This article is based on a co-presentation by Elissa Schufman and Abigail Johnson to the Transportation & Public Works Committee of Minneapolis City Council on March 31, 2021.
We have to transform our streets to live out commitments to racial justice, to economic justice, to accessibility—and to meet our climate commitments, we have to do it quickly. Transportation is the largest source of climate emissions in Minnesota, and Minneapolis has the biggest opportunity for progress.
MINNEAPOLIS POLICIES VS. PRACTICES
Minneapolis has set itself up for success by developing policies and plans that lay out an incredible vision for our future and guide our actions today. Here are just a few:
- The Complete Streets Policy, which establishes a modal hierarchy (in order: walking and rolling, biking and transit, and then vehicles) and declares every transportation decision in Minneapolis should follow that hierarchy.
- The Climate Emergency Declaration, which says that Minneapolis has an obligation to “mobilize at emergency speed to restore a safe climate and environment” and “will take even more aggressive action to halt, reverse, mitigate, and prepare for the consequences of the climate emergency”—which is important because as noted above, transportation is the largest source of climate emissions in Minnesota.
- The Vision Zero Action Plan, which says we should eliminate traffic fatalities on our streets by 2027 and sets up plans for quick-build changes across Minneapolis.
- The Transportation Action Plan, which maps out how we implement the transportation-related policies set in Minneapolis 2040 and will guide transportation decisions for the next decade.
But while these policies are visionary, Minneapolis practices aren’t.
This is a graph of vehicle miles traveled (VMT) in Minneapolis over the last fifteen or so years. VMT directly impacts climate emissions, which is a major part of why Minneapolis started passing transportation-related policies over a decade ago. You can see some of them listed in red across the graph (not comprehensive).
Frustratingly, this chart shows that at last report, VMT was more or less the same as it was 15 years ago—even as we passed policy, after plan, after policy. Other reports similarly show that on-road transportation emissions have basically stayed static. And it’s not because we haven’t had the technology, like in other emissions sectors. We already know we need to get people to drive less, and we do that by implementing quality walking, biking, and transit.
Minneapolis on-paper policies have been getting more visionary, but in the meantime our projects have been “the status quo plus.” We keep our number of car lanes the same, and squish in a bike lane. We repave our sidewalks at the same width, and just widen the curb cut. That’s not enough—and it’s giving us projects that fall far short of our vision.
THE STATUS QUO: A 2021 CASE STUDY
We’re seeing this play out in real time with Hennepin Ave S. While many major corridors in Minneapolis are under the jurisdiction of Hennepin County, Hennepin Ave S is a city-managed corridor. Minneapolis has complete control over the redesign of this corridor, and it’s the first major reconstruction after adopting the Transportation Action Plan. The city is proposing two designs, both of which have pedestrian spaces and dedicated transit lanes. But while Design Option 1 has a bike lane, Design Option 2 does not, thus failing to follow Minneapolis policy.
- The Transportation Action Plan designates Hennepin Ave S as a low-stress bikeway (protected bike lane or better) on the All Ages & Abilities bike network. But Design Option 2 excludes bike facilities for the length of the corridor—instead proposing an alternate route on Bryant Ave, which is already planned to have bike facilities. This is troublesome because Minneapolis is effectively saying, “We’ll trade you something for nothing.” Their “alternate” bike lane is already in the existing plans, regardless of what happens on Hennepin Ave S.
- The Transportation Action Plan notes we need to triple the amount of people getting around by bike in the next ten years, which we can’t do unless we provide welcoming places for them to bike. The fact that a street without a bike lane was proposed indicates that there is a significant disconnect between mode shift goals and the process Minneapolis has to design streets.
- The Vision Zero Action Plan notes that Hennepin Ave S is a high injury street, which intersects with other high injury streets (Franklin Ave, Lagoon Ave, Lake Street). The Vision Zero Crash Study also notes that crashes overwhelmingly take place on streets without any bicycle facility. The Action Plan includes bicycle lanes and protected bike lanes in its list of solutions for high injury streets.
- Both design options currently keep four or five travel lanes for cars through the intersections of Lagoon Ave and Lake Street while removing the bus lanes.
- The Pedestrian Crash Study notes that Hennepin and Lake Street is where 20% of major pedestrian crashes occur, and has the second highest number of total pedestrian crashes of major crash intersections. It also notes that four lanes more than doubles the risk of crashes (no data for five lanes). The study recommends reducing crossing distances by eliminating lanes. The Vision Zero Action Plan also recommends safety conversions such as lane reductions on “City-owned, high-injury, 4-lane undivided streets, [which] include Hennepin Ave S.”
- Ensuring drivers can get through these intersections quickly at the expense of a dedicated bus lane is not in line with the Complete Streets Policy modal hierarchy, which gives transit priority above cars.
We should be able to rely on Minneapolis to adhere to its stated policies and plans, especially when those plans are based on strategic, equitable engagement. If Minneapolis is bringing forth designs that don’t match up with its plans, it declares that Minneapolis policy and planning is meaningless when faced with a small-but-vocal group of opposition—exactly the kind of situation the original engagement on the Transportation Action Plan was meant to counter.
Hennepin Ave S will set the tone for how seriously we take the entire body of work outlined in the Transportation Action Plan, and set the standard for what Minneapolis can expect from Hennepin County and MnDOT projects for every street they manage within city limits. Despite all of that, Minneapolis is still seriously considering a decision that will undermine its own policies and plans.
MINNEAPOLIS MUST ADAPT TO TRANSFORMATIVE CHANGE — STARTING WITH HENNEPIN AVE S
This problem is bigger than Hennepin Ave S (though certainly exemplified by it). To address the pattern of challenges we’ve seen, Minneapolis has to adapt its priorities, its perspective, and its timeframe:
- Minneapolis must move faster. Minneapolis has been setting policies and making plans around sustainable transportation for over a decade. We need to remove cars from our streets really fast and put climate-sustainable transportation systems in their place.
- Minneapolis must champion transformative leadership. Minneapolis policies the last few years have gotten a lot more visionary, and former Public Works Director Robin Hutcheson was key to that. Minneapolis needs its next Public Works Director to build on that legacy and be an even more visionary, change-oriented leader.
- Minneapolis must put its money where its mouth is. We have a ton of work to do, and Minneapolis is spending hundreds of millions of dollars each budget cycle maintaining the status quo for cars. Minneapolis has to actually prioritize people walking, rolling, biking, and using transit with its budget.
- Minneapolis must fix the process by which it designs its streets. We need a process that delivers outcomes in line with Minneapolis’ visionary policies—starting with Hennepin Ave S.
- Minneapolis must shift to thinking about redesigning its entire system, not just individual streets. Minneapolis has been trying to take visionary transportation policies and apply them (with varying degrees of success) to individual projects. But taking policies meant to address system wide-needs and applying them to single designs is going to leave us far short of where we need to go. Minneapolis isn’t on track to redesign all its streets in the next decade. Minneapolis might, in an average year, reconstruct 10 street miles, do some as-is maintenance activities on another 30, and do some quick-build activities on another 25. But Minneapolis has about 1,100 miles of streets and to meet our goals, we have to transform nearly all of them (or make the streets we do redesign far exceed our goals rather than just meet them).
To get where we need to go, we must rapidly and comprehensively change our entire transportation system—because our streets impact our whole lives. They shape our access to education, employment, cultural and civic spaces, daily needs, and social connections.
There is no such thing as neutral when it comes to our public spaces and our streets. Design Option 2 will hold us back from meeting Minneapolis goals and upholding our visionary policies. But if we choose Design Option 1 or better, Hennepin Ave S will move us forward, and set a forward-thinking standard for what Minneapolis streets can look like.