Let’s Put Gates on the Minneapolis Parkways

West River Parkway sign

West River Parkway

The Covid-19 pandemic has given many of America’s governments—local, state, and federal—an opportunity to fail spectacularly at basic governing. A virus which has been contained in many European, Asian, and South Pacific countries within a couple of months rages on in the United States. One government that has done a decent (not perfect) job with the resources it has in the Minneapolis Park Board which rapidly opened more than 12 miles of parkways to pedestrian and bike use to allow for “physical distancing,” and greater use of the parkways by walkers, runners and bikers. Unfortunately all good things must come to an end. As of today the parkways open to pedestrians and cyclists will revert to motorized vehicles in mid-July.

Social Distancing Closures Announcement

MPRB description of social distancing parkway closures

Pandemic or not, this is unfortunate. Given the numbers of people riding, rolling, running, and walking we should make the parkways exclusively open to human-powered movement more of the time. Particularly on the West River Road and around the Chain of Lakes space for pedestrians and cyclists is limited in summer because we have chosen to give most of the paved area over to cars. While the limited space for pedestrians and cyclists generated an all-time classic street.mn post on how to be a considerate path user, the current space allocation is a choice. We can make a better choice. The pandemic closures have shown that opening the road space to pedestrians and cyclists is popular with use up substantially in the first month of reduced car traffic. The proximate reason for the parkways re-opening to cars is money: the $250,000 allocated for cone and sign rental only lasts through July.

How do we keep a good thing going? Perhaps the park board should own it’s own cones?

Owning cones is not as cheap as you might think, however.

So if we want to make parkways open to pedestrians and cyclists (and closed to cars) an ongoing thing we shouldn’t be thinking about signs weighed down by sandbags or putting down rubber cones— they are kind of ugly.

Road closed signs

Road closed signs at E 24th St and the West River Road, Spring 2020

The answer is gates. For around the same cost as has been spent on cone and sign rental for four months we could install plain, utilitarian gates at the major access points to the West River Parkway and the parkways on the Chain of Lakes. Money is limited, and it seems these areas need a re-allocation of space to pedestrians and cyclists more than other areas on the Grand Rounds. Let’s start with the most popular summer biking, running, and walking areas. Closing these parkways to cars also has relatively limited impact on mobility and access to destinations via car.

Taking the West River Road as an example, between downtown and Minnehaha Park there are four blocks (27th-29th, 42nd-44th) on the West River Road which need to be open for private property access. There are about 22 access points. A fancy driveway gate at Home Depot costs ~$2000. Obviously we’d need wider ones (so more expensive), but Home Depot is making a profit. Let’s call it $2500 + $500 installation for an approximate total of $75,000 to put gates on every entrance to the West River Road. Around the lakes I count an additional 62 intersections that would require gates, adding another $186,000 to our cost for a grand total of just over $260,000.

(Bde Maka Ska: 16 intersections, Harriet: 19 intersections, Lake of the Isles: 20 intersections, Lake Nokomis: 7 intersections).

Possible gates for the parkways

What about emergency service entry to the parkway? At nearly every point at which there would be a gate it is quite straightforward to drive over curb and grass and get on the parkway. Of course, this also applies to hooligans but it was notable as a parkway user that after the West River Road was fully closed to cars I saw very few instances of cars getting onto the parkway, and this with signs movable by most adults with a little effort.

An idea popular on my Twitter feed, and less popular on Nextdoor, is that the parkways should be permanently closed to cars. Gates would allow us to compromise safely. For example, the parkways could be open to pedestrians and bikes only for most of the summer.

But after about mid-October there are not many pedestrians and cyclists and the contest for space diminishes. Some of these parkways could be opened up to cars for an undetermined couple of months until in the winter, with exact timing depending on snow fall, the roadway could becomes an amazing cross-country skiing loop, or linear path from downtown to Minnehaha Falls. The current bike/pedestrian paths would remain plowed for the few winter cyclists and more numerous winter walkers and runners.

Gates would also allow us the flexibility to let cars onto the parkway during the summer at certain times if we wanted to allow people with mobility impairments to drive to destinations on the parkways. The West River Road, for example, has been thick with runners and cyclists and roller skiers and walkers before 10am, and a little quieter at midday, then thronged again with active recreation in the late afternoon and evening. We could, for example, let people with mobility impairments drive on the road on summer weekdays between 10 and 2.  This flexibility isn’t completely free: real people have to get out and open and close the gates; the road might have to be checked for cars before it was closed again. But most people wanting to drive round the lake wouldn’t need all the gates open. One could, for example, open up one entrance and exit onto each parkway so that drivers would do a circuit. It would be relatively straightforward to count the cars entering and exiting. The cost each day to have someone check cars on and off the parkway for four hours would be about $60, or the cost of just one cone for a month.

Perhaps (I really don’t know) there are not that many people who would take advantage of these hours open to vehicles and $60/day would start to seem an extravagance. At that point we could just adjust the hours.

The point is that for a fairly modest cost for some utilitarian gates Minneapolis can allocate space on the parkways more flexibly and equitably. Pandemic or not, the allocation of space to move on the parkways has been biased towards cars. Gates will let us share the parkway space at different times in different ways.

Evan Roberts

About Evan Roberts

Evan Roberts is an Assistant Professor of Population Studies and the History of Medicine at the University of Minnesota, where he teaches and researches demography, labor and urban issues. He counts it as a successful week if he has run more miles than he has driven. Connect on twitter @evanrobertsnz or now Mastodon @evanrobertsnz@econtwitter.net

17 thoughts on “Let’s Put Gates on the Minneapolis Parkways

    1. Peter Mason

      Great idea.

      Thought, warning, neighborhood organizations may help pay for the gates and give members remotes to be able to open and close them …

  1. Rob Jackson

    Gates are an awesome idea. I bet the public would fund them if the park board did a specific outreach to purchase gates.

  2. Pat

    To the people complaining about the parkways being open to cars:

    How often are you using the parks for running walking? I go use the parks every day to take my canoe out to the lakes rain or shine. If it’s not 75 degrees and sunny nobody is out there. So please explain to me about social distancing if the parks only get used on the nicest of days. People can run and walk anywhere. I think the protests go to show you can pack the streets with little or no spreading of the disease so why just zero in on the parks?

  3. Matt

    Could a seasonal closure of the parkways also allow those spaces to be leveraged by the kind of outdoor events that make Minneapolis so fun in the summer? Imagine the Uptown Art Fair or Food Truck Festival around Bde Maka Ska, rather than blocking off the Hennepin/Lake intersection. Might also help pay for gates or whatever method is used to block off traffic.

  4. Elizabeth Larey

    Here’s the deal. I bike. I love bikes and my biking friends. That being said, . I do not expect a major metropolitan area to ban cars down city streets. This parkway is a major thoroughfare. I don’t know if you realize this but most people aren’t getting back on transit anytime soon.
    I keep hoping people here would pivot to electric cars as an alternative. I’m not seeing this, so I guess I’m odd person out

  5. Wilbur Whately

    Not everyone lives very close to a park. Sometimes it’s necessary to drive there and hopefully there’s a parking area.

    Closing parks to cars will lead to nearby streets being lined with cars.

    And what about people with poor mobility? Screw them too, I guess?

  6. Mark

    Couple (not so minor) issues.

    The biggest is the cost projections are way off. Not just for the materials, but the installation numbers aren’t even remotely close.

    The other is that the park board does not actually have the authority to install gates in all these locations since there are significant portions they do not own. Doing something temporarily due to COVID is one thing, but long term it wouldn’t hold up. And no, in a few cases eminent domain can’t be applied since the entities that do own the road supersede the City’s jurisdiction.

  7. Marjorie Rolland

    Not in favor of blocking the parkways off from vehicle traffic more. As a 50 year resident of Minneapolis and not able to take advantage of the biking and walking trails — I love to drive around the parkways. Not sure when an old lady driving her car to view one of the cities best amenities became seen as so aweful.

  8. Hōkan

    I str that there were gates on Minnehaha Dr. / Minnehaha Ave south of the falls. That was a long time ago and not shown on Google Maps (which only goes back to 2007).

  9. Brian

    The city and/or the park board aren’t going to install cheap Home Depot gates. The labor cost, as already mentioned, is way low. $500 might cover the planning required at each gate location. Most streets in the city have many utilities that have to be planned around. You then have the expense of installing power to the gates if they have an opener.

  10. Anthony J Scallon

    Seniors and the handicapped are discriminated by the closing. Moreover, the Federal approval is for use by multi modal including cars. This closing has divided our community. Let us work together instead of just excluding part of the community by petition. We can all share the River Road.

    Tony Scallon
    Howe neighborhood

    1. Christian Huelsman

      While I’m a charge advocate for shared streets, I worry that with the lack of stop signs and at-grade crossings throughout long stretches of parkways, the design of such streets is counterintuitive toward achieving truly safe shared parkways. What’s keeping vengeful drivers from taking out their frustration upon innocent bicyclists or walkers? We need to assess the redesign of these parkways (narrowing, chicanes, street crossings, signage, etc.) before we can start to expect that everyone will play nice.

      Also, I think the use of construction barriers/barrels with poor mode delineation of through signage is making it a dangerous free-for-all already. Some of the altered traffic patterns have been confusing for all modes. I would feel better outside a car if this perpetual construction detour aesthetic shifted toward friendlier materials.

Comments are closed.