Hennepin Avenue Reconstruct II: Even Better

I’ve written previously about the infinite improvement that the proposed concept for the Hennepin Avenue Reconstruct represents, here. Of course, my hopes for it are as eternal as the empty lot at Block E once felt. I’m leaving out the possibility of lane reductions; the mess of laws and customs governing those is beyond my scope right now.

Aerial photo Hennepin Avenue Reconstruct: Chicane

Hennepin Avenue Reconstruct: Chicane

My biggest dream, the one that becomes very unlikely with federal approval of the current concept, is a slightly meandering Hennepin Avenue chicane. I first encountered these as a means to calm traffic and provide a more humane experience for all users, but in this case, a chicane per the diagram above solves the following:

No Chicane
Walking ROW narrows to 9’, below what Access Minneapolis’ Design Guidelines for Streets and Sidewalks recommends (20′) or even calls “acceptable” (15′).

Walking ROW stays a minimum of 14’

I thought about making this list longer, but that right there says it all. In a vibrant downtown realm, a 9’ ROW for the sidewalk is underbuilt, especially given peak foot traffic volumes (the City doesn’t yet track this information, but anybody who’s ended up downtown during events knows how full sidewalks can be).  

Aerial photo Hennepin Avenue Reconstruct

Hennepin Avenue Reconstruct: zoomed in

In my to-scale diagram, the transit islands are 8’ wide, narrower than the 9′-12′ shown on initial sketches. Because Hennepin serves primarily relatively frequent and regular local lines, rather than infrequent rush hour suburban routes, the pattern of waiting is different and a potential capacity problem at the stops would be better mitigated by solutions that don’t reduce sidewalk throughput (e.g. increased frequency/volume). I’ve also kept the bike lanes at 7’ wide for the full length, rather than narrowing it to 6’ at certain points.

The four (and even five) lanes of traffic still in the proposed Hennepin Avenue reconstruct comprise dangerous design for those who are walking or biking downtown, particularly when crossing multiple wide lane one-way streets. But even while ceding to the pressures that give driver LOS primacy, we can create more human-centered streets. Intersections are the most dangerous places in our transportation system; when we feel we must keep four lanes or more, we still have many options at our disposal to make sure we reduce the chance for injury or death to those walking and biking. The next two ideas can both be implemented even after federal funding is secured, because neither requires a change to curb lines.

Raised Intersections

Photo of raised intersection

Raised intersection

In this design, rather than forcing those who are walking (and in the case of raised protected lanes, biking) to adjust to the level of drivers, drivers themselves go up slightly to meet the level of the sidewalk and bike routes. These intersections have a couple of important advantages over current grade-separated crossings in Minneapolis.

  • People who are walking and biking are raised in relation to those driving; this increases their visibility and reduces risk.
  • Raised intersections reduce speeding and calm traffic, similar to a speed bump.
  • Changing the intersection to be at the level of those walking and biking reorients the hierarchy of the street. The design now communicates that “people who are walking and biking belong here” rather than “cars belong here.” It makes roads more truly shared and helps reinforce the goal where Hennepin is both route and destination.
  • At-grade crossings are easier and safer especially for people with mobility issues. Even with the best ADA ramps, slopes down to the street add an unnecessary element of risk for those whose wheelchair may catch, who might stumble at the unusual angle when not hitting at the center. For drivers, they’re totally inconsequential.
  • Because Minneapolis has rarely if ever used raised intersections, their presence on Hennepin at the center of the city would help reinforce a sense of place, as well as decrease the unpleasantness and confusion of crossing wide cross-streets.

Scramble Intersection

Aerial photo scramble intersection

Scramble intersection

A scramble intersection is a signalized crossing where people who are walking have a green light that allows them to cross in any direction in one light, including diagonally. At least a few of the intersections on Hennepin Avenue downtown could benefit from judicious use of a scramble intersection to help improve LOS for those walking as well as those driving. As anyone who’s spent much time downtown knows, walking comes first here by usage, if not by design. It may not fully show up in the city’s street plans yet, but every time a group of people on foot “declares quorum” and crosses against the traffic signal, or a crowd spills out from the sidewalk into the street during an event, we’ve had a coup against the ruling forces.

  • During peak walking volumes (on Hennepin, this often means the frequent special events nearby), people are already non-compliant with signalized lights. Additionally, particularly in the evening, there are many users who are less familiar with urban walking. For drivers unused to waiting for people on foot to cross before they can turn or drive, this increases frustration and aggression towards those they perceive as delaying them and sets the stage for confrontations. For those walking in an unfamiliar area, there’s a big difference between what the signalized lights are communicating and what people are doing. In my observation, this exacerbates congestion; hesitant walking means that instead of the clustered quora of confident daily foot traffic crossing Nicollet against poorly timed signals, Hennepin’s special events can be a steady trickle of people as each pair finally decides to go for it. By codifying what’s already happening and adding in a mechanism specifically to increase the efficiency of foot traffic flow, I think we’d see both an increase in signal compliance and a subsequent decrease in delays for those taking the bus or driving during these times.  
  • Cars turning and pedestrians crossing at the same time creates a risk of serious injury or death for those in the cross-walk. A scramble intersection reduces that risk; such a design may have prevented a recent fatality at 8th & Hennepin when a turning driver killed a person crossing the street this past winter. If engineers feel that they aren’t appropriate for some times of day, the city could explore the use of a scramble intersection similar to the periodic use of manual police traffic direction, triggered by high volume special events, peak foot traffic hours, and to increase safety and reduce exposure of those not in cars during inclement weather.
  • Scramble intersections reduce the number of crossings as well as total distance for those walking. Safety win!
  • Downtown is a fluid multi-use part of our city. It serves as home, work, and entertainment for tens of thousands. It’s where we celebrate our heroes and where we mourn our dead. Scramble intersections provide flexibility in design for those managing high volumes of traffic across all modes, increase safety, and set a tone that reminds drivers to share the road in this densely-used area.

There are, of course, nearly infinite ways to improve walkability, bikeability, and transit downtown through the Hennepin Avenue Reconstruct (and an equal number of ways to make sustainable transit less attractive), even without reducing lanes or addressing land use.

I’m really excited by what Minneapolis’ public works department has brought forward so far. I’m eager to see our planners and engineers use the Hennepin Avenue Reconstruct as an opportunity to dive further into how we can design and promote safe, efficient streets that truly reflect our multi-modal priorities, protect those who walk and bike from needless injury and death, and balance moving all modes efficiently with creating a sense of space for those who work, play, eat, shop, mourn, love, party, learn, celebrate, and live in our downtown.