Cars (Alone) Can’t Sustain Interstate 494

I spend a lot of time thinking about the 494 strip. I work out of a coworking space near 494 and 100, and live less than a mile north of the highway in Richfield. As a Richfield planning commissioner, I have seen many projects revolve around 494 visibility and access.  On a broader level, Richfield has ambitious goals for high-intensity development along the strip.

Richfield isn’t alone. The 494/5 commons between the airport and Eden Prairie has one of the highest concentrations of destinations in the region, having been classified as an “edge city” in the planning book by the same name. The Southdale District is a particularly large concentration of development just north of 494. And all three of Bloomington’s “development districts” center around 494.

South Loop

Congestion

If you talk to the average car commuter about this section of I-494, the first thing they’re likely to talk about isn’t the concentration of destinations. They’re likely to talk about the congestion. The area immediately around 35W experiences over six hours of congestion per day. The only solution to this problem? More lanes, and better interchanges.

Building more lanes will kick the can down the road for another few years, but it doesn’t address the fundamental problem: each city wants to build high-intensity, auto-oriented destinations along a highway that will only get more congested.

After decades of drawing attention to the matter, we have made no serious progress on expanding 494 or the the 35W interchange. If we’re lucky, we’ll get $75 million for a partial improvement to westbound 494. But what then? 494 will hardly become uncongested — even on day 1 of an improved interchange. And if the cities along the strip achieve their goals, much more traffic will continue to pour onto the freeway.

Pentagon Park

To get a sense of just how intensely new development wants to add to traffic congestion on 494, check out this staff report on Edina’s Pentagon Park, which includes a consultant’s report describing the local street improvements needed for the development to move forward. Among the changes needed:

  • Additional southbound lane on France Ave
  • Double-left turn lanes at nearly every signal within a mile’s drive of the development
  • Upgrading the existing 5-lane 77th Street Bridge over TH 100 to a minimum of 8 lanes.

Despite the detailed, comprehensive vision on the auto improvements needed, this is the entirety of what they describe for bicycles, pedestrians, and transit:

Screen Shot 2017-03-10 at 10.43.52Edina Pentagon Park transit recommendations part 2

This lacks the rigor of the auto analysis, and fundamentally assumes one thing: nobody walks.

They key problem with this section of France Avenue? Not enough lanes.

They key problem with this section of France Avenue? Not enough lanes. Image: Google Maps.

Transit viability

For an auto-oriented strip, 494 has reasonably good transit options. In addition to express routes to downtown and the future Orange Line near 35W, 77th/76th St and American Blvd both have all-day local bus options. But the streets are not set up for the walking and biking needed to actually use transit. And development often turns a blind eye to people walking or arriving from transit. As a result, even achieving the live-work mixes we hope to add in the strip, few would choose to use transit if they have the option to drive their own car.

Crosswalk at Lyndale Avenue and I-494

Even the new Lyndale Ave interchange provides a noisy, stressful pedestrian experience.

Including walking, biking, and transit

To grow the 494 strip to cities’ goals, we need to rethink our approach to development and the streets in the corridor. I fully expect that developers’ main interest in 494 will be driven by its high auto traffic. But cities need to channel that interest into something that works for a multi-modal future. Cars are a big part of that future — but they can’t sustain 494 alone.

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26 Responses to Cars (Alone) Can’t Sustain Interstate 494

  1. Al Davison
    Al Davison March 14, 2017 at 8:03 am #

    “Each city wants to build high-intensity, auto-oriented destinations along a highway that will only get more congested.”

    I vehemently agree with this statement. It’s very difficult to explain to residents that expanding roadways and highways doesn’t ease congestion. The wider they build, the less likely anyone who can afford a vehicle would ever consider taking another option than their car, which does nothing to lessen congestion. MnDOT, county, and city departments cannot truly afford to fund more road expansion either, as people don’t realize how much it costs to maintain what we have already.

    Focusing denser developments (especially mixed-use) along France and the American Blvd corridors can help encourage transit usage, in addition to biking and walking. It’s refreshing to see another planning commissioner in an inner-ring suburb that is also concerned about how future development is laid out. Great post.

  2. Jackie Williams March 14, 2017 at 8:59 am #

    Whenever more lanes are added, more cars fill them. If we want to achieve a high level of traffic congestion we are reaching or goals. When I look at the cost of new cars, I dont see why anyone would want to add that mortgage to their lives.

  3. Aaron March 14, 2017 at 9:24 am #

    Yes, and this would even be good for the auto-oriented businesses in the area. I’ve had my car serviced many times at Richfield Bloomington Honda. This should theoretically be a short walk from many places to kill a couple hours while my car is in the shop. It’s not that far from REI, for example, but I always find myself staying in their waiting room. Why? There are sidewalks here, but clearly the route is not designed for people (for one, REI has no pedestrian connection to Lyndale Avenure, so pedestrians have the options of traveling cross-country or walking the perimeter of their property to enter on the far side of their parking lot).

    • Sean Hayford Oleary
      Sean Hayford Oleary March 15, 2017 at 12:38 pm #

      The walk from RB Honda to Kensington Park (Chipotle, Starbucks, etc) is pretty nice, with a decent sidewalk on 77th, and direct access from the sidewalk to Honda and the stores in Kensington.

      Shops at Lyndale is miserable to get in and out of on foot, as is getting across 494. A few times, I have parked at Best Buy and walked to REI. I’ve taken the well-used goatpath. It is possible to walk, but neither the design of the interchange nor REI’s access make it welcoming at all. You would think REI, a business focused on outdoor activity, would make their store welcoming to people walking there.

  4. David Markle
    David Markle March 14, 2017 at 11:29 am #

    Good article. Intuitively it seems to me that 494 serves mostly as a superhighway between more distant points, not to and from points on it or near it. Of course, I dislike the suburbs and try to avoid going to the suburbs. And I once turned down a nice temporary job near France and 494 because I didn’t want to deal with the traffic, even through the direction of my commute would have been contrary to the main flow.

    It does seem to me that we might have good use here for the Chicago El type of transit that tends to run along or parallel to major traffic arteries..

    • GlowBoy March 14, 2017 at 12:49 pm #

      I’ll tell you where there’s plenty of right of way to run such transit, too: massively overbuilt American Boulevard, as I mentioned in my post below.

      • GlowBoy March 14, 2017 at 12:58 pm #

        (Sorry for multiple posts, just thinking out loud here) … I had come to think that after Riverview and the Blue and Green extensions already in process, maybe there wasn’t much more rail-transit potential in the Twin Cities.

        I am now taking that back. There’s so much development along the 494 corridor that it might actually be a decent candidate. Sure there’s little transit demand today, but that’s because of how that strip was built. There are thousands of jobs lined up right along 494 in a whole bunch of mid to high rise office complexes. Tons of potential demand, especially since 494 is never going to become free-flowing at rush hour.

        Imagine if a rail line ran down American Boulevard (and beyond), linking the end of the Blue Line at Mall of America with the Green Line Extension in Eden Prairie. There’s your Iron Triangle! I wouldn’t be surprised if this is a better candidate for rail, at least in terms of development cost, than Riverview.

    • Sean Hayford Oleary
      Sean Hayford Oleary March 15, 2017 at 12:22 pm #

      I’m not sure exactly where to find it, but I believe average trip length is pretty short on 494. My own trips are usually going between Nicollet and 100, but often as short as Nicollet to Penn. Many trips are longer, but that isn’t atypical. Although there is some through traffic, 494 is really a “main street” of that strip of commercial.

  5. GlowBoy March 14, 2017 at 12:48 pm #

    Nice work. Pouring that much extra pavement won’t improve capacity by very much (there are diminishing returns, especially once you’re at 3-4 lanes each direction and double left-turn lanes), and as Jackie pointed out, good ole Induced Demand will ensure it gets used within a couple years anyway.

    One of the big problems I have the 494 corridor is the roads on either side of it. On the north side you have 77th, a busy multilane commercial street, and on the south you have the absolute stroad that is American Boulevard. 77th + 494 + American = a half-mile-wide barrier to crossing, especially for anyone not in a car. 77th doesn’t seem to carry enough traffic for most of its length to justify 4 lanes, and American certainly doesn’t carry enough to justify its 6 lanes. Even with light traffic, American is scary to cross just because it takes so dang long to get across. At least American has massively wide sidewalks east of 35W, I’ll give it that. Both seem like excellent candidates for road diets.

    As for Pentagon Park, does the report even mention the fact that the site is right across the street from the newly constructed Nine Mile Creek regional trail? (I biked it a couple weeks ago, by the way – it’s done and ready to use, all the way up to Tracy Avenue at MN-62). That is a particularly bad part of Edina to get around by foot or bike – there is a very substandard sidewalk on the south side of 77th and no sidewalk on the north side. The other streets bordering the site – Computer Ave, Viking Drive and Normandale – lack sidewalks completely. I would expect that at an *absolute* minimum, the city needs to insist that all 4 frontages of the site be developed with decent (absolute 6′ minimum, 8-10′ preferred) sidewalks.

    We can’t expect even a few percent of people to arrive by means other than private car if we make it impossible, unpleasant or dangerous to do it.

    • Rosa March 14, 2017 at 11:58 pm #

      I wonder what you’d find out if you asked the people on American Blvd how they get around, though. It seems like a lot of the staff at the various big box stores do arrive by bus or on foot or by bike, when I go shopping down there.

    • Sean Hayford Oleary
      Sean Hayford Oleary March 15, 2017 at 12:33 pm #

      I agree that 77th and American are “walls” of their own. 77th is more humane to walk along, but the literal wall dividing the apartments from the rest of their neighborhoods to the north seem like a major problem.

      American Blvd’s sidewalks are sort of comical — I believe they’re at least 14′ wide (8′ walk + 6′ paved “boulevard”), but I’d much prefer a 6′ walk with a planted green space instead of a world of stamped concrete and no shade at all.

      The Pentagon report is from 2013 — just reprinted in a more recent packet — before the Nine Mile Creek Trail was put through Fred Richards Park. More recently submitted site plans acknowledge the trail as an amenity, although it’s seen more as an amenity to enjoy on a lunch break, etc than a means of transportation to get there.

      I expect that Edina will require high-quality sidewalks on the immediately adjacent frontage. (Although they did not require this for Burgundy Place, the newest development in this area.) However, even with that, they’re not likely to improve the area — like the complete sidewalk gap on Edina Industrial Blvd to the west.)

      • Joe Hoover March 15, 2017 at 1:23 pm #

        I still don’t think the wall is an issue, or at least removing the wall as a realistic issue to look at for integrating the apartments into the community. It is time to start looking at other ways. Better crosswalks are one way. I have always felt the city should have a tenant organizer/liaison to work with tenants on their issues and to work on ways to include their interests into city planning and events.

        • Sean Hayford Oleary
          Sean Hayford Oleary March 15, 2017 at 1:36 pm #

          I find it almost impossible to believe that building a 12′ wall across a previously minor residential street has no effect on the connections of the two sides of that wall. I wasn’t intending to suggest that removing it is a good or feasible idea.

          I think all options should be on the table, especially when it comes to addressing isolation of disenfranchised groups in our community. But it’s a much better question to tackle when the wall needs major work anyway. Right now, the wall is stable, reasonably attractive, and would cost far more to remove than to leave alone.

          I agree that better (and more frequent) crosswalks are a good starting point. I particularly would like to see crosswalks at locations where north-south streets south of 77th meet a dead-end because of the wall. On 66th, we will be having an accessible crossing at almost every single block. Is there a reason why we shouldn’t meet the same standard for 77th? (Perhaps a marked crossing less frequently.)

      • GlowBoy March 16, 2017 at 1:21 pm #

        One problem with the Nine Mile Creek Trail, as I noticed on my recent rides there, is that it has surprisingly poor connectivity to the neighborhoods it passes through. There’s a trail connection behind the loading dock at The Reserve building at 77th/Normandale (across from Pentagon), but going north from there it passes behind a whole bunch of houses and along the west shore of Lake Edina with no connection to the neighborhood until the eastern landing of the ramp over MN-100. I know the usual trail-fear concerns were expressed during the planning process – did the neighbors maybe want it this way?

        I know this path passes through a lot of people’s backyards where it isn’t always easy to connect it to the outside world, but even so I’m surprised that there are several very long stretches of trail – especially on boardwalk sections – with no path into the neighborhood even where it looks like one I could have been built.

        • Sean Hayford Oleary
          Sean Hayford Oleary March 16, 2017 at 11:36 pm #

          Regarding Nine Mile Creek — there is access to Kellogg Ave near Sedum Ln, which does get you into that neighborhood, even if it is a ways from the western corner. There is also access to the apartment building at 5400 W 70th. I haven’t fully explored the trail farther west.

          I was disappointed with the very high privacy wall between the trail and the homes by TH 100. Walking from The Reserve, it’s pretty unpleasant to be wedged between the on-ramp and the lifeless wall. The segment just after, through Lake Edina Park, is pretty nice — but I really wish they would improve the access by the bridge. I didn’t think that was a sanctioned access at all, but just a temporary maintenance road. They should definitely have access to Hibiscus and Normandale.

          I’m not sure what the right balance is. The Richfield segment is sort of the other extreme, with intersections every three hundred feet. It’s easily accessible to everyone in the neighborhood, but is basically just a wide sidewalk. I like the isolation and “trail” feel of the Edina segment. And of course, many neighbors didn’t want the trail along the creek at all — it was a very difficult political call to do it along the creek instead of a disjointed alternative along neighborhood streets.

  6. Matthew Steele March 14, 2017 at 12:55 pm #

    Seems like the time has come to introduce congestion pricing on I-494 and/or MN-62. Make our existing capacity work better.

  7. Joe Hoover March 15, 2017 at 1:15 pm #

    I can’t understand the fetish with American Blvd. as a transit line. I take either the 540 (down 77th Street) and 542 (down American Blvd) buses to work daily, and what I can tell is the 542 is not well used. It is the 540 that is often packed. This was even an issue with Metro Transit, which for a long time had a full-sized (nearly empty) bus running on American Blvd. and a short-bus running on 77th Street. Eventually, after complaining, they started running medium-sized buses along both streets. I suspect the reasons for more riders on 77th Street is due to the apartments along the route. I also suspect the people in the hotels along American Blvd. are not very likely to take buses. American Blvd may prove a point, just because you have traffic numbers does not mean you will have bus ridership.

    • Sean Hayford Oleary
      Sean Hayford Oleary March 15, 2017 at 1:48 pm #

      As a Richfielder, of course I’d rather see improved transit on 77th than American. Although the hotel guests may be unlikely to use transit, the hotel employees are likely transit users. I dug around a bit trying to find ridership numbers and could only find only data about the 542 — which are low, at 197 passengers a day in 2009. I would guess the 540 isn’t much better, but I will keep looking around to find something comparable.

      I believe American was ranked as one of the worst candidates for aBRT, so we’re not likely to see major upgrades on either street soon. The eastern terminus of a line really needs to be the MOA, but having the Cedar Ave underpass may make that more feasible. On the other hand, that means skipping over popular transit destinations, like Walmart.

      • Tcmetro March 20, 2017 at 5:24 pm #

        Data I have from the Minnesota Geospatial Commons from Fall 2015 show 1,006 average weekday boardings for the #540 (76/77 St) line and 259 average weekday boardings for the #542 (American Bl) line.

        The 540 serves a few more residential areas, as well as some of the office areas. It also provides decent service, every 15 min at peak and every 30 minutes off-peak.

        The 542 probably loses on the residential ridership (the 538 runs a few blocks south on 86th with a better residential walkshed and better service levels). I’m not sure how well it does with the office park ridership either, the 535, 578, and 588 lines all offer reverse commute service between downtown and most of the 494 office strip. The 5 and 515 provide additional service between the eastern American Bl residential areas and the Mall of America. Also, the 542 runs every 30 minutes peak-only.

      • Joseph Totten
        Joseph Totten March 21, 2017 at 1:49 pm #

        It was ranked above all Saint Paul routes except Snelling, 4 points (on a scale of 100) above W. 7th!

        That said, the ranking metrics were somewhat lacking context (to process large amounts of data – a necessity), and the American Boulevard aBRT was delayed waiting for bus ridership to grow. This also likely includes building the SWLRT, as the far west end of the line for aBRT is supposed to be SW Station, providing a one seat ride to MOA and a faster trip to the airport than through downtown.

    • GlowBoy March 16, 2017 at 1:12 pm #

      Call it a “fetish” if you want – and you are right that *current* ridership is very low – this is a strip of fairly dense development. When you cross the Minnesota River eastbound all those buildings along the 494 bunch together and it looks like a downtown. Lots of retail, lots of high-rise office buildings, Best Buy HQ, lots of hotels. Sure, most hotel guests will rent cars, but with an easy rail connection from MSP many might actually take the train, especially with the planned upgrade of the MOA transit center. This is one of the best opportunities the Twin Cities have to entice a few suburbanites out of their cars. I don’t disagree that 77th might pick up slightly higher ridership, but American has the space. One part of such a project would need to be vastly improved pedestrian crossings over 494, including improved signal prioritization so people on foot don’t have to push beg-button after beg-button to get around.

  8. NiMo March 17, 2017 at 3:34 pm #

    I rode my bike from the Wedge to the REI down there once for a bike-walk week event there a few years ago and man did that ride suck! At the time I had no car and had never been down to that REI before so I assumed, given it was a bike-walk week event, the event would be good to, you know, bike or walk to.

    Another humorous thing is how the bike bridge on 494 from Eagan or West St. Paul or whatever dumps you into a veritable no man’s land of bike infra. If you want to go thru Ft. Snelling State Park–a great place to ride–you have a brief decent stretch on a quiet section of American Blvd, then a right hander onto a quite unfriendly 34th Ave, another right hander onto 70th St, which is decent enough even though the setting is odd, being as you are immediately adjascent to the airport. That turns into Post Rd. which eventually takes you down into the Park. Given the quality of the riding on the other side of the river, it would be nice if they made an effort to offer a better connection to Ft. Snelling State Park.

    • GlowBoy March 17, 2017 at 4:32 pm #

      Funny you should mention that ride, NiMo: I just did a round-the-airport ride involving 34th, Fort Road and Fort Snelling State Park yesterday. Overall it’s not too bad, except (as you mentioned) the connection between American Boulevard and Terminal 2 across 494. Numerous beg-buttons (at least TWO of which appear not to work) have to be pushed to get across high speed freeway ramps and other busy roads, with a whole lot of waiting.

      On a recent ride through that area I timed how long it took to get from American to the Holiday store on the other side of 494. This was obeying the beg buttons where they worked, and waiting at least a minute at each defective one to make sure it was defective. Total time to do this <1/2 mile trip? TEN MINUTES! I kid you not.

      Since I'm connecting to the west, I actually prefer to cross 494 at 24th rather than 34th, because the signal timing is far better for the 494 crossing – except it's not an option in the winter, because the sidewalk through that area is not plowed.

      • Sean Hayford Oleary
        Sean Hayford Oleary March 18, 2017 at 3:10 pm #

        On a recent ride through that area I timed how long it took to get from American to the Holiday store on the other side of 494. This was obeying the beg buttons where they worked, and waiting at least a minute at each defective one to make sure it was defective. Total time to do this <1/2 mile trip? TEN MINUTES! I kid you not.

        I believe it. I wouldn’t ride on the sidewalks in this area, particularly because I hate the sight angles at those “Bloomington rights”. The sidewalk seems to be the place where Bloomington and MAC assume bikes belong, but MAC and Bloomington haven’t done much to make that a safe (or efficient) option.

        Bloomington’s urban focus on their “south loop” area is promising — and there are some signs of hope, like Lindau Lane east of 24th and the narrowed-up portion of 28th Ave. But it seems like that so far, they’re only willing to take these steps when there isn’t even the slightest chance of congestion. Hopefully that attitude will spread to higher-volume streets.

    • Sean Hayford Oleary
      Sean Hayford Oleary March 18, 2017 at 3:05 pm #

      The airport bike access is another frustration of bike/walk access in the 494 area. It is highly accessible by transit, but nearly impossible to access even the Humphrey Terminal by foot or bike. (The Lindbergh Terminal, of course, is illegal to access without a car.)

      MSP identifies 34th Avenue as a “bike access road” — but you’d never know it from the design. I have only biked up it two or three times. There is no shoulder — and certainly not a protected bike lane. The road is busy, and motorists tend to share it less willingly than some other routes. The new diverging diamond interchange at 494 has made biking that much more hazardous, having to twice cross railroad tracks at a dangerous angle (for bikes).

      According to an article from last fall, the improved access road for the new hotel will make access to Lindbergh possible. But even with a brand-new construction, in 2016-2017, the airport couldn’t be bothered to scrape out 5′ for striped bike lanes. Their repeated neglect of bikes is unacceptable.

      • Adam Miller
        Adam Miller March 20, 2017 at 10:23 am #

        I rode 34th yesterday and yeah, the cars were not fun. There’s two lanes in each direction, and nowhere near the traffic to require it, but it was still too inconvenient for cars to move over instead of buzz me unless I road in the middle of the right hand lane. Probably doesn’t help that the signage tells cars they need to be over there to get to Terminal 2, which is wrong.

        I was interviewed by Brandt as a random person picking up a Niceride at the 46th Street Station before that article came out, but apparently I didn’t say anything interesting enough to quote (I agree with that assesment).

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