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.

14 thoughts on “Hennepin Avenue Reconstruct II: Even Better

  1. Joseph TottenJoseph Totten

    Holy cow! The slightly diagonal streets, changing direction by a few degrees at each intersection is absolutely crazy, and just might work!

    Thanks for these, I second all items for discussion by policy makers.

  2. Shawn

    re: Raised Intersections

    You’d need a fairly shallow gradient to avoid wrecking the snow plows, or the plows tearing up the pavement.

    1. Walker AngellWalker Angell

      Yes. Probably 30-50% of junctions and walkway/bikeway crossings in The Netherlands are raised and are not an issue for snow plows. A tabled junction like above would be somewhat similar to current speed bumps.

  3. Monte Castleman

    Exclusive pedestrian phases do make it easier if a pedestrian wants to cross both streets and are generally safer, but overall they reduce the LOS for both pedestrians and vehicles and can encourage pedestrians to jaywalk against the red hand rather than wait for their phase, which motorists may not be expecting.

    1. Julia Curran Post author

      Downtown, in my observation over many years, has really low compliance for signalized lights for basically all users, as I alluded to in the post. My suggestions are based on that, not on what LOS might be elsewhere where there’s higher compliance.

      People driving often camp in and totally block the crosswalks (as well as blocking other drivers who have a green), or honk and yell at those walking with the green light. It’s far more egregious (and also accepted) than I see elsewhere in the city. All of this is normal enough that MPD drivers do it as well, even when it’s clearly creating major obstacles for those with mobility issues.

      People on foot cross against the light when it’s safe, generally because there aren’t cars coming, because the cars are so backed up that they’re not moving fast, or because there are enough random people who group together and walk into the street in tandem (what I refer to as “declaring quorum), forcing drivers to slow down. All of these are normal enough that most people driving downtown with some regularity are aware of it, even if it’s frustrating for them.

      I’d like to see us designing for real world usage with an understanding of how design drives behavior and with an eye towards our values as a city; the way many of our intersections downtown (and elsewhere) are signalized doesn’t seem to meet those well right now. I’m interested in what other solutions you might have given the current usage patterns downtown?

      1. Rosa

        Yes, all of this. I have been (bike) commuting downtown this week and I had forgotten a ton of this, but it’s all so true.

        I mean, it’s true all around town, but the density of users downtown makes it really obvious how useless the signals are. It’s not safe to walk with the walk light, it is safe to walk with the don’t walk, cars can’t make it through in one green, but the ones that don’t “block the box” lose their spot to right-turners who don’t care about blocking. There’s bikes on the sidewalk and power chairs in the bike lanes, construction blocks the curb cuts, the one ways that route drivers onto highways are signed too late to make decisions…people just disregard most of it, because it doesn’t make sense.

      2. Monte Castleman

        I guess the problem I see is that since many people do not behave legally and appropriately during the concurrent phasing, I don’t think it’s not at all as safe assumption that everyone is going to behave legally and appropriately during X-ped phasing. Because they reduce pedestrian LOS it’s well known that it increases their temptation to jaywalk. If this is well known elsewhere and there’s already a problem with compliance here, you can see my reservations.

        1. Rosa

          I don’t actually care about walking compliance much, though – pedestrians are pretty good at judging their own safety and at getting out of the way when people need to go through. I mostly only care about car compliance because misjudgement at the worst kills people, and routinely leaves a big block of metal in the middle of an intersection people need to go through. The value of following the law isn’t just “people should follow the rules” it’s about maximizing usefulness and minimizing injury and death.

  4. Steve

    Great ideas.

    The raised intersection proposal is one Public Works has resisted a long time. Back in the 90’s LHENA north of 26th Street was being rebuilt and we proposed a number of traffic calming suggestions, including raised pedestrian crossings as “speed ramps” on Bryant Avenue, which was planned as a bicycle throughway. We were told they couldn’t work, instead speed bumps were installed on Bryant. I remember pointing out to an engineer that speed bumps get drivers to slow mid-block and then speed through the intersections to the next mid-block speed bump, the opposite of what we wanted to accomplish.

    Hopefully there is more willingness to try this idea today.

  5. John Dillery

    Is proposed design good for transit? Excellent transit – follows from reliable transit and is ESSENTIAL for a vibrant city. Remember, bikes and pedestrians are part of the solution, not all of it. Hennepin Ave needs long bus stop zones for that reliable service. the drawing shows bus stop zones that are half as long as the need to be. The major lines that normally use this street downtown are the 4 and 6 lines and they are badly overcrowded in the peak hours as any regular rider knows. All major cities in the USA have become enlightened enough to deploy all 60-foot articulated buses on these kinds of bus lines and we better get with it too. Such large buses require stop zones of at least 130 feet in length because you have to allow for two buses at one time especially for late night line ups. If the design works at mid-night, then it actually is practical. It is time to start thinking big when it comes to bus transit on Hennepin Avenue especially.

    1. Julia Curran Post author

      I’m a transit user when I can’t walk somewhere or don’t have the time, so it’s not a minor issue to me personally or more broadly. I’ve been turned away from too-full-to-board 4/6 busses many times out of downtown, both in the morning and in the evening, including in miserable weather. I’d love to see us use more design thinking in approaching Hennepin, starting with our goals (placemaking, moving people) and then figuring out how to efficiently solve that (including thinking big with transit), but I don’t think the broader supports are in place yet, from political will to funding mechanisms.

      The drawing shows bus stops that are 100′ long for their full depth and 130′ over their entirety. I realize that’s not long enough for two articulated busses, but I was a) guessing at necessary dimensions, and b) trying to make sure that I maintained the full width sidewalk for the entire route. Given that the busses cannot board or let people off for about the last 15′ of an articulated bus, perhaps there’s a little wiggle room within that number, particularly given the level driver skill I’ve seen.

      I think there could be a number of creative solutions to transit that would help Hennepin work better. Perhaps increasing frequency of some routes rather than using more articulated busses, particularly for routes like the 4/6, which are often taking a relatively short distance (plus the benefit to ridership from that) or pacing busses so that articulated busses aren’t frequently stacked behind one another or seeing if the way busses physically pull in and out behind one another can be tightened up with better stop design and more focused training. I’m not sure all of those would be necessary, but I certainly don’t see any insurmountable issues for transit that would require MetroTransit to push for sacrifices from their riders as we walk to and between our busses. A less walkable design is a less transit friendly design at its base.

  6. Steve

    At rush-hour the use of police officers to move cars out of ramps and onto local streets contributes to gridlock downtown. These officers seem to view their job as getting the cars out of the ramps, not making traffic flow efficiently. The recent reconstruction of LaSalle is also a problem at rush hour because the single lane of traffic lowered the storage capacity of the street for cars exiting ramps on LaSalle and 9th.

    With some training and rules the officers could improve things, for instance, directing cars out of ramps when the “downstream” traffic signal is red, not green

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