A Better Washington Avenue Now, Not Later


A rendering of Washington Ave between Hennepin and 5th St.

A rendering of Washington Ave between Hennepin and 5th St.

When Hennepin County opens the new stretch of Washington Avenue between Hennepin Avenue and 5th Street in 2017, it will debut a safe and accessible environment for pedestrians and bike riders alike in Minneapolis. However, the infrastructure will be largely stranded. Along Washington between 5th Street and I-35W, the County plans to install unprotected bike lanes, reduce the number of travel lanes, and provide full-time parking. These changes are not enough to set our city on the right track toward a more walkable, clean, and safe city. The County is designing 11-foot lanes along the corridor, but with a reduction to 10.8 or even 10 feet, significant additional improvements could be made.

As a wide street with restricted parking during morning and evening commutes, Washington Avenue currently serves as a commuter street, prioritizing people in cars entering and then leaving the city as quickly as possible. Commuter streets are not suited to serve other users well. But Washington Avenue is not only a commuter street, it is also a local street. Local streets serve a variety of users because they contain housing, businesses, offices and shops, transit options, and other activities that we enjoy. But the success of streets like these relies on the perceived safety of the street for pedestrians and other users.

Jane Jacobs writes that the safety of a street is established by the consistent rotation of eyes on the street (Life and Death of Great American Cities, 1961). These eyes pass through the space daily or weekly, based on their use of the space or the needs the space fulfills for them. As they do, they will look over the environment and provide safety in numbers. This requires shared communal compassion for the space and for fellow people. She often illustrates this as residents along the street taking care of the space in the mornings and evenings, a variety of consumers and school members watching over it during the day, and then perhaps also a third aspect that demands density long into the nights such as dining, bars, recreation, etc.

Outdoor cafe in Williamsburgh, Brooklyn, New York City, NY

Outdoor cafe in Williamsburgh, Brooklyn, New York City, NY

The current apartments and variety of businesses along Washington make portions of the corridor feel like an attractive local street. Planned construction of more apartments and hotels along the route, or a within a block or two away, make it clear that we need to value pedestrians more on this stretch of Washington. A Trader Joe’s will pop up at Chicago and Washington early next year. The Vikings stadium is inspiring new mixed-use buildings in the area, and a successful street will attract people walking from the stadium. However, the current design of Washington can and does turn people away.

Our local streets fail or are held back when we value cars traveling through the street too much in comparison to people on the street. Cars fight against pedestrian density with their negative externalities. They are loud; they pollute the air we breathe and thus risk our pulmonary health; and they put our lives at risk because a misuse of the space by a pedestrian, or more often, a driver, can result in death. These are just the externalities we directly experience. The infrastructure requirements for individual car ownership pollutes our rivers and gulfs. The investment to maintain these systems increases and continues, straining our City’s financial strength. Lastly, the daily green house gas emissions push us toward an uncertain future with our warming climate. Washington Avenue is suffering because it wants to pump people driving cars out of and into the city more than it would like to provide safety and joy to the people within it.

Simply by narrowing car travel lanes, we canNY-Columbus-Bike-lane implement design considerations that would improve the attractiveness and safety of Washington Avenue. 10 or 10.8 foot drive lanes are completely navigable by any competent driver. The reduction in lane width would allow for a protected bikeway connection between the West Bank campus and downtown Minneapolis, as well as full-time parking between the protected bike lane and the moving car traffic. New protective islands could make the task of crossing the street task less daunting for pedestrians. Plants and vegetation can be planted to revitalize areas that have been lifeless for so long. The separation between the sidewalk and the car lanes would make the walking experience on Washington more enjoyable and would provide a nice walking connection to Nicollet Mall and Hennepin Avenue. The improved bike and pedestrian environments would encourage those that are willing to enter the area in a more space-efficient, safe, quiet, and clean form of transportation. The increased ease of access would benefit shop owners and residents alike as safety would increase with pedestrian density.

People in cars do not travel through space quite like people on bikes or pedestrians do. When you are walking or biking, you can almost instantly and harmlessly enter any space at any moment while traveling. Thus, you are always a part of it. The speed of the travel and the vulnerability to the environment allow bikers and pedestrians to really witness their spaces with all five senses. For me, this leads to more enjoyment and care for that space and that moment. I believe these people through our streets and spaces are another example of how to create safe environments through the rotation of eyes that look out over and care for a space, just as Jacobs describes.

Making Washington Avenue a street that works for everyone is going to take everyone. If you are interested in following this project or providing feedback, please reach out to me through this Google form. I hope to hold a meeting in the community sometime in early December where we can go into more detail about the improvements that can be made as well as answer questions and collect feedback. Safer streets are within our grasp, but we have to reach.

13 thoughts on “A Better Washington Avenue Now, Not Later

      1. Galen RyanGalen Ryan Post author

        The Multiway Boulevard seems like an very interesting way to design a local street. However, it is not in the scope of what is possible for this project. Also, the design of Washington between Hennepin and 5th Ave commits us to the more standard layout, at least for the next few decades.

  1. Justin Doescher

    Yeah I was disappointed to hear that the protected bikeway and improved pedestrian experience would stop at 5th Avenue since I go home that way every day. Seems like another case of the city conceding to motorists and then just throwing out a bone to everyone else.

    And hell, driving on Washington is no picnic either. It’s people racing and rushing to get to 35W so they can then sit in rush hour traffic.

    Calm and beautify and make this a vital connection between downtown and West Bank that works well for all users!

  2. Archiapolis

    You should reach out to someone at ESG Architects. Their office is on Washington, David Graham (the “G” in ESG) was on the “Great Cities” team with R.T. Rybak a few years back etc – you might have an ally there with history working on great urban spaces.

  3. Dario

    I understand and I advocate for biking infrastructure in all parts of the city, that said, since Washington Ave is already better suited for bike traffic, why not recondition 2nd St or another surrounding street for bike traffic?

    The West River Parkway which is 2 blocks away already provides a safe, scenic, and fast way to get to any business along Washington Ave.

    1. Galen RyanGalen Ryan Post author

      I am trying to take advantage of current plans to change the design of Washington through this section. So I’d like to advocate for a more pedestrian/people focused design. I challenge the idea that Washington is suited for bike traffic at all. Only a certain type and handful of bike commuters are comfortable navigating the street. Also, a large part of my concerns on Washington are about the pedestrian/walking environment which is often described as horrible. So my goal is too not only provide a safe bike commuter connection but to also enhance the overall environment of the street. As this article points out (http://www.mplsbike.org/protected_bikeway_washington_inches_away), Washington provides much better connectivity between the downtown area and the West Bank/ Cedar-Riverside neighborhood.

      1. Dario

        Thank you for the thoughtful response. I agree with you in challenging that Washington Ave is better suited for bike traffic, I challenge that myself since I actually had meant to say that Washington is already better suited for motorized vehicle traffic.

        As to whether the pedestrian traffic is horrible, I wouldn’t disagree, but, from my limited perspective, the problem is that businesses on Washington Ave are too far apart. I appreciate your efforts in creating better streets for all.

        My main concern and thought on the issue is that not all streets are suited for a conversion to more bicycle/pedestrian-friendly designs, specially when there are already suitable alternatives (in this case I’m taking about cycling only) nearby.

        1. Adam MillerAdam Miller

          “My main concern and thought on the issue is that not all streets are suited for a conversion to more bicycle/pedestrian-friendly designs…”

          I could not disagree more, and would argue that this is the attitude that has killed American city centers over the last half century or so.

          Freeways are for cars only. Streets should be for everyone.

        2. Parking

          U of M banned cars from 4 lane Washington. That made the area 100x more pleasant. Downtown Washington doesn’t need cars. We’re building the light rails, so our suburban friends can still play once we transform downtown streets into urban park land.

  4. David MarkleDavid Markle

    A thoughtful article, but I would not quietly not to the statement that “When you are walking or biking, you can almost instantly and harmlessly enter any space at any moment while traveling.” “Can,” yes, but some bikers ride in a way that’s unsafe for nearby pedestrians and for themselves. Also, although “The speed of the travel and the vulnerability to the environment allow bikers and pedestrians to really witness their spaces with all five senses,” some do not: for example, the pedestrians who study their I-phones while they cross streets.

    As to suitability for bike traffic, some streets are clearly not. The city made no effort to accommodate bicycles on the nearby West Bank portion of arterial Cedar Avenue, nor should they. It would be dangerous, invite accidents, and only add to congestion. .

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