Improving Pedestrian Experience in Minneapolis: Ninth and Nicollet

The intersection of Ninth Street and Nicollet Mall is one of the busiest in downtown Minneapolis. As a pedestrian mall, Nicollet caters primarily to pedestrian traffic and also offers a roadway for buses and bicycles. Ninth Street is essentially an urban highway, stretching 55 feet across and featuring three lanes for cars, as well as an unprotected bike lane and parking on either side. (After all, who could enjoy Nicollet Mall if they couldn’t find parking?) At the southwest corner of this intersection sits Target, one of the busiest retail destinations downtown.

Unfortunately, this busy intersection is often a mess, especially during evening rush hour. Traffic is frequently backed up along Ninth Street, and cars subsequently “block the box” on Nicollet, stopping bus and bike traffic when the traffic light changes, and forcing pedestrians to weave between cars just to cross the street.

Of course, drivers do not stop their cars in the middle of a crosswalk just to impede pedestrians. From the driver’s perspective, visual cues give little indication that Ninth Street is intersecting with a pedestrian mall. More clear visual indicators for drivers are one simple design change that would improve safety at this intersection.

Ninth Street and Nicollet Mall

Ninth Street and Nicollet Mall

If we look at this intersection from a pedestrian’s perspective, one thing that stands out is the lack of clear crosswalk markings. Despite Ninth Street being resurfaced in October 2015, there are few indicators that people will cross the street at this intersection. As you can tell from the above photo, crosswalk lines have all but completely faded away. Pedestrians walking along Nicollet Mall should feel comfortable crossing the street, and drivers are more likely to stay out of the crosswalks if there are better visual indicators of them.

There are a few good ways to indicate crossings. One concept is to make the crosswalk out of the same material as the sidewalk in order to break up the look of endless asphalt (or even raise them a bit to act as speedbumps). Of course, physical changes to the roadway can be expensive to build and maintain.

But for a discounted price, so-called “zebra stripes” are perhaps the most obvious visual cue to drivers on where pedestrians will cross the street:

Example of "Zebra Stripes" marking crosswalks

Zebra stripes in the wild

On Ninth Street, when traffic is backed up, cars often just follow the car in front of them as closely as possible. But as drivers approach the Nicollet Mall intersection, they also gauge the location of intersection to know if they have enough room to stay out of the way of cross-traffic on Nicollet. Zebra stripes enable the driver to better assess whether they will be in relation to the crosswalk, as that long distance is currently difficult to judge.

Second, we need to re-think the design of traffic lights, especially near our urban core. Put the signal closer to the driver, and they are far less likely to roll through it when it turns yellow. The current signals at are across a far chasm from where the driver is focused. If you put drivers closer to the lights, they are less likely to venture out into an intersection when that light turns yellow or red. One example of this type of signal is at the I-94 exit ramp at Lyndale:

Traffic lights can visually indicate where traffic should stop

Traffic lights placed before an intersection indicate where traffic should stop

In the above example, we can see a couple of traffic lights. One is far away, similar to the traffic light for westbound traffic on Ninth Street. But additional lights are directly adjacent to where the driver should stop. When the light is red, a driver is less likely to move into the intersection since they will no longer be able to see the light.

Last, if there ever were a street that could be narrowed, this is it. Since this street is built like an urban freeway, we should expect drivers to treat it like one. Obviously the cost of moving the curbs in is high, but the benefits include creating a more walkable area adjacent to Nicollet Mall. Bump-outs at the curb could also improve the pedestrian experience by reducing the length required to cross the street.

It’s unclear whether any intersections will be altered during the current Nicollet Mall Reconstruction Project (I’m unable to find any specifics on this, but I’m doubtful). Addressing the pedestrian experience at these intersections is crucial for making Nicollet a pedestrian mall which Minneapolis can be proud of.

Anton Schieffer

About Anton Schieffer

Anton lives in Minneapolis and writes about information technology, government transparency, and local housing issues. He mostly wants to build enough housing so that everyone has a place to live.