The Hennepin Bus Lane Experiment

I’ve been a Metro Transit Route 6 rider for over 40 years, and you’d think I’d be resigned to the long, slow trip down Hennepin Avenue between Franklin Avenue and Lake Street. The Wedge/Uptown is prime bus riding country, so you expect to stop every block. Even though you expect a slow trip, it’s frustrating when it takes even longer when entire blocks are clogged with cars.

Metro Transit has been contemplating arterial Bus Rapid Transit on Hennepin, but it won’t be rapid if it’s stuck in traffic just like the 6. The buses would need their own lane to make any speed, so on May 15-17 the City of Minneapolis and Metro Transit conducted an experiment. They eliminated parking on Hennepin northbound from 6 to 10 a.m., from 26th Street to Franklin, and southbound from 3 to 7:30 p.m. from 26th Street to the Uptown Transit Station.

I rode buses multiple times through the temporary lanes. Before giving my impressions, here’s some objective data.

In stop-every-block territory with no traffic congestion, typical travel time is 12 mph, 5 minutes for a mile. Franklin to Uptown Station is .9 mile. During the morning rush hour, northbound Route 6 is scheduled for 6 minutes from Uptown Station to Franklin, which is 9 mph. Southbound 6’s in the PM rush are scheduled for 7 minutes, which is 7.7 mph.

The rush hour Route 12 buses run nonstop between Uptown Station and Franklin. They are scheduled for 4 minutes in the morning and 5 minutes in the afternoon. They’re the prototype for Bus Rapid Transit on Hennepin, but they’re only 2 minutes faster than Route 6.

Many days, perhaps most days, buses can’t even make those slow speeds because of two bottlenecks. Northbound in the morning, the traffic backs up behind the East 94 ramp meter, creating a line that reaches back to 22nd Street and often 24th Street. That’s a 5-minute delay, maybe longer. You could walk it faster.

Southbound in the afternoon, 26th Street dumps its cars into Hennepin, which backs up behind the right turn at Lagoon Avenue, often all the way to 26th Street. A 5-minute delay is not unusual.

The Test Lane

For the test, the city coned off a 10-foot-wide right-hand lane, and that kept the cars from encroaching. It’s a pretty tight space in which to navigate a bus.

The afternoon southbound lane at 26th Street. Cars fill the entire block between 26th and 27th.
Same location with a bus squeezing down the 10-foot wide bus lane.

Add in some bumpy gutters and encroaching tree branches and the buses probably made about 20 mph. I wasn’t timing the few trips I took, because Metro Transit had plenty of staff doing so. What I can tell you is that we passed multiple blocks of stopped traffic and the bus passengers were loving it. I know from experience with shoulder bus lanes that passengers greatly overestimate time savings, an error that works in transit’s favor.

A morning bus passes backed up traffic between 22nd and 24th streets.

There’s no question that the lanes performed well during the test. The problem is, replicating the test conditions on a permanent basis may not be possible. I believe the lanes will only work if there is a physical barrier to keep the autos out of them.

With-flow bus lanes without barriers that remove parking only during certain hours don’t have a very successful history. It’s too hard to keep cars out of them, especially since parking is legal most of the day. Hennepin through downtown received all-day with-flow curb lanes for buses and right turning cars only and cars simply ignored the signs. Effectively those bus lanes don’t exist.

Years ago, Hennepin between Lake Street and 31st Street was posted no parking southbound 4 to 6 p.m. The city enforced it aggressively.  I watched the city tow cars out of that lane every afternoon. New cars would pull in and park right behind the tow trucks (yes, there were multiple tow trucks). Eventually the city gave up.

Winter and snow is also a big concern. Minneapolis streets get narrower after big snowfalls, and all that lost width happens in the curb lane. It seems to me that either super-intensive snow removal or narrower general traffic lanes will be a winter requirement.

The final obstacle will be pushback by local businesses who don’t want to lose their on-street parking, especially in the afternoon.

The southbound lane at 28th Street, approaching Uptown Station.

This will be a real test of the city’s commitment to transit over single-occupant cars. Buses carry almost half of the people on this stretch of Hennepin. Furthermore, most of those bus riders are Minneapolis residents. I wager that a much lower percentage of the auto drivers live in the city.

Aaron Isaacs

About Aaron Isaacs

Aaron retired in 2006 after 33 years as a planner and manager for Metro Transit, where he worked in route and schedule planning, operations, maintenance, transit facilities, light rail and traffic advantages for buses. He's an historian of transit, as a 40+ year volunteer with the Minnesota Streetcar Museum. He's co-author of Twin Cities by Trolley, The Streetcar Era in Minneapolis and St. Paul, and author of Twin Ports by Trolley on Duluth-Superior.