Hidden Priorities, in Plain Sight

A friend compiled this series of Google Earth images. I scanned them, and intended to get on with my work, but I just couldn’t. I went through them again. And then again. I found myself rethinking the city I live in.

Most people think Minneapolis looks like this:

Downtown Minneapolis

Downtown Minneapolis

Or this:

Minneapolis Neighborhood with 4plexes

Minneapolis Neighborhood

But, when you step back, you actually see this.

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As I scrolled again and again, I asked myself:

  • What does our choice to build and maintain this in the heart of Minneapolis this say about our values?
  • What would it take to reclaim this land, land that in the past housed and employed people and paid property taxes, for people-supporting uses?
  • How many billions of public dollars did we use to build these massive monuments?
  • Who uses these spaces? Who was displaced to create these spaces?
  • If we were willing to allocate this much space (and money, and concrete, and structural steel) to drivers of cars, what will we be willing to allocate to making biking and walking for transportation more inviting & practical & safe?
  • What would be possible in Minneapolis if we reclaimed five percent of this land for people who live here? Ten percent?
  • When Minneapolis 2040 says it will “Restore and maintain the traditional street grid,” just how seriously should (may) we take that statement?

What questions does it raise for you?


About Janne Flisrand

Janne Flisrand spends her time thinking about how people interact with the space around them. Why do they (or don't they) walk or bike or shop somewhere? How do spaces feel? Why do people sit here and not there? Why bus instead of bike, bike instead of drive? What sorts of spaces build community, and what sorts kill it? Can spaces build civic trust and engagement?

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101 thoughts on “Hidden Priorities, in Plain Sight

  1. Eric Ecklund

    It would take cooperation from all levels of government, including the Feds, to dismantle or even just road-diet urban freeways. Its possible, but the stars need to align, and by that I mean the right politicians have to be in office.

    1. Matt SteeleMatt Steele

      Eisenhower didn’t want them either:

      “[The President] went on to say that the matter of running Interstate routes through the congested parts of the cities was entirely against his original concept and wishes; that he never anticipated that the program would turn out this way… [He] was certainly not aware of any concept of using the program to build up an extensive intra-city route network as part of the program he sponsored.”


    2. commissar

      do,that, and i think 50% of the population would move out. additionally, you hate the way traffic is on surface streets now? just wait until you have an additional 170k cars north south per day. bike and pedestrian fatalities would go through the roof.

  2. Sean Hayford OlearySean Hayford Oleary

    When I think about the role of urban freeways, it’s hard for me to separate the fact that the immediate impact made land less valuable (and less humane), but also enabled our downtowns (especially Minneapolis) to be valuable centers of regional commerce. Yes, the roadways themselves took miles of properties off tax roles, and depressed the experience of residents nearby. But had they not been built at all, I am fairly certain downtown Minneapolis would not be what it is today, and there would be far more office and commerce in the beltline area. In addition, I think our surface streets would be far more unpleasant and unsafe if not for our freeway system.

    That doesn’t mean freeways deserve a blank check — the impact of expanding freeways is a lot less than building them the first time, and each subsequent expansion has more and more diminishing returns. What’s more, even with existing lane miles, it is surprising how inefficient some areas are with space. Even in the downtown 35W-94 commons, there are massive slopes rather than retaining walls that take up hundreds of additional feet of potentially valuable downtown land.

    That challenge I would offer from the opposite perspective is: why doesn’t Minneapolis land use better respond to the reality of the freeway? Single-family homes and freeway exits are just not very compatible. Certainly, the freeway traffic, pollution, and noise make them less valuable. But that is not true or all land uses. Office buildings often benefit from having highly visible/accessible locations, and larger retail uses benefit even more. Taller apartment buildings can benefit from the unobstructed views the freeway provide, and can be sealed off from the noise and pollution more easily than houses. Plus, they can provide more riders to freeway BRT systems.

    In south Minneapolis, there is a single land use that really takes advantage of the freeway in an obvious way: the Wells Fargo Home Mortgage near 26th Street. This building hugs the freeway, makes good use of the space, and brings the company’s brand to 150,000 travelers daily.

    Why not plan for more development like that in the city’s freeway corridors?

    1. Janne Flisrand Post author

      Minneapolis has always been a regional center, and it always would have been. The question of how it might be different (better and use and walkability in downtown? a different number of jobs?) is an interesting one.

      There’s a lot of chicken and egg question in the value of downtown and promoting sprawl. Comparing us with places that didn’t build nearly so many (or even any) that would make an interesting post. As would an analysis on the net benefit/harm.

      Thinking about Wells Fargo, I see the huge harm that campus does to the surrounding neighborhood every day, so while it may be good for them, I’m not sure it’s good for the city. Right now, they’re building another parking ramp and a special campus freeway exit, which doubles down on the impact, whatever it is.

      1. Sean Hayford OlearySean Hayford Oleary

        I don’t quite see your reasoning here, Janne. Yes Minneapolis was historically the center of the region pre-freeway, but that does not mean it was guaranteed to remain the center even after significant mid-century decline. It adapted to a changing economy and transportation system — and that adaptation is why it has remained successful.

        I think it’s important to remember that the downtown that existed pre-freeways mostly doesn’t exist anymore, and the downtown we have today was built in the context of freeway access (both private cars and the extensive express bus system that relies on the freeways).

        I couldn’t easily find a list by square footage, but of the 20 tallest buildings in Minneapolis, 18 were built in the freeway era. Millions of square feet of office space. If you truly had built no direct freeway access to downtown, I believe that much of this investment would not have happened — it would be too steep a battle when cheaper land with better access was available elsewhere, especially in an era where the trend of offices was towards suburbanization.

        As for WF Home Mortgage — I know that there are some real traffic impacts to the neighborhood from that. Of course, a single-tenant office building with a lot of 9-to-5 workers is going to mean a bad rush hour experience. Balancing office and high-density residential could provide more even flow throughout the day. And in the case of WF, more direct access to 35W could likely help take pressure off of local streets. NB 35W to Wells Fargo has great access, but every other movement involves a lot of neighborhood streets.

        As far as comparing with cities that built less — I agree that would be good. I am not personally aware of other cities with similar geographic characteristics (flat, sprawl-“friendly”) that did not build. New York and San Francisco are the only ones that jump out for me.

        1. Janne Flisrand Post author

          It’s not at all clear that downtown Minneapolis’ vibrancy is a function of it having been destroyed to accommodate the needs of freeway users.

          The most interesting parts (and buildings) of downtown are the be older parts. The parts people dislike the most tend to be the freeway-driven designs (and full of parking garages). The car-oriented nature of downtown Minneapolis has made it a generally unpleasant space for pedestrians. Freeways enabled and drove our suburban sprawl. It’s not clear that this transition was necessary for downtown to remain an economic hub.

          Give me data if that’s the argument you want to make.

          Minneapolis gives a heck of a lot to the region and state, whether you’re measuring by tax base contributions, entertainment amenities, or parks. Minneapolitans pay heavily for that, whether it’s direct tax subsidy, lost tax base, negative health impacts, or the cancerous effect of accommodating drivers from elsewhere. One of the questions these images inspired in me is whether the trade-offs are worth it. You seem to presume otherwise; I’m open to your argument, so offer up your data.

          1. Sean Hayford OlearySean Hayford Oleary

            That seems like a bit of a double-standard to demand data support when your post cites nothing either. Although it does not prove that the investments were a direct result of freeway construction, for me the fact that almost all major office development is post-freeway is important.

            But some quick items would be a general lit review from FHWA. As I said, I am not aware of any good counterexample to Minneapolis — a city without geographic limitations to sprawl that successfully avoided freeways in/to their CBD. For local history on our freeways, I particularly like the paper from the UMN, Politics and Freeways, which includes dozens of citations providing the history for our choice to build freeways. By and large, they found support in business interests, and to take traffic off of local streets. Doesn’t mean those assumptions were right — but broadly, freeway construction was associated with more economic activity. And in almost every location in our metro area, major development of office parks centers around freeway access — think UnitedHealthGroup, Best Buy, Medtronic, etc.

            I think there’s an alternate focus in fixing the acute problems freeways create. Things like caps in critical locations, and improving the interface between local streets and freeways. 10th and 4th is disastrous, and the 394 ramps from the North Loop are only slightly better.

            I like your question about whether the trade-offs are worth it: but what if there is a third way, something that is neither “present-day bleak landscape” and “theoretical no freeway world”. One that keeps our regional mobility but creates a better human experience near the freeways.

            Personally, that it is what I would like to see. I would also like to see expansion of congestion pricing, allowing us to avoid future expansions by better managing demand and better incentivizing mass transit on freeways. Our freeways are valuable transportation corridors, but aren’t just for private cars — and they could be even less.

            1. Janne

              Let me drop some data about the acute health impacts of freeways and highways. With 53,000 annual deaths attributable to vehicle pollution, it’s far deadlier than crashes. And, it’s borne most heavily by black people, indigenous people, people of color, and low-income people.

              This is a critical data point in the cost-benefit analysis of how we should use land in the most densely populated parts of our communities.


              1. Sean Hayford OlearySean Hayford Oleary

                Thanks, that’s a good point. I am hopeful that situation will improve with growth of battery electric cars. (Of course, those do not resolve the many other issues driving create, but could help those acute local impacts.)

                Going back to my original suggestion — of land use responding to freeway — ideally new development could respond to this air pollution concern with things like whole-building HEPA filtration. Such a system is required in Los Angeles for this reason, although apparnently it has yielded <a href="“>only mixed results. Still, even this is likely far better protection than old homes and apartments that rely on natural ventilation heavily to be comfortable.

                It would be nice if there were a revenue source (e.g., congestion pricing) to compensate affected properties — similar to how the airport commission pays for noise mitigation for homes affected by plane noise.

                Fully sealed buildings are somewhat rare for residential, but I know this was done in Bloomington at The Reflections (mainly for noise).

                But long term, in addition to reducing car trips, transitioning as many as possible to electric would help a lot.

                1. Janne Flisrand Post author

                  A significant amount of the particulate pollution is from tires, microparticles from wear when driving. Electrification does nothing to address that — the only thing that can is less driving.

                  There’s also lots of evidence that mental health is strongly correlated with green space and being in it, so solving it by combining filtration (which doesn’t exist today) and having people never leave their homes/offices introduces another set of challenges.

                  1. Sean Hayford OlearySean Hayford Oleary

                    The tire thing I need to look more into, that’s basically new news to me. Do you have any idea what proportion that makes up? Best I could find readily was this EPA presentation showing sources of air pollution projected, on a statewide basis for California, into the future. Depending on the type of particulate matter, it shows exhaust making up 80-90%+ of particular matter. (See pages/slides 21-22 of the PDF.) It does show the other sources going up as number of cars is expected to increase.

                    I’m not envisioning some future where people are locked in glass boxes and never leave. It’s more an idea about how this all works together.

                    – Let’s imagine we reduce car trips trips by 20% (into carpooling, transit, and biking) — with better bike infrastructure and congestion pricing on freeways
                    – Let’s imagine half of the remaining cars go electric, and cut their particulate emissions by 80%
                    – Let’s imagine we build with whole-building filtration that reduces by 80% of what remains

                    You end up with much less exposure to pollution, because all factors work together. Even with a vigorous, longer bike commute you’d end up with much less exposure to pollution.

                    I get that technical solutions — and especially a single technical solution — won’t solve this problem we’ve created. But I think they can work together with lifestyle and roadway design changes in an effective way.

          2. Sean Hayford OlearySean Hayford Oleary

            More generally, I think your perception of downtown as “destroyed” is a really unnecessarily negative framing. Destruction of many buildings in downtown certainly happened, but there has also been a significant payback in new development. Since the 90s, but especially in the last five or so years, downtown has become a more humane, beautiful, impressive — and yes, interesting — regional center. Today’s building boom is largely the completion of the urban renewal cycle of the 1950s and 60s, finally filling lots that were cleared at that time.

            There are many details that I would change, like the high-speed 3-lane/one-way streets. But being the largest employment center and having lots of regional destinations is a good thing for Minneapolis, in my opinion.

            1. Janne Flisrand Post author

              I don’t see any double standard. I didn’t make any data-based claims, or call for explicit action on freeways in my post. The closest I got was asking,

              “What would be possible in Minneapolis if we reclaimed five percent of this land for people who live here? Ten percent?”

              If you’d like to continue this straw man argument, you’re on your own.

              1. Sean Hayford OlearySean Hayford Oleary

                What straw man?

                “I didn’t make any data-based claims”

                In this same comment thread:

                “Minneapolitans pay heavily for that, whether it’s direct tax subsidy, lost tax base, negative health impacts, or the cancerous effect of accommodating drivers from elsewhere.”

                Sure, that’s in the comments, not in the post. In the post, you are heavily implying without quite saying. Your list of is posed as a list of questions, but they clearly lead to common answers — that Minneapolitans were displaced, that Minneapolis would inherently benefit from freeway removal, etc. Maybe they were intended to be fully neutral, but I clearly was not the only person who understood them this way.

                But let’s put a little more data that is easily accessible. According to Census Bureau, more Minneapolitans work outside Minneapolis than inside its borders. And 75% of those who work in Minneapolis do not live in Minneapolis. (Wish I could link to Minneapolis specifically, but this is from OnTheMap.) There is a clear flow of workers in both directions — although compared to other cities in the region, Minneapolis has more people living and working in its borders. This makes sense, as our largest city.

                As for commute to work, about 68% of Minneapolitans drive to work (some carpooling) according to the 2015 ACS. Although some of the function of the freeway network is to accommodate “drivers from elsewhere” — it also accommodates the majority of Minneapolis residents who drive to work. (And the many who take transit that rely on the freeway network)

              2. Monte Castleman

                Considering something like 82% of Minneapolis households own cars, I’d say the vast majority of residents are probably already making use of the freeways, so there’s nothing to “reclaim for the residents”.

                1. Rosa

                  Personally, as a resident who does own a car, I would much rather use the freeway less, but the way the grid is destroyed for the freeway means that a lot of trips (like getting from South Minneapolis to NE or to parts of St Paul) are funneled onto the interstates because there’s no really good alternative. Conversely the bike routes to get to those two parts of town are completely different from the car routes because the interstates act like rivers you have to bridge.

                  When you destroy other routes to make the highway it’s not really knowable what people would do without it. It’s not like we woulnd’t have roads if we didn’t have interstates.

                  1. T

                    Thats not entirely an affect of freeways as it is railroads and rivers. Without freeways it would be extremely congested and dangerous limited surface street connections that would destroy walkability

                    1. Rosa

                      I have to cross 35W or 55 or 94 to get to basically anywhere I want to go.And then if you add in the dangers from highway on/offramps (like the underpass on Cedar with no visibility where cars turn on red all the time, just north of 24th St and south of Franklin) it’s even worse.

                      There are also railroad & river caused chokepoints, but we didn’t choose the river and at least southside the railroads have a lot more and safer crossing points (look how many streets go right over the railbed that’s now the Greenway). Northeast is a little more blocked up with railroad crossings but, as dangerous as they can be, crossing a railroad is MUCH safer than trying to cross a highway. Didn’t the metro have a “trying to cross a county highway” fatality this weekend?

                      Also, very congested streets are actually not that hard to cross, the cars are slow. It’s very fast streets that are dangerous to pedestrians.

              1. Sean Hayford OlearySean Hayford Oleary

                Hah, yes. Good point. Although most of the major stuff in the CBD is older. A number of major things happened right in that same period, like Northwestern National Life and The Towers at the Gateway.

                But yes, crappy “temporary” parking lots for over half a century was not a good outcome.

          3. Mike

            Can you suggest a city that has this layout? Indianapolis it the only city of some size I can think of which has a beltway but not highways diving into or through downtown. I 70/65 skirt a couple miles from the center of town, I can’t think of a direct dive. However there are still large areas of highway exchanges they are just a bit further out of town. Indianapolis metropolitan area has substantially lower population density than the Twin CIties which you might anticipate if downtown is harder to get to for work and commerce, so sprawl may be negatively impacted.

            Something else to not loose sight of is that compared to many cities of our size the highway routings are not as bad as they could have been. We don’t have highways hugging the Mississippi all the way through town – if you go to Milwaukee, Chicago, Cleveland, Buffalo etc….. you see many examples of the interstates hugging the lake or rivers, inexplicably cutting off access to huge neighborhoods. Even that epicenter of urbanism Portland has 6-8 lanes of the I-5 running right down the side of the Williamette.

            1. Joe

              (4-6 through lanes)

              Umm, using Indy as an example distance Vancouver BC, DC (for fewer at least). A lot of Canada actually has a little less intrusive freeway designing

          4. T

            The freeways are the difference between a metro area that produces significant wealth and a smaller city like st cloud or madison

    2. Mike

      If you agree that dense urban placement of assets that draw a lot of people (Hennepin ave, Guthrie, Orchestra hall, stadiums) is efficient (I think of an earlier post talking about the streetcar routes that were designed to take outer city dwelling residents downtown and back for everything from shopping to work to entertainment) – then your alternative is a city grid approach to the downtown. The city grid means cross traffic, bikes, pedestrian – all Much higher potential for accidents and injuries – and development has and would have developed further from the core city so you’d have a lot more than neighborhood traffic funneling down those roads to get to the city center.

      Traffic (highway or residential streets) brings all kinds of health problems related to tire particulate exhaust etc…. but on top of that, how many bikers or pedestrians have been killed the last few years by a car on I35W heading in to Minneapolis vs those who died in collisions on the grid?

      1. Sean Hayford OlearySean Hayford Oleary

        This is an excellent point. If you really wanted to compare, of course, you’d want to consider the negative effects of the on/off-ramp areas today — but I agree that that is far preferable to adding 150,000 cars a day to the local grid. Even if freeway removal cut demand in half, that is still a staggering amount of traffic to put on surface streets.

          1. Sean Hayford OlearySean Hayford Oleary

            That’s why I’m giving the theory the benefit of the doubt and saying that even if removal halved the traffic, that’s still a lot of traffic to manage. I agree that you would see fewer car trips.

          2. Brian

            If freeways were removed it doesn’t mean everyone suddenly finds a job closer to home, or moves closer to work. The reality is most would take to the grid and flood city streets with traffic.

            The 35W project is a four year project. I don’t know of people quitting their jobs or moving because of the disruption. Instead, drivers are taking to city streets instead.

              1. Brian

                Did a lot of commuters switch to transit? Workers still need to get to work.

                Trips other than commutes are probably less mainly because the highway was closed nearly every weekend for several months. Outside of rush hour it has been easier to drive through there because of the rerouting and ramps being closed. I haven’t been through there in six plus weeks so no idea how the new configuration works.

            1. Rosa

              when the 35W bridge went down, half my husband’s coworkers started working from home, and years later most of them still usually work from home.

              People make long term choices based on what they perceive as long term patterns. Nobody is thinking of the 35W project as long term – many drivers seem to keep experiencing it as a series of unpleasant surprises. Not “what am I doing about the highway next summer?” but “what is closed this week?”

    3. Andrew Evans

      Sean Hayford Oleary – I’m not a streetcar buff like some are here, but I’m wondering if the cities ever had a real mass transportation system before the freeways came in? Most of the images I’ve seen of our street car system showed only one or two cars, with a few showing 4+. So at one end it’s more or less the bus system we have now, and on the other it’s a longer train that’s being ran on city streets. Although it was able to move people, I’m wondering if that existing system would have been able to have been scaled up to support workers getting to our downtowns (and other high density campuses) in a timely manner from a 5-8 mile radius?

      It seems, without the freeways, we would have been faced with a choice to implement a rail system similar to Chicago, other than, I’m guessing, a lot of it would have been at street level rater than elevated. Not that this would have taken up the same land as freeways, but it could have easily been a block wide in spots, be just as disruptive, and serve as a new neighborhood boundary.

      Also, and this is just an observation from having traveled by rail between NYC and Philly, as well as around France, but it seems the infrastructure to do commuter or passenger rail is sometimes as intense as freeways, especially closer to larger stations. So again I have to wonder if that would have been part of our choice, if we went more like Europe and not have included freeways that went into city centers? Or, if we did have rail, if our current green political views would have allowed it by the river, or by marshland by cedar lake. Especially, if we wanted to expand rail to service towns outstate, some large yards would have to be built somewhere.

      Finally, after having driven around 6000 miles in southern France so far, and looking at a trip to Lyon in a few weeks. It would be nice if more people here had the opportunity to see what life is like when there aren’t freeways, especially on a road system as confusing as France. Roads go from one town to the next, and are marked town to town. All or most roads go through the center of a city or town, and the roads going around towns are sometimes more or less driveways – renting a GPS can be a blessing and a curse for this reason).

      I haven’t been in Germany, but I can easily see how Eisenhower could come back and talk about our interstate system after seeing the difference. Not to mention after hearing stories from the poor solders who had to take supplies up from the south of France to the lines up North.

      For what it’s worth, renting a car for the whole week out of Lyon was only $100. Not sure the size of the car, it seems they seem “American” and give us the largest one they have, but still. Many people over there can and do get by with public transit and then are able to cheaply rent a car when needed. We don’t really have that affordable of an option yet, which may keep some clinging to vehicles more than they otherwise would. (Insurance not withstanding).

      Just IMO

  3. Karl

    I’ve long wondered how feasible highway lids could be over certain stretches. A non-exhaustive list from a curious amateur, in addition to one talked about between downtown and Cedar-Riverside:

    -I-94 between 3rd Ave and LaSalle Ave (or maybe even Groveland)
    -I-94 between Porland Ave and 11th Ave
    -I-94 between Hwy 55 and 7th St; and most of North Minneapolis
    -I-35W between University Ave and 4th St SE; lots of other spots in NE
    -I-35W between 19th St and 22nd St
    -I-35W between 25th St and 28th St
    -I-35W between 38th St and 42nd St (or 44th St)

    In St. Paul, most of I-94 looks like a lid candidate, but the downtown I-94 stretch near the capitol from Jackson St to St. Peter St would appear to have great potential.

    1. Janne Flisrand Post author

      I like to start with where might we be able to remove a few entrances or exits, and reclaim land before going to lids. I’ve imagined removing the entrance/exit at I94 and Hennepin by the Lowry Tunnel because it’s got a redundant entrance just three blocks away. There’s SO much land that could be returned to housing and commercial uses once those two flyover bridges were removed. And the neighborhood could be significantly stitched back together without much impact on regional connectivity. Finally, that’s way cheaper than a lid.

      Where else could we do imagine reclaiming land?

      1. Brian

        The primary purpose for that exit is for prohibited vehicles to bypass the tunnel. Those vehicles would otherwise get routed through downtown, or miles out of their way on 35W to 694 back to 94.

        1. Janne Flisrand Post author

          The bypass uses the Lyndale exit; that doesn’t hold water.

          I’m not sure what the problem is with circumventing the core city, though, either. It gets back to the core question I’m asking: what is the tradeoff we’re making on some of the most valuable land in the state, and are we getting what we want out of it?

          1. Brian

            No prohibited vehicle is going to use 94 through downtown unless they have to. Maybe they have a delivery in St. Paul and then have a delivery to a business off 94 in North Minneapolis. No sane delivery operator wants to spend an extra $20 to $30 in fuel and labor to go all the way around.

            As much as the city of Minneapolis hates gasoline powered vehicles there are still gas stations all over the city that get gasoline deliveries.

    2. Sean Hayford OlearySean Hayford Oleary

      University/4th would be a great site! Although it would still be a bit unpleasant given the split diamond design — a lot of traffic on the one-way pairs between the ramps.

      But it’s a high-demand area, and it would certainly be more pleasant to cross 35W here with real frontage on either side.

      1. Nathanael

        Commerce worked fine before the construction of giant money-losing expressways. It will work fine without them.

        I live in a prosperous city with no Interstates. 🙂

      1. Sean Hayford OlearySean Hayford Oleary

        Where did 5-10% come from?

        Sure, I agree that 5-10% of our freeway links probably do more harm than good. I’d particularly like to see the 4th St N raised freeway link go away.

        What I read the contention of the post as is: “freeways hurt, offered little/no benefits to Minneapolis”. I don’t see an explicit proposal to eliminate all freeways, but I bristle at the suggestion Minneapolis has not benefitted in any substantial way from the freeway system.

        1. Christa MChris Moseng

          The article is not very long, but somehow I get the impression you read a completely different article than me.

          Or you brought something to the article that wasn’t there, and decided to respond to that instead.

        2. Janne Flisrand Post author

          Hah! The debate you started above makes more sense now.

          I like to read all the way to the end of a post before jumping into the comment thread. I’m not sure where you got that contention, but it wasn’t in the written post.

        3. Brian

          What kind of street could handle the ten thousand plus vehicles that use the 4th St N exit now? It wouldn’t be a good pedestrian environment as drivers block sidewalks and intersections to avoid waiting through yet another light cycle to make it across an intersection.

          Optimists would think that the majority would switch to transit or biking, but realists would understand that hardly any would switch from their car. Drivers would just complain until the city finally did something to keep car traffic moving.

          I work with people who steadfastly refuse to stop driving into downtown even though transit is way cheaper and faster in some cases. The number one reason they give is the flexibility to do errands on the drive home. The second big reason is the ability to leave any time they want, especially if they have kids.

          A few switched to transit after the 20% or more parking price increases when the city of Minneapolis bought the parking ramp near city hall.

          1. Sean Hayford OlearySean Hayford Oleary

            Nearby 3-lane Washington Avenue accommodates about 15,000 cars. I think a new surface-level 4th St N could easily handle the 18,000 going overhead now even if not a single car diverted to another spot.

            18,000 is very low for a four lane freeway. The Crosstown has sections with 4 lanes and over 100,000 cars.

            A divided 2 or 4 lane street would still be way better than what’s there — and much cheaper to maintain long-term than a huge overpass.

            1. Brian

              There are constant complaints about the Crosstown needing to be expanded to six lanes. How well would traffic flow if it was a four lane street with a stop light every block?

              Washington Ave is hardly a road to be held up as a model for moving traffic. The county and city have removed a lane in each direction from Washington Ave and the road was already busy when it had four or six lanes. The previous four lane section now has a turn lane so that is mostly a wash.

              If they built it has four lanes with a median then there would be complaints about it being too hard for pedestrians to cross defeating a big part of the reason to do it in the first place.

          2. Adam MillerAdam Miller

            “I work with people who steadfastly refuse to stop driving into downtown even though transit is way cheaper and faster in some cases”

            These people are telling you it’s easier and more convenient to drive. That’s because we built it that way.

            1. Brian

              Most of them complain about being stuck in traffic and parking costs, but they think that running errands on the way home is important enough to put up with the traffic and the costs. Only one immediate co-worker has kids they might need to leave work for.

              The ones who recently switched to transit pretty much love it and wonder why they didn’t switch long ago. One switched back to driving.

              1. Rosa

                there’s such a psychological component to driving!

                I’ve been mostly bike commuting for 2 decades now and I STILL fall for the false thought that driving would be easier/faster/less frustrating, over and over.

                And I’m always surprised to hear people saying that they need to have a car for the freedom – transit feels much freer to me but I know several people who need, psychologically, to own a running car so they can feel like they are free and not stuck at home. People who do live in the city and could walk/bike/take a bus basically anywhere but have a definite emotional need for the car.

                1. Adam MillerAdam Miller

                  I think people who experience the world mostly in a car just don’t realize where they can get what they need without it. Wait, there’s three hardware stores within a 15 minute bike ride from me? I just drive to the Home Depot see next to the freeway.

                  Once you know where the more local options are, riding a bike is the freest feeling form of transport to me. As flexible as walking, but much faster.

                  Transit would feel freer if routes and schedules were easier to understand.

                  1. Monte Castleman

                    Sure, a bicycle to the neighborhood hardware store works if you need a new lock set for your front door. What if you need a new toilet or some concrete blocks?

                    1. Jeb RachJeb Rach

                      A cargo bike could be used if the weight was low enough. Larger orders could result in either renting the truck for the couple hours needed or getting the items delivered.

                      How often are those trips, anyways, especially compared to the total amount of overall trips? The trips to get items that truly wouldn’t work even on a cargo bike or via transit seem like a very small percentage of trips.

  4. Brian

    I would immediately find another job outside of downtown Minneapolis if all highways in the city were removed. I take a bus, but it would be a two plus hour trip on city streets with tens of thousands of other vehicles that used to take 35W. Certainly, many of the over one hundred thousand trips would find alternatives, but that still leaves tens of thousands needing to go that way.

    All remaining highways inside the 694/494 loop on the west side would be congested 24 x 7 without 94/280/55/35W.

    I would simply leave the Twin Cities if all highways inside the 494/694 loop were removed. MNDOT certainly wouldn’t rebuild 694 and 494 into the super highways needed to handle several hundred thousand trips formerly moving along demolished highways.

    1. Monte Castleman

      Same here. I had the opportunity to move to Seattle back around 2000 to join the rest of my father’s family. The reason I declined is even back then traffic was horrendous and unlike Mn/DOT which is doing the best they can to try to fix the milder problem here, WSDOT didn’t even pretend to care.

    2. Nathanael

      You’ve never been in a city which actually had traffic, have you?

      My perspective comes from being a lifelong Northeasterner. I went to Minnesota for college. Take it from someone who’s spent time in Eastern cities; you have no traffic at all in the Twin Cities.

      Does this make you more prosperous? No. The Eastern cities are more prosperous. Hmm, something to think about.

  5. Brian

    What transportation changes would be put in place to handle all the traffic that formerly used all these highways? There isn’t any chance we can make the entire Twin Cities walkable without bulldozing miles of housing, offices, and retail.

    The suburb I live in will never be walkable without simply bulldozing the entire city and starting over. We’ll likely never see transit due to low density. The only retail in the city is a hardware store and a paint store. The grocery store closed in 2012 or 2013.

    I sure hope we aren’t going to all end up living in massive apartment towers like the Soviet Union.

    1. Adam MillerAdam Miller

      Traffic is not a things that just exists. Traffic is a response to the incentives we create with our transportations system. You can see this whenever there is construction.

      These last two summers were good example. Last summer, the Cedar and Portland Avenue bridges over the Greenway were being replaced. This summer, it’s all the 35W work. In both instances, there were terrible back up at first, and then things dissipated. People found other routes or other destinations and adapted.

      I think some researches at the U actually analyzed what happened when the 35W bridge was out, and lo and behold, the traffic went away in significant part.

      1. Paul Nelson

        Exactly. The same amount of motor traffic that existed on 35 before its collapse did not reappear in other alignments overall after the bridge was out. This was a very real “eye opener” for MNDOT. Similar outcomes appeared in other projects where major roads were closed for a period of time,.

      2. commissar

        no, it didn’t just go away, significant amounts of traffic were rerouted off university, and down 280 to 94.

  6. Christa MChris Moseng

    You’re speaking my language. I notice that the people most vigorously objecting in comments have decided to construe the proposal to require the elimination of highways. I lament their lack of imagination.

    1. Brian

      Several comments have stated that we should remove all highways from Minneapolis, or even all highways from inside the 494/694 loop. The article certainly implies that highways should be removed from Minneapolis.

      The early portions of 94 and 35W were designed in the late 50s/early 60s. At the time there was still a lot of open land outside of the city. Today, many people think the highways should have been built outside of Minneapolis and St. Paul. However, how many people would have thought it was a great idea back then to build massive highways through empty fields with nobody living there to use the highways?

    2. Mike

      I think you’re not reading the comments with the right context.

      The second bullet point in Janne’s post asked the question what it would retake to “reclaim this land” and contextualized by the first bullet talking about the heart of Minneapolis, most of the discussion here (including mine) has been focused on if you backed away from the highways that cut through the city to downtown.

      It’s a valid question to ask and most of the points above have been largely bringing in facts that could offset the appealing benefits of freeing up this land near the heart of downtown for new use like residential. Talking about other cities and how they have approached this, if there are models more consistent with Janne’s premise is also a valid discussion.

      Later comments adding to the discussion highlight what-ifs at an exchange level but the same dialog about the potential pros and cons (displaced traffic for example) hold.

      1. Brian

        How do you remove 35W or 94 from downtown Minneapolis without cutting off drivers going north/south or east/west?

  7. Scott

    Odd how threatening it can be to ask people to imagine making a minor change to how much land is dedicated to freeways (5-10%) One dude is going to quit his job in downtown Minneapolis and maybe even move out of MN. 🙂

    Hiawatha Avenue is a prime candidate for a down-sizing- especially south of Lake Street based on the level of traffic and its’ poor function. Despite 50mph+ traffic speeds, the light timing makes traveling the corridor much slower. It would be awesome to rebuild it as a normal City street like Minneahaha Avenue, which functions more humanely. Plus, we already have LRT running alongside it.

    1. Brian

      You would quit your downtown job too if your commute increased by an hour or more per day if highways were removed. If the bus had to travel fifteen miles at 30 MPH plus get stuck on city streets with all the previous highway users my commute time would increase significantly.

      Trust me, I would prefer to live a lot closer to reduce my commute time, but city zoning rules pushed me way out to the fringe of the metro area.

        1. Jonathan Foster

          Hi Janne,

          Do you have examples of what has sprung up in other cities where freeways/ramps were removed?

          1. Janne

            The Embarcadero in San Francisco and the Big Dig in Boston are the iconic American stories. Here’s a story with six examples from around the world.

            They all tend to be massive in scale – freeway removal rather than entrance/exit removal or reclaiming slopes using retaining walls. But this wikipedia article has a long list of projects that may include some smaller changes.

            1. Sean Hayford OlearySean Hayford Oleary

              For an example in the spirit of 4th St N, Octavia Blvd is a nice example. In many ways I think San Francisco stuff is a hard comparison to make, but this is actually very similar, of a final stub of a mainline freeway getting closer to a business district. I’ve driven and walked Octavia, and despite having a lot of traffic, it seems to function pretty well.

            2. Brian

              Half of the listed freeway removals only removed the surface freeway. Tunnels were built to move the freeway underground.

              Has any city actually severed a major east/west or north/south cross country interstate?

              1. Nathanael

                Syracuse, NY is working on it. (Nobody can afford to rebuild the collapsing north-south elevated highway which severs the center of town, and nobody wants it rebuilt.) The traffic will be rerouted to the beltway, which is fine — minute or two longer.

        2. Brian

          I am planning to build a large garage to house a large motorhome. For it to fit requires a minimum of 600 square feet with 13 or 14 foot sidewalls.

          Various zoning rules:

          1. Limits on total size of all garage space of 750 to 1000 square feet.
          2. Sidewall height limits of 10 feet or 12 feet.
          3. Garage can be no taller than house. (Requires full two stories.)

          The height thing is usually the killer.

          I eventually found a suburb that allows garages up to 3,000 square feet with a height limit of 45 feet.

          1. Monte Castleman

            That’s something that’s become an issue in Bloomington in the past, people were putting in truly monster garages with four stalls, storage space, a loft, and whatnot that would often be bigger than the original 1960s house, until they finally put the kibosh on it a few years ago.

            Then recently they stopped doing variances for outdoor storage of RVs. The reason being they were taking up a large amount of city staff resources and fueling neighborhood feuds, neighbors felt they were bullied into supporting a variance, or alternatively the applicants felt the neighbors were opposing it as a vendetta rather than the merits of the variance itself.

            This type of stuff seems to be issues for inner ring suburbs. The outer ring suburbs have room and zoning for people with a lot of stuff while people tend not to even try it in the city- how many lots could you physically fit a boat or RV on if you even could get do it legally?

  8. Matt L

    One, don’t blame Janne for my suggestion of removing freeways within the loop. Her suggestion is much less radical.

    Second, I think you’ll find that those of us who are interested in radically reducing freeway miles are also interested in the transit investments needed to make it work, as well as the zoning changes needed to allow more people to live in walkable, bikeable, and transit-rich areas. (As for the question of a garage large enough for an RV, I would suggest finding a place to store it that’s not at your own home, which is what my parents did with their pop-up camper for many years during the winter. They found a guy in rural Wisconsin that rented out space in basically a large barn.)

    Third, one of the things that has really radicalized me on this issue has been touched on a few times but I want to say it again. Whenever we (or other cities) have a major construction project that shuts down large parts of an urban freeway, the traffic after the first day or two is nowhere near as bad as everyone expects. It turns out that street grids are very good at distributing traffic. Do you remember the freakout that they had in LA about the impending “carmageddon”? Turns out everything was fine.

    Freeways actually make that job harder, too. The worst traffic problem I have experienced due to 35W construction was when most of the E-W bridges over 35W were closed and Lake and 31st were a nightmare as traffic was all funneled down there. Without 35W severing the grid, this wouldn’t have been a problem.

    I realize that my advocating to remove urban freeways is a radical idea, but I also think that destroying large swathes of the city, largely areas populated by people of color, in order to facilitate the easy flow of cars from the suburbs to downtown was itself quite radical. I think it’s worth considering that it may have been a mistake whose ramifications we still deal with today.

    1. Brian

      The freeways are already there and the damage has been done. It isn’t like removing the freeways is going to heal a rift from the 60s and 70s.

      I guess it would have the desired affect of reducing trips because I would certainly think twice about driving from the north side to the south side as it would add a lot of time to drive around the 494/694 loop.

      Indoor storage for an RV is quite expensive. $200 a month easily in the metro. I live alone so any storage away from home is a pain because I have to get a ride every time. I used outdoor storage one winter and that was a royal pain as I spent hours and multiple trips getting my motorhome to move after it sunk into the lot over the winter.

      1. Julie Kosbab

        It isn’t like removing the freeways is going to heal a rift from the 60s and 70s.

        Some rifts cannot be healed, true. But there are other benefits to completely rethinking how we transport people and goods. Right now, the UN estimates a global temperature increase of 4 degrees C by 2100. That is basically the end to most coastlines as we know them, most sea ice, polar bears, coral reefs and vast swaths of population.

        We can’t fix the past. But we can create a less horrific future.

        1. Brian

          Removing highways isn’t going to work without major structural changes first. Employers could do a lot of things to reduce the need for employees to travel during rush hour, or even travel at all.

          If MNDOT barricaded all state highways inside the 494/694 loop today the use of gasoline would likely increase as everyone is stuck in traffic trying to find a new way to work.

          1. Rosa

            it would temporarily increase, and then people would adjust.

            And why would employees do things to reduce the need for employees to travel, if there’s nothing to push them towards that? There won’t be any pressure for that until their employees complain or quit because of transportation problems.

            The policy and design have to come from the government because that’s who sets up the system all the private players are working in.

  9. Keith Morris

    I’d still rather see highway retail caps and pedestrian-bike only bridges instead of lids. Minneapolis should’ve already built a retail cap between 16th and 18th on Nicollet. With the entire strip of businesses wiped out on the two blocks north of the highway it would have been nice to have a whole new block of businesses to walk to instead of almost nothing for the next year or two.

    Adding lots more people to neighborhoods while reducing their walkability is not good urban policy. While not as extreme as running a highway through it’s still harmful to tear down healthy functional one and two story commercial building corridors and lowers QoL. Look at the block with Village Wok, Bun Mi, Sally’s and a local coffee shop. All I saw there now is a Caribou Coffee and several floors of apartments. At least they won’t have to get on the highway to reach these chains that are right downstairs.

    Once again:

    1. Janne

      Keith, you’re absolutely right that many of our neighborhoods lack the amenities they need. The issue you’re naming on Nicollet is mostly one of zoning. The neighborhood has been petitioning the City Council (which tends to defer to the local CM) to change the zoning in ways that would encourage and require commercial in that area, to no avail. As long as our rules don’t encourage or allow the things we want in our neighborhoods, we won’t get them. Loring Park, in particular, has way too little street-front and neighborhood-serving retail!

      Certainly reclaiming some freeway space in this area would provide more land for the kinds of uses you (and I) want. And, we have to diagnose the problems accurately if we’re going to solve them.

  10. commissar

    cannot and should not happen. where do you think the cars are gonna go if you eliminate the penultimate traffic sewers? the streets, that’s where. you want to see what 140k cars per day would look like on 3rd downtown?

    and no, transit is only part of the answer. many areas are just too low density for transit to work.

    1. Rosa

      let the car drivers figure out where the cars should go. They’re not stupid. When driving is more annoying, we get fewer cars. The local, recent evidence for that is the decrease in overall driving while the 35W bridge was down.

  11. Paul Nelson

    This is a legitimate and serious issue, and I want to write more about this over time. The structures described as “freeways” are as I see them, motor-way expense ways. These roads are certainly not free in cost and the are heavily subsidized. In the US our fuel tax system charges the lowest of many countries except Mexico that has no gas tax. –
    see: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fuel_tax#/media/File:Fuel_tax_in_OECD_countries,_2010..png

    The other issue that can be cited is the fact that these through roads cannot be used by anything except cars, trucks, and buses, etc. The 35W and I-94 expense-ways traverse all the way through both cities, and do not have a parallel safe space for non motorized transit, walk and bike. The length of these roads within the cities and the metro are very short from a daily bicycle commuting distance standpoint. I-94 for example through Saint Paul, is only circa 10 miles long.

    Additionally, the interchanges of these motor-ways within the city take up enormous amounts of geography, huge.

    So I think this conversation of this subject should continue, and we should ponder what we can do that will work best, whether filling in the corridors to reclaim land, or redesigning these roads to accommodate more than just cars. Or, perhaps over time we can redesign the interchanges and slow the mv traffic a little bit within the core cities.

    Thank you all, this is a terrific discussion.

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