Minneapolis Should Use the Three-Lane Layout for 3rd Avenue

3rd avenue design

Proposed layout for 3rd Avenue through Downtown Minneapolis.

In the conversations leading up to the City Council vote today on the 3rd Ave S redesign, it seems we’ve gotten focused on the wrong questions. The most important question isn’t “will the downtown businesses agree to replace greening by a large enough percentage?” It also isn’t “but how do downtown business owners feel about this?”

The right question is: is a three lane road or a four-lane road better? That’s pretty clear, in general. Three-lane roads are better for the safety of pretty much everyone, including people on foot and people in cars. The additional greening and placemaking potential is the cherry on top. If you can handle the traffic, three lanes are better than four.

So there’s this followup question: do we need that fourth travel lane? A small group of downtown business owners clearly believe we do. But the answer is very clear: we don’t.

There are several reasons to believe that we don’t need four lanes on 3rd Ave S, south of 7th St S. The first, and simplest, is that the original Public Works staff traffic analysis (which has been buried due to political pressure) said that a three-lane road would work just fine. That’s why they developed that layout, and why it was presented to the Pedestrian and Bicycle Advisory Committees.

The second major reason: there are roads that the City has already changed from a four-lane to a three-lane layout that carry more traffic than 3rd Ave S. And I mean that in every possible way: more traffic over the course of the full day, and more traffic in the highest peak hour.


Riverside Avenue before and after the 4-3 conversion.

Let’s take these one at a time. First, overall traffic. The highest mid-block traffic volumes on the section of 3rd south of 7th Street, per the City’s Traffic Count Management System, is 9,687 cars/day. This is lower than several three- and even two-lane roads I’ve been able to find:

Riverside at 23rd Ave S (three lane): 13,112 cars/day

Franklin at 23rd Ave S (two lane): 13,885 cars/day

Cedar Ave S at 5th St S (two lane): 13,401 cars/day

Lyndale Ave S at 35th St W (three lane): 13,040 cars/day

That’s pretty clear. There are streets that manage much more traffic every day than this southern section of 3rd Ave S, and do it with three (or even two!) travel lanes. But what about the contention that there’s something unique about 3rd Ave, that it somehow has a busier evening peak than other roads?

That also turns out not to be true. The highest peak-hour volume on 3rd is the PM peak at 8th St S, which has a count of 1,326 cars/hour (in both directions – again, all of this is per the Traffic Count Management System). I’ve found six intersections (so far) on three-lane roadways that have higher evening peak-hour traffic counts than that: Franklin Ave E at 11th Ave S (2,635 c/h), Lyndale Ave S at 35th St W (2,360 c/h), Lyndale Ave S at 36th St W (2,151 c/h), Riverside at 23rd Ave S (1,403 c/h), Franklin Ave E at 14th Ave S (1,389 c/h) and Lyndale Ave S at 33rd St W (1,362 c/h).

When you stack up all of the intersections on 3rd with a host of intersections on 2- or 3-lane roads around Minneapolis, it’s very clear: it’s carrying less traffic in the busiest evening peak than several roads we’ve already converted to three (or, again, even two!) lanes.

So here’s the real question: why are we even having this debate? So a small number of downtown business owners (six, according to the Star Tribune) believes, with no evidence to back up their superstition, that changing 3rd Ave S to a three-lane road south of 8th St S will cause terrible traffic congestion. But the evidence says otherwise. It says that there are multiple roadways with fewer than four lanes carrying a greater amount of traffic – both over the course of the day and in the peak hour – and operating just fine.

Why should we believe that 1,326 cars/hour will blow up a three-lane road when 2,635 cars/hour doesn’t?  That’s almost twice as much!  Why should we believe that a three-lane can’t handle 9,687 cars/day when we can go out and look at two-lane Franklin Ave S safely carrying 13,885 cars/day? We can go look at a 4-to-3 conversion that dramatically improved pedestrian safety last year on Cedar Ave S, which for what it’s worth carries 13,401 cars/day.

Editors note: This post was edited slightly from its original version. Apologies for any confusion.

Robin Garwood

About Robin Garwood

Robin Garwood is Policy Aide to Minneapolis Council Member Cam Gordon. He serves on the Minneapolis Bicycle Advisory Committee and the Minneapolis Tree Advisory Committee, and on the board of FairVote Minnesota.

13 thoughts on “Minneapolis Should Use the Three-Lane Layout for 3rd Avenue

  1. Monte Castleman

    There’s a limited application where 4-Lane Death Roads should be used. Traffic counts above 20,000 and no possible way to add a 5th lane. Anything below that should be three lanes, so this definately falls into that.

  2. Eric AnondsonEric Anondson

    I dunno, building owners downtown haven’t exactly been historically good stewards of the street interaction of their buildings. Seems a lot of Nicollet’s reconstruction is bandaids atop bad building frontages. Thanks for that building owners…

  3. Adam MillerAdam Miller

    At the Transportation and Public Works meeting this morning, Bender moved to substitute the original three lane proposal. Gordon made the traffic volume argument in comparison to other 4-to-3 reconfiguration. Bender pressed for a reason, any reason, to have four lanes.

    The staff response was “business leaders were concerned” and “we don’t need four lanes for regular days, but there could be unknown events.” They didn’t pass the 3 lane substitute and voted for no recommendation. Sounds like that means we get four lanes.

    Basically, someone made a political decision to make this street more dangerous, leaving the staff to try to justify on technical terms, which wasn’t really possible. Worse, two of the votes for four lanes – Reich and Yang – said basically nothing in favor of four lanes. Palmisano said the buildings here are a lot bigger than those on Riverside, Franklin and Cedar, so maybe that means more lanes are needed (despite them carrying way fewer cars, I guess).

    Anyway, another missed opportunity.

    1. Isaac

      Tweet from the Minneapolis Bike Coalition:

      “No recommendation” motion means that full City Council will discuss and decide final design for 3rd on Apr 15

      Not a done deal yet.

      1. Matt Brillhart

        Where will the 4 other votes for the 3-lane option come from?
        Cano is likely one – still need 3 more.

        Barb Johnson and Goodman support the 4-lane, and it sounds like Jacob Frey has been fairly non-committal as well. That’s 6 votes for the 4-lane…only needing one more.

        We would need a clean sweep of Andrew Johnson, John Quincy, and Abdi Warsame to get to 7 votes. I don’t see that happening. Warsame will vote how the big three (Barb, Goodman, and Frey) tell him to vote.

        Bottom line: the only way the 3-lane option passes is if Jacob Frey supports it.

  4. GlowBoy

    Here’s how you can get much more capacity from a 3-lane street: teach Minnesota drivers not to get caught in the middle of an intersection on a red! The downtown gridlock every evening in Minneapolis, with cars constantly blocking cross traffic that has the green light, blows my mind.

    In Portland, urban drivers know not to enter an intersection if there isn’t room on the other side for them. Intersection-blocking can be a problem in suburban areas there, but not generally in the city.

    Why don’t Minnesotans get this? Don’t cops ticket drivers who get caught in the intersection on red?

    1. robsk

      It is in their hurry-up-and-wait Scandinavian genetics. They are also great at passing on the right, in intersections, only to get stuck when traffic starts moving again.

      Joking aside, I hope the council has a change of heart and goes with a 3 lane design.

    2. Rosa

      Not enough road rage from the ones blocked? A mass of drivers who grew up in places without stop signs?

      I have wondered this for years, all those years I worked near the Metrodome. MNDoT ran a “don’t block the box” campaign concurrent with those years and it had 0 effect.

  5. Matt SteeleMatt Steele

    Barb Johnson comments at Mpls Pedestrian Alliance saying 3rd Ave was reconstructed less than 10 years ago.

    Okay then, but it seems like we are past the go/no-go point for street reconstruction and establishment of bicycle facilities on this street. Correct? So arguing that the street isn’t in need of construction is irrelevant to the discussion of three lanes versus four.

      1. Matt SteeleMatt Steele

        So Barb’s point is even more irrelevant. That’s what I figured – we’re not going to be replacing a majority of curb in either scenario, right?

        1. Adam MillerAdam Miller

          At TPW, the staffer said, “we’re not really doing any curb work here.”

          I think they’re going to have move some in a few spots (e.g. by City Hall), but overall my understanding is no, not moving curb.

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