Get to Know a Four-Lane Death Road: Broadway Street, NE Minneapolis

I’m going to posit that most readers of are familiar with the four-lane death road and the very easy method of fixing them, the four-to-three-lane conversion or “road diet”. The road diet is one of those rare free wins in the area of public discourse, or it should be: a solution to dangerous and pedestrian-hostile streets that has limited effect on traffic throughput for all but the busiest streets, generally makes the driving experience more pleasant, and costs basically nothing at all – especially if the road is already undergoing the process of a mill-and-overlay restoration.

The recent Vision Zero Crash study conducted by Minneapolis Public Works revealed that our roads are twice as dangerous as those in New York City; that of our dangerous roads, the most menacing were the four-lane roads divided only by paint; and that the “majority of severe crashes involving pedestrians happen on roughly 5 percent of the city’s streets” – “severe crashes” being those that cause death and life-altering injury. Broadway Street in Northeast Minneapolis is one of these streets.

Broadway Bridge

Broadway St. NE passes under a narrow railroad bridge near Buchanan St.

Concurrently, a recent community survey by area neighborhood groups found that the status quo is not working for residents, with 61% of pedestrians and 91% of cyclists feeling the street to be “unsafe”. Broadway St. NE already contains a narrow railroad bridge that doesn’t safely allow two cars to fit side-by-side, and functions as some kind of macabre car-and-cyclist-smashing machine.

Luckily, Broadway Street NE is undergoing a mill-and-overlay within the next two years. The street is controlled by Hennepin County, which adopted a Complete Streets Policy in 2009, and is located in a relatively progressive city which also has a Complete Streets Policy. At a moment in time when walking and biking are necessary to prevent “rapid, far-reaching and unprecedented changes in all aspects of society” due to climate change, the county is seizing this opportunity to make it safer.

Oops, no, they’re not. Sorry. They’re actually resurfacing it to be exactly the same as it is now.

Why? Well, let’s get a little insight into the mind of the Hennepin County traffic engineer, from a presentation at the City Engineers Association of Minnesota a few years ago. The first slide discusses “issues with the term ‘road diet’”:

“Some advocacy groups and special interest organizations generally view 3-lane roads as being important for traffic calming, active living, and complete streets initiatives – occasionally, this has added a political overtone to the discussion.”

There’s an important subtext here: this is just engineering, folks, which is basically just an applied science, and is super definitely not political at all. Strangely enough, this document seems to conclude that road diets are usually a good idea, yet the county generally considers traffic counts above 16,000 as non-starters for the road diet conversation, and sure enough, Broadway averages about 16,500 along this stretch. Well, surely this decision is at least consistent with the federal DOT recommendations, right?

Broadway Traffic

Broadway St. traffic counts in 2017

Er, not exactly. The federal DOT, a well-known bastion of progressive urbanism, suggests that roads in the 15,000-20,000 ADT range are “good candidates for Road Diets in some instances; however, capacity may be affected depending on conditions. Agencies should conduct a corridor analysis.” With Broadway St. NE on the lower end of this range, and with the county having a Complete Streets plan, I’m left to conclude that an extensive corridor analysis was done, and that for some reason or another, a road diet just wasn’t possible. I’m honestly not sure; nothing appears to be available on the county’s web site.

Let’s consider the assumption that underpins the whole conversation, namely, that if traffic throughput is affected at all, then there is simply no consideration of a road diet. This is what reveals the “complete streets” policy of the county to be a sad joke: “complete streets” implies that there is a consideration of all trade-offs – safety, pedestrian and cyclist accessibility, the quality of life for those living and operating businesses on the street – but instead there is really only one: automobile traffic throughput. All of our street decisions are ultimately based on a single metric, and one that is absurd on its face – traffic throughput has no intrinsic value, while people having accessible destinations does. We’re married to it indefinitely because someone wrote it into an engineering codebook several generations ago, at a time when no distinction was made between freeways and local streets. Even the federal DOT attempts to explain that “trading a little capacity can be worth it.”

Even if you accept that traffic throughput is the most important thing, there is an assumption here by the county that it’s a fixed value, an immutable law of nature. But it’s not; induced demand has been an accepted and understood concept in academia for years, but is entirely ignored by road-building politicians and engineers. On January 11, Seattle closed a downtown viaduct that carried 90,000 cars a day. A traffic apocalypse was predicted, and sure enough, um… no catastrophe ensued. The cars disappeared. People adapted, and life went on. That we won’t make a better street because of a concern of a few percent automobile throughput reduction is, in this context, indefensible.

Hennepin County is being lapped by the Iowa DOT on street design issues. It’s time for this to change. The county has new leadership, and it’s time for these elected officials to direct policy, and for engineers to implement it.

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39 thoughts on “Get to Know a Four-Lane Death Road: Broadway Street, NE Minneapolis

  1. Bill LindekeBill Lindeke

    Thanks for writing this. NE Broadway gets my vote as the single worst street in the city. (sum of bad design + # of users)

    This should be a new ongoing series on…

    Hennepin County really needs to prioritize safety over speed here, but I have seen little appetite for that conversation so far.

  2. NickBusse

    It seems like converting Broadway Street into a three-lane would actually make for a faster, more efficient drive for most commuters. The way it is now, the two outer lanes are blocked sporadically by parked cars, while the inner lanes are held up by people making left turns. The result is continuous stop-and-go traffic, which encourages people to weave desperately in and out of the two lanes trying to find a clear path. Seems like a lose-lose for everybody.

    1. Monte Castleman

      If parking is allowed it would all have to be removed for a typical three lane plus shoulders configuration so that hot potato is probably another reason the county didn’t want to consider reconfiguration; all sorts of people would come out complaining, then they’d have to pay for doing a parking study which wouldn’t change the minds of people that opposed it anyway.

          1. Matthew

            The only spot on Broadway where people really park is westbound right before Central, in that little stretch in front of the coffee place.

            1. Wilj

              Yea, that spot is a disaster, mixed with the people taking the side-street next to it to the newly local businesses behind the Spyhouse combined with the lack of a turn lane, lack of visability, too narrow of a road, next to the busy Broadway/Central intersection.

              There is parking allowed on Broadway tho east of there before the RR bridge. It is crazy, but people are parked there sometimes.

              One would think that the addition of these local businesses (spyhouse, breweries, offices, yoga places, whatevers) would have caused some appetite for a reevaluation of that stretch of Broadway in particular. Especially as it’ll get worse as, along the other side of Central, the former artist-loft/space areas get converted to denser enterprises. Furthermore, one would think that these businesses would have an opinion about the unsafe environment around them…

              Hennepin County has always been terrible with street design. Just look at the debacle regarding 26th/Minnehaha just south of Lake St.

              [WORDPRESS HASHCASH] The poster sent us ‘0 which is not a hashcash value.

        1. Andrew Evans

          People park there all the time west of and around Central Ave, and it’s annoying. It’s only no parking in spots between 7am and 5pm, or something like that. Lowry too.

    2. Matt SteeleMatt

      A three-lane profile would also allow medians at certain cross streets to force right-in-right-out traffic and provide safer crossings for bikes/peds. This actually helps traffic in certain circumstances too, which is the reason why the county installed such a median at Oakland (between Park and Portland) when they implemented a road diet on 46th St a few years ago. These east-west streets in Minneapolis have intersections every 300 feet, and alley intersections spaced even closer. It’s a mess of turning traffic.

    3. Rosa

      Yep. The weaving and looking over shoulders doesn’t really gain drivers much speed and makes them MUCH more unsafe for other road users.

  3. Sean Hayford OlearySean Hayford Oleary

    Nice article, Jeff, and I agree that maintaining Broadway in its current form does its user a disservice.

    Have you reached out to anyone at the County? Whether informally or through a data practices request, I suspect you could get a lot more detail on what the decision-making process was. I strongly doubt the outcome was for lack of deliberating on it. I wish the County was more transparent with the process they go through to make these determinations.

    In some cases, I think the data would convince the general public that additional capacity is worth it. In some others, I think they would disagree. (And that disagreement would probably be something worth having?)

    Lighter note: drives me crazy how the road is “Broadway” (or Broadway Ave) in North, but “Broadway St” in Northeast.

    1. Jeffrey Klein

      Thanks. The name is so weird that I had it wrong in my first draft, even though I’ve lived two blocks from it for six years. I would love to see a separate entry for W. Broadway Ave.

      As far as the county, I’ve had some involvement with the neighborhood committee that’s been in contact with them (see, who are doing their best to work with the county on other improvements and are not involved in this snarky bit of writing). The message as I understand it has been that a conversation is not on the table because traffic.

      1. commissar

        w broadway in north is suuuper busy all the time. a road diet, it hink, is not in the cards here.

  4. Monte Castleman

    State rules for require a traffic study (corridor analysis) at AADT above 15,000, because that’s where it gets more and more situational about whether it works or not. That’s why 15,000 is the de-facto limit in most cases in Minnesota- traffic studies cost money. Occam’s Razor here is that they didn’t do a traffic study because it wasn’t in the budget, so they just put everything back like it was.

    1. Bill LindekeBill Lindeke

      A key point is that Hennepin County PW has been talking about changing their priorities for a long time, but but not actually doing it. So calling them out on that is justifiable, and excuses are just that…

  5. Matt SteeleMatt Steele

    The idea that you preserve features of a street or road that account for the same or even greater volumes of traffic is – by itself – a political choice. It’s a political choice that is currently on auto-pilot, but it’s still a political choice. e.g. rebuilding I-35W through South Minneapolis.

    1. Brian

      Where would the 100,000+ vehicles go if MNDOT simply removed 35W? A lot of the vehicles would simply move to neighborhood streets and Hwy 100.

      A certain number of trips would simply not happen, but people still need to go to work. I live off of 35W in the north and it would certainly cut back on my trips south of Minneapolis since taking the 494/694 loop would add a lot of miles and time.

      A good thing is that the state government would get a good cleaning as many elected officials representing the metro would be out of office if they let this happen.

  6. Sean R

    Look what how badly the County bungled Lowry on the northside as an example of their thinking. Overbuilt road in the style of 1960s slum clearing.

  7. Maura T

    Hi! You linked to Angela Conley, who is awesome, but Irene Fernando is the new commissioner for this district. She ran a campaign that stressed transparency, so I’m curious what her response to this will be. As her constituent, I’ll email her to find out, and encourage fellow Nordeasters to do the same!

    1. Jeffrey Klein


      Yeah I tried to include both links but I should have made that more clear.

      I’ve spoken to Irene and she seems eager to make the county government work better. In terms of transparency, I think the thing we should be pushing on is exactly what is the ATD number above which a conversion won’t be considered (I’ve heard 15000 and 16000), and why is it set at what it is – is that value consistent with the county’s goals and complete streets policy?

  8. Scott

    Great post (including the snark). 🙂 Poor Hennepin County is strapped for cash, and cannot afford to study whether to make their roadways less deadly?

    Should readers contact our County Commissioners about this?

  9. Meg

    If Portland and Park avenues in south Mpls can go down to 2 lanes for cars then it sure seems like Broadway could go on a diet, too!

  10. Dave

    Broadway St NE is awful for pedestrians. Broadway St NE is awful for bikers. Broadway St NE is awful for children. Best of all, Broadway St NE is awful for CARS! I work right on Broadway, so I interact frequently as a biker, walker and driver. It’s nearly impossible to cross on foot. On a bike I favor the sidewalk. Best of luck to those who brave the road on two wheels. When I drive, I am constantly terrified (particularly at the Central NE/Broadway intersection) of hitting someone or crashing into another car. If you drive at or near (+2/3 MPH) the speed limit, you are tailgated and recklessly passed.

    It needs to be improved.

    1. Bill LindekeBill Lindeke

      Correct. It’s also awful for cars! This kind street design is unforgiveable, and I cannot fathom that the County is going to re-do it as is. Very disheartening.

    2. Evelyn Donovan

      You hit the nail on the head! Broadway is dangerous. I cannot count the number of times that I have nearly been run over while in a pedestrian crossing during broad daylight. Accidents are becoming a regular occurence on Broadway & Marshall. Quite frankly it is not safe to step off the curb anymore.

    3. Andrew Evans

      Dave – it would help if MPD cared about speeding and traffic laws. It wouldn’t be too terrible with everyone going around the speed limit.

  11. Brian

    How do you do a road diet on Broadway with a bridge pier in the center of the road? Broadway should probably be just two lanes under the bridge as it is barely wide enough for two cars as it is. There would probably be room for a bike lane if they went to a single lane under the bridge.

    The bridge really should be replaced, but I am sure the answer will be they don’t have the millions to replace the bridge.

  12. PoorRoadPlanning

    downsizing to 3 lanes would create rush hour gridlock (and exacerbate some of the safety concerns) as soon as one vehicle needs to make a left turn. The traffic with 4 lanes is a problem on this road as it stands, so reducing lanes will make this considerably worse. Don’t need a bike lane on this road, there are already bike routes albeit not perfect but plenty of them in NE already. Planning and incentives need to happen on a larger scale to encourage people alternatives to driving in order to remove some vehicles and reduce traffic congestion. Enhanced public transport options should be #1

    1. Brian

      How would a center lane just for turns cause gridlock when a car needs to turn left? The car turning left goes into the center turn lane and the cars going straight continue as normal.

    2. Bill LindekeBill Lindeke

      A bit more gridlock is a good tradeoff for having far more safety for drivers, people on foot. etc.

      A great example is Maryland Avenue in Saint Paul, where a 4-3 conversion was installed as a “test” after a fatality caused by the 4-lane design. Do we want to wait until someone in Northeast is killed, or fix the problem now? Are preventing crashes, deaths, and injuries, and boosting walking and quality of life on the sidewalks of Northeast, worth the tradeoff of having a few more seconds of traffic to deal with? I say yes.

    3. Andrew Evans

      Broadway is better and faster than Lowry, but I’ve been stuck in Lowry traffic for at least 15 to 20 min going west from Central across the bridge. Mostly due to left hand turning traffic, or then right hand turning traffic and pedestrians.

      I’m not sure they need bike lanes on those two streets, where side streets exist, but a center turn lane would be great.

  13. Steve Gjerdingen

    A 4 lane road that I dislike more than Broadway would be Cedar Ave in South Minneapolis. It’s constantly busy (especially with all the 35w construction) cars stopping, parking, turning, tons of vehicle and pedestrian activity. It’s surprising more accidents don’t happen on that road. Broadway in NE is harder to perform a road diet on because there are fewer east/west alternatives for cars. Without Broadway there really isn’t a great way for people in NE to access interstate 94. Cedar/Park-Portland/35 all go in generally the same direction and can absorb each others losses better. Both Lowry and Broadway have pitiful sidewalk deficiencies and probably have less pedestrians than some of the stroads with larger sidewalks in south Minneapolis do.

    I wonder if maybe they should just take Lowry or Broadway and make it more car friendly (fix the narrow railroad underpasses) and put the other street on a road diet?

    I think there are 3 goals/outcomes that could happen. Make the street pedestrian friendly, bike friendly, or car friendly. Unfortunately, the 3 seem to be mutually exclusive for Broadway unless you were to reduce Broadway to 2 full width lanes (no middle lane) to widen sidewalks and add bike lanes. Doing this would probably choke Broadway to a standstill for car traffic.

    1. Bill LindekeBill Lindeke

      Surely a terrible 4-lane death road! I concur, though I still find Broadway more existentially threatening…

      Maybe it’s all a matter of geographic perspective?

  14. Allen

    On January 11, Seattle closed a downtown viaduct that carried 90,000 cars a day. A traffic apocalypse was predicted, and sure enough, um… no catastrophe ensued. The cars disappeared. People adapted, and life went on.

    This is a straw man. We’re only a couple weeks out. We don’t know what happened.

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