Road closed signs

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 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