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.
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.