Hennepin Avenue South: a Road Designed for Cars, Not People

Hennepin Avenue South, between roughly Franklin Avenue and Lake Street, is within the Pedestrian Oriented Overlay district (“PO District”). However, walking along it, you would never know. Hennepin Avenue is a road that prioritizes cars over all other users. With the recent announcement of the Hennepin South (Douglas to Lake) Reconstruction project providing the greatest opportunity to reorient Hennepin to all users, I thought I would share my experiences as someone who either walks or rides the bus along this stretch on a daily basis.

As a pedestrian walking along Hennepin, the one feature that makes me feel the least safe is the vast number of curb cuts. For pedestrians, curb cuts are often more dangerous than intersections. Drivers are used to looking for pedestrians at intersections but not entering and exiting parking lots. As Hennepin is a very busy street, drivers making left turns into and out of parking lots have to wait for an opening in both directions of traffic and are even less likely to watch for pedestrians on the sidewalk between the street and the parking lot. Multiple times a week I have close calls with drivers exiting parking lots who are completely oblivious to the fact that I was there walking along the sidewalk. Fortunately, experience has taught me to be vigilant. However, it should be a driver’s responsibility to make sure they see a pedestrian, not the other way around. And with street parking making for very poor sightlines, drivers have to pull as far out as they can, usually blocking the sidewalk, to best see when they have an opening to turn.  

Go out during the day on a nice weekend, walk up and down this stretch of Hennepin, and see the vast number of curb cuts for yourself. Here are  some of the worst examples:

  • The west 2600 block has four curb cuts for Walgreens, Orange Theory Fitness and Red Cow, the La Casa apartment building, and Chipotle. The parking lots for the businesses are quite busy and have high turnover.
  • The west 2200 block has five curb cuts for Starbucks, Mattress Firm, Papa John’s, Caribou, and Five Guys. Actually, look closely and you will see that these curb cuts are actually for two parking lots!

What looks like a single parking is actually two. The first curb cut is both an entrance and exit, the second exit only, and the third enter only.

Two pedestrians navigating between two cars and two curb cuts. This is a frequent occurrence with this parking lot.

  • The west 2500 block is the worst of them all — it has five curb cuts, three for the Holiday gas station at the corner of 25th and Hennepin! Being a gas station, there is a very high turnover rate of cars. And with it being on a corner, not only are there cars entering and exiting at a high frequency through the two curb cuts on Hennepin, but a lot of cars will also exit turning onto 25th and then attempt to make a quick left or right turn onto Hennepin.

This driver is preparing to make a left turn onto 25th followed by a quick right turn onto Hennepin.

There are cars entering and exiting from both curb cuts at all times, sometimes both at the same time.

Riding the bus along this stretch of Hennepin is another experience altogether. As a graduate student at the University of Minnesota, my bus riding experience is more pleasant than most. I usually take the 114 to and from school everyday, where 99% of fare payment is cashless and 99% of the time everybody has their own seat. However, ride the 6, 12, or 17 during rush hour and you will probably experience packed buses that are stuck in traffic. Bus ridership is close to half of all users of Hennepin Avenue. However, they are not currently prioritized. And Saturdays are often worse with regards to both overcrowding and congestion. With the E Line coming within the next several years, there will be additional transit capacity along Hennepin, but without any changes buses will still be stuck in traffic.

With the upcoming full street reconstruction, here are some of the changes that we could and should see:

  • A reduction in the number of curb cuts (this one I am not too hopeful for as I am not sure of the City’s ability to eliminate already existing curb cuts)
  • Bus-only lanes
  • Bus stop upgrades and enhancements
  • Reduction in on-street parking
  • Improved pedestrian crossings
  • Wider sidewalks to support more greenery and other activities
  • A median that will prevent cars from making left turns in and out of parking lots
  • Bike lanes

With the public engagement process happening this Spring, now is the time for all of us to make our voices heard to ensure we get the best project possible. Attend the first open house, this upcoming Wednesday, April 11, from 6-8pm at Jefferson Elementary. Also, take this survey, which is available through April 25. This is a once in decades opportunity to make Hennepin safe and useful for all users, not just cars. Let us not waste this opportunity!

Andrew Degerstrom

About Andrew Degerstrom

Andrew is graduate student at the University of Minnesota in the Master of Urban and Regional Planning Program. He lives in the East Isles neighborhood and is active in the East Isles Residents Association where he served as President for two years. Follow him on Twitter @Volantene

30 thoughts on “Hennepin Avenue South: a Road Designed for Cars, Not People

  1. Sean Hayford OlearySean Hayford Oleary

    People may know more details, but recalling back to the Land Use Law class we both took — I believe the City would only be limited if they were to remove all access to a site, since that would deprive the lot of its value and would count as a taking. They could still do that, but they would have to buy it out. I don’t know if there is precedent to suggest that removing some (but not all) curb cuts counts as a reduction in value and a partial taking — maybe somebody knows more on that detail.

    With that in mind, I agree that reducing curb cuts should be a high priority. One challenge is that many sites (like small gas stations) lack enough space for internal circulation, which is why they have so many curb cuts. I’d like to see the following strategies employed:

    1. Relocate curb cuts off of Hennepin on to minor streets when feasible

    2. Include a center median for most or all of Hennepin, and improve U-turn guidance to allow motorists to loop around to their driveway — basically, prohibit all left turns out of commercial driveways

    3. Reduce duplicative driveways on sites that have multiple accesses.

    4. Promote shared parking and fewer driveway cuts when major redevelopment happens (this is already the norm)

  2. Sean Hayford OlearySean Hayford Oleary

    My fantasy scenario for Hennepin is to combine a capacity reduction of Hennepin with a capacity increase on Lyndale — including a center median on Lyndale, and no uncontrolled full-access intersections. Removing the ramps from Hennepin to 94 and improving the flow from W Lake St / Excelsior to Lyndale could serve to make Hennepin a less attractive commuting route. This also might work well with the City/County dynamics, since the most radical reduction in capacity would happen on a city route, with safety improvements and increase in capacity on a county route (CSAH 22).

    Fantasy map here

    Totally out of scale with what they’re doing now, but hey I can dream

        1. Matt SteeleMatt Steele

          Yes, that’s good. My main concern is that those bus lanes won’t really be bus lanes. Sort of how the “Bikes, Buses, and Right Turn Only” signs on Hennepin downtown have white tape over the “only.” Why does Hennepin need to be a through street for regional traffic? Having it be an actual transitway, not just bus lanes as part of the wider roadway, would set a different tone for how it is used.

          I’d rather see something that focuses on moving buses and bikes with dedicated signal phases, then have short stretches of access lane and parking wherever we decided to use that space for business access. But it wouldn’t be a street for motorists going more than a block or two.

        2. Matt SteeleMatt Steele

          Also, here’s a map I made in 2012 or 2013 (pre-streetmix days) highlighting how an at-grade transit corridor could work in this right of way even as it is skewed to the grid. I attempt to preserve a through connection for regional motor vehicle traffic from westbound 26th to westbound Lagoon via southbound Hennepin, but even that isn’t critical when there are alternatives such as Lyndale. https://drive.google.com/open?id=1YyIKpsZRz593whtfLQQl5m48ZRw&usp=sharing

      1. Sean Hayford OlearySean Hayford Oleary

        I guess that would work — more stick, less carrot. But I think you’d still want to figure something out for Lyndale. The road is a bad four-lane death road today. If even half of the Hennepin traffic diverted, that would 37,000 cars a day in some sections. That is way too much for a four-lane undivided.

        And of course — what about all those businesses that are parking lot-oriented but don’t have side street access?

    1. Sam

      Living a block off Lyndale and having to deal with it daily, my dream would be to make it 3 lanes the rest of the way from Franklin to 32nd. Yes, traffic is heavy at times and might flow more slowly but the major problems I see now are that:

      1. People are trying to drive too fast and play the passing on the right game constantly (even though they never make it very far).

      2. There’s no place to bike despite a ton of businesses that people bike to anyway.

      3. Traffic is constantly stopped behind someone trying to turn left into a parking lot or double parking in the right lane.

      4. People are constantly stuck trying to walk across Lyndale outside of signalized intersections.

      A three lane plus bike lanes with mid block medians and proper crosswalks would make Lyndale safely useable for the thousands of people who live along it while also giving people space to turn and stop without blocking the flow of traffic. And, it would signal to commuters that they’re driving through someone’s neighborhood not down a two mile long freeway onramp. I know MNDOT may disagree but if Minneapolis is serious about continuing to grow then we need to start focusing on how to make traffic safer instead of how to make it move faster.

  3. Monte Castleman

    Hennepin Avenue South: a Road Designed for People in Cars, Not People on Foot or Bicycle. Since we’re not yet to the point that we have cars driving themselves around without real people inside of them.

    As for too many curb cuts, that’s recognized as a problem even in the suburbs. However normally you can’t close them without seriously impacting a business since the internal circulation was designed having them. The best that can be done is try to reduce them when the property is redeveloped, potentially requiring businesses to work out easement with neighbors, or by restricting left turns. Mn/DOT takes the viewpoint that they’re only legally liable to provide access in one direction, so they’ve been closing rural median crossovers as they get around to it. Presumably the same would apply to other agencies.

  4. Matt Brillhart

    Bus-only lanes should be a major priority on this section of Hennepin. Without much thought, I’d easily rank the needs of transit users above bikes on Hennepin. To really oversimplify things, bikes can use other streets – buses cannot. Bikes do have the option of using Bryant Ave, or quieter streets west of Hennepin – buses do not. And IF we manage to secure bus-only lanes on Hennepin, those would actually be great places to bike (particularly in the off-peak hours, much like Nicollet Mall – not great during rush hour, but pretty great the rest of the day).

    In the southbound direction, I favor a total prohibition on left turns during rush hours between Douglas and 28th. It is already signed as such, but not really followed. This should be easy…if you need to drive to the Wedge neighborhood (between Hennepin & Lyndale), don’t take southbound Hennepin! You should be on southbound Lyndale, where you can easily take a right to reach your destination. By prohibiting left hand turns in the southbound direction, that single inner lane for cars should flow pretty well, freeing up the right-hand southbound lane for transit (and bike) use.

    I’ll admit I haven’t thought as hard about the northbound direction. Short of forcing all left hand turns to do a “jughandle” (i.e. 3 right hand turns and cross Hennepin perpendicular at a cross-street), it’s obviously a little more complicated than the southbound solution. The on-street parking solution is obviously going to drive (heh) a lot of the other decisions. If you can straight-up eliminate on-street parking in one direction, that helps a lot. If not, peak hour parking bans have to be on the table.

    1. Peter Mason

      Irving from at least 28th to Douglas is pretty wide and could accommodate a dedicated bike lane with narrowing vehicle travel lanes. Plus, if 26th and 28th bike lanes were extended to Lake of the Isles, would be a great connection to the plan that is currently missing.

      1. Peter Mason

        Don’t like the perfect be the enemy of the pretty good. Believe MetroTransit is doing a rush-hour pilot this summer. For the morning rush especially, there are not a lot of businesses at that hour on the east side that would have vehicles pulling in (most are not even open).

        As for the evening rush, with sufficient enforcement (yes, I know) that would hopefully be reduced. Worth a shot.

        1. Sean Hayford OlearySean Hayford Oleary

          I don’t mean to say we *shouldn’t* do transit-only lanes — just that there may be a need for clarity on this point. I’m a real transportation nerd, and I don’t even know what’s appropriate. Same block? Two? So it’s not just that I don’t think we’ll invest the effort in enforcing it, it’s that I don’t know what enforcement means, or how it could possibly work.

          Incidentally, although there’s not much else to praise about it, the striping arrangement on Cedar Avenue in Apple Valley and Lakeville makes this clearer. In that case, the “transit lane” is the shoulder. They use the same “Shoulder – Authorized Buses Only” sign as freeways. Right turn only lanes form at intersections, and it is clear that that is the place where private motor vehicles may cross into it. I wonder if right-turn-only lanes might also potentially take the pinch off a heavily loaded 3-lane section.

          But, that’s a pretty access-controlled route. Even with that, it’s hard to picture how it works with so many driveways.

  5. Mike

    I would not worry too much about the curb cuts into parking lots. With the property tax increase of 25% almost every year and with road construction many businesses will be priced out of the area.

  6. Drew Hurley

    I live right in the neighborhood and just want to add in my 2 cents about Hennepin and 27th being one of the more sneakily dangerous intersections in the city. The east side of the intersection is super narrow but somehow allows for parking on both sides way too close to the intersection which makes things dangerous for pedestrians and for cars clogging things up when the try to turn left onto 27th from Hennepin southbound. Furthermore somehow I’ve had several near misses almost getting hit by cars crossing hennepin in front of the Giordanos.. visibility from motorists must be unusually poor because cars come roaring out of the gates from 27th to turn south on Hennepin. Also have witnessed this happening to others numerous times. Haven’t looked at the plan yet but I’m really hoping there are some safety improvements to that intersection in particular.

  7. Matt SteeleMatt

    Are there any examples of relatively narrow urban streets that have center-running busways? That seems like it could solve the enforcement/right turn lane issue and the uncontrolled left turning across traffic issue while also providing better transit service.

      1. Joe

        This is how Mexico City’s aBRT is set up, and I really like using that.

        Also, I wouldn’t walk to bike down that street, with just sharrows for bike infrastructure. But, as someone else said, we should probably prioritize transit riders over bikers here.

        1. Janne

          As a neighbor who has lived 50 yards off Hennepin for 21 years, and who travels primarily by bike, we should prioritize transit over biking. And, we must include some sort of bike space, because if we don’t, people will ride on sidewalks and that’s not ok.

          People (me included) bike along Hennepin often today, and it’s the most consistently scary place to ride I know of in Minneapolis, with some of the most aggressive drivers in the city. We do it not because we want to, but because the alternatives are worse. Wrong way down one ways, Franklin Ave, or 3-4 times the distance.

          I’m not advocating for protected bikeways (although I’d love that), but there needs to be something, if only to protect the people walking.

  8. Brian

    How many businesses would still be open in a year if curb cuts off Hennepin were eliminated?

    1. Adam MillerAdam Miller

      All of them, probably. Pretty much wig out doubt more customers than they think don’t arrive in cars and/or would still come if it was a bit harder to drive there.

      1. Joe

        Well if all the curb cuts were eliminated, I bet a gas station would close. They’d just be a convenience store then. 🙂

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