Decision Time for Minneapolis Director of Public Works

The other day I saw a father and his kid stand at the corner, waiting to cross the street. They had just bought a doughnut at A Baker’s Wife (the best bakery in the city), located at 42nd Street and 28th Avenue in south Minneapolis. Whether they were heading to their car or walking home, crossing the street was required of them, and the light was red so they had to wait. The kid was perhaps three years old, wise enough to know the basics about crossing the street.

What happened next was profoundly sad. Remember how Ralphie feels up the leg lamp in A Christmas Story? Well, this kid was reaching up the yellow traffic signal pole, like Ralphie, feeling it up. I couldn’t figure out why. Then it hit me – he was searching for the “beg button!” It was a Pavlovian response – approach crosswalk, look for beg button. This particular intersection doesn’t have beg buttons (thank God!). The problem is, we’re teaching our children, when they are not strapped in the back seat of a minivan until age 14, that they must apply to cross the street in our fair city.

The City of Minneapolis is presently interviewing candidates for Director of Public Works. Public right of way makes up around one-third of the city, and how that space is designed and managed is enormously important. While zoning and planning is an obvious place to improve the built environment, the public realm is equally important, particularly that zone where the private realm meets the public. The eventual hire for Director of Public Works may be the most impactful decision Mayor Hodges makes in her tenure, yet there has been disturbingly little attention given to this job search.

I happen to believe Public Works has made a lot of progress under the outgoing director Steve Kotke, but there is certainly room for continued improvement, and change cannot come fast enough. If future generations of young Minneapolitans learn that they don’t need to apply to cross the street, we’ll be getting somewhere. Pick your poison, from potholes to lane widths to bicycle policy to street trees and so much more, the next Public Works director has the ability to create change that can transform the city into not just a more livable but more likeable place.

It is imperative that a progressive candidate is hired for Minneapolis Director of Public Works. Then maybe our children will learn they don’t have to apply to cross the street.

Sam Newberg

About Sam Newberg

Sam Newberg, a.k.a. Joe Urban, is an urbanist, real estate consultant and writer. He lives in Minneapolis with his wife and two kids, and his website is

47 thoughts on “Decision Time for Minneapolis Director of Public Works

  1. Aaron

    As a biker, I have had several experiences where sensor controlled intersections will simply skip me if no cars are present. It is infuriating, when I am following traffic laws by waiting for a green light, to watch the timer count down to 0 and then reset itself because nobody has pressed the beg button and no cars are present to trigger the sensor (I have been told that the sensors should detect bicycles, but that’s not my lived experience). The alternatives are to 1) cross against the light or 2) ride up onto the sidewalk, press the beg button, and then ride back into the street.

    1. Sam NewbergSam Newberg Post author

      I can feel your pain, and of the two alternatives, I usually choose the former if it’s safe. There are a LOT of examples of this around town.

    2. T

      Have you notified the City? Usually I let them know the location and it’s usually fixed in a week. They can easily tweak the detectors. Sqeaky wheel gets the grease! The city may not know there’s an issue until someone lets them know.

    3. Rosa

      the WORST is when the light starts to change because there’s a car waiting, you can see the don’t walk lights come on, and then the car driver gets impatient and turns (legally right, or illegally left on the red) or backs up and cuts through a gas station or parking lot instead, and the light cycle stops changing so there’s no legal way to go through the intersection without getting up on the sidewalk and hitting the beg button.

      That used to happen to me at 17th Ave & Lake all the time before the bike beg button was put in there. It still happens at 34th & Cedar pretty regularly (pedestrians mostly just jaywalk, nobody much bothers with the button. Unless I have a kid with me, I don’t either)


      I feel your pain, majority of the intersections in MPLS are this way, especially on Broadway NE. Its almost impossible to follow the rules when you are on your bike or on feet, but I do. This city needs to stop spending our money on fancy decorations for awhile, and fix our basic city structures and traffic systems.

    5. Dana DeMasterDanaD

      Did you know that if a light doesn’t change you can treat it like a stop sign? Minnesota Statutes 169.06, Subd. 9 is an affirmative defense for treating a stop light like a stop sign if you wait through an entire light cycle and it doesn’t change.

      1. Sam NewbergSam Newberg Post author

        if – “the traffic-control signal continues to show a red light for an unreasonable time”

        subjective, but good to know if I (or you) ever get a ticket.

      1. Monte Castleman

        Because I don’t want to see increased congestion for motorized traffic just because an occasional pedestrian thinks too it’s indignant to push a button.

        1. Alex CecchiniAlexander Cecchini

          Well, it’s not the indignity that’s the problem. The term ‘beg button’ has certainly framed it that way, but you and I know the real issue is that if you miss pressing the button, or forget, or can’t reach it because you’re in a wheelchair and/or there’s a huge snowbank in the way, you don’t get the legal ability to cross. You’ll have to break the law, or wait another cycle.

          How many person-minutes in a climate-controlled car are worth that of a person-minute out in the rain, or cold, or carrying groceries, or holding a kid, etc etc?

          1. Monte Castleman

            I guess the rain and cold are considerations when we’re not talking about how much we hate the skyways. But recall doesn’t always reduce delays for pedestrians. Obviously it does if you arrive a few seconds after the light turns green that increases the pedestrian delay, because there’s not enough time to give a pedestrian phase.

            But if you’re going north south and recall is enabled east-west, if the east-west phase is much longer because of ped recall or if the light would not need to turn red at all except to service a ped or vehicle that may not even exist, than that’s additional north-south delay for pedestrians.

            1. Alex CecchiniAlex Cecchini

              In general, blaming a system that puts more lights than necessary across our cities as if that doesn’t reflect a conscious choice we made in the first place isn’t convincing. We could have 90% or greater of our high-traffic intersections look something more like this:

              Zero pedestrian delay in all directions at all times. Very low- to no-delay for bikes. Trucks and cars can use the space, total delay is pretty low because vehicle counts are pretty low. I am not suggesting this design for every intersection, everywhere. That’s not even the case for a place like Amsterdam. I’m merely pointing out that we put up zoning barriers to the type of development you see there that allows short trips by foot or bike, built tons of un-tolled freeways in cities, widened roads, reduced bus service (and stopped expanding any major transit projects), made bikes ride in 35+ mph traffic, and on and on. The result is a system where we have lights instead of small traffic circles or stop signs, wider intersections that necessitate minimum crossing times, and fewer pedestrians out and about to justify the engineers’ tipping points for automatic ped recall. So sure, right now, the world we’ve built for ourselves would, in many cases, penalize both pedestrians and motorists by removing the beg button, but neither option in the current system is optimal for pedestrians or cyclists. This is a symptom, not the underlying issue.

              1. robsk

                I generally agree with your assessment of how we have some major design issues with our city streets.

                However, watching the video I see a lot of rudeness, confusion, and a lack of proper signaling. Pedestrians definitely are 2nd class citizens to the bikes.

              2. Sam NewbergSam Newberg Post author

                I do like that video – the ballet. All predicated on vehicles traveling less than 20 (much less!)

          2. Rosa

            or if you’re on your way to the intersection as a pedestrian, and it’s green for cars but nobody pushed the beg button before you got there, so you have to disobey the light or wait for an entire cycle. Can you imagine car drivers putting up with that? Sorry, the light was only green for the one car in front, you were halfway down the block so you don’t get to go. Wait your turn!

            1. Monte Castleman

              Happens to me all the time when I’m driving. The light only turns green for 10 seconds for one car and since I’m halfway down the block it’s red by the time I get there.

              1. Rosa

                so you get there right as the car that was waiting gets to go, and you don’t get to go? No, the light has been green for a while and if you got there while it was green, you’d get to go. For a pedestrian, there is no walk light at ALL if they weren’t there waiting before the light turned green for the cars going the same way.

                1. Monte Castleman

                  If you have say a 20 second walk light, there’s going to be pedestrians arriving after the light turns to walk that get to go, just as cars arriving on a green light after it turns green get to go.

                  1. Rosa

                    yes, some will. But as it is, you have to arrive WHILE THE LIGHT IS RED to get a chance at legally walking.

          3. T

            Also the fact that minimum cycle lengths are usually increased when every pedestrian movement is on recall. Especially with with wait times on the mainline from cross street walk times. Just because the recall is up doesn’t mean that another pedestrian movement doesn’t have to wait longer.

        2. Justin

          People shouldn’t have to press a button to cross the street. Hell, I don’t do it now.

        3. Nick

          You know, I see both of your perspectives here… on the side of automatic recall is the fact that pedestrians should no more inconvenienced than cars and therefore should have a signal anytime a car can go.

          On the other side, idling cars equals greenhouse gas emissions for the foreseeable future (i.e. until all vehicles have idle shut-off capabilities or until cars are vanquished from the face of the earth). Plus heavy vehicles accelerating from a stop are a noisy disturbance to neighbors. Classic idealistic vs. pragmatic battle. I think I’m going bi-polar.

          Which poison is worse?

          1. Rosa

            maybe the one that gets people out of their cars by making walking safer or more convenient? Which cuts down emissions more than shortening wait times.

            1. Nick

              I don’t disagree with you, but I also know that my neighborhood is host to a lot of traffic passing through and the City PW Director won’t be able to influence the policy and built environment in the jurisdictions where those trips originate. In my ideal world driving would be expensive enough that we could use signal timing to make it the economically inferior choice. But with all the hidden subsidies, people from suburbs will just wait at lights, fouling my air.

              This is one of the key reasons why I’m a huge proponent of regional government–we can’t improve our neighborhoods unless all those externalities have been internalized. And that’s something that the City of Minenapolis (or any city, really) just doesn’t have the power to do.

              1. Rosa

                I am pretty sure people consider the whole trip when they decide what’s convenient for them. If the light timing is so so awful, won’t they just pick different streets? Stay on the interstate longer or something?

                I mean, if you’re going to look at the really big picture, unsafe walking in city neighborhoods is one of the things that influences people to move far away where they can raise their kids on a nice little rarely-driven lollipop cul de sac. Making it easier for them to speed through our neighborhoods just pushes more people out to drive more and pollute more

                1. Nick

                  The freeway also passes through our neighborhood, as do the people exiting/entering. So adding more cars to the highway just makes that area even worse for air quality, shifting the burden to those who live there (primarily renters–bad equity policy). Regional context means that we can’t realistically expect the next Public Works director to be some messiah for non-motorized traffic even if that person brings great credentials.

                  The debate of automatic pedestrian recall or not generated within this article emphasizes that there are so many perspectives on every small issue and the outcomes will rarely be within Public Works’ control.

                  1. Sam NewbergSam Newberg Post author

                    Hmmm, food for thought, Nick.

                    I absolutely think the next PW director COULD be a messiah for non-motorized traffic, and the city COULD send a message to the region that we are serious about this. My gut says the mayor and city council will ultimately be a little more conservative with their hire, however.

                    That said, this debate emphasizes different perspectives on many small issues – the PW director issue orders of many kinds, but politically that could very well threaten his/her job. So it really is on us citizens to clearly tell our elected officials to prioritize non-motorized transportation.

                2. Monte Castleman

                  I doubt “unsafe walking” is a big influence to people moving to the suburbs. If so why are they moving away from places with slow narrow streets and to places with lots of 40 mph high speed 5-lane roads. More like cheaper houses, more space, lower crime, better schools.

                  And as much as city people like to blame the people living on lolipop cul-de-sacs for clogging up their streets, I don’t think it’s them. There’s a few exceptions, like how Allina is nowhere near a freeway exit and how woefully underbuilt I-394 is due to the NIMBYS and how MN 7 encourages motorists to cut through uptown.

                  I’ve never been unlucky enough to need to work downtown, but I’ve been unlucky enough to get caught in traffic when going to and from the northern suburbs, and the thought never occurred to me to take Portland or Lyndale instead. Something like 80% of Minneapolis households own cars so this is something I’d expect someone in a $500,000 house in Tangletown to do.

                  1. Rosa

                    If it’s the people living in the neighborhood, and not just cutting through (which is often is in my neighborhood, though the folks zooming down Cedar aren’t) then it’s not “through traffic” vs. pedestrians – the drivers will also be pedestrians at the same corners sometimes (though the pedestrians may not drive.)

                    But Nick was talking about “through traffic” “safe for the kids to play/walk” is high on the list of most of the people I know who live in the ‘burbs, because most of them are parents. It’s one of the things people say to explain why they like cul de sacs.

                    And they drive on those 40 mph stroads to get to the entrances of their subdivisions, but then it’s 20-25mph on little go-nowhere streets to get to their actual houses. One of the neighborhoods I go to visit relatives, you turn off the 40 mph death road and there are signs that say Drive Slow! We love our kids!

        4. Dehumanized Pedestrian

          “just because an occasional pedestrian thinks too it’s indignant to push a button.”


        5. NiMo

          There are a lot of beg buttons in places where they are completely unnecessary and cause congestion for pedestrian traffic and vehicle traffic.

          The first example I have is the intersection of Dupont and Franklin near Sebastian Joe’s. When I first moved to that area in 2012, the beg button system for crossing Franklin was gloriously broken and everything worked great. There wasn’t and isn’t enough vehicle traffic through the intersection to cause backups due to automatic light cycling. Further, during the summer, there is substantial pedestrian traffic, as people come and go from Sebastian Joe’s, Patina, the drycleaners, the Lowry, the #2 bus stop, the NiceRide station at 22nd and Dupont, etc. I’d go as far as to posit that during peak business times, the number of people proceeding through the intersection on foot is greater than the number driving through in cars (anecdotally). In 2013 or 2014, they got the street sensors or beg buttons fixed which has created a deeply stupid and unnecessary situation for crossing the street. The issue is multifold. First, pushing the beg button doesn’t activate the walk signal for a long time, ~90 seconds at worst, but usually more along the lines of 45-60 seconds. This causes a good portion of people who have pushed the beg button to wait for a certain amount of time, then cross against the light. [Again anecdotally] the number of individuals crossing without the signal increased dramatically post beg-button repair. Second, and I see play out basically any time there is a long line at SebJoes is: 1. a group arrives at the corner, no one pushes the beg button due to socializing, eating ice cream, etc. 2. More people arrive to cross, assuming the previously arriving group pushed the button 3. Everyone realizes they have been waiting for a long time 4.(optional step) Someone finds the button, pushes it 5. Everyone crosses against the signal because they have already been waiting for longer than they would have in the previous automatic cycling regime.

          The other issue with this intersection is that the lack of automatic cycling sucks as a driver and cyclist as well. When driving, you have stop in sort of specific spots to activate the sensor to change the light. I know where they are because I live on the block, but if the first car in line does not, you are going to wait until that car gets frustrated and turns or runs the red (a not infrequent occurrence!) for the light to change. I should also note that the sensor only picks up 100% of the time if you are across the “stop line,” especially when travelling north on Dupont, so yeah. Not really pedestrian friendly! When bicycle-cycling through the intersection headed to work, I just run the light as soon as there are no cars coming if there are no cars waiting at the light who could trigger the change. There are single diagonally oriented curb cuts so its not worth trying to ride up onto the sidewalk to push the button.

          The second example is at Hennepin and 25th street. Crossing 25th street on foot is a highly unpleasant experience. You push the button, then have to wait for up to 150 seconds, then you barely get enough time to cross the street while dodging cars turning left, also frustrated by the extremely long wait time they shared. If you don’t start crossing right away it is very difficult to cross that intersection before time runs out and I say this as a fully healthy 29 year old who is constantly frustrated that Minnesotans don’t walk as fast as people on the east coast. There is a lot of foot traffic on 25th street as well, with people crossing from the neighborhood to go to Lake of the Isles, Kowalski’s, Walgreen’s the crossing conditions are a genuine issue. When I used to live down there, I saw on several occasions elderly street crossers unable to make it in time which of course induces frustrating HONKING when the light changes and people have to wait at a green to not kill someone trying to get a gallon of milk and their prescriptions filled.

          I think that beg buttons have their place, but it doesn’t really make sense to put them at a lot of places in the city where a lot of people walk. I seriously wonder if pedestrian counts were looked at in a lot of these places or if the counts were done in like, February and not August. Maybe just include seasonality in the light cycle timing? Pedestrian vs automobile demand at the intersections varies by season so it would make sense that pedestrians would at the very least be given treatment commensurate to their numbers by season.

          1. Monte Castleman

            Problems with buried loop sensors (they have a lot of trouble with the new carbon fiber bicycles), as well as the decreasing cost of video technology is why the use of the later for vehicle sensing is becoming common.

            Pedestrian counts aren’t looked at at all in the decision whether to make an intersection run on sensors or on fixed time. Generally speaking the preference is to have sensors and buttons in all directions (and now the expense of buttons is required due to ADA), but fixed time is cheaper and works good in places where the traffic signals are closely spaced and you want to set up a green wave. There’s also the hybrid where there’s only sensors and buttons on the minor approaches.

          2. Janne

            NiMo, we live on the same block. Let’s have a beer on my porch sometime, complain about this stuff with a neighbor.

  2. Monte Castleman

    Also interesting is a Mn/DOT funded project on north Central and University Ave. Over the next two years all the signals will be upgraded to meet ADA standards which will include APS push-buttons everywhere there isn’t one. Since the city of Minneapolis will continue to maintain and operate the signals I image they will leave ped recall enabled where it already is.

  3. Paul

    I’ll take a contrary position. I like pedestrian crosswalk buttons. With a button I can get assistance when I need to cross a busy street on foot or on my bike. But the rest of the time, traffic can cycle on an auto-centric timing cycle.

    As a driver I don’t mind waiting for a pedestrian crossing at an activated crosswalk (or at a “hawk” light), but I do get annoyed waiting for the light to cycle through time spent giving an unused crosswalk the WALK signal.

    Yes, many crosswalk buttons are poorly positioned for bicyclists (and probably worse for chair users) so let’s see the installations fixed.

  4. Monte Castleman

    Now that push-buttons are mandatory at all ADA compliant intersections, I wonder if the small red light is too subtle of clue that either someone has already pressed the button, or else it is set to recall so no one needs to. Econolite used to have a feedback light that was much larger, but these weren’t commonly use due to the maintenance issues with the incandescent lamps.


    this is a city where despite being named Bicycle friendly, favours cars over people. Everyone is stressed and in a hurry and often forget the human being next to them on the bike or waiting to cross the street. Its sad. I wish our streets downtown Minneapolis had a reduced speed and were not designed to be a 2nd freeway system. It would be a much nicer city.

  6. Jeremy Andrew Werst

    Another component of this is the beg buttons that they’re putting in for cyclists. Except for a few, limited cases on bicycle boulevards, those shouldn’t exist.

    They put cyclists right directly in the gutter, blocking right turning traffic. That’s a bad spot for their interactions with automobiles. These should really be towards the center line (preferably in a bike box) to encourage proper lane positioning. This is one aspect where Portland has us beat by a mile.

    I get that this might not work for a fancy carbon fiber bike, but those are a real minority of riders, and a lot of them probably aren’t going to wait patiently for a light, anyway. Plus, they technically don’t have to if they think that the sensor isn’t picking them up.

    It’s just frustrating to see unsafe/bad behavior being encouraged by the infrastructure. Especially when that infrastructure is probably viewed as positive by the people designing it.

    1. Monte Castleman

      Since loop sensors do have a problem with carbon fiber bicycles maybe Minneapolis should get into this century and start using video detection. Or maybe carbon fiber bicycles should come equipped with small magnets. A small rare earth magnet would add almost no weight.

      1. Jeremy Andrew Werst

        I’d be interested to see what the difference is in price to put in the video vs loop detector. I imagine video would at least be less impact on the intersection since it doesn’t require digging.

        However they end up doing it, I don’t care too much. Just as long as they don’t put a beg button on the curb for cyclists. That should be the very last option.

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