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.
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.
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.