What MnDOT Can Learn from Main Street

By one count, there are over 7,600 streets named “Main Street” in the United States. But there is only one that became the title of Nobel Prize winner Sinclair Lewis’ 1920 classic “Main Street”, and that’s the one in Sauk Centre, MN (alias “Gopher Prairie”), the writer’s hometown.

Main Street—the novel—is about a progressive and urbane woman from St. Paul, who moves with her husband to Gopher Prairie and becomes frustrated with the provincialism and lack of initiative of small-town life.

Main Street—the street—has three lanes, two parking lanes, and sidewalks. It is lined with stores and carries 10,700 vehicles per day at its intersection with Sinclair Lewis Avenue (!) at the center of town. In an ironic reversal from its literary role, it has also become ground zero for a forward-thinking initiative that has the potential to not just change life in Sauk Centre, but also on Main Streets across the state. Its only obstacle may be provincialism and lack of initiative in St. Paul.

In this modern-day retelling, the story would instead be titled “Minnesota Trunk Highway 71”, and the roles of both the sophisticates and the yokels would be played by different groups within the Minnesota Department of Transportation (MnDOT). The story would begin this summer, when MnDOT put in place a protected bike lane and some curb extensions on that literary street. Where the story goes from there depends on whether this demonstration becomes a footnote for the department’s engineers, or a foothold for a new way of doing the business of a DOT.

Safe Streets in Small Towns

The project in Sauk Centre is one of eight around the state that are being implemented by a group within the department focused on promoting walking. Like most of its peer departments around the country, MnDOT was once known as a ‘Department of Highways.’ Thinking about walking is an unfamiliar role for these agencies.

But walking is transportation, and whether it has always been aware of it, MnDOT’s choices on almost every project have had an impact on the ability of people to walk around.

With great frequency, that impact has been negative. In some cases, pedestrians are not accommodated at all in major transportation projects. When they have been, that accommodation has often been formulaic, with little thought given to critical issues for pedestrians like comfort or convenience. Even considerations of pedestrian safety, which theoretically should be in the wheelhouse of highway engineers, have all-too-often been compromised in favor of the agency’s longstanding primary goal of moving more cars more quickly.

Yet this harmful practice might be changing. The reconstruction of picturesque Trunk Highway 61 in Lake City offers some promising evidence. As it previously existed, this road (also known as Lakeshore Drive) carried four lanes of fast traffic straight through the city’s retail district. The people of Lake City decided that this didn’t suit their needs, and through their comprehensive plan, called for traffic calming. To its credit, MnDOT listened, and moved forward with a project that included a 4-3 lane conversion, medians, and larger bump-outs. The work was finished this summer.

A rendering from the MnDOT project in Biwabik. Image: MnDOT

An even more involved project is underway in the Iron Range town of Biwabik, which is built around Trunk Highway 135. This small-town strip (also known as Main Street) has two lanes of traffic and two little-used parking lanes that make the road seem far wider, with shops, restaurants, bars, and civic buildings on both sides. It’s a thoughtless design, and MnDOT’s reconstruction project is implementing a far more thoughtful approach. The new Main Street will feature landscaped medians at both ends of the town, widened crosswalks, and bump-outs. Construction will be complete next year.

The root of MnDOT’s more-promising recent work is the agency’s Complete Streets policy, which germinated from a direction passed by the state legislature in 2010. This policy calls for the needs of all road users to be considered and documented as a part of every project. But noticing these needs and actually acting on them—actually fulfilling them—are two different things. Pedestrians and bicyclists, more than drivers, are especially sensitive to issues of comfort, convenience, and safety. The details matter. It’s entirely possible to “consider” them in a way that is not much better than no consideration at all.

Think Global, Act Local

Taken project by project, these issues seem small. But collectively they matter more than the sum of their parts. Minnesota’s state highway system carries 57.5% of all vehicle miles traveled (VMT) in the state. It reaches just about every town and city, often passing straight through their cores (as in Sauk Centre). The right-of-way controlled by MnDOT is of central importance to just about every community and the state as a whole.

It’s also of critical importance to Minnesota’s efforts to mitigate climate change. Transportation is the state’s largest source of greenhouse gas emissions, and the volume of these emissions is closely correlated with the amount of VMT. These facilities are entirely within the control of MnDOT and whether emissions and VMT go up or down is a conscious choice that the agency’s leadership and staff make.

Unfortunately, the agency has not always been willing to admit this. Last year, MnDOT released a report entitled Pathways to Decarbonizing Transportation. It was an interesting report with a lot of interesting modeling. But it also placed significant focus on exploring emissions reductions strategies that the agency has little control over (the rate of adoption for electric cars), and downplayed strategies that are completely within its power (like reducing VMT). This is why I wrote in response to the report, that “MnDOT needs to challenge itself to reduce VMT.”

The same point was made in a 2020 report called Driving Down Emissions in Minnesota that was produced by a partnership between national groups Smart Growth America and Transportation For America and state sponsors Move Minnesota. The report notes that “[the Pathways report] suggests that emissions targets can be achieved with just a 5 percent or 10 percent VMT reduction in the Twin Cities metro area—and even allows for a VMT increase in the rest of the state… this approach will need to shift for Minnesota to achieve necessary reduction in emissions from the transportation sector.”

MnDOT is bound by law and common-sense to pursue policies that reduce greenhouse gas emissions from transportation. While the agency may resist some of the most disruptive changes, it could still pursue a popular and productive policy of both traffic calming and pedestrian and bicycle infrastructure investments in the areas of small town and cities that best support and demand it.

Think Local, Act Local

Taken project by project, these issues seem small. But locally they matter a great deal to towns and cities which might otherwise not see frequent state investment. Main streets have always been indicative of the health of their towns and cities. Ensuring that these streets are not just thoroughfares for people passing through, but places for locals to shop and gather, should be an important goal for Minnesota.

MnDOT can’t bring back every local business, but it can at the minimum ensure that the way it designs its roads helps and not hurts. In the past, the agency has helped erode the wealth of small towns and cities by either destroying it outright, or by undermining main streets with hostile design and subsidizing their competition.

Trunk Highway 10 conspicuously avoids cutting through the downtown of Perham, leaving it intact and thriving. Image: Google Maps

A short tour of some of Minnesota’s most successful small towns helps illustrate how local success and walkable main streets tend to be correlated. The Star Tribune recently reported on the northwestern town of Perham, which is defying the trend of rural population loss. It’s clear from the article that the town’s secret is rooted in local private corporations that have stayed local and continued to invest in the community. But I couldn’t help noticing that Perham has also benefitted because the local state highway bypasses the center of the town. While the lanes are still too wide and the sidewalks are still too narrow, it’s striking that bustling Perham’s Main Street carries just a single lane of traffic in each direction.

The southwestern town of Worthington has boomed in recent years in large part thanks to an influx of immigrants who work in the area’s pork processing industry. But here as well, the town has benefitted from proximity to the highway system (I-90 runs just north of town) without being gutted by it. Worthington’s multi-block core is made up of streets with just one lane of traffic in each direction, and the local state highway passes well clear to the south.

It is obviously not possible to claim that having a walkable downtown is the golden ticket to a town’s success, only that it can be a supporting factor. Just as denser, walkable patterns of housing and retail play a small role in helping reduce VMT and mitigate greenhouse gas emissions, so do they also play a small role in making small towns and cities wealthier by raising the value of their land. MnDOT’s exclusive focus on automotive mobility has created sprawl throughout the state, not just in Twin Cities suburbs. If the agency began instead to focus on pedestrian comfort and convenience, it could start to have the reverse effect and ensure that the state is a constructive and not destructive partner in building local wealth.

Towards A Proactive Main Street Policy

MnDOT’s recent projects in unexpected places like Lake City and Biwabik suggest that the policy and practice of complete streets is embedding itself more deeply into the agency’s work. But there’s also room for improvement. The process is fundamentally reactive, intervening in highway projects that have already been initiated for other reasons. Yet the global and local issues at play are too pressing to be addressed as add-ons. It’s time for MnDOT to shift to a more proactive policy.

This summer’s demonstration projects in Sauk Centre and elsewhere show how that work might unfold. Unsafe or unfriendly roads in high-activity areas should be a reason in and of themselves to redesign and rebuilt a roadway. Designs can be piloted using cheap materials and paint, while funding and engineering for more permanent changes proceeds in the background. This is, of course, the same model that has been pioneered in cities across the world, but it’s one that’s still new ground for state DOTs.

The time to establish this kind of thinking and process in MnDOT is now. The agency is currently in the early stages of the process of updating Minnesota GO, the statewide transportation plan, and is currently accepting public input. At the same time, MnDOT recently is hearing from its all-star advisory groups about the critical need to plan for a reduction in VMT statewide. These types of efforts will help make a difference in the agency’s outlook.

But the single best opportunity to push MnDOT in the direction of safer, healthier, wealthier main streets comes in the form of the state’s draft pedestrian plan, which is open for comments until January 11th. This is one of a family of plans for different transportation modes, which all rest under the umbrella of Minnesota GO. These plans will have a significant behind-the-scenes impact.

MnDOT’s draft pedestrian plan identifies priority areas for walking (PAWS). Image: MnDOT

The draft pedestrian plan is extremely promising. It directly identifies the issue that “current MnDOT investments in walking are typically tied to projects that are primarily focused on car and truck traffic,” and that they “primarily focus [only] on meeting ADA standards.” It is clear-eyed that there are challenges for directly funding pedestrian-priority infrastructure, or for exceeding minimum standards for infrastructure when appropriate. To start building the case for more dedicated pedestrian money and projects, the plan presents a “Priority Areas for Walking Study” (PAWS) across the state. To fund improvements to state highways within the highest-priority priority areas, the plan estimates a total cost of $200-600 million, depending on the intensity of the changes.

I’d like to see MnDOT run with this plan. Some changes could be made immediately. For instance, the state’s Complete Streets Policy specifically exempts projects in wilderness, industrial parks, and several other contexts from having to document their complete streets considerations. But the policy should also work in the opposite direction, demanding special considerations in pedestrian-heavy areas, like retail corridors and areas with multi-family housing. These areas almost always correspond to the highest-priority PAWS areas. Projects should have to document how they gave pedestrians priority in these areas. Projects should have to require extraordinary documentation to justify travel lanes widths greater than 11’ and a cartway greater than 33’ in these areas. The PAWS framework gives the agency the justification it needs to enact directives like this.

Corridors Of (Local) Commerce

MnDOT should also take affirmative steps to imitate these projects for their own sake. In every single situation in which a state highway runs through a retail or multi-family residential area, the agency should reach out to the local municipality and begin a process for making near and long-term pedestrian and bicycle priority changes to the road.

It doesn’t take long to apply this method on Google Maps and identify promising candidates. For instance, Grand Rapids is gutted by an appalling five-lane design for Trunk Highway 2. There is clearly a local desire for a safer street, as shown by the raised and textured intersection at the center of town and bollards protecting the narrow sidewalks. But these interventions are inadequate to the task. This street carries, at most, 18,000 annual average daily traffic (AADT). The current layout is a deadly joke that deserves an urgent response.

Another illustrative case can be found back on Trunk Highway 2, where the state has creatively managed to ruin the downtown of Crookston. Despite an AADT of just under 13,000, the highway there has been split into parallel three-lane one-way racetracks that divide what would otherwise be a wonderful small downtown.

A final example is Alexandria’s utterly senseless five-lane main street, where, for the sake of an AADT just over 17,000, MnDOT has trashed an otherwise intact downtown. But here, at least, we can start to see what future progress might look like. While the large issues remain unresolved, this central Minnesota town was host to one of this past summer’s pedestrian demonstrations, which enhanced an existing median.

Fixing these streets demands a robust and aggressive infrastructure effort. I can’t help thinking that Minnesota has the perfect model in the Corridors of Commerce program. As it stands today, it functions as a sort of reverse complete streets policy, funneling money to the rare places in the state highway network that were not already supersized. But the effectiveness of the model can’t be disputed. With different criteria for funding, the same approach could be re-engineered to do the opposite, directing hundreds of millions of dollars into quick-turnaround projects that would rebuild complete streets in the most critical areas (like those called out in the PAWS analysis).

If Minnesota and MnDOT are serious about combatting climate change and supporting small businesses, they should recognize the opportunity that has been created by dedicated planners and engineers. What happened this summer on Minnesota’s most famous Main Street should set the stage for a transformation of main streets around the state.

Alex Schieferdecker

About Alex Schieferdecker

Alex Schieferdecker is from New York City, lived in Minnesota for six years, and now lives in Philadelphia. He is still unhealthily invested in Twin Cities politics and development. Please help. His twitter handle is @alexschief.

16 thoughts on “What MnDOT Can Learn from Main Street

  1. Serafina ScheelSerafina Scheel

    It’s kind of interesting to me that many European towns fought to keep their downtown business districts walkable and rerouted pass-through traffic as it grew or slowed it considerably through the business district, with the vociferous support of the businesses. I suppose a lot has to do with geography–in small town Minnesota, most people who patronize the businesses don’t actually live in the town but widely dispersed across the surrounding areas, so they’re arriving in town by car. I’d imagine it’s a balance for small towns on the way to vacation destinations when considering the relative advantages and disadvantages of increased vehicle traffic through town.

    1. Alex SchieferdeckerAlex

      I understand there would be that fear.

      But I hasten to repeat that I’m not calling for new bypasses to be built, or for downtowns to be completely closed to cars. I think my suggestion is a simple one: in certain very specific areas, the comfort of residents, workers, and shoppers should be prioritized over through traffic.

      We need to remember that people passing through towns don’t bring any business. Only people stopping in towns do. MnDOT can make it easier and more pleasant to stop in town without preventing the ability of people to go through it as well.

      1. Serafina ScheelSerafina Scheel

        I’m not in favor of bypasses either–in US geography you end up with suburban sprawl in rural areas as chain businesses locate to be near the higher-volume traffic and you give people who live in the area a reason not to come all the way in to town. There’s a pleasure in driving through a small town on the way to a destination that’s been lost when we design all roads for moving vehicles as fast as possible.

    1. D

      So it has nothing to do with increasing the movement efficiencies of the billions of dollars in freight that flow into and out of Minnesota? Or improving safety for the ~30,000 heavy truck and tractor-trailer drivers in the state (nearly 2/3 of which are outside the seven county metro)?

      1. Sheldon Gitis

        Do the “~30,000 heavy truck and tractor-trailer drivers in the state”, more than 1/3 of which, apparently, are traveling within the looney-laned, cluster-fucked, metro area mess, move more safely and efficiently on the 8 or 10-lane highways than they did on the 4 or 6-lane highways? I think the crash reports would suggest otherwise.

        1. D

          The projects funded under the program are available online at https://www.dot.state.mn.us/corridorsofcommerce/history.html and https://www.dot.state.mn.us/corridorsofcommerce/index.html.

          Which Corridors of Commerce projects are the 4 or 6 lanes conversions to 8 or 10 lanes?

          Program history

          Hwy 14 and Hwy 15 Hwy 14 and Hwy 15 intersection, New Ulm, preliminary design work $700,000
          I-94 St. Michael to Albertville design options for lane addition $1.4 million
          Hwy 11 Greenbush to Warroad design passing lanes
          Hwy 14 Owatonna to Dodge Center purchase right of way for expansion $ $25 million
          Hwy 23 New London to Paynesville purchase right of way for expansion $800,000
          Hwy 34 Detroit Lakes to Becker CR 29 mill and overlay
          Hwy 169 Nine Mile Creek design work for bridge replacement $1.5 million
          I-35W Minnesota River Crossing design work $5.5 million
          I-35W Northern suburbs design work for MnPASS system $1.1 million
          Hwy 65 Central Avenue design work for bridge deck replacement $2 million
          I-94 Between Minneapolis and St. Paul design work for new pavement bridges and managed lanes $2 million
          Hwy 51 Snelling Avenue, St. Paul provide added funding for reconstruction project $1.4 million
          Hwy 371 Expansion to four lanes from Nisswa to Jenkins $45 million (2016)
          Hwy 14 Purchase right of way for expansion between Dodge Center and Owatonna $1.5 million
          Hwy 23 Environmental work to prepare Hwy 23 for future expansion from New London to Paynesville and Paynesville to Richmond $1.5 million
          Hwy 34 Center left turn lane in Detroit Lakes from Hwy 59 to County Road 141 $1.9 million
          Hwy 2 Reconstruct segment of roadway in Deer River $1.6 million
          Hwy 2 Passing lanes from Cass lake to Deer River Est. $8-10 million (2014)
          I-94 Lanes from MN 101 to MN 241 $28.3 million* (July 2014)
          Hwy 34 Passing lanes from Detroit Lakes to Nevis Est. $8-10 million* (2014)
          2Hwy 14 4-lane Hwy 218 to east of Steele County Road 43 $12 million* (July 2014)
          Hwy 610 Realign and extend highway from County Road 81 and Elm Creek Boulevard to I-94 Est. $100 million* (2014)
          Hwy 14 4-lane N. Mankato to Nicollet Est. $20-28 million (2015)
          Hwy 14 Nicollet Bypass (4 lane) Est. $15-25 million (2015)
          I-694 Add a third general purpose lane in each direction between Rice Street and Lexington Avenue Est. $35-42 million (2015)
          Hwy 169 Itasca County 4-lane from 0.66 miles southwest of County Road 15 to 0.3 miles east of County Road 7 Est. $9.5 million* (2016)
          Hwy 23 Passing lanes from Willmar to I-90 Est. $13-19 million (2016) Freight Improvement Funded by FY2013 legislation
          I-94 From St. Michael (Hwy 241) to Albertville (County Road 37), add an auxiliary lane. $60,000,000
          Hwy 14 Expand Hwy 14 from to lanes to four lanes between Owatonna and Dodge Center, completing a continuous four-lane roadway between I-35 and Rochester. $138,000,000
          Hwy 23 (North Gap) “North” Gap Project – Paynesville to Richmond — to create a continuous four-lane roadway from Willmar to St. Cloud. $53,000,000
          I-494 From France Avenue to Hwy 77, add portions of MnPASS lanes in both directions and I-494/I-35W turbine interchange. $204,000,000
          Hwy 169 In Elk River, from Hwy 101 to 197th Avenue, convert to a freeway. $158,000,000
          Hwy 23 (South Gap) “South” Gap Project – New London to Paynesville – -to create a continuous four-lane roadway from Willmar to St. Cloud. $41,000,000
          Hwy 252/I-94 Convert to a freeway and add MnPASS lanes from Dowling Avenue to Hwy 610. $119,000,000

          1. Sheldon Gitis

            Well, if you scroll past all the diversionary pea pod bullshit on your list, and get to the I-494/I-35W “turbine” interchange, it appears that in the vicinity of the “turbine”, there are (at least) 10 north-south lanes on 35 and another 10 east-west lanes on 494. Good luck getting through that mess during all but the quietest parts of day.

            1. D

              Well, if you took the time to do the math you’d realize the program has invested ~$1.1 billion and only 35% went to the metro area. Leaving 65% for projects in greater Minnesota which appears to correspond closely to freight traffic in the state.

              1. Sheldon Gitis

                The very long list of relatively tiny out-state projects may account for 65% of the funding, but the 2 or 3 metro area projects that account for the other 35% are anything but an improvement in the flow of freight or any other traffic. Pity the poor tractor-trailer driver trying the maneuver his/her rig through the I494-I35W “turbine” interchange. And even some of the rural projects, like the Pine Island interchange, are nothing short of ridiculous.

                MnDOT’s mission is to continue getting and spending forever increasing amounts on highway expansions. At the same time, it can’t even maintain the pavement that’s already been laid. MnDOT is all about perpetuating a Ponzi scheme, and moving freight safely and efficiently is at best an afterthought, and at worst, no consideration whatsoever.

                1. Monte Castleman

                  If a truck can go around the existing loops it can go around the turbines. And how hard is it to maneuver a truck through the nightmarish congestion due to a 1960s capacity interchange today?

                  1. Sheldon Gitis

                    I can’t speak for the truck drivers, but I think if you count the crashes, the number is not decreasing as a result of adding lanes. I would be willing to bet that the cost per capita of cleaning up the mess from crashes has increased as a result of the highway expansions.

  2. Monte Castleman

    I’m a great fan of building small town bypasses. It’s hard to find anything that’s so beneficial to so many people. People traveling through the area get a fast, unencumbered trip to wherever they’re going, and the towns, free of regional traffic, can make their downtown more pedestrian friendly for locals and visitors to walk around, shop, and enjoy. For a series of articles of here, I took the “old” road. It was really fun to do once, to do a leisurely drive and enjoy the sights along the way. I never want to do it again considering how slow and tedious it would be if I just wanted to get to Duluth. In fact I’d travel to Duluth (and spend my money there and along the way) a lot less if the interstate didn’t exist. And every time the Stillwater Lift Bridge closed for an extended period, business in the downtown went up because of how immensely more pleasurable it was to hang around there.

    A big point you didn’t really touch on is a lot of times it’s the towns that are pushing back against reduction in capacity, even towns where regional traffic already has a bypass, like Brainerd. They’re the ones that insisted on the five lane design on Business 371 (still a MnDOT highway). St Francis killed a MnDOT project to narrow MN 47 to two lanes and build four roundabouts in that area where two schoolgirls were struck by a motorist who didn’t stop for the RRFB. Conversely the three lane section at Lake City is what the town wanted, other options presented was one way pairs or maintaining the four lane undivided section. Municipal consent means towns can veto good design options as well as bad design options.

  3. Sheldon Gitis

    “Corridors of Commerce” reminds me of this MnDOT piece of work.

    2-3 years ago, (dare I say) the deplorables were trying to plop a prison onto the site to detain immigrants.

    Apparently, the latest plan for the site is to house refugees from the Prairie Island Indian Community escaping radioactive waste. Highways and casinos, what’s not to like?

  4. Brian

    Years ago, many small cities wanted the highway traffic on Main Street because they thought more traffic would mean more shoppers. It turned out that people often don’t want to stop due to traffic, especially if they have to. cross the road on foot. I often won’t stop anywhere on the left side of Main Street if traffic is heavy and left turns are difficult.

    Staples sort of did a bypass of highway 10. Really, all they did was to build a four lane road a block from Main Street. It is definitely better than the old two lane road for highway users, but not a true bypass. I bet business on Main Street is down with much less traffic. The new bypass has had a new grocery store built and the hardware store has a lot more traffic pass by.

    1. D

      It should also be noted that not every town wants to make themselves more walkable or pedestrian friendly. Many small businesses in agricultural towns still rely heavily on their customer base that drives in from the farm to get supplies, groceries, or gather for coffee at the local diner.

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