The Hennepin Bus Lane Experiment

I’ve been a 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 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 6-10 AM, from 26th Street to Franklin and southbound 3-7:30 PM 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 BRT 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 4-6 PM. 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.

27 thoughts on “The Hennepin Bus Lane Experiment

  1. Eric Ecklund

    Or you build a subway under Uptown to downtown. Connect with Southwest LRT or keep going south.

    Before anyone says this, yes I know that would be extremely expensive, but it would also be extremely beneficial. The ability to move masses of people quickly and efficiently without taking any lanes and/or parking. Other cities have done it, and we can certainly do it if we have the political and public willpower.

      1. SSP

        Bill, are you trying to be ironic? Many people advocated for just this – SWLR in the Greenway trench swinging north on Nicollet, which, because of the natural grade, could have been in a a cut and cover trench to Franklin. The engineering gets a bit tricky after that to keep it grade separated over 94 and to downtown.

  2. Bill LindekeBill Lindeke

    Thanks Aaron. This is exactly the kind of skeptical optimism that I was hoping to see. Time to follow through on some of the city’s professed ideals here! Let’s actually make a lane that works for transit, and watch a walkable Hennepin Avenue flourish.

  3. Adam MillerAdam Miller

    Do business owners think those on-street spots turn over at all in that kind of traffic? People are nervous about parallel parking when the streets wide open. They can’t love doing it in that kind of pressure.

    1. Peter Mason

      Exactly. No one tries to park on Hennepin during the evening rush unless they can pull right in. Those spots are neglible for businesses in the afternoon

  4. Christa MChris Moseng

    It’s past time for business owners in the city to appreciate that moving more people past your business who can easily stop and patronize your establishment because the buses are moving freely is worth more than a couple of parking spots.

    The same applies to bike lanes.

  5. Henry Collins

    Buses are more efficient at transporting people. If more people took the bus there would be less traffic jams. This lane is a great idea by the way.

  6. Casey

    One issue that I noticed with this test as a pedestrian, even more cars have been making right hand turns around buses when stopped to load/unload passengers. This is extremely dangerous as there is a blind spot of the crosswalks.

    1. UrbanLite

      Is that legal here? Right tuns in front of buses? I know that in Chicago it is illegal to turn right in front of the buses, and there is a sign on the buses that state that law. Does not seem to be the case here.

  7. john k

    Run the #6 limited stops on HENN Ave at all times, the #4 and 17 are available for local stops .
    Put barriers for bus lane.

  8. UrbanLite

    I suspected it is not legal. It’s fairly dangerous on several fronts. All comes back to enforcement though.

      1. Aaron IsaacsAaron Isaacs

        There are a number of downsides to far side stops.
        1. Near side stops are under the street light and well lit. Far side stops aren’t.

        2. In winter, snow removal is much more likely to happen at near side stops, because they’re on the corner. And if the stop isn’t clear, the bus can pull forward to load/unload in the intersection. Far side stops are much more likely to be snow blocked.

        3. After making a near side stop, the bus has the width of the intersection to merge back into traffic. Far side stops frequently butt up against a parked car, making merging more challenging.

  9. Emma Bull

    What happens to bicyclists on Hennepin, especially in Uptown where it’s illegal to ride on the sidewalk? Wouldn’t this effectively prohibit bike traffic on Hennepin?

  10. Aaron IsaacsAaron Isaacs

    I never ride on Hennepin. Too narrow, too busy and there are quiet parallel residential streets a block away.

  11. SSP

    A separate post shows half of the people on Hennepin are in cars, so this idea will take away at least half the customers going by a local business at rush hour. Council-member Pat Scott proposed this idea back in the 80’s, it was rejected because of the impact on local businesses.

    If we want to force local stores out of business and send folks to businesses with off-street parking elsewhere (since the new planning overlay makes development with parking on Hennepin challenging), this proposal will accomplish this.

    As for biking on Hennepin, some do it, seemingly the “I have a right to be here” crowd who appear to delight in backing up traffic by taking away one of the car lanes.

    This arterial is not wide enough for buses, cars, bikes, and the newer wider sidewalks the City seems committed to providing.

    Some possible suggestions that might preserve parking and local businesses:

    1) Leave the sidewalks alone, they are wide enough. Perhaps it’s time to take away the tree boulevard on Hennepin to allow a transit lane.

    2) Don’t put bike lanes on Hennepin.

    3) Since we don’t allow left-turns off Hennepin at rush hour, could we reengineer the street to eliminate the left turn lanes and put a single protected lane down the center of the street that had stops and “sidings” (allowing north-south buses to pass each other) at the existing turn lane intersections? Perhaps we would have to construct the intersections to take away the option to travel east-west on the cross streets at those limited locations. It would also be possible to create “stations” where riders pre-paid their fares before getting on the bus.

    I would hate to see bus lanes implemented that destroy local businesses and make the neighborhood less walkable since it will just create more auto trips.

    1. Adam MillerAdam Miller

      In this experiment, no car lanes went away, so, no change to the number of cars passing (not exactly sure how you think businesses benefit from cars driving by them, but okay).

      And it’s not anywhere near half of the available parking (there’s a lot of off street parking over there).

      1. SSP

        Adam, There are definitely stores without the benefit of off street lots. The cars going by are the potential customers, of course not all of them stop. But if you take away parking, far fewer or none of them stop.

        The University Ave light rail has spawned new retail development with off-street parking. In a perverse way it has made the built en environment less pedestrian, how do you avoid that on Hennepin if you eliminate on-street parking?

    2. Monte Castleman

      Hennepin doesn’t have left turn lanes. That’s why left turns are banned during peak periods at many locations.

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