On Skyways And Busways

Did you know there’s a bike lane in there?

Whether the Minneapolis skyway system contributes good things to the livability of downtown has been well discussed for a while on this site, but the conversation has been brought to a wider audience recently with local businessman Eric Dayton coming out aggressively against them. Dayton has also become a vocal critic of the state of Nicollet Mall, saying the construction has been going on far too long. Regarding both issues, Dayton worries about the effect they could have on the future of the downtown “business community” in Minneapolis. For Dayton, the skyways are bad for public safety and for business because they siphon off the human vitality from our streets.

I am mostly of the same mind regarding the desirability of safe, energetic streets. However neither skyways nor fear of crime have anything to do with why I spend so little time downtown. In fact they are both so irrelevant to me I felt compelled to bring a different perspective to the discussion.

For context, I live just over the river in northeast Minneapolis. Although I have a car, mostly I travel by bike. I ride transit more than I drive. I mention this because I want it to be understood that I don’t live far away. I’m right here, five minutes from downtown, interested in food, culture, and recreation. I’m far more likely actually to spend time in downtown than, say, a suburbanite with deep, sad parking woes.

As it is I am in downtown fairly regularly. I meander over there for espresso and restaurants; I go there for concerts; I make my way there for transit connections; I read in the library; and yet I am there as little as possible. Why is this?

It’s not because I’m stuck in the skyways. I’m never in the skyways. They’re confusing to me and out of the way from where I’m going anyway. They aren’t on my radar.

Safety, however, does play into why I avoid downtown. But not the safety Dayton mentions, safety from street crime. Rather, as a pedestrian and a cyclist I often fear for my safety on account of drivers. By a significant margin I am far more likely to be injured by a driver than I am by a robber. I am regularly harassed by drivers honking illegally, swearing, yelling, buzzing, threatening to do me physical harm, or otherwise intimidating me, even while riding in a perfectly legal way. Drivers are regularly parked in bicycle lanes downtown, even bollard-separated lanes clearly marked with signs indicating that no stopping is allowed, such as 3rd Avenue, and suffer no consequences (I mention 3rd because it is also a street where recently the city council voted against improving the street’s safety and beauty). This forces me out into traffic. What other facilities there are amount mostly to narrow, paint-only lanes inside the door zone (Although some newer additions are bucking this trend, more of that anon). Downtown is where a great concentration of driver/cyclist crashes occur, and where they are most likely to occur.

So much complete

The picture isn’t better for pedestrians. On average drivers hit pedestrians every one and a half days in Minneapolis in 2015 and pedestrian deaths from driver negligence hit a 25 year high last year. Moreover – and incredibly – drivers in these cases rarely suffer consequences.  On major streets such as Hennepin, the sidewalks are not nearly wide enough to accommodate the number of pedestrians. Many others are in poor repair, and the streetscape uninviting and aesthetically unpleasant.

As for transit, downtown is the major hub for the entire Twin Cities region, but its dedicated rights of way pale in comparison to those reserved for private single-occupancy vehicles, the most unsafe and least efficient means of transportation in cities. Traffic lights and lanes prioritize moving cars into and out of downtown, to and from freeways, so the north/south routes are often slowed significantly by this traffic flow.

Minneapolis is supposed to be committed to a complete streets program prioritizing pedestrians, cyclists, and transit users but in the most central part of the city we find the infrastructure landscape in fact places cars über alles.

And so I am never quite at ease in downtown, never becoming fully engrossed in my surroundings without fear for my well being. The skyways can continue to exist for all I care, their non-existence would contribute nothing to why I would or would not spend more time in downtown.

Everything in its right place

There is, however, one glimmer of hope I would like to point to. Parts of Washington Avenue are in the process of being rebuilt as a “complete street.” Not yet open, we already see people inhabiting the semi-open side with more panache. Here elevated and curb-separated cycle tracks run between automobile traffic and pedestrian space, clearly marked out by colored concrete, visually set apart from pedestrian space by trees and bricks. If Washington were to become the norm by which all other downtown streets would be measured, rather than an exception, I believe we would see that which Eric Dayton and many others – including myself – want to see. And we would see skyways as what they have always been, a non-issue.



Tony Hunt

About Tony Hunt

Tony Hunt rides his bike places and is just narcissistic enough to want to tell people about it. He majored in Greek and Latin at the University of Minnesota. This, he believes, qualifies him to write about anything. You can follow his rantings at https://twitter.com/adalehunt

37 thoughts on “On Skyways And Busways

  1. Lou M

    Good points about needing better pedestrian & bike infrastructure downtown.

    What I think you may be missing, however, is that if all those people who today use skyways were instead on the street, you’d have a lot more fellow pedestrians complaining to the city and pushing for the changes you/we so desperately want. And I think that’s one of Mr. Dayton’s points.

    1. Justin Doescher

      Yes, and the skyways are there in part so that pedestrians don’t have to deal with the unpleasant and dangerous street environment.

      1. Will

        That’s well and good, but that also brings us to the point about it being quite inaccessible to anyone other than a weekday worker bee. Doors closed off, poor or no direction given on how to access, inconsistent hours, etc.

        1. Rosa

          I’ve been thinking about this, and I think for a lot of people that’s what they like about the Skyways. I know I’ve worked with a lot of women who plain felt safer in the Skyways, and a lot of that comes down to their general inaccessibility. Like a mall or any other faux-public space.

  2. Nathan RoisenNate

    Nice article. I am in Downtown St Paul 5 days a week, and ride transit to get there. The number of times I’ve been worried for my safety due to crime or aggressive panhandling pales in comparison to the times I’ve nearly been hit by cars. Probably a 50-1 ratio of one to the other.

    I’d add to the list of issues above: badly designed parking ramp exits.

    Typically where a ramp exit crosses a sidewalk, sightlines are poor and drivers are inattentive to pedestrians walking past the ramp exit. The number of times I’ve been nearly creamed by a car whose driver is looking to their left at oncoming traffic, and not to their right for pedestrians, is sky-high. It happened to me this morning.

    There are ways to design a ramp exit with good sightlines that is safe for both drivers and pedestrians, but it requires a sacrifice of space and more money to build; therefore, it typically does not happen.

  3. Bill LindekeBill Lindeke

    You’re missing the connection between skyways, crappy streetscapes, and street design. One key reason why there are terrible parking ramp exits and dangerously designed roads is that nobody walks on the street, opting for skyways instead. The architecture of downtown buildings has all of its human-scale features on the second-story or in the internal atriums, leaving the street and sidewalk design features dominated by blank walls, exit ramps, and car friendly designs. If we had no skyways, there would be far more incentive for businesses and building owners to invest in, care for, and think more critically about downtown’s streets and sidewalks.

    1. Nathan Roisennate

      I see the connection, but it just strikes me as futile to speculate how our downtown areas would have evolved without skyways. They are there, and considered an amenity, and I have to say, damned useful on lots of occasions.

      A human-scaled street can relate very well to a skyway-connected internal atrium and feel safe from rushing car traffic and provide room for bikers. None of that needs to be mutually exclusive.

      1. Bill LindekeBill Lindeke

        Well in the real world, it is mutually exclusive, and that’s Dayton’s point I think. Business owners, architects, etc. have to make difficult trade-off choices about design considerations and which “audience” to focus on. There’s not enough vitality to go around, so either you have people and shops on the 2nd story and inside your building, or you have them on the first-story and outside on the sidewalk. Maybe in Hong Kong there is the density to have it “both ways”, but not in Minneapolis.

  4. Tony HuntTony Hunt Post author

    I’d like to address several of these comments at once, if that’s ok. I do not believe I am “missing” anything about the effect of skyways. I am offering a considered, personal explanation why I – as someone more likely to do so than most – spend less time downtown. It’s true and relevant, if not systemic.

    Building owners and business people do not build streets, though they have often negative impacts on how they are designed and built. But the idea that streets are bad because people aren’t on them is rather strange to me. I think rather, as we find with proper cycling infrastructure, people will be more inclined to spend time on streets that are good. We can grant that skyways do have an effect on street life without supposing they are solely determinative of why it is lacking. I believe Washington Ave will bear this out.

    1. Adam MillerAdam Miller

      I pretty much agree with you, although I do think the expectation that people will not be on the streets because they will be in the skyway has had a degrading effect on how we’ve designed streets.

      Thankfully, we seem to be moving past that expectation. Unfortunately, it’s going to take a long time to rebuild what we already have.

    2. Bill LindekeBill Lindeke

      Nothing in a city is “solely” responsible for anything. It’s a complex system with many planners, accidents, and bottom-up users.

      Here’s the relationship I was trying to suggest: the more our public spaces, buildings, and behavior patterns focus on the streets themselves, the more people will see them, think about them, get emotionally invested in them, and want to improve them. The more we create an alternative landscape that allows people to ignore the street, the less we will notice or care about the street.

      There’s a feedback loop between experience and design. Bicycling offers a good example. The reason that cyclists are such keen observers of city streets, and make such a devoted interest group when lobbying the city, is that we spend lots of time on these streets. We have “near misses” on a regular basis, and notice very small details about things like exit ramps, turn lanes, etc. That attention and time is why we are so invested in improving these streets.

      One problem in downtown Minneapolis: the people that are politically engaged and influential — the property owners, office workers, voters, people with money or influence — their experience is largely confined to their cars, skyways, and parking lots. Most of these folks never even see what it’s like to take a bus, walk down Washington, or ride a bike down 3rd. This is sometimes called the “dogfooding” problem, but I see it more as a feedback loop. If we didn’t have skyways, more people would use the street. If more people used the street, more people would end up caring about how it looks, feels, and acts..

      1. Sam NewbergSam Newberg

        Drop the mic!

        Good post, Tony. And Bill is right to point out how everything is interconnected.

      2. Tony HuntTony Hunt

        Again, this may be the case for some but really I think it’s the planners, council members, etc who pull the big strings that are the ones responsible for the states of things.

        1. Bill LindekeBill Lindeke

          Well in the downtown, the Downtown Council has a lot of power and influence. I once led a tour that featured the parking lot of the Minneapolis Club, which is probably the #1 thing that many influential people experience in downtown Minneapolis.

          Planners don’t have a lot of influence when it comes to funding or implementing the plans they make. Council Members follow the political pressure a lot of the time, and in the downtown, again its the property owners that have a lot of say. Witness 3rd…

          Anyway, my point is as much a pragmatic one as a theoretical one…

  5. Jackie Williams

    I love the elevated bike path. There is one on a portion of Portland in downtown Minneapolis. It is the best part of the ride. I feel much safer on it.

    1. Tony HuntTony Hunt Post author

      I’m totally with you, Jackie. I’m tired of people believing cheap, ugly, easily broken, intrusive reflective bollards are a good cycling investment

      1. Bill LindekeBill Lindeke

        I for one welcome our new bollard overlords. I think they’re a useful interim on our way to a better future. The alternative is waiting for a perfect solution that might never arrive.

        1. Tony HuntTony Hunt

          I don’t know about “perfect” but cycle tracks exist, the design has been refined, and we already see it even in this town. The equivocation of politicians, designers, and even advocates holds us in middle ground when it doesn’t have to be that way. Look to London

          1. Bill LindekeBill Lindeke

            I’m thinking about the capital city bikeway in downtown Saint Paul where the money to build a cycletrack will take years but they could implment an interim project much more quickly…

        2. Tony HuntTony Hunt

          Also let’s compare how unrealistic our goals are:

          Tearing down an entire, privately owned skyway system

          Getting some real cycling facilities

          I think mine is more realistic!!

          1. Bill LindekeBill Lindeke

            I agree with that! My point is only that they’re both worthy goals in and of themselves, and don’t come at the expense of each other. The fact that cycletracks are more possible might be the reason why we should focus on them. Dayton’s plan is quite ambitious, given the sunk costs of our skyway-centric buildings and streets.

    2. Adam MillerAdam Miller

      The only thing wrong with the one on Portland (also on Park!) is that it’s so short.

      Okay, that’s not quite true as for some reason the signs and parking meters are in the bike lane, so it’s a tad narrower than it “should” be, but still, it’s a cool design and I’m looking forward to Washington opening too.

      1. GlowBoy

        Agreed, I love the elevated treatment on Park/Portland – even if it is only a block long. Wish we could continue it further.

        Despite my comment below, there’s been progress on downtown bike lanes and the news isn’t all bad. Just wait until the elevated lanes on South Washington are open, and even North Washington at least has buffered bike lanes. 11th has protected bike lanes, even the if plastic bollards are ugly. And 3rd is a HUGE boon, even if people park in it too much (especially City Hall employees, who ought to know better). I use 3rd for almost all my north-south trips in downtown now, sometimes even going a couple blocks out of my way just because it’s so much better.

        1. Tony HuntTony Hunt Post author

          The expanded lanes further north on Washington are better for sure than what was there, but imagine how much better if it were a contiguous track continuing from the new rebuild!

        2. Rosa

          from my perspective, it just has all gotten better and better. Washington Ave right now is AMAZING compared to a few years ago. 11th is pretty great. Your’e right about 3rd. And the main issue with the routes I use (esp. the Stone Arch Bridge) is that there are too many pedestrians, which is an awesome problem to have.

            1. Rosa

              Well there’s “be brave and ride on Central” which is what I do a lot, except when I’m working an event in NE and going home right at/after bar close. But that’s a high-adrenaline choice. From Stinson, cutting through campus gets me to my part of South pretty well, especially now that the U isn’t in session, and from campus there’s the Dinkytown Greenway.

  6. GlowBoy

    I do find the whole downtown situation frustrating:

    – Skyways pulling most of the pedestrians off the street. I’m not totally skyway-averse, and will use them in bad weather (or to get lunch), but I recognize how much they’re sapping the vitality of street life downtown.

    – Substandard bike lanes. Despite downtown having quite a few streets with bike lanes, many of them are pretty lousy. Many are on the left, rarely a good idea, and the number of places they’re blocked by construction activities boggles the mind. Sometimes I’ve had to leave the bike lane 4 or even 5 times on a single trip along Portland Avenue from the Mill District to 14th. MN law should require construction activities to provide reasonable detours, signage or other mitigation for bike lanes (and sidewalks), same as they do for travel lanes. All too often a lane or two is taken up by the construction project, with the outer 6 or so feet hardly being used for anything – plenty of room for a bike lane, IF anyone thought about. Which, clearly, they didn’t.

    – Excessive vehicle speeds. Downtown is only a mile across. Even if you’re able to get up to the 30 mph speed limit, you’re going to spend a lot of your time stopped at lights. Reducing the speed limit to 20 downtown would not increase travel times much at all, and would make things much less hazardous and unpleasant for pedestrians. Oregon’s standard speed limit for business districts is 20 mph, and I can tell you it makes a world of difference. Further, almost all of downtown Portland has coordinated “green wave” signal timing, varying from 13-18mph depending on the time of day. It looks like Minneapolis has coordinated signals on a couple of streets, but anytime you have a grid of one-way streets – as both Minneapolis and Portland do – you can apply it to the whole grid. Even megablock Los Angeles does this – why doesn’t Minneapolis?

    – Bad driver behavior and misdirected enforcement. I notice that at rush hour, downtown Minneapolis has a bunch of cops directing traffic at busier intersections. This is of course needed because Minnesota drivers don’t seem to have the sense to avoid entering an intersection if there isn’t room for them on the other side. Maybe everyone just assumes this is how everyone behaves, but it doesn’t have to be that way. Portland and Seattle drivers know not to do this gridlock-inducing behavior, partly because the driving culture is different (you WILL get called out and honked at by everyone for doing it) but also because you’ll get a ticket for doing it. All you have to do is take HALF the cops that are directing traffic and get them writing tickets to people who block intersections. After a few weeks everyone will get the message, and you can reduce the number of cops doing that even further, deploying them to ticket drivers for committing other quality-of-street-life offenses like violating the (ahem) 20 mph speed limit, failing to yield to pedestrians, blocking bike lanes, etc.

    – And – ugh – the Mall. C’mon, I’ve lived in Minneapolis for 2.5 years now and it’s been ripped up almost the entire time. At least until this year, the mall was an ugly construction zone but you could walk the sidewalks along it. Since this spring though, it’s impossible with all the zigzags and sidewalk detours. I think it’s actually shorter to walk Nicollet in the skyway system than on the ground, and that’s a sad statement indeed. I really hope it is “substantially complete by November” as we’re promised, because it’s really become ridiculous this year.

    1. Rosa

      Getting some enforcement on “don’t block the box” would be great. It’s always been this way – maybe 15 years ago I made the mistake of trying to take a car ride from by the Metrodome, and after 45 minutes of trying to get 3 blocks, we just gave up and parked and went out to dinner instead. Because every time a light turned there was a car blocking the intersection.

      But I actually miss the left side bike paths on Park/Portland. It’s purely selfish – my entire route to/from downtown, both ways, is left turns – but if I happen to be commuting during rush hour getting from the right side bike lane on either Park or Portland is a pain in the ass (partly because of the “don’t block the box” issue – cars block the right trying to turn toward I35 in the evening, and there can be a 2 block backup of cars for red lights with no gaps between them.)

  7. Karen

    Montreal seems to have plenty good street life and tunnels.

    Even St. Paul, smaller town has very pleasant and walked on streets, sidewalk cafes etc right under skyway. Streets that are designed well and are appealing for walkers, will attract walkers.

    Sure ripping done skyways will somewhat increase street ped traffic and maybe incentivize better work on street fronts, but if skyways go away, how many residents, employers and visitors would we lose?

  8. Scott

    There seems to be general agreement by City planners and policy makers that past design for skyways, parking ramp entrances, and building facades was detrimental to street life downtown. However, policies still allow for more of that type of development- just not as bad as before. The skyway system in Minneapolis has expanded significantly in the last five years with more retail on the 2nd floor, blank exterior walls, and parking ramps for each individual development. I don’t expect property owners to tear down skyways anytime soon, but couldn’t the City stop allowing for expansion, or set a boundary for where skyways should be located?

    Also, I was in NYC recently and walked around Manhatten 10-15 miles per day. Not once did I experience a car exiting or entering a parking ramp. You couldn’t go one block in downtown Minneapolis during rush hour without seeing cars idling in the sidewalk waiting to exit their parking structure. I believe Minneapolis’ parking ramps (and lots) contribute nearly as much as skyways to the awful pedestrian experience.

    I’m ready to write off the Minneapolis CBD as a lost cause realizing the North Loop, Mill District, and Loring Park on the edges are places better suited for people- not just cars

  9. Zaheer

    As a person that lives and works downtown, I see a lot of these issues and completely agree. Although frustrating, I don’t let it stop me from enjoying myself downtown.

    What’s really frustrating though, is trying to have a conversation with people that don’t live downtown or come downtown outside of work. So many people don’t understand how all of these things (the skyway, bike lanes, car traffic, pedestrians, downtown business etc.) are connected and impact everyone’s experience. They simply complain about the traffic and the thought of the skyways going away.

  10. paul

    It is disturbing when non-downtown residents talk of destroying the best part of my neighborhood (the skyways) in an attempt to make my neighborhood conform to their notion of an idyllic downtown. Yes, I care about the street-level life and ‘vitality’, but I care much more about my Skyways. While some posts generously acknowledge that the skyways are a boon for the elderly, infirm and the stroller-pushers, downtown is mostly able-bodied young & middle-aged residents. Many of us moved here because of the skyways; we want to walk year-round in safety and comfort. If the skyways came down, many of us would leave and we are the best and most frequent customers of downtown businesses.

    1. Bill LindekeBill Lindeke

      One of my big messages about downtown is that it is for everyone. It’s a crossroads where the entire city should feel welcome and should have a say in how it is designed. People live there, yes, but it’s not a neighborhood in the same way as other parts of the city. It’s far more than that…

  11. Paul

    Achieving a busy downtown requires enlarging the pie, not cutting fewer pieces. I walk the near-empty skyways every weekend and every evening and forcing the few off-hour-skyway-pedestrians to the street level would make no difference. So, the problem isn’t that pedestrian traffic is split between levels; the problem is that there is not enough pedestrian traffic. Removing an amenity is a bizarre way to increase visitors. Should we fence off the river walk in the hope of forcing pedestrians downtown? Could New York make more people visit the Empire State building if they closed the Statue of Liberty? My guess is that attractions and amenities complement, rather than compete. You are correct, downtown is not like other neighborhoods; it one of the fastest-growing, most diverse, densest and most eco-friendly communities in the state. The skyways are a major factor in that success and it would be a shame to sacrifice that success on the altar of place-making. If we want people to be downtown, then we need to create reasons to be downtown. Removing skyways is a non-plan; it is a futile swipe at a scape-goat-boogieman that distracts from the real problems that face downtown.

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