Street at Washington and SE Harvard

Washington Avenue Cannot Tell a Lie

Change is hard. With Hennepin Ave S from Franklin to Lake being reconstructed for the first time in more than 60 years, the city of Minneapolis is proposing significant changes to the design of the street: dedicated bus lanes and bike lanes and the removal of on-street parking. Opposition has been vocal from many businesses on Hennepin who imagine most of their customers drive and park on the same block. Over-estimating the share of drivers is common around the world. Imagining the new reconstructed street is hard.

But just a few miles away right here in Minneapolis we have a bustling example of radical change to a street layout. For more than fifty years, Washington Ave SE through the University of Minnesota was a four-lane undivided road. Students, staff and faculty would scurry across the road to small businesses on the west side of the street.

With the construction of the Green Line, Washington Ave SE changed substantially. From Pleasant St to Walnut St, one-third of a mile of Washington Ave SE is transit, bike, and pedestrian only.

An area of Washington Ave SE with no cars permitted
An area of Washington Ave SE with no cars permitted

For another quarter mile from Walnut St SE to University Ave SE, private vehicles are allowed, but curbside parking can only be found on side streets, and is metered for at least 200 yards beyond Washington Avenue.

Eight years on, Washington Avenue has changed substantially, with more than 1,000 new residents living on the street. Some small businesses, like Espresso Expose, have gone, selling their property for others to redevelop. Others, like the venerable Sally’s Bar closed temporarily and re-opened in new buildings. But the north side of Washington remains nearly untouched, a decade after reconstruction began. Even on a street that has changed more than most in Minneapolis, there has been continuity.

Washington Ave looking west from Huron Blvd (photo from 2009)
Washington Ave looking west from Huron Blvd (2019)
Washington Ave looking west from Huron Blvd (2019)

Although Washington Ave SE has been designated Transit 30 in Minneapolis 2040, 3 of 5 new buildings on the street are parcel-filling 5+1 six-story buildings so common in Minneapolis … and everywhere in America. With Hennepin Ave S zoned as “Corridor 6”, the Washington Avenue experience suggests we will see increased commercial and residential building. While Hennepin Ave businesses fear their business will dry up without parking, the Washington Ave experience suggests something a little different. Property values will probably rise, and there will be business turnover, benefiting some and posing tough choices for others.

The re-design of Washington Ave SE has largely been a success, creating a more pleasant street environment, and contributing to increased residential density in proximity to the University of Minnesota. But the design has not been perfect, and there are instructive lessons for Hennepin. East of Walnut St, private vehicles are allowed on Washington, even though there is only one side of one block with driveways around Burger King.

Washington Ave map near University of Minnesota
Washington Ave Map near University of Minnesota

The flaws of the Washington Ave re-design lie largely in continuing to provide for a significantly reduced volume of vehicle traffic that could take alternative routes at little time cost. To accommodate private cars, significant space is provided for small motor vehicle volumes, cramping sidewalks and bike lanes, and cluttering the street with signs to try and manage the multiple modes using the street.

East of Walnut where private cars rejoin Washington Ave, the sidewalks narrow considerably despite high pedestrian volumes. The bike lane which spans a whole car lane west of Walnut narrows to a gutter pan lane. With buses turning onto Oak St, cyclists are squeezed onto a narrow lane, while pedestrians navigate a sidewalk narrower than found on most residential streets. The sidewalk space is further impeded by a large number of signs attempting to direct the conflict over space between bikes, buses, taxis, and private vehicles to which different rules apply.

At the intersection of Oak Street and Washington, cars can turn in multiple directions across the light rail tracks: left from Washington into Oak both ways and vice-versa, giving four possible left-turn movements. With light rail coming through the intersection every few minutes, the signal sequence is complex and prioritizes getting turning vehicles through between light rail movements.

Confusing signs where bikes, buses and taxis share the same space
Confusing signs where bikes, buses and taxis share the same space

The inevitable result is pedestrian congestion and pedestrians ignoring the signals. Traffic is light enough and the time between walk signals long enough that many pedestrians scan the traffic, step out and cross. There is a direct lesson for the Hennepin Ave S re-design: even fairly well-designed and safe intersections can still cause considerable pedestrian delay. Eliminating as many left turns as possible could make Hennepin an even better street.

Washington Ave with green line

As Washington Ave reaches its eastern end, a final compromise in favor of cars is evident. To accommodate cars turning right onto Huron Boulevard where many are aiming for the freeway, the sidewalk narrows again in an area of heavy foot traffic.

Right turn from Washington to Huron is narrow for bikes and pedestrians

Where it eliminates one mode entirely Washington Ave works well, and the city and university have created one of Minneapolis’ most enjoyable streets. Where Washington Ave attempts to accommodate every mode it works slightly less well. Attempting to anticipate every mode conflict, Washington Ave is dense with signs directing pedestrians, bikes, cars, and buses in slightly different ways. In several places the different signals give conflicting messages, or obscure other signs directing different forms of traffic.

The flaws of Washington Ave are evident because parts of the street show how we can build good pedestrian, bike, and transit focused streets in Minneapolis, and that people will want to be there. The lessons for Hennepin Ave are clear: car traffic will fade away quicker than we imagine, but the people will come. Though reduced to one lane only, private cars will still receive a disproportionate share of space for the numbers they bring to the street, and accommodating their movements will make the strolling, dining, and riding experience worse than it could be. Perhaps we should just close Hennepin.

Read more about the Hennepin Ave S proposed design at the city’s website, and provide feedback by January 28.

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