Hennepin Avenue Reconstruct I: Major Improvements

Last week, I went to the Downtown Public Library for a meeting on the Hennepin Avenue Reconstruct, which encompasses the street from Washington Ave to 12th. As I often do when headed downtown, I walked Hennepin, weaving between slower foot traffic, waiting impatiently at poorly timed lights, and enjoying the pleasure of moving under my own power. As much as I love busy streets full of fellow Minneapolitans and visitors, for many it can be difficult or unpleasant to navigate the tight sidewalks and thread through throngs of people during the many events and shimmying past at-capacity transit stops. It’s easy, given how often the street is bustling with activity, to forget how unpleasant it is as currently designed. For all its vitality, Hennepin itself isn’t a nice street. It’s a road designed around cars, from its highway style lights to its wide lanes, and there’s nothing like walking home during a low-traffic time after a show or happy hour downtown to make that all painfully clear in a kind of bleak un-glory.

Hennepin Avenue Reconstruct: Typical Concept

The proposed design for the Hennepin Avenue Reconstruct provides some major improvements for people walking downtown. While the initial mock-up shows an unfortunate 2’ decrease in dedicated sidewalk across the board, the City plans to apply for and will almost certainly receive variances for narrower lane widths and reaction zones more appropriate for vehicle traffic in our very walkable and very walked downtown. Chief among the benefits of the proposed redesign is the decreased crossing distances at most intersections (the most dangerous places in downtown); they decrease from 58′ to a likely 44’ spent crossing in front of vehicles. When adding in the distance of the bike lanes, the crossing will be 58’. While this is the same as the current distance, the risks of intersections—certainly in terms of serious injuries and fatalities—come from drivers. I’ll take the trade of cars for bikes any day of the week and twice during rush hour.

Hennepin Avenue Reconstruct: blocks with transit stops

Beyond the narrowed crossing distance, this full reconstruction offers Minneapolis a great chance to do the streetscape right, creating a space where the road design supports downtown’s growing vibrancy. I have reservations around the narrowing of the sidewalk right of way to accommodate transit stops (see above), but these are tempered by a hope that this space, if well designed, can both improve efficiency for those walking as well as offer more of a sense of place for those gathering. Right now, Hennepin’s sidewalks are haphazard spaces: transit shelters blur into the walking right of way when people prefer to lean against buildings and fences in all but the most inclement weather and street furniture seems randomly placed at best and downright antagonistic* at worst. Bringing a user-centered framework to the next stage of Hennepin’s planning can help us design a street that is both route and destination for those of us who walk along or to it, regardless of how we get there.

Hennepin Avenue Reconstruct: 12th Street

The biggest full-block improvement to me is the north side of the street between 12th & 13th, where a single building looms over the entire sidewalk. It’s a nice high density building, but with a street level design that feels like a late 80s/early 90s understanding of city-ness,evocative of both the suburbs (brick facade! driveway! entrance for people totally hidden!) and the skyways (protection from the elements!). The proposed concept removes the driveway as well as the street parking, opening up sight lines, and the bike lanes put more users, the kind who might hear a cry for help, back on the street.

The addition of the protected bike lanes is particularly exciting to me. If traffic engineering doesn’t have a term for someone who’s been forced into a vehicle because the street isn’t meeting their needs, they need one. That’s often me on Hennepin once I hit 10th to 12th. Not only does the street become less “sticky” (and therefore less pleasant and more boring to walk), but here, at the western edge of downtown’s heavy foot traffic, the platooning of cars along Hennepin during non-peak hours can lead to sudden pockets of desertedness between 10th and Dunwoody. As a small female, I’ve regularly made the unpleasant choice of spending $1.75 and 10-15 minutes waiting to take the bus a quarter or half mile; I’ve just as often chosen otherwise, finding myself painfully alert to every shift of a shadow in the sudden and total silence of the cavernous street as I walk between the blank faces of the buildings. I’ve noticed how the presence of bike lanes changes those patterns elsewhere in the city, with the more varied pacing and similar exposure of people biking. As someone who walks a lot (to and from) downtown, I’m excited by the potential for protected bike lanes to extend and enhance the safety I feel while walking.

I walked back to my apartment along Hennepin recently after a particularly happy hour; I noted, in passing, the bigger-than-usual crowds for a Thursday evening, the way the street pulsed with the same energy that was in each brisk step I took. It wasn’t until I got home that I realized I’d missed the first evening of our public mourning for Prince. I remembered the crowd, the life of Hennepin Avenue as I walked along it, how safe I felt even as I occasionally stepped into the street to pass a stopped group. That sense of community and safety enveloped the street long after I’d passed 7th.

That’s what streets are. Yes, they’re routes, as I’ve talked about above. But they’re also public spaces where community forms with no entrance fees or dress codes or need to explain oneself. For me, as for many other Minneapolitans, Hennepin Avenue is at the center of much of my life, whether as route or destination. I’m excited to see our City working on a design that can support both.

*e.g. the hidden speakers that aggressively blast tinny music at passersby outside Block E.

17 thoughts on “Hennepin Avenue Reconstruct I: Major Improvements

    1. Julia Curran

      Thanks, Janne! And thanks for linking to your post–I meant to do so in this one as well. I’m really excited about the conversations happening around what Hennepin is and could be!

  1. Julia Curran

    That hasn’t been decided yet. I believe they’ll have a tactile differentiation for those who have impaired vision. But in terms of other separation, street furniture, landscaping, and the other stuff that really sets usage and tone for walking, that’s determined much later in the process.

  2. Scott

    I want to like this plan, but remain concerned that much of the sidewalks at 3rd St. and Washington will be narrowed by six feet on both sides of the street to accommodate turn lanes for cars and protected bike lanes. The result: narrowed and cluttered sidewalks for half of each of these blocks and longer crossing distances for pedestrians. Hennepin is one of the few (the only?) street in the City with the recommended 20 foot sidewalks from the City’s own Sidewalk Design Guidelines. It’s kind of disappointing that it will end up slightly to significantly worse than the existing condition.

    Also, I see few physical improvements like durable crosswalk markings, wider sidewalks, pedestrian bump-outs/ medians, or filling in sidewalk gaps happening in Minneapolis, while a lot of resources are planned for bike infrastructure. Something about it doesn’t seem fair, and the Hennepin plan seems like another big win for bicyclists.

    1. Janne

      Scott, I want to make sure the City is held accountable for further narrowing the driving lanes/reaction zone and allocating that space to the sidewalks. It’s strange to me that they say they’ll do it and plan to do it (and the state is adjusting the MSA standards to make it easy to do now), but they don’t show it on the plans.

      I agree about the other improvements you name (durable crosswalk markings, bump-outs/medians) on this project. At the public meeting when asked about bump-outs and other details, as I understand it, those things are part of the next stage of the process after this initial application.

      I find it very hopeful that the City is asking input at this very early stage (unlike in the Hennepin/Lyndale bottleneck process) to make sure they’re allocating space the way people want it to be allocated, and not trapped by a poorly-planned federal application. It’s also awkward to be trapped at such an abstract concept design when we want to make sure the details get done right, too.

    2. Julia Curran Post author

      It doesn’t seem fair to me either, Scott, though I understand it as an issue of how we rank and prioritize different modes to privilege/encourage driving (which is something friends who drive have also been puzzled by when it comes to Hennepin), rather than as a win specifically for those who are biking. Personally, I see it as those sidewalks being narrowed not to accommodate bike lanes, but car lanes.

      I don’t know what to say about 3rd and Washington. Before writing this, I walked the full length on both sides, including circling those two intersections about five times each, both clockwise and counterclockwise. I’m very concerned about these, in part because two adjacent blocks are currently empty lots in the middle of downtown, so the foot traffic they see is likely the lowest it’ll ever be and subject to rapid change. My understanding is that the left turn lanes are in there by default because of where driving (even just for very short peak use) ranks compared to walking, biking, or taking transit in our current valuation (and data collection, projection, modeling) of users/modes.

  3. Susan

    Curious – I don’t see how pedestrians can safely cross the bike path to get to the bus shelters/bus stops. What am I missing? As both a cyclist and a pedestrian I see this as problematic.

    1. Thatcher

      Seattle doesn’t quite have the same condition but there are a few places where the Second Avenue protected bike lane crosses a non-intersection pedestrian crossing (primarily higher-traffic valet pedestrian crossings) and the city has elevated the bike lane to the level of the sidewalk in that section (speed table) and added paint and signs to slow and put on notice bikers.

      My hope would be that Hennepin would very clearly mark the crossings for pedestrians to reduce potential crashes between bikes and pedestrians. For the sake of the bike lane’s functionality, keeping pedestrians out of it will also be important. Using the Seattle example, which is at street level, it’s generally not a problem except by this plaza where many homeless hang out by a shelter and spill into the bike lanes rendering them unusable. It’s essentially an extended plaza at that location.

    2. Walker AngellWalker Angell

      That is a quite common configuration in Europe and in particular Netherlands and Copenhagen. It works well. Bicycles are quite small so it takes a really huge gob of them for there not to be numerous safe gaps for people to cross. In heavily congested areas the bicycle riders come in platoons leaving long wide gaps for crossing.

      Bicycle riders are also much more attentive that car drivers so they are much more likely to see someone crossing in front of them and can slow down. This is common and not a problem.

      The only problem I’ve seen, and rarely, is when someone crosses so close in front of a bicycle rider that they have to slam on their brakes. I’ve never seen this result in a crash but there are often words exchanged.

    3. Julia Curran Post author

      I’m really interested in seeing what we develop to make sure we meet the needs of all users in these sections. I’ve heard brainstorming around what it might look like, given usage and developing best practices around the world. Some of this is around tactile demarcation, similar to the little iron bumps at crosswalk curbcuts. Personally, I’m hoping the city really takes advantage of the novelty (for us) of doing a bike lane like this to explore Good (and creative) Design based on needs and how people use spaces when it comes to public right of way. Around your point specifically, the city’s diagrams show some narrowing (from 7′ to 6′) of the bike lane as it passes the transit stops; I didn’t hear them say that it was to help guide usage, but I assume it’s a first pass on thinking about how to design those safe crossings.

    1. Nick

      Not a plan at this point, just a study considering 1-way and 2-way alternatives. No timeline for reconfiguration yet, though MNDOT/City of Minneapolis traffic signal reconstruction plans for next few years includes a number of intersections in the area that would be impacted if anything switches to 2-way.


  4. Jason

    It’s great to see all modes integrated into this. However, I see a couple of issues.

    I think bus stops should be midblock than at corners. Cars will often want to turn right in front of buses when they are stopped at bus top. In addition, views of pedestrians are blocked when buses are stopped right at the corner.

    Left turns are a very common occurrence and can back up traffic. Drivers can feel rushed if they don’t have a dedicated turn lane. Often times they fail to observe pedestrians in the crosswalk on the street they are turning too. Maybe something more can be done about this.

    1. Julia Curran Post author

      My understanding is that MetroTransit’s moving towards far side bus stops, which address the issue you’re raising. However, I haven’t noticed a particular problem with right-turning vehicles behind busses when I’m walking. If anything, a bus stopped at a red light functionally decreases my crossing distance because I know the drivers won’t turn and it also reduces the likelihood of another driver looking left while moving their vehicle right.

      I’ve noticed that many drivers downtown drive as if stressed or agitated. I think this is partially because the design cues they’re given (wide multi-lane roads, highway style lights/signs) set the (dangerous) expectation that they should be going fast and only paying attention to other cars while at the same time the context is very different and heavily pedestrian. I’m hopeful that reducing lane widths and using human-scale lights/signs/fixtures will help set a tone that will make for a less frustrating experience for drivers, as well as other users. But barring that, I’m interested in seeing the city explore better signalization; I think a leading pedestrian interval to give those walking a head start in crossing could help make drivers more aware of other users as well.

      1. Nick

        I think Jason is talking about people who have the green that make a right in front of a stopped bus by going around it on the left and then making a very illegal right turn from the left lane. Seen it happen a lot, though the most egregious intersection is NB Central Ave onto EB University Ave across the river.

        1. Julia Curran Post author

          Wouldn’t far-side stops address that? The bus is stopped at the beginning of the block, rather than the end at the stoplight, so there’s room for another driver to pass it and turn before the intersection.

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