity to knit back together some of the places that freeways have destroyed, a chance to begin making up for mistakes of the past. I’d like to see Governor Dayton’s office step in and insist that MnDOT change their stance on calming, safety, and transit design around these Olson stations.
I’m pretty sure that Floyd B. Olson would have wanted to do what’s best for the working-class people living in this neighborhood by giving them priority and dignity as they get around on the new train. It’s a shame to see the road that ostensibly commemorates him doing the neighborhood he loved such disservice.
PS. Attached is the resolution from the Minneapolis Pedestrian Advisory Committee, which Councilmember Cam Gordon read during the City Council discussion of the municipal consent discussion [emphasis mine]:
To: Minneapolis City Council and Public Works Staff
From: Minneapolis Pedestrian Advisory Committee
Re: Resolution Regarding Olson Memorial Highway Design Requirements as Part of the Blue Line Extension Project
Date: February 8, 2016
The Blue Line Extension project has entered the Municipal Consent phase, with design, scope and costs approved by the Metropolitan Council. A full reconstruction of Olson Memorial Highway (Minnesota TH-55) from I-94 to Theodore Wirth Park is included in the Blue Line Extension project’s scope. This stretch includes two of the line’s four stations within Minneapolis, with the proposed Royalston Station of the Green Line Extension within a quarter mile as well. MnDOT has required that this stretch of highway remain a 6- to 7-lane design as part of the full reconstruction. More information on the project’s scope and design can be found on the project’s website.
Recommendation of the PAC:
The Pedestrian Advisory Committee strongly recommends the City Council vote to deny municipal consent for the Blue Line Extension as proposed due to the 6/7-lane Olson Memorial Highway required by MnDOT. A 6-lane roadway, regardless of pedestrian enhancements, is incapable of meeting the city’s transportation and equity goals for the immediate and surrounding areas. If built as currently required by MnDOT, it will be a dangerous place for pedestrians, a barrier between neighborhoods, and a powerful disincentive to use of the intended centerpiece of this project: the train.
A project of this scope represents a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to truly reconnect the neighborhoods of North Minneapolis, enhance the safety and comfort of non-motorized users, and provide a street design that informs the type of development that maximizes the two Blue Line stations (as well as the planned Royalston Station). The City of Minneapolis, the Metropolitan Council, and Hennepin County have active plans to improve regional and city-wide transportation options within North Minneapolis with walking, biking, and transit projects beyond the Blue Line Extension. In total, these improvements should enable Olson Memorial Highway to become a premier urban street that does not simply allow for pedestrians, but prioritizes them above regional motor traffic.
The PAC is prepared to engage with the City, Metropolitan Council, and MnDOT on paths to allow a reduced lane roadway configuration.
Bill — I agree with much of your critique, but I dislike the cavalier way you throw around the term freeway. A freeway is a fully controlled-access roadway, that does not have intersections, and from which (in Minnesota) bicycles and pedestrians are prohibited. TH 12/394 is a freeway. 35W is a freeway. This is a very auto-oriented urban boulevard.
Neither in its current or future form is the Olson Memorial Highway a freeway. Although many intersections have been closed off, many remain. Unlike Hiawatha Ave, curb ramps are provided nearly every block for pedestrians to access unmarked crosswalks. The speed limit is 15-20 mph lower than freeways in Minneapolis, and slated to go lower yet.
The fact that it is not a freeway makes me wonder why we insist on designing it like one, when auto traffic would be so much more efficiently served by TH 12 to the south. (Especially if that entire freeway were priced appropriately.)
That said, if the plan moves forward retaining the 7-lane design, I think it could potentially create precedent for making some other very high-volume boulevard streets more pedestrian friendly — namely West Lake St north of Calhoun, France Ave in the Southdale District, and Brooklyn Boulevard through BC. Certainly, many cities do build very wide streets that are still pleasant to walk or live along — think Michigan Ave in Chicago. I just have yet to see any examples in the Minneapolis area.
Sean makes an interesting point. In fact, as editor I changed one reference to Hiawatha from “freeway” to “arterial highway.” Neither section of Highway 55 is a freeway.
But let’s not get stuck on nomenclature (that’s a fancy word that I THINK I’m using correctly). Sean’s point is valid. The Twin Cities doesn’t have a good built example of a pedestrian-friendly high-volume street. Basically it comes down to design speed.
Fair enough. but it’s largely semantics. I think we agree about the point if not the terminology.
But technically the road is labeled as a “highway”, no? Freeway / “parkway” / highway are interchangeable in the modern vernacular, at least to me, as they are interchangeable to drivers the vast majority of the time. (I had a car in New York and drove on may a “parkway” that was a freeway.) I think it’s more important to NOT call it “State Highway 55” (or CSAH 72) or terminology like that, and instead focus on “place-based” names for our streets, which are our public spaces. I’d love to change the name to “Olson Memorial Boulevard.”
But if it has 6-lanes and a median and limited interchanges, BUT it has a 35 mph speed limit and light rail, what do you call it other than “just terribly designed”?
We don’t need the extra lane for transportation purposes. It’s dangerous. Get rid of it.
PS. will curb ramps remain for peds to cross at signalized intersections?
I agree fully on calling streets by their names. In fact, I complained to MnDOT when they removed the Olson Memorial Highway name from the NB 94 exit sign. (They said it was an “honorary name” or some such, which their standard dictated should not be on exit signs. I pointed out that it was the actual local name of the street, and buildings along the corridor have addresses of XXXX Olson Mem Hwy, much like XXXX Hiawatha Ave, which they do sign. But they didn’t relent.)
Re: unmarked crosswalks, Plan sheets suggest that most would remain, although some are moved slightly. (Oliver is eliminated because it hits right into the platform for the Penn Ave stop, but Newton opens up.)
They did a pretty good job with keeping crosswalks on University. In fact, it seems like it must be much safer and more comfortable to cross University at unsignalized locations now than it did before.
Re: University, yes that’s my experience. Though I think many people are still frustrated by the lack of ability to cross the street.
It seems “Olson” is both an honorary and real name, which is why the confusion. Mn/DOT will not pay for honorary signs, and will not under any circumstances install them on a freeway.
The reality is that they’re a lot less interchangeable than you’re claiming. Even within the Metro, would you call it “Minnehaha Freeway” along the creek? By your rationale, you should be able to.
Your allusion to New York parkways is more of a regional thing.
Yeah, look up Robert Moses’ parkway system. Counter-example: Lexington Parkway is hardly a parkway; it’s a high-speed arterial with trees. Point is, it’s not the name that counts, it’s how you use it. Drivers don’t care what the name is, just how fast you can go.
I’d like to see much more of a divide between freeways and city streets, with high (>30 mph speeds) reserved strictly for the former, and a lot fewer half-assed freeways like this one.
I recall reading that the origin of New York “parkway” names was a reference to their scenic attributes. They just happened to be high-speed scenic routes.
Likewise, Lexington Parkway through much of St. Paul does have a very distinctive, heavily planted boulevard, as distinct from the standard grid Lexington Avenue. (And, of course, the northern terminus of the “parkway” name is just after it meets Como Park.)
But, I suppose you could make the same argument for Olson Memorial Highway — at least within the Minneapolis city limits, it attempts to be scenic with a grand center boulevard and massive ROW.
If you’re going to fight the engineers, you need to use engineer parlance. Accepted definition of “freeway” not just for engineers but in general use in many parts of the country (including Minnesota) is a grade-separated, controlled-access facility. Olson Hwy is neither.
Seems everything people think is too wide or fast is a “freeway”. I’ve heard the Hennepin Ave bridge described as a freeway, even though there’s not a grade separated interchange on either end.
Some pejoratives are actually descriptive, like “sprawl” or “stroad”. Since I support these I avoid using terms myself, but we all know exactly what they mean. In contrast using a term in common use as one like “freeway” is just confusing.
I can’t square insisting on keeping excess lanes with also lowering the speed limit. If you’re going to have to slow down anyway, what are the extra lanes for?
Unless MNDOT is tacitly acknowledging that no one is really going to slow down.
Right. When Hiawatha was rebuilt in the late 80s, a compromise MnDOT made with surrounding neighborhoods was to put up 35MPH speed limit signs. It wasn’t long before that was raised to 40MPH, basically because of absurdity – the design speed on Hiawatha is about 50MPH. That’s my conclusion based on the experiment whereby I accelerate to a speed that seems OK for the roadway I’m on – for Hiawatha Avenue, I consistently reach 50 or so (and I’m wracked with guilt as a result).
Slowing down the free-flow speed is different than congestion, though. With high volume and few lanes, for example, you get people waiting through multiple light cycles.
You might theoretically get some modest improvements of capacity from the two lanes from cars being slightly closer together and the lower speed allowing a shorter yellow light. But I’d bet they don’t even change the light timing, given that it’s still a principal arterial, and only a 5 mph reduction. Monte or Adam might know more about how this would work.
I was thinking the same thing about capacity and speed.
True, but you’d have to pretty profoundly change the design of the entire roadway to meaningfully reduce the design speed.
Furthermore, the demonstrated and of-quoted chart that shows people are 90% likely to survive getting hit at 20MPH, and only 10% at 40MPH is an indication that we are splitting hairs. Be it 35, 40 or 50, all are basically deadly. What is needed here is a solution that gets speeds down to 20 or 25. THAT is asking a lot, but should be the goal.
It’s not asking a lot. It’s asking a very small change for people driving through a city neighborhood.
But not everyone is a contextual driver. I drive that way Ben Hamilton-Baillie discusses human behavior – I’m contextual. Like most people, I don’t want to kill someone with my car. When the road is built for 50 and conditions allow it, that is an easy speed to attain when you aren’t paying attention – no matter the speed limit.
That said, when I see more people around (new context), I do slow down. Why? Because potential danger and conflict has been introduced. The problem is not all drivers sense danger the same way, and may not slow down enough on a road designed for 50MPH.
Maybe I’m misunderstanding your comment Bill. I’m just saying that we shouldn’t be “asking” people to slow down – we need to be designing Olson Memorial so that people must slow down. A very major change is needed.
Yeah, I’m saying that the difference b/w driving 45 and 25 on this stretch of road will be a few seconds of people’s lives, which isn’t asking a lot. And who knows, they might enjoy it.
You can drive 55 mph (some people go 65 or higher) on a 2-lane rural road that’s 22′ wide.
Total width is a factor, but not the only one. I think reducing the unnecessarily wide lane widths, adding more intense greenery, and promoting high-quality frontage to the immediate back of sidewalk would make a huge difference. As would on-street parking, but that’s not accounted for at all in this plan, and I guess there’s nothing it could really serve at this point.
There’s some complex equations for setting yellow and red time, but the end result is that a 5 mph decrease results in a decrease of about half a second of yellow time. Not enough to make any kind of meaningful impact on capacity.
It also gives police and sheriffs the right to arbitrarily enforce that speed limit on only those they choose.
I constantly see people crossing Hiawatha at unmarked (but very logical) places. Hennepin County has conducted “pedestrian counts” at these unmarked crosswalks. I don’t know the results, but I don’t think there is much that can be done.
The common denominator is the adjacent roadway has too high a design speed. This is true of University Avenue along the Green Line, which is to say both of our existing light rail lines have adjacent roadways that are unsafe (for pedestrians, at least).
Actually University Avenue has gotten much better in my experience. I almost always see peds crossing safely at the unmarked mid-block crossings that are part of the LRT design. I think Metro Transit should have had more of these as part of the plan.
You are right, they do use the crosswalks. When I drive University, I’m still flabbergasted that the street is telling me to do 35 yet that is insane. And there is still the scenario that one lane stops for a pedestrian but the second lane doesn’t….
University Avenue in Saint Paul is one main street where I can do 25, or less than 30 without much difficulty because the other vehicles are usually going slower at about the same speed – most of the time. If I go 25 on Lake Street in the right hand lane, cars behind me will pass around me frequently. I try to go slower on Lake because there are people walking a lot in many places. I thought the designated speed limit on University was a default 30 mph. I do not recall any speed limit signs on University.
Agreed. traffic is much calmer now than it used to be, pre LRT.
I work on University and see this every day. University is definitely more safe for pedestrians now than it was before — in large part because it is now really two 2-lane roadways instead of one 6-lane roadway with the barest of medians.
I have no idea of anyone read them, but you can email Dayton’s office here: http://mn.gov/governor/contact-us/form/
I already sent something into the void.
I can’t imagine that this project will make it very far before a lawsuit building off of the precedent of the extra stations on University Ave will show up.
Do we have data on pedestrian-auto crashes along the Green and Blue lines related to people crossing to get to the train?
I remember asking for this from Metro Transit and they didn’t have it easily accessible.
The Minneapolis City Council’s vote on this one is appalling to me on so many levels, from continuing car-centrism that uses “traffic” planning as a tool to isolate and destroy poor communities of color, to being an apparent attempt to scuttle the success of the LRT here and keep it as a connection to Minneapolis for the suburbs, rather than serving those within the community.
I’m glad to see coverage of how egregious this design choice is.
OK, but the real culprit is MnDOT. Even a year ago, the Mayor’s office and the City were calling for road narrowing here. (See this story from March 2015: http://www.startribune.com/olson-hwy-redesign-essential-for-light-rail-mayor-s-office-says/294865921/) I’d bet that people high up in Minneapolis have spent a year lobbying the state for a ped-focused design, to no avail.
But yes, I think they should have dug in their heels on this one. North Minneapolis is getting screwed again, in favor of the Western suburban interests.
MNDOT is doing what MNDOT does, which is build highways everywhere, including through urban areas. That doesn’t make it okay or right, but I can’t say I expect better from them without significant pushback from local government. I do expect better from the Minneapolis City Council.
I wish I believed that there were any effort being made towards a transit-, walkable-, bikeable-, community-oriented design on behalf of city leaders, but I’m honestly pretty cynical. There’s no reason to not have a safer road design here (with exemptions from MNDOT as needed) and so many really strong reasons to fight MNDOT’s proposed design. There is NOTHING in the design for Minneapolis or Minneapolis residents. There are also plenty of very solid media-friendly narratives about how horrible this design is. It isolates communities. It continues racist/classist urban planning where highways (including this one) are used to destroy neighborhoods, particularly communities of color. It is financially foolish, creating huge barriers both to use of the LRT by surrounding neighborhoods while also disincentivizing the kind of really great development we’ve see along some portions of the Green Line. It’s redundant, given the proximity of 94 and the ability of LRT to pick up people-moving volumes. It’s anti-city, since this highway narrows in the western burbs. It’s unsafe, particularly for children and the elderly who are natural transit users. It encourages fossil fuels and discourages transit use in a time of climate catastrophe.
There are concrete examples to point to for good LRT design (U of M area) and bad LRT design (Hiawatha), complete with wonderful investment and revitalization following one and really horrible and needless deaths with the other. I mean, a person could pick one of a dozen angles about how bad this choice is and have a really logical and emotionally resonant story. There is literally NOTHING good about it that I am aware of, even for car drivers, and nothing I can think of to justify a “yes” vote on allowing this kind of fatal design in our city.
If city leaders and council members couldn’t use those reasons to push back against MNDOT, we’re in a very bad way still when it comes to claims of both commitment to equity and sustainability as well as anything akin to fiscal or safety responsibility.
Jeez you summed up everything in far fewer words than I did!
Ultimately what Mn/DOT does is build and maintain roads. So as you’re getting at, no one should be surprised they’re not too excited about tearing down parts of a road. But saying there’s nothing good for car drivers? More lanes aren’t good for people driving cars? There’s no one in Minneapolis this helps, say people driving cars to reverse commute to General Mills? (Even if we and even engineers agree that the extra lanes aren’t needed, they would reduce commute time to “help” people driving cars in that respect).
“Even if we and even engineers agree that the extra lanes aren’t needed, they would reduce commute time to “help” people driving cars in that respect”
I’m not following you. They are unneeded (among other things) because they will not reduce commute times. How do drivers get anything out of capacity that doesn’t reduce commute times (especially when the speed limit is going down anyway)?
I disagree that they will not reduce commute times. If you have more lanes, for X number of cars the number of cars waiting in each lane at a red light is less. Maybe the amount is small, and I agree that the lanes aren’t necessary, but the point is the amount is non-zero.
I think the amount is small.
I am a resident of Minneapolis, working in Plymouth, whose commute time in the evening would probably go up by reducing the three lanes eastwards of Hwy 55 to two lanes.
. . . Due to the slow turning from Hwy 55 onto the on-ramp of I-94, there is a queue on the right eastward lane of Hwy 55 in the evening, from I-94 extending eastwards, to around North Humboldt Ave. Reducing the three lanes to two would extend the queue further west, probably beyond Penn, which would lead to much longer waiting times. A limited number of cars could cross Penn Ave eastwards per green light phase, and many cars would choose to take the left lane and force themselves into the right lane later, worsening the backup.
. . . Commuting times would approach commuting on I-394 eastwards and its slow turn onto I-94 eastwards, but with more cars choosing I-394, that time would also go up.
If that’s the case, why not simply add an eastbound auxiliary/exit lane between Humboldt to Lyndale? There’s no reason to make the entire length of Minneapolis’s Olson Highway unnecessarily wide when only one segment needs the queueing space.
Sean, you might be right. I don’t know the morning rush hour, because I take I-394 westwards in the morning.
Having finally been to the Twin Cities and thus be able to put true context to what is talked about, removing two lanes should be an obvious no-brainer. A seven-lane design means that current traffic counts are less than 50% of capacity. Removing the lanes will bump that up to just ~70%, but the fact that there will also be a LRT line means that the capacity for number of people moved through the corridor will still be many times higher than would be provided by the “missing” lane. The safety benefits are obvious and the space makes a great opportunity for another trail. Additionally, there’s no reason to not direct traffic off OMH and to use the freeways instead. That should also be done if they feel the need to provide for the capacity.
You overestimate the interest that a Fortune 500 company would have on this project. Thinking that General Mills or UHC would care about the number of lanes on 55 within city boundaries reaches to tinfoil hat territory: those execs and other leadership all live the other way……
I take this road home every day and it’s really fast in the afternoon. I’ve seen a number of pedestrian close calls in the current set-up which assumes much less need to cross 55 on foot than having an LRT in the median.
People will be killed crossing the road with this current set-up.
Yeah I guess you’re right. Not sure how to explain it then…
Pedestrians (especially wheelchair users) are definitely going to have trouble crossing such wide roads in addition to two railroad tracks. I did fieldwork regarding data collection of pedestrian assets this past summer (I used to work in MnDOT’s Asset Management unit), and crossing 55 when it was four lanes was bad enough.
Snelling Ave/MN 51 seems to be alright with mostly two lanes in each direction when in Saint Paul, and it carries anywhere between the same to even more traffic than 55 in Minneapolis. I do like the new mid-block crosswalks there, but drivers still sometimes cross lanes when somebody slows down for pedestrians. I feel that would be even worse if Snelling was six lanes wide for it’s entire urban stretch.
I may work for MnDOT, but what matters most in my opinion is the communities viewpoint over a statewide agency. We are supposed to be a multimodal agency, so we must ensure that all modes are accounted for in the planning process.
Bill and all: An interesting discussion and an important subject. I wrote a brief comment on Facebook about terminology. I do not think a change in terminology will soon change standards of design in infrastructure, but an adjustment in both terminology and design standards is due. Part of this is due to how we have changed road building in this country over the last 120 years. The word highway is a very old word and by definition of dictionaries current, the 1930s, and an 1904 Funk and Wagnalls unabridged. The meaning of a highway is “A public way Freely open to everyone” and “by high legislative intent forever”. I do not think the word highway should be used for structures built for just motor vehicles. Structures like 1-94 and Highway 100 (100 built in the 1930s), are in my view not really highways. In the photo above of “Olson highway in Golden Valley in the early 1950s”, that road should have been built with a full equivalent and adjacent space in the ROW for walk and bike providing greater separation if the motor vehicle speeds are higher as 35, 40 or 50 mph. The same could have been done for Hwy 100 and I-94. By standard of design, making the road safe for both walk bike would would in my view be more of a real “highway”. If it is for motor vehicles only, then it should be called a “motorway”, not highway or freeway.
In Denmark right from the start, through roads with higher speeds for cars were build with a separate, adjacent space for both walk and bike (ie Motorway 16 going into Copenhagen). See:
We have not built our roads this way in Minnesota or the rest of the country since circa 1910. Before 1910 and earlier before the first cars ever appeared on the streets, we were beginning to build infrastructure for the bike in our boulevards and main roads. The “highways” of the 1930s and thereafter have nothing for the bike or walk.
There is talk in our region now about lowering and reclassifying the speeds of our city streets to a 25mph default, decreased from 30mpf on main streets and collector streets like University, Snelling, and Lake. On neighborhood streets and city side streets, lowering speeds to 15 – 20 mph. Last year New York City started to do this. And Copenhagen lowered the speeds decades ago, and one engineer from Copenhagen states: “Lowering the speeds is one of the first things you should do.”
Currently there are some “sand-burs” in speed standards at the MNDOT state level preventing cities from lowering speeds on certain streets.
I hope something can be done with “Olson Memorial Boulevard”.
I don’t understand why our cities just roll over for state DOTs. They ignore the interests of city residents and their representatives and just do whatever they want. Why don’t we just do what we want? What’re they going to do, withhold funding to make our city streets worse?
I scrolled through the thread and am trying to ascertain if there is anything we can do at this point to change this? Do those of you who may have commented have any previous experience with a positive outcome that we could pattern for this instance? I’ve already written my city councilwoman (Barb Johnson) to weigh in, but am hoping there is still something we can do to change this plan.
This is not an easy question to answer or easy “fix”, but this article and the discussion is one of the important ways to start a process of change. MnDot is a pretty big bureaucracy with many design standards and requirements for all kinds of roads. There are restrictions and requirements of how funds are used if there is federal money involved, etc, etc.
I am thinking of calling Dan Soler mentioned in the strib article above, because I am acquainted with him from many meetings in the past, and one or two previous phone conversations. He is a very nice man, but he has a job to do. He knows the engineering standards well. I can also contact my elect-eds. By nature I am very respectful to all of the public officials and staff.
One word I like to use is “doable”. Whatever it is that we want to be better, can it be done; is it doable? My attitude is, lets do it. Why not?
Here is a quote from the strib article above: “It … needs to be a roadway that continues to be a trunk highway, but it needs to be made safer,” said Bottineau project director Dan Soler, noting that more than 30,000 vehicles travel on the road each day. “A lot of the folks here in the community have talked to us a lot about pedestrian access.”
Reference of reason is “trunk highway” and more than “30,000 vehicles per day”. Bill wrote above 24000 within the city of Minneapolis. Part of the issue is the design standards of a trunk highway. The other is the traffic volume. Obviously Something clearly is wrong if seven lanes are deemed needed for 30K or 20K to make a roadway more safe for pedestrians. That should be challenged.
My view again, is how should we be building a “trunk highway” in the first place. Could this road be built with a separate and safe adjacent space for walk and bike the entire length, in place of the additional two lanes? Would such a feature in the roadway contribute more fully to the overall safety of the road?
It’s 30K when it’s in Golden Valley and points West, but much of that traffic disappears by the time you get to Minneapolis proper. That quote was a big disingenuous, IMHO.
That’s particularly ironic since the Golden Valley segment of the Olson Highway seems to get by fine with five lanes. There are fewer intersections and fewer lights to get through — but even so, the North Minneapolis portion is also quite access-managed.
Isn’t six lanes again until Plymouth, right around 494.
The Golden Valley segment has no bottleneck like the turn from Hwy 55 eastwards onto the on-ramp of I-94 eastwards. The evening eastwards traffic in Golden Valley is dense but flowing while the traffic intending to turn onto I-94 is waiting in a queue.
Thank you, Bill for the clarification. I thought there were reasons
for the difference.
The current proposal already includes a fairly wide sidewalk plus bike/ped path on the north side of the roadway. The main issue is the number of vehicle lanes that the bike/ped facilities would be next to.
Thank you, Adam. I think the number of motor vehicle lanes is a very *big* main issue, especially with respect to traffic volume. For example, 30K is the approximated point at which two lanes in both directions become necessary beyond one lane in each direction. However, even if the traffic level is circa 25K or less, engineers and others have used the LOS (Level of Service), or “SIMFLOW” if I recall correctly, to justify more lanes and maintain high service to motor vehicle traffic flow. One exception is Marshall Ave in Saint Paul. I believe that is about 28K and one lane in each direction east of Cretin.
One of the reasons I am interested in standards and terminology is the often used word “path” for bike infrastructure. I think that is too non descriptive of a term. How much width is specified for the bike/ped path? Too many projects in the past have displayed 12 feet widths for both walk and bike which is not wide enough to separate walk from bike, and and separate two lane spaces for the bike. A minimum of 16 feet is necessary to provide adequate separation, and stripe lane space. I was told that 12 feet is “a MnDot standard” for walk bike. I would like to see minimum standards established for the term “Trunk Highway” that specify that walk bike infrastructure is included and how that infra is designed. It is good to have flexibility in standards so more complete road designs can be achieved to different places, but standards for the bike have been terribly lacking for a long time.
Additionally, in our time bicycle infra design is evolving and changing as successful new concepts are continually being developed, thanks in large part to places like Denmark, The Netherlands, and New York City,
I thought 30K was the “more than two lanes threshold” (and 20K was the more than one lane threshold). I recall that traffic forecasts were in the 35K are, but after thinking about it they only built two lanes on the Hastings Bridge because widening Vermillion Street was never going to happen.
Will the traffic signals be pre-empted? That would drastically reduce capacity for people driving cars, so that could be partially where Mn/DOTs line of thinking is coming from.
I’m no engineer, but I think thresholds are squishier than they first appear because traffic is so variable over time, and it also depends on the speeds / number of intersections, etc. For exmaple, this 2-lane street in the UK with low speeds and 20K+ cars per day: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-vzDDMzq7d0
At any rate, the 30K number is only at points West as that (admittedly old 2011) data shows. And the other thing to remember is that roads are a network. What if we took 5-10K of the cars from Olson and moved them to the very elaborate, expensive, and “priced” 394 corridor? Then the MnPass lanes might actually live up to their potential.
More critical take on the above example: https://aseasyasridingabike.wordpress.com/2014/06/16/poynton/
Looking at that article I see a bunch of people stuck in traffic. If we wanted to tolerate that kind of delay for people driving cars we too could only provide a single lane for over 20,000 AADT.
As a side note, it’s interesting the comment about how in the “shared space” setup people on foot still stay to the side, and people on bicycles tend to also, except for the serious “lycra and helmet” types (their exact words not mine even though I’ve used that description myself before), and how they’re having problems with the cute pavers. Maybe it’s best Nicollet Mall is going to be concrete.
But as the article notes (and Poynton officials claim), 1 lane of slowly crawling cars has the same (or slightly better) net delay as the old 2-lane approach with a light in the center of town.
Now, what of Poynton’s design is applicable to Olson (since there won’t be roundabouts given the LRT running down the center), I’m not 100% sure. But even if motorists did have to tolerate that kind of delay, is mitigating that a priority above redevelopment potential, pedestrian safety, mode share goals, etc? Especially if drivers who refuse to take the train or bike or whatever could simply jaunt down to 394 instead?
Alex: because of interchange spacing and whatnot, dropping down to 394 only really works for those with origins and destinations along/west of 100 and in or south/east of downtown.
Or people with O/D west of 100 and north/east on 94/694 who are currently using 55 to reach 94 (or vice versa) that could instead use 100-94/694. I’m sure there are many people north of Bassett Creek and south of Plymouth who use 55 as the best path to 94 or 100 (or downtown or to jobs/shopping along 55 in Golden Valley) who would be impacted by a reduced LOS thanks to a narrower roadway. My gut tells me this number is low and skewed toward demographics who can handle the slight delay.
Point was only to illustrate that the idea of firm thresholds is not so firm, but really depend on where you live and who you’re talking to. It’s Just like how the ideas of what “congestion” means or what “parking is terrible” means can change from city to city. Have you ever tried to park in Boston?
This is why actual density and LOS calculations are based on a 15 minute volume interval instead of a daily count, because of that variability. Neither speed nor frequency of access points are significant factors in capacity, but they are for safety.
Maybe you can explain that. I thought that the faster you went the more space you needed b/w cars, and that intersections cause delays.
I’m sure Adam will have specifics, but “path” to me generally means a sidewalk of either asphalt (usually) or saw-cut concrete (sometimes) that is 8-12′ in width, that is intended to be usable by bikes as well as pedestrians.
There’s still a lack of consensus as to how safe this really is. With street crossings almost every block on the north side of the road, I would worry about cyclists going against the flow of traffic.
That issue aside, I think 12′ is plenty wide for an area with relatively few bikes and pedestrians. (Hiawatha’s MUP on the west side is about that width.) But, it seems there’s a community desire to have it not be an area with relatively few bikes and pedestrians, so maybe something more ambitious is warranted.
Your last sentence is spot on. Olson should be a thoroughfare with residential, retail, and other uses actively fronting it. A path, be it 8′ or 12′ wide is simply not a zone intended for use as a major pedestrian space. Olson should look like a beefed-up Washington Ave through downtown (post-redesign) – a cycle track, ample sidewalk space for seating, trees, bike parking, entrance zones, etc. Maybe all the details don’t need to be installed on every block face to start (some can come during redevelopment), but a shared sidewalk/path along an LRT (the highest-quality transit line our region is building for the foreseeable future) is simply not something that screams for urban development.
To this point, I wouldn’t be so disappointed with a 6/7 lane design if 1) the edges looked more like a pedestrian-oriented space and 2) the lanes were not highway scaled at 11-13′ wide. I know, MnDOT rules and everything, but 10′ lanes with 11′ curb adjacent lanes would work pretty well to slow vehicle speeds to more like 25-30 rather than 35-40.
This could have been worse (if you want to believe that). Having spoken to some Outstate MnDOT enginners, I’ve recently learned that MnDOT is in the process of shifting from a 12ft lane standard to an 11ft lane standard in urban areas. The projects the Outstate engineers I spoke with include this, and I double-checked the Municipal Consent plans for Olson Hwy and it’s included here as well. The 12ft/13ft lane widths are curb lanes that include the curb/gutter pan and curb-reaction distance in the extra 1-2ft. Under the old standard, these would have been 14ft lanes, with 12ft lanes in the middle.
Yeah, I know it’s not much. But it’s a start.
Does this include interstates? I’d really wish they’d restripe I-94 between the downtowns and I-35W across the MN river bridge back to they way they were with 12 foot lanes and shoulders.
You’d be willing to lose the lanes to gain the space? I’m not a fan of that segment of 94, but I think the bigger issue is the curves and the prominent concrete control joints that are aligned to the old lanes. I hadn’t even noticed the 35W/MN River bridge was 11′.
But I prefer 12′ lanes when feasible for interstates, given the heavy truck traffic — and honestly, it’s the one place that traffic probably doesn’t need calming. Go fast there, drive slow and safe on city streets.
Yes, I’d like the extra lane removed to go back to 12 foot lanes and shoulders. And the lanes not lining up with the expansion joints is a huge issue for me, they just created another one with the new I-35W northbound lane out of downtown.
No…does not include Interstates. As I understand it, it’s for urban arterials. But FHWA has shown itself open to allowing less-than-12ft lane widths within urban areas.
This is why I’m confused about why this path is planned for the north side of the highway rather than the south side, where there are many fewer conflict points.
Also, as Froggie noted below, the path is being deferred. I believe this is a violation of MnDot’s complete streets policy, although it currently is password-protected on their website so I can’t verify that. It certainly violates the spirit of their complete streets policy, as does the overall plan for the highway.
It might be only accessible via MnDOT’s internal network on accident. When I get back into work, I’ll check to see if I can access it.
I work next to the Bike & Pedestrian section so I can ask one of them about it tomorrow as well.
It was on our eDOCs (aka EDMS), so I compared it to what was on this page and it had the same information along with some signatures of the contacts listed at the bottom of the page.
I guess for more info you can contact Mark Nelson about it.
Mark B. Nelson
Manager, Planning and Data Analysis
I guess my own personal responses on parts of the policy regarding the proposed Olson Hwy design are:
1) Minimize fatalities and injuries for transportation users throughout the state:
One could easily argue that the mid-block crosswalks are at a higher risk of pedestrian injuries and fatalities with 6 lanes versus 4 lanes.
2) Provide multimodal and intermodal transportation facilities and services to increase access for all persons and businesses and to ensure economic well-being and quality of life without undue burden placed on any community:
Designing this as six lanes would probably be a detriment to the community since it favors suburban commuters versus local residents.
3) Ensure that the planning and implementation of all modes of transportation are consistent with the environmental and energy goals of the state;
Increase use of transit as a percentage of all trips statewide by giving highest priority to the transportation modes with the greatest people-moving capacity and lowest long-term economic and environmental cost:
Since this is meant to be a light rail corridor, priority should be given to modes that complement light rail such as cyclists and pedestrians. Highway 55 is a classified as a principal arterial, but I-394 is better suited to be the primary commuting route for western suburb to city. Highway 55 should be considered more of a secondary (reliever) route, such as how Rice Street is to I-35E. Having this route keep its existing six lanes further treats the corridor as prioritizing automobiles and being a route for suburban-based traffic.
4) Promote and increase bicycling and walking as a percentage of all trips as energy-efficient, nonpolluting, and healthy forms of transportation
Some people aren’t going to be encouraged to walk or bike across or along this corridor is the design is considered hostile to both. There won’t be as much demand for TOD if the highway is seen as a auto-oriented corridor as it currently is today.
To add to #3: It could also be classified as a Minor Augumentor, rather than a Minor Reliever as well.
“Shared use path” is the generally accepted terminology (and the terminology that AASHTO uses dating back to 1999).
MnDOT’s Bikeway Facility Design Manual (current version dated 2007) is what will likely be used in this instance. For a street speed of 35 MPH with curb (curb likely being the case here on Olson), a minimum 5ft separation between the curb and the MUP is recommended. Standard path width is 10ft, but the design manual takes into account differences in expected bicycle usage, expected pedestrian usage, and right-of-way width, so the recommended could go anywhere from 8ft to 14ft.
I looked over the Municipal Consent plans for Minneapolis. They include room for a MUP, but the MUP itself is not included in the plans. Based on this and what I’ve read elsewhere, the MUP would be built separately (likely by the city), and would be in addition to the 6ft sidewalk that will be built as part of the Bottineau project.
Sorry, this was supposed to be in response to Sean.
Thank you Adam, Sean, and Bill.and all. The AASHTO terminology I think is unfortunate for the term “Shared use path”, and the subsequent MnDOT Bikeway Facility design Manual standards of width you describe are not adequate. 10 ft or 14 feet is simply not wide enough to stripe separate lane space for walk and bike. For Olson I would apply very equivalent design for the bike and walk, to what we are doing for the cars on this road, and what overall transportation purpose the road is for. And the amount of width I think would work for bike walk is 24 to 30 feet. The lane widths for the bike should be wide enough for two bicycles in each direction, or circa 8 feet width for each lane for the bike. What we have is anticipated plan for excess space for the car in 6 to 7 lanes per 24 to 30K and not enough functional space for walk or bike.
Street crossings for the bike and walk can be made safe. The Netherlands have good experience with it. Olson itself is still a through street, and needs to function the same way for the bike.
Depending on the purpose of the space, when 10 or 14 feet does not work well is where there is function of greater speed for the bike in a through space. Combining walk and bike in that space creates a conflict. For example the east river road trail in Saint Paul along the river provides a through facility without many street crossing, but can be congested with conflicts between bike and walk if this is used for bicycle transportation. Much slower speeds for the bike are needed if there are a lot of people walking in the shared space lengths. Copenhagen has some very narrow streets with no room for sidewalks or bike lanes, so they lower the speeds to 9 miles per hour so bikes, cars and people walking can use this space more safely. However, these streets are not long through main streets. If the street is long it cannot work for higher speeds of car or bike.
Perhaps there is enough space to stripe separate bike lanes in a MUP with the addition of the 6 foot sidewalk, but that does not seem clear. It should be contained in the full MnDot project, and not built separately by the city.
I avoid using the term “path” as it is vague as to standards and there are different types of infra for bike and walk. It appears by the standard of width you describe as 8 to 14 feet, that the Midtown Greenway design standards do not fit any of those specs, and serves more of a model of design.
The other problem I have with the use of “path”, is that people who appose stuff for the bike and speak publicly, often use the term “bike path” to describe anything for for the bike. For example, the Cleveland Avenue bike lane was referred several times as a bike path. I think it is a bicycle traffic lane and hence bike lane, because it is on the same grade of the rest of the street with a stripe lane space. The Charles Avenue Boulevard was referred to as a bike path by some. It is a street.
I do not regard the MTG as a “bike path”. I would describe it as a Highway – boulevard – parkway for non motorized transportation.
I also would disagree with the standard of “expected bicycle usage” as a bases for design, because I think it is non sequator. It has been well demonstrated that more people take to the bike if the infra is designed effective, safe and fast for the bike. When this is done in place of using the car, that is the beginning of fewer cars on the streets. That is the design policy direction we need to go.
Thank you, again.
“10 ft or 14 feet is simply not wide enough to stripe separate lane space for walk and bike.”
You’re absolutely right — but that’s the “shared-use” part of shared-use path. In general, they don’t distinguish between bike/ped space. Some agencies, like Three Rivers, stripe a center line for bikes, but the correct place of peds isn’t really defined.
This usually works out in area where there are very few peds and relatively few bikes — think of Cedar Ave in Apple Valley, although the safety issues remain for contraflow bikes.
I think we should build something better, like one-way cycletracks. But assuming we wanted a shared-use path, 12′ is a pretty good width.
Hello Sean: The simple reason for separating space for walk and bike is the difference in speeds between the two modes. I do not think that for most applications we should want a “shared use path”. It may be fine in a rural area where there are few people. Within the metro and cities, there are more people.
Considering the function of Olson, its connectivity and purpose, we absolutely should provide separate space for walk and bike, and separate both form motor vehicle traffic.
There are many examples of infra in Saint Paul and Ramsey County of 10 or 12 feet width, non motorized space being used for trails and bridges, and a lot of complaints and problems when there are conflicts. I have experienced two collisions over the years due to non separated space and lack of lighting at night.
We need to revise the current standards or create new standards.
Hey Paul —
I definitely appreciate the good reasons for why we’d want to separate bike and ped. I just worry you’re throwing the baby out with the bathwater.
I think we agree: a 10-12′ MUP is not an appropriate solution for bicycles on the Olson Highway.
I think that means an alternative to a MUP should be chosen — like one-way cycletracks that are separate from both the roadway and sidewalk. However, I don’t think that means the standards for MUPs necessarily need to be changed across the board. Shakopee’s Herrgott Memorial Drive provides a 10′ MUP that works great. Although intersections could still be done better, the road is very well access-managed, and the general cross section is just fine for the very limited number of pedestrians and bikes.
There may or may not be so few pedestrian on Olson today to make the same justification. However, that isn’t the point — the community clearly wants it to be a pedestrian corridor, so we shouldn’t build facilities that assume it never will be.
Thank you. I do not want to throw any baby out with the bathwater 🙂 I looked at the Google map and street view of Herrgott Memorial Drive. I do not know what the motor traffic volume is. However based on the design of the roadway for motor vehicles I think the infra for walk and bike should be far better, and for this kind of road, absolutely separate walk and bike. Make for walk bike, at least equivalent to what we are doing for the car.
The description I wrote for the Saint Paul Greenway Vision was “16 to 20 feet clear, 24 feet of right of way”, That is the minimum width for the same grade surface, concrete or asphalt. Such a standard is not within the definition of “multi use path”, or “shared use path” of AASHTO or MnDot. There is no defined standard for highway design for walk and bike that I know of, or when separating walk and bike should be applied. For transportation purpose, I think walk and bike should be separated.
The term cycletrack that you mentioned, specifies a separate space from everything else.
I reviewed another reference that might be of interest:
NACTO uses language that is very general and more accessible to the average person.
I think we have a long way to go before we are building infrastructure the way we should be.
Thank you again.
So I’m looking at Google Maps and I see west of mpls a two lane highway in each direction with a shoulder and occasional turning lanes. But within mpls I see 3 lanes in each direction, though no right turn lanes or shoulder. Also within mpls there is a (non-continuous) service road on both sides. Good grief that’s a lot of space. And the only things directly fronting the highway (not the service road) are the cartoonish Heritage Landings.
Did not someone mention that there is more traffic west of the city than within? What gives?
I mean, obviously from the drivers’ pov, this is an area to speed through, no matter what the speed limit.
I have recently seen in Europe many large blvds that turn into highway and/or even full fledged freeways when leaving the city. These can include tramways, biking, parks, parking, all kinds of things, because there is so much space when they are in the city. There are so many ways to deal with mKing this a pleasant space and maintain the traffic levels. But I see the pattern, build for cars and grudgingly accomodate people who cannot or don’t want to drive all the time just enough to get them to shut up.