‘Rethinking’ I-94: When an Image Deceives

You may have heard about the Rethinking I-94 process that the Minnesota Department of Transportation (MnDOT) has begun. When I hear those words, as a person concerned (alarmed!) about our climate crisis, I assume it means, you know, rethinking Interstate 94. Like:

  • Do we need a highway through our cities?
  • Could it be filled in, or narrowed and turned into a transit and bike corridor?
  • Might it at least be partially lidded to reconnect the neighborhoods it destroyed?

After all, even the people who envisioned the interstate system didn’t think freeways should go right through cities, and it’s now not unheard of for cities to fill them in. Induced demand goes elsewhere or evaporates.

But very little of that appears to be in the minds of MnDOT, from the looks of Rethinking I-94 so far. It will be a relatively mundane bureaucratic process, dictated by external considerations and rules that no regular person can understand. Those of us who want to influence it, to improve its awfulness, are lucky that we have people on our side who know how that process works. I am thankful for them, and will be there to support their efforts as much as possible.

I’m writing this post, though, for reasons simpler than all of that. I just want to complain about the graphic that MnDOT commissioned to explain the public involvement process.

Mndot 94 Process

Doesn’t that illustration give you the warm fuzzies? Aren’t our urban interstates quaint, two-lane roads that meander through green spaces graced with rivers and their pretty bridges? Don’t they all have just two cars and one van on their entire length, with charming, well-kept houses right up against the freeway, since no roaring engines and buzzing tires are going past, spewing pollution to drive the people away?

Oh, and wait a minute. The Rethinking I-94 project, at least the part I’m familiar with, goes right through St. Paul and the commons area of Minneapolis. Why does this illustration look like it’s in a rural area with the cities off in the distance?

I’m not saying I need an illustration to be a literal representation of I-94’s ugly reality, like Dan Marshall’s post about the pedestrian bridges across the highway, but I think it’s a disservice to visually imply that “rethinking” will result in nirvana, when the planners have shown no intention so far of doing anything but widening the road for more cars and trucks to increase their throughput.

We need a rethought I-94 for the future of the Twin Cities and the people on this planet.


Pat Thompson

About Pat Thompson

Pat Thompson is cochair of the St. Anthony Park Community Council's Transportation Committee, a member of Transition Town - All St. Anthony Park, and a gardener in public and private places. She is a member of the streets.mn Climate Committee.

37 thoughts on “‘Rethinking’ I-94: When an Image Deceives

  1. Bob Roscoe

    When Vancouver in the 1960s was looking for a way to handle large volumes of traffic, they considered freeways that penetrated the city, but then rejected them and developed upgraded major highway routes.

  2. Elizabeth Larey

    It’s already built. Leave it alone. Sometimes this site takes things too far, and ripping out a major artery is one of them.

    1. Jeb RachJeb Rach

      Why should we leave it alone? It cuts through numerous neighborhoods in Minneapolis and St. Paul, many of which still haven’t regained their neighborhood strength after having it sliced in two. It’s an impediment to neighborhood mobility, and it uses up a lot of valuable land that could be used towards other purposes. There’s also a dense road network throughout the Twin Cities that could handle much of the traffic in some fashion.

      Maybe removing it entirely isn’t feasible at this moment. Maybe it’s feasible with some modifications to other roads, which we could evaluate as to whether that trade off is worth it. Maybe we can just remove it entirely and the existing road network will handle the traffic reasonably well. But we don’t know the answer to these questions if we don’t ask them.

  3. Mark

    At this point the focus should be on saving Metro Transit from route cuts. It’s going to be a brutal uphill battle getting people to take public transportation instead of their personal vehicle in a post-COVID-19 world.

  4. Alex SchieferdeckerAlex Schieferdecker

    If you are “rethinkining” something, you need to start by questioning the underlying premise.

    I certainly don’t imagine it within the realm of possibility that MnDOT would have come to the conclusion that the highway needed to go, but the fact that it wasn’t even included as an option, even if to knock it down, really speaks to the silliness of the “rethinking” of the study.

  5. Aaron IsaacsAaron Isaacs

    I-94 badly needs a Minnpass lane to speed the large number of express buses that currently get stuck in the congestion.

    1. Pat ThompsonPat Thompson Post author

      Yes, but it should be by converting an existing traffic lane, not by adding a new lane.

    2. Pete Barrett

      Some time back, MNDOT told us they were going to “add a MNPass Lane” to 35-E north of Downtown.

      Turns out they completely re-built the entire stretch of freeway.

      See “Trojan Horse”.

  6. Elizabeth Larey

    The only thing I can imagine is light rail with large parking lots located along the way so people can drive and ride. There’s no money for that. And there’s no space to put parking lots. If you take away a major artery, that traffic will go on city streets. Is that what you want? You can’t force people to take mass transit. You just can’t do it. Nobody wants to talk about the fact that we are one of the most spread out metropolitan areas in the country. Even if you ride ( which I do, drive to the park and ride on University to go to downtown mpls) you still have to drive to get to a stop.
    Mass transit works for inner city but not so well for the suburbs. Which is where the majority of people in the metro area live.

    1. Max SingerMax Singer

      Lots of people live in the suburbs now, but there may not be so many in the future, as they realize that continued suburban growth is destroying the rural communities that they consume and non-human communities of plants and animals.

      I agree that you can’t make people use mass transit, but I would also agree that you cannot make people and neighborhoods host a top polluter that dumps toxins into the lungs of the black, brown, and working class kids that live in the toxin zone. A majority of suburban residents would rather pretend these people do not exist as they commute to General Mills or 3M.

      I won’t tell suburbs what to do. But then, as a resident of a core city, I’d appreciate the same courtesy. Let us tear up the highways and figure out how to keep our employers and vitality. The suburbs need to stop leaching off our employers and vitality, and find some of their own, or otherwise, they should cease to exist.

        1. Mark

          Yup, General Mills is in Golden Valley, Best Buy in Richfield, Target has their north campus in Brooklyn Park, UHC and Carlson in Minnetonka, and Cargill is in Wayzata. But hey, the suburbs are leaching and should cease to exist lol

      1. Tim

        The current crisis is going to make a lot of people and companies realize that commuting is unnecessary anyway for many jobs (not all, of course). So you may well get your wish, but perhaps not in the way you had hoped.

      2. Monte Castleman

        Most people aren’t going to stop living in the suburbs unless the reasons they chose the suburbs- safety, privacy, space, economy, availability of new single family houses, how easy it is to drive everywhere change. Those that feel guilty because a tree was cut down to build their house probably aren’t the types that are living there today that will stop in the future.

            1. Adam MillerAdam Miller

              Here’s a rundown on the direct financial subsidies, but that’s only the start: https://www.theamericanconservative.com/urbs/we-have-always-subsidized-suburbia/

              This one, by the same guy, hints at some of the other indirect subsidies (although it looks like he never finished the series: https://marketurbanism.com/2017/09/05/subsidizing-suburbia-a-forgotten-history-of-how-the-government-created-suburbia/

              These are just from the first few Google results. There’s likely better/more definitive material to be had.

    2. Christa MChrista Moseng

      It’s not about forcing people to use mass transit, it’s about changing incentives. And yeah, if you disincentivize driving by properly pricing in externalities, and incentivize transit by making it reliable and frequent and comfortable, more people will use it, whether you think that’s likely or not.

      The car-centric thinking has to stop, and the cities will have to be the place to lead in that.

  7. Pat ThompsonPat Thompson Post author

    Does anyone have a response to the main point of the post, which was about the graphic?

    1. Mark

      Graphics are meant to convey information quickly and efficiently, they’re not intended for a literal depiction, and in this case doing so would create a product that was so busy that it wouldn’t be useful. In fact, one could argue that its current design sparked more conversation since it triggered this article.

      1. Pat ThompsonPat Thompson Post author

        There is a range of ways that graphics can be made. Visual interest is important, we all agree. Misportraying reality is not helpful, in my opinion.

        1. Mark

          I don’t see it as an intentional misrepresentation of reality. Honestly it just feels like you want to hyperfocus on something that nobody else is seeing. I’m focused on the words, the actual content. I have zero concerns about the fact that there isn’t a single freeway that only has 2 lanes. Just the same way I don’t look at a cartooon and wonder why the person only has 4 fingers.

          I mean where does the need for accuracy end? If that an accurate color for grass? Why aren’t there any lakes? Why is a car going into a road closed area? Don’t pine trees exist in Minnesota?

          1. Pat ThompsonPat Thompson Post author

            I don’t think I said anything about intentional. It’s more about lack of thought, and visual effect.

    2. Christa MChrista Moseng

      I agree with your point deeply. It’s a fantasy misrepresentation that appeals to people that want to believe 94 is idyllic and its premises should not be questioned.

    3. Pine SalicaPine Salica

      Completely agree. The graphic designers for mndot and even the contractors hired by Minneapolis are car-centric designers. I definitely should have written a post about the redesign of grand ave’s car-focused posters. It’s impossible to get “critical thinking” graphic designs about car infra made by car users.

  8. Kyle

    Do we need a highway through our cities? Yes.

    Could it be filled in, or narrowed and turned into a transit and bike corridor? No.

    Might it at least be partially lidded to reconnect the neighborhoods it destroyed? Maybe.

    1. Mike SonnMike Sonn

      “Do we need a highway through our cities? Yes.” NOPE, we most definitely DO NOT need a highway through our cities. The 494-694 loop and the 35E/35W/394/etc spokes can provide access stopping before they reach downtowns. And I honestly think we could handle the car traffic load w/ calmed blvds (think Embarcadero in SF).

      “Could it be filled in, or narrowed and turned into a transit and bike corridor? No.” Most definitely! Not sure why that is so easily dismissed.

      “Might it at least be partially lidded to reconnect the neighborhoods it destroyed? Maybe.” Easiest politically so probably will happen.

      1. Kyle

        “Might it at least be partially lidded to reconnect the neighborhoods it destroyed? Maybe.” Easiest politically so probably will happen.

        And we both can win with this approach.

        1. Pat ThompsonPat Thompson Post author

          Yes, the “only” issue is cost: Lidding is expensive, even if it makes more land that could in theory be sold to recover part of the cost. Filling in is cheap and also makes land, plus the land isn’t over a loud, polluted road. (Maybe less polluted in the future as EVs become more common, but still.)

      2. Mark

        Lidding won’t happen, at least not to the point most actually want. Realistically COVID-19 has pushed the timeline back for many ideas/projects years, if not decades. Between cheap gas and more people opting for their cars to maintain the perception of social distancing you’re going to see more car use than ever for the next few years. I think some honest assessments need to happen, and the ability to enact change just got a lot harder.

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