Minneapolis is often ranked among the top bicycle cities within the US. Our commute mode share is high, relatively, and the pace at which we build new protected facilities is quicker than most other US Cities. Though, in a global comparison, Minneapolis is still very auto-centric, as are most places in the US.
Fortunately, Minneapolis has set some aggressive bike friendly goals and policies, some of which have made Minneapolis a trailblazer in the bicycling realm. Efforts such as eliminating minimum parking requirements, flipping the transportation hierarchy to prioritize the most vulnerable road users, and setting a goal of zero traffic fatalities by 2027 paint a bright, hopeful future for bicycling in the city. To continue making strides towards these goals and policies though, Minneapolis will need to make meaningful and ambitious bicycle infrastructure investments.
A recent study has found that the increased prevalence of protected bicycle facilities means safer cities for all. Looking at the Hierarchy of Hazard Control as applied to urban cycling, the results of this study make sense, engineering controls are more effective at reducing hazards than are administrative controls.
This brings me to one of the least functional and most stressful parts of my daily bicycle commute, crossing Hennepin Ave at 5th Ave NE.
Even though there is a user activated crossing signal, drivers rarely yield to people walking and riding bike. There is even a sign attached to the light that says its state law for drivers to yield to people crossing, but for some mysterious reason, the majority of drivers don’t believe that applies to them. As a bicyclist, I’ve resorted to activating the signal then scooting out slowly even with traffic coming full barrel. I’ve even slowed down on my bike in the intersection to give other pedestrians a better chance to cross. The speed limit here is 30 mph, but it’s not uncommon to see drivers cruising along at a prevailing speed of 45 mph. I’ve been hit (minor injury), sworn at, flipped off, and threatened to be run over (i.e. murdered) just for wanting to cross the street. Don’t believe any of this? Then here are some examples from some video footage I captured throughout the summer of 2018. You may ask why I have video footage of me biking. The honest, truthful answer is that my wife usually bikes with me, but didn’t last summer because we welcomed our first child. Since I was solo, I needed video evidence in case the worst happened to me. Morbid, but honestly warranted.
How can this crossing be improved? The City of Minneapolis and Hennepin County are currently in the preliminary stages of planning and design for this area. Initial indication is that the County and City will reduce the number of travel lanes from 4 to 3 and add buffered bicycle facilities for a portion of the corridor. Reducing the number of traffic lanes (and hopefully narrowing them and adding a pedestrian refuge island) may help improve safety of this crossing, but not much can be done to improve the salty and auto-pilot behavior of drivers wanting to get to work or home 15 seconds faster, as comfortably and conveniently as possible.
I believe that this intersection and location provides the City of Minneapolis with a unique opportunity to make a bold investment in bicycling and walking infrastructure. A way to move our progress forward to achieving zero traffic deaths by 2027. Crossing the railroad tracks and 4 or 3 lanes of speeding traffic can be done with our very own elevated Hovenring like bridge, a Hennepring. I’m not usually a fan of huge infrastructure investments like bridges to cross roads because they tend to be an expensive way to not solve the true problem, overbuilt streets with drivers speeding and not paying attention, but I believe the unique circumstances here may warrant such an investment.
At a vital node of NE bicycle activity, this bridge would connect the future diagonal trail extension, President’s bike boulevard, 5th/6th Ave bicycle boulevard through Marcy Holmes (leading to the Stone Arch Bridge), planned bicycle facilities on Hennepin, and a future trail along the railroad right-of-way that eventually would cross the river and connect to the Cedar Lake Trail. In fact, the Minneapolis Bicycle Master Plan calls for some type of bridge in this area labeled as NE-19: Hennepin Bike Bridge with estimated capital costs of $6M and yearly operational and maintenance costs of $2k.
Unlike the Midtown Greenway Sabo Bridge in Phillips, this bridge would be more direct for most routes. When planning for grade separated crossings it is important to minimize the amount of undue detour bicyclists and pedestrians have to take because bicyclists will only incur up to a 25% of detour before they start making riskier, more direct connections. Making grade separated crossings is useless if they cause so much detour that no one will actually use them. One only has to go to Columbia Heights at 49th and Central to observe how many elementary school kids will just cross Central at-grade instead of taking the grade separated ped bridge because it makes the crossing 3 times as long.
The price for the Hennepring would be steep. Many would probably question whether the investment would really be worth the money. Beyond being a major safety improvement and convenient connection for those riding bikes and walking, there would potentially be a significant positive economic impact in an emerging activity node in Minneapolis. Within the past two years a high-end coffee shop, brewery/taproom, and cidery/taproom have opened up within a few hundred feet of this location. Restaurants have also begun to open up along the corridor as well. Direct access from the bridge to adjacent commercial activity would be a huge benefit to merchants and may spur more commercial and residential development. In their report, Protected Bike Lanes Mean Business, People for Bikes highlights that better bicycle infrastructure can fuel redevelopment and boost real estate value, help local companies attract a talented workforce, make workers healthier and more productive, and increase retail visibility and sales volume.
An added bonus, the Hennepring would also provide some sweet views of the Minneapolis skyline.
On the surface, the Hennepring may be a gaudy piece of engineering that may not make sense. We could probably spend our transportation dollars on other beneficial things like improved bus shelters (horribly needed), dedicated transitways, ped/bike bridges over the Mississippi, and winter sidewalk maintenance. But, as long as our most vulnerable road users keep dying on our streets and drivers continue to drive distracted and disillusioned, the Hennepring is sorely needed. Not only will it protect and assist our most vulnerable road users, it will potentially spur millions of dollars in economic development and send a bright, bold message to the world that we are serious when it comes to moving around in our city via the most efficient mode of transportation.