Pedestrians, Cyclists, and Cars navigating the roundabout in Minnehaha Park

Why Isn’t this Intersection a Roundabout? A Wish List

This story is a wish list of intersections that I believe would better serve our community as roundabouts. As far as I know, none of these intersections is scheduled for significant work to be done, but if you throw out some beans, you might someday have a beanstalk.

Let me begin with an introduction to the method of my madness:

Why Roundabouts?

I know folks have mixed opinions about roundabouts. Drivers find them confusing, and bikes and pedestrians lose the right-of-way certainty that comes with a lit beacon. Traffic engineers have self-imposed rules and virtual simulations about how much traffic a roundabout can handle.

I, on the other hand, love roundabouts — also known as rotaries, especially out east — particularly for places where there is enough pedestrian and bike traffic to keep drivers guilt-ridden enough to yield to multi-modalists crossing lanes of traffic. If you want to experience what I’m talking about, go to the roundabout in Minnehaha Park at Minnehaha Parkway and Minnehaha Avenue on a warm day. While there’s no guarantee a motorist will follow state law and yield to someone crossing, frankly, over the past couple years in the Twin Cities, there’s no guarantee that a motorist will stop or even slow down for a red light, so I’ve quickly became an evangelist for intersections that include non-human hazards.

Minnehaha Parkway and Minnehaha Ave– the Gold Standard

Why these Intersections?

The first qualification to be included on this list is that I hate the current intersection. I have walked, biked and driven through all these intersections and I hate them. This list has a strong bias toward intersections in Minneapolis and St. Paul, because I have a strong bias toward spending time in people-scaled places with people-oriented uses. 

The second qualification is practicality. Although I love roundabouts, they have trade offs. Namely, they have a larger footprint than traditional intersections. Now, mind you, much of that footprint is for the round part, which is a lovely space for greenery or even a tree, creating opportunities for our urban canopy and habitat. I exclusively chose intersections that I think could fit a roundabout without affecting any permanent structures or displacing any people.

Third, I focused on intersections with a reason to have a non-standard type of intersection. Most of these intersections are within our park systems, where I believe there are sufficient moral or practical reasons to slow people down. I did my best to include places with potentially conflicting types of movement, like walking, biking, driving along a parkway and driving on a city street. I really do think that roundabouts, are the most elegant way to balance the needs of strolling, joyriding, commuting and other movement in the city.

Fourth, I thought about urban context. I can’t possibly imagine all the uses of any given street, but I make plenty of mention of nearby uses, destinations and forms. Also, I make reference to the comprehensive plans, back-burner projects and idle dreams that I know are out there, to make the case that a roundabout at each of these cross streets is appropriate not only today, but in the future.

Wish One: West River Road and Plymouth Avenue in Minneapolis

This intersection is not too scary. It’s relatively low traffic most of the time, despite being located between downtown and northeast. Ever since Minneapolis made the Plymouth Bridge an A-plus walk and pedestrian connection (with no negative traffic impacts that I can see), it’s not so bad going along Plymouth or West River Road. The intersection of Plymouth and West River Road feels oversized, however; it’s incredibly wide and paved, but there’s only one lane of automobile traffic in each direction.

The problem with this intersection starts with the pedestrian “pork-chop” island, on the northeast side of the intersection. Not that many people are going north along West River Road at the moment, and I assume fewer large trucks use it than back when the North Minneapolis riverfront was more industrial. I can’t see why this island needs to exist nowadays. Plus, the island is confusing. It’s difficult to tell where you’re supposed to go next. While walking you can step over a curb; on a bicycle it leads to confusion as to what path and curb cut you take out of the intersection. That leads to conflicts with walkers. A good intersection at Plymouth and West River Road would invite folks to continue north along the river, whether walking or biking, as compared to unduly pressuring the much easier choice today, which is to cross the river to Boom Island.

With the Minneapolis Park Board designing the final link from West River Road to the Great Northern Greenway along 26th Avenue North, there’s going to be good reason to continue north along the river road. A roundabout at Plymouth and River Road Intersection would provide good provisions for pedestrians and bicyclists to continue to the parkland along the North Minneapolis Riverfront.

I’ll ask: Why isn’t it a roundabout?

Wish Two: 27th Avenue SE, Franklin Avenue and West River Parkway in Minneapolis

Franklin, East River Road and 27th Ave SE

If you’ve had the displeasure of traveling through this intersection more than once, you know how frustrating it is, no matter how you’re moving. As a person, car or bike, it is a slog if you have the bad luck of a red light when you get there. Being stopped at a light isn’t fun for anyone, whether walking, biking or driving. And given the five streets at this intersection, the length of this light is conspicuous.

This intersection need not be complex. Except for the lanes that emerge on the approach to this hell-intersection, every single one of the streets leading away is a simple two-lane street: Franklin, West River Parkway and 27th Avenue SE. That sounds wrong, so I double checked, and yes: Each is a two-lane street as soon as you get about a basketball court’s distance away from the intersection. Ignoring the turn lanes that get added for the intersection, would it not be entirely reasonable to have five two-lane streets meet at a roundabout? It may be slightly more convoluted than a four-way roundabout, but Minnesotans are getting better at roundabouts, and 27th Avenue SE, Franklin and West River Road is not that prime-time of an intersection. I don’t travel through it often during peak times (because it’s terrible), but my strong impression is that the lights are too long and complex — and probably unnecessary.

A roundabout would seriously improve how friendly the intersection is for pedestrians and bikers. Although roundabouts are less authoritative than traffic lights in getting automobiles to yield the right of way to bikers and walkers, they can be effective, especially where the signage is clear and the traffic volume warrants paying close attention. I think a roundabout here is as viable as the one in Minnehaha Park. 
And that comparison may be even more apt in the future.

The Missing Link plans for the Minneapolis Grand Rounds include converting 27th Avenue SE into a parkway in its own right. What would be more appropriate for the intersection of three parkways than a tastefully landscaped roundabout?

Wish Three: Victoria, Como, Wheelock and Maryland in St. Paul

Four Roads meet. Two bike trails. A park on one side, a school on the other. Why isn’t it a roundabout?

In what will be a recurring theme, this intersection is located along a Grand Round, this time the St. Paul Grand Round. While it shows all signs of being relatively low traffic, it is a very large intersection, and much of the traffic seems to travel north-south from Como to Victoria — the exact lanes of traffic one needs to cross to go from the Como Park and Parkway portion of the St. Paul Grand Round to the Wheelock Parkway part. Although St. Paul has committed to branding and navigability for much of the Grand Round, intersections like this are difficult to navigate. Walkers or bicyclists unfamiliar with the area may not realize that the trail extends eastward from Como Park to Wheelock. A more inviting intersection would guide more folks to the excellent parkway that is Wheelock.

Granted, it may have to be a somewhat large roundabout. The future H line A-BRT is planned to travel from East Como Avenue to Maryland Avenue. Going right may be pretty doable for a bus in a roundabout. Going left, 3/4 of the way around a circle could be a more difficult maneuver. That said, for its location between Como Park Senior High School and Como Park, this intersection should become better for pedestrians and bicycles. And there is ample room to make a wide-radius roundabout, given the pedestrian porkchop island at the mouth of Wheelock Parkway.

Come on, St. Paul… could it be a roundabout?

Wish Four: John Ireland Boulevard, Summit Avenue, Kellogg Boulevard and Marion Street in St. Paul

What happens when two boulevards meet? If it’s in St. Paul, the result is a parking-lot sized intersection. But it doesn’t have to be this way. First of all, this intersection is in a prime-time symbolic location: between the Cathedral, the State Capitol and downtown. It’s made up of ceremonial-sized roads that primarily serve local traffic; it lies on top of the entrance ramps that whisk distant commuters to downtown St. Paul. Marion Street, which emerges from Kellogg Boulevard slightly northwest of this intersection, is way oversized and ripe for right-sizing, having been identified for that treatment in the Capitol Area Planning Board 2040 Plan

This intersection also has a huge future. It will be where the downtown Capitol City Bikeway meets up with the Summit Avenue Regional Trail. If those routes are done well, a bunch of bike traffic should be coming through this intersection. It also will be the route of the future B line A-BRT, which may mean it can’t be a tiny roundabout. However, we can make that work. The Minnesota Department of Transportation already comprehensively tore this neighborhood down so there’s plenty of room to fit a bus-sized roundabout.

Can you hear Joe Soucheray hating this idea already? Well, I have a trick in mind for that. Put a monument to the armed services or the Miracle on Ice In the middle of the traffic circle. That would make a roundabout at Kellogg and John Ireland much harder to oppose.

At this moment, the Minnesota Department of Transportation/Neighborhood Destruction and Continuous Pollution is working on an update of the John Ireland Bridge over Interstate 94. The intersection is not in the scope of the project. But it sure would be neat if the bridge update was optimized for an automobile, pedestrian and bicycle roundabout at John Ireland, Summit, Kellogg and Marion.

Wish Five: New Brighton Boulevard, Stinson Parkway and 18th Avenue NE in Minneapolis

I’m a reasonable person. I understand that road engineers have to calculate how much traffic can travel through an intersection. That said, New Brighton Boulevard essentially parallels I-35W. It is an overbuilt redundancy route, much like Olson Memorial Highway on the Northside of Minneapolis. Its landscaping hardly deserves the name “boulevard.” New Brighton Boulevard is a “boulevard” the way that a 30-foot-wide, unmarked, curbless access road to a suburban development is a “lane.” A slight road diet could still serve the people who use it for more local destinations.

The intersection of 18th, Stinson and New Brighton is an excellent place for a roundabout. Once again, we have a Minneapolis Parks System parkway (a Grand Rounds one, no less) intersecting with an industrial sized highway. That’s to be expected for a parkway system that almost encircles the city. The punch is that there are almost no cues that Stinson is a parkway, save a Park System sign that is likely illegible from the cab of a truck, and some by-the-manual compliant signage about how trucks are prohibited along Stinson. 

But this big intersection undersells itself. Not only is it part of the Grand Rounds Scenic Byway System, but it is the effective gateway to the community of Saint Anthony. It borders a huge cemetery, which is an immense greenspace in an industrial part of the metro. The intersection of Stinson, New Brighton and 18th is actually somewhere, not that you can tell from the design cues. As a busy roundabout, it could better serve local trips, as well as better incorporate the Grand Rounds and the City of Saint Anthony as places to go, not just speed through.

The intersection is also, bafflingly, the intersection of three bike routes: The Grand Rounds, as mentioned, but also the 18th Avenue NE trail, part of the envisioned Great Northern Greenway, and the Minneapolis Diagonal Trail, a well-signed trail that I’m not convinced leads anywhere yet.

In either a brave or very foolish decision, traffic engineers have tried to signalize the beast of an intersection for bikes and pedestrians. Their — or should I say our — money would have been better spent buying cemetery plots nearby. Even doing everything right, going only when indicated, you are risking your life to a hasty right turn from an automobile. Drivers are never, ever paying attention. And why should they? They’ve just spent a minute or two zoning out at a red light. Their attention has wandered, come back with the green light, and now they will do anything to be moving again. They are trying to beat the person from the lane over in order to get to their desired lane on their new road. 

This intersection is too complicated to be safely signalized for everyone. I am saying this not as a bike partisan but as a former commercial delivery driver who had to travel through this intersection at least once a week. It is over-signalized and suspiciously over-trafficked for being a redundant arterial to the interstate serving low-density, low-intensity neighborhoods in the northeast.

For all these design and safety reasons, I think this intersection would be better as a roundabout. But, there’s a commerce reason as well. The proposed roundabout is next to the perpetually under-performing Quarry shopping center. If it allowed people to better access the Quarry without braving the wide open roads and the Quarry’s truly nightmare-to-drive-or-walk parking lot, perhaps the Quarry would do better. That’s a tall order- the Quarry is hostile to the folks just walking to their cars in the parking lot. In my time as an errand boy and delivery driver, the greeter of the Home Depot said it best, when, upon exiting the store told me to “be safe out there… in the parking lot.” A roundabout might not transform the mid-century moonscape of the Quarry shopping center, but maybe could be a landmark decision in better incorporating the Quarry into the community it is in.

Wish Six: Cedar Avenue and Lake Nokomis Parkway in Minneapolis

Lake Nokomis and Cedar

On a serious note, this intersection killed pedestrian David Phillip Norris earlier this year. City, county and state leadership need to recognize that this intersection, immediately north of where a freeway ends, is dangerously designed. Put a traffic circle here, and it becomes much more difficult for a driver to maintain their Highway 77 speeds on Cedar Avenue. It will save lives, and give some dignity to the lake through which they’ve currently put a road bridge.

Wish Seven: Theodore Wirth Parkway and Golden Valley Road in Minneapolis

I include this intersection because it has everything going for it to qualify as a roundabout. It’s the gateway to a park (and a city), has plenty of room, not-ideal pork-chop islands and a site of interest within the intersection to boot.

Golden Valley Road is currently a four-way stop, so it’s entirely conceivable this could be a roundabout. It would allow walkers and cyclists following Theodore Wirth Parkway more certainty. And, there would be an excellent opportunity to make the 45th Parallel marker into a more impressive landmark.

I was foolish enough to get an undergraduate geography degree from a school foolish enough to offer one. If we’re going to create the next generation of geographers (occasionally employed as delivery drivers), we need to celebrate our geographical markers and coordinate grids. If we want to instill a love for places, and inspire joy and discovery in children and adults, sometimes you have to slow people down a bit. They may delight in what they find.

What Now?

The Minnehaha roundabout viewed from the south (author photo).

If you are moved by or find yourself circling around these arguments, then let’s work together and make these bad intersections into good roundabouts. If you disagree, make a list and publish it on! Fill a list with intersections that could use a different design — or intersections that should stay exactly as they are.

This article represents the view of the author, and in no way represents the views of his employer or the advisory committee for which he volunteers.

Max Singer

About Max Singer

Max Singer is Minneapolis born, raised, and returned. He's had a lot of odd jobs and wacky experiences for being Gen-Z. Max gets around- at times by foot, bicycle, light rail, bus, car, boat, delivery van, train, and sometimes, escalator.