Broadway Bridge

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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About Jeffrey Klein

Jeff Klein is a research scientist who likes to think about cities in his free time.

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