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.

27 thoughts on “Improving Pedestrian Experience in Minneapolis: Ninth and Nicollet

      1. NiMo

        Wait, “Pedestrian push button signals at the…” (p11)

        Are they adding beg buttons? That would be despicably stupid.

        1. Monte Castleman

          Adding pedestrian push-buttons is an absolute requirement to meet ADA standards, whether or not the signal automatically provides a “Walk” signal each phase (which I assume they will).

          1. Julie B

            But will they put the signal in reach of the cut-outs for the ramps that those in wheelchairs may use? Because you rarely see that happening, and then what is the point if the differently abled person cannot reach the walk button?

  1. NiMo

    Drivers block the box so badly at all of the intersections along Nicollet. They are always shocked, SHOCKED that as soon as the light turns red, pedestrians stream into the [unmarked] crosswalk and they are unable to move their car through the intersection until the light turns green again. Meanwhile, they are blocking the buses & cyclists on Nicolett which is a big reason I always opt for the 6 or 12 over the 17. Hopefully the redesigned crosswalks will make a difference, but somehow I doubt it will. I’ve commuted down Nicollet for 5 years now and have seen a grand total of 0 tickets handed out to drivers by the myriad police standing around Nicolett during regular commuting hours.

    1. Will

      Parking is also our greatest natural resource. We can’t inconvenience any driver, ever.

  2. Monte Castleman

    Near side signals are almost impossible for the first car to see, even when they haven’t pulled into the crosswalk. That’s why far sides signals are standard (of course that doesn’t mean that additional near side signals can’t be added, Wisconsin does this a lot).

  3. Eric AnondsonEric Anondson

    These issues of drivers pulling up onto crosswalks happens because drivers are using a variety of cues where they go and stop. Marks on the pavement, proximity of traffic lights/signs, but IMO the most used signal drivers use to decide where they stop a vehicle is the curb. No matter the marks on pavement, if a curb is further ahead the driver pulls up to the curb, onto a crosswalk if it means that.

    1. NiMo

      For clarity, I’m referring specifically to a “blocking the box” situation–not sure if that is a term used in MN. (There was a big campaign against it in DC while in was in HS there). Basically a car enters the intersection past the “near side” crosswalk while green, but is not able to pass all the way through the “far side” crosswalk before the light turns red, typically due to traffic. The car gets stuck in the middle of the intersection, between the crosswalks, when pedestrians enter the far side cross walk when they get the signal, effectively preventing the car from passing through the intersection. This has the effect of blocking traffic for the perpendicular street during that street’s green phase.

      I looked up the corresponding statute and it is 169.15 subd. 2. Basically you aren’t supposed to enter an intersection unless you can drive all the way past the “far side” crosswalk.

      1. Rosa

        there was a PR campaign about it here several years ago. As far as I can tell most drivers had never heard the concept or term before. I don’t know that it had any effect.

        You should have SEEN the box blocking that used to go on around the old Metrodome.

        I always mean to take pictures of the drivers stopped smack in the middle of the striped crossing where the LRT bike trail crosses 26th Street. It’s gotten better over the years, it’s only about half the cars that stop that do it right in the crossing. But i’m not quick enough with the cell phone camera.

  4. Alex

    I’ve always been baffled by the city’s reliance on overtime for cops to solve the downtown gridlock problem. A much more common solution nationally (in addition to the zebra crosswalk striping mentioned here) is cross-hatch striping in the intersection. There would be a cost attached to this thanks to the annual pavement scraping season in Minnesota, I can’t imagine it would be more expensive than paying cops overtime (which, as other commenters have noted, isn’t very effective).

    It’s encouraging that there will be some measures in the redesigned mall to address gridlock, but that won’t help gridlock-impacted intersections on Marquette & 2nd (and occasionally Hennepin) for which solutions like the ones you mention here are likely appropriate.

    1. robsk

      “STOP HERE ON RED” signs with arrows actually work. Money talks … add signage with a fine $$$ for violating the crosswalk and maybe these nincompoop drivers might start to comply.

      Nice links Bill. I tend to be more aggressive than passive when I’m legally crossing the street.

      Does the design update pdf make anyone else nauseous? I want real. Give me pictures of leaves on the ground and dirty snow. This is Minnesota, not a perpetual May-July sunny day.

  5. Lorena

    Yes, real penalties would help a lot. Assigning police for traffic control at key intersections like they did years ago would help, too. There were police to direct traffic during rush hours in the past but that has ended due to budgetary reasons I assume.

    1. Julie B

      I have actually asked police officers (in cars, on bikes, or just walking) at that corner why they don’t ticket the people for stopping in the “walk box.” And there will be cars stopped blocking the walkway when I ask. The response is pretty much always a shrug and a “why bother?” The same response to those who run red lights.

      There are still police who direct traffic downtown during rush hour: mainly on Hennepin and 1st Avenue, which have become parking lots since they stopped being one-way streets (my opinion, based on my own experiences as a driver and a bicycle commuter who admittedly misses the bike lanes and hates sharrows).

  6. Keith Morris

    I’m surprised that the obvious hasn’t been stated. Even when there’s a huge group of pedestrians which the motorists obviously see they still go and block the intersection, because they don’t care. Back when you were able to bike down Nicollet I would sometimes smack the back of cars I had to ride between. I have a feeling after the multi-million “upgrade” that I’ll be doing the same in a couple years.

    1. NiMo

      My favorite block the intersection response on Nicollet was from a 17 driver. She pulled her bus to within inches of the offending car and just laid on the horn for virtually the entire time the car was “stuck” in the intersection. I stopped my bike to watch. The look on the driver’s face was five different kinds of priceless.

  7. Kyle W

    I’ve never noticed cross-hatch striping anywhere I’ve been in the Cities.

    Our neighborhood group tried to get a cross-hatch striping in the intersection of 42nd St E and 34th Ave S. This city explored the idea and came back with something that boiled down to “We don’t do that here”

  8. Steve Brandt

    I was blocked both times I tried to use the crosswalk at 3rd St. S. and 3rd Av. S. yesterday.

  9. Scott

    The Pedestrian Advisory Committee (PAC) was told in July 2014 that many of Anton’s suggestions were being implemented through the Nicollet Mall project. This includes zebra crosswalks, bump-outs, and raised crossings. I remember being told that pedestrians will stay at the same grade level as the sidewalks as they cross streets like 9th. Motorists would receive visual cues from the raised crosswalks to slow down. I hope that hasn’t changed.

    Also, they are installing Audible Pedestrian Signals (APS) at the corners, not “beg buttons”. Blind people, like myself, struggle with the existing Nicollet Mall because there isn’t enough audible info/ car traffic on Nicollet or the one way cross streets during off peak hours to know when to cross. The PAC has been told the City doesn’t install beg buttons anymore, but Hennepin County slips them in once in a while.

    Finally, the City, working with the PAC, is revising their crosswalk marking practices and durable, zebra-style markings will become far more prevalent soon.

    1. Monte Castleman

      We’re dealing with semantics here. APS and “beg buttons” are exactly the same product nowadays (I presume the difference is in implementation, whether ped recall is enable or not- an APS station has a button, but if recall is enabled all it does when pushed is acknowledge that it’s been pushed).

      All APS stations have buttons.
      Not all pedestrian buttons being installed today have APS.
      “Beg Button” seems to be a pejorative term for a fully actuated intersection where pedestrians have to push a button to enable a pedestrian phase and/or get the light to change, whether the intersection has APS or not.

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