[Following on up Brendon's call for ideas about Park and Portland, my suggestion for the best way to improve these streets!]
Anyone who walks or bikes around the Twin Cities will have a head full of ideas about ways to improve the experience. These mental lists quickly grow long: a crosswalk here, a spot for improved signal timing there, a better bike lane down that street… It’s a continual mental murmur, an alternate imagination for a city that doesn’t consistently place cars first, second, and third on the priority list.
In the midst of all this imagination, it can sometime be difficult to separate out the really great ideas from the merely beneficial, the brilliant from the banal. But rattling around my head for some time now (for years!), I ‘ve been wondering what to do with streets like Park and Portland, 26th and 28th, SE University and 4th. There’s one simple single thing that may be the best possible idea for improving Minneapolis streets in “one fell swoop.” What’s more, now is the ideal time to start thinking about it. Now more than ever, this is an a propos idea, killing at least three birds with one stone, skinning all sorts of cats. We need buffered cycletracks on Portland and Park!
Allow me to explain…
Minneapolis’ One-Way Street Pairs are Dinosaurs from Another Era
One of my biggest gripes about Minneapolis is its highly problematic network of one-way, high-speed streets running through the seemingly worst possible places: Park and Portland, 26th and 28th, and University and 4th Avenue SE. (There may be more, but they’re not on my beaten path.) A while back, talking about these streets with the late Urban Studies professor and Minneapolis historian Judith Martin, she explained that these streets are remnants of the pre-94 and 35W days. Back then, they were intended to provide freeway-esque access between Downtown and the growing suburbs. As you can imagine having witnessed the current University Avenue chaos, this was particularly important during the freeway construction period of the the 1960s.
Today, these streets run through some awkward spots. The north end of Park Avenue boasts large mansions. Elsewhere, both Park and Portland traverse some of the most economically challenged neighborhoods in South Minneapolis, places that have a great many children and families. What’s more, SE University Avenue near the U of MN campus runs directly in front of Fraternity Row and the school’s athletic complex, which boasts the highest densities of occasionally inebriated pedestrians for hundreds of miles in any direction.
Then, on top of these strange arrangements, some time ago bike lanes were placed on these streets. And when I say “placed”, I mean “placed badly on the incorrect side in ways that start and stop without warning.” After skyways, these streets are my #1 pet peeve about Minneapolis. They should not be taken for granted. At the very least, we need to think very carefully about the way that they operate.
One-Way Street Pairs are Terrible for Homes, Yards, Pedestrians, Kids, Dogs, & Others
Anyone who goes for a walk down any of these roads will immediately note that cars move very fast. From a driver’s perspective, this is their chief benefit. You can “zip” through the city on Portland Avenue at nice 40+mph clip. Speeding with few relatively stoplights from Longfellow to Uptown is so much easier on 26th Avenue than any other option.
The downside, though, is what happens if you’re not in a car. For anyone living in any of the homes along these urban express routes (what Chuck might call stroads), the steady stream of fast moving cars is terrible. Cars are loud, and pollute the air. But even worse, they move really fast through neighborhoods filled with people. Mothers clutch children to their hips. Yards go un-played upon. Nobody walks down these sidewalks if they have any other choice. Property values along Park and Portland go down…
All these things are subtle and hard to quantify, but the effects are very real. Living along these streets is far less pleasant than in should be. In a sense, the people who live on, walk along, or bike down Park and Portland are paying the cost, while people driving in cars from points South reap the benefit of a few minutes traffic time. That’s something that might be good for commuters from Richfield, but it’s bad for Minneapolis neighborhoods.
[A very shaky look at an accident on 26th Street.]
One-Way Street Pairs are Literally Deadly & Unequally Distributed
Park and Portland, as they’re arranged today, depress the quality of life for thousands of people who live near there. But, on top of that, these one-way streets are also the streets in the city that literally kill. A cyclist was run over by a truck and killed on Park Avenue in 2009. Last year, a young woman was run over by a truck and killed along University Avenue SE. A woman crossing the street at Park and 27th was killed by a car in December. An old man crossing the street was killed on Park Avenue in May 2009. This is not even close to an exhaustive list.
Another thing to point out about these streets is that they just happen to be in neighborhoods with a lot of politically disadvantaged people. The neighborhoods along 26th and 28th, Park and Portland are the areas of town where people with limited means and limited access to transportation happen to live. This seems to be how it works everywhere. Places with well-connected residents get traffic calming, good bike lanes, and other amenities. Place without connections or political clout get dangerous roads.
The University of Minnesota has its own situation, where these streets are placed right thorugh student neighborhoods. Students don’t vote, and are sometimes restricted from participating in neighborhood and community processes. Nobody will complain when you ram a high-speed road through a student neighborhood, though they should.
The Benefits of the Buffered Bike Lane Approach
In the best possible world, if I had a magic wand, I’d wave it and change all these streets back in the two-way configurations they had before the 1950s “suburbanization” of the city. Not only are two-way streets safer because they slow down traffic speeds significantly, they are also easier to deal with for people navigating the city. Simply put, they’re simpler.
But that’s never going to happen. The city did do a conversion of a one-way street on 1st Avenue, near the Institute of Arts. But that was a short segment on a street with low traffic counts, and while it worked out nicely, most of the discussions about transportation in South Minneapolis seem to be about creating more “access” rather than creating better places.
Barring that political impossibility, if Park and Portland are going to remain the one-way “collector” streets that they are today, improving them needs to be a two-fold process. First, the streets very much need to be calmed, with traffic speeds lowered to something that tops out at 30 mph. That’s the speed that urban streets should be. 40mph is a very different kind of environment, not suitable for a corner like Park and Franklin, or 26th and Nicollet. Some sort of traffic calming approach, with narrower lanes and bumpouts on the corners, along with improved signal timing that really made it impossible to speed down the street would be a huge improvement over the today’s racetrack-style wide-lane layout. I’d even advocate removing a lane somehow, though this would probably be greeted with exasperating shakes of the head by any self-respecting public works department.
The second thing that has to happen, of course, is better bicycle infrastructure. No 21st century bike lane should be on the left side of the street, and no bike lane should be on a street where multiple lanes of cars are traveling in excess of 40 miles per hour. And this really should never happen in Minneapolis, a city that claims to be a national leader for bicycle infrastructure. As I’ve argued before, the way things are set up today, it’s inevitable that more people are going to be killed.
Well, the obvious solution, one that would solve many problems at the same time, is to take these Park and Portland and built the city’s first (real) buffered cycletrack bike lane. For those who don’t know, a cycletrack is a bike lane that’s separated from the moving traffic, either by bollards, concrete, parked cars, or ideally all three of those things. (If you want to get a sense of what a cycletrack doesn’t look like, go down 1st Avenue in the Warehouse District.) If you want to get a sense of what it does look like, check out this picture of one in Chicago, or this one in Denver, or this one in Copenhagen. Cycletracks are really the gold standard of bike lanes, because they create a space that feels and looks safe and is comfortable for all kinds of riders. Add because these streets would still be one-way streets, it would be a great route for cyclists!
On top of that, you could even do a “green wave” for bicycles with some stoplights timing tricks, which would both calm the high-speed auto traffic while making it convenient and efficient for bicycle commuters coming north and south from downtown to South Minneapolis.
Buffered cycletracks on Park and Portland would calm traffic, improve the quality of the life of the neighobhrood, increase property values, make the street far safer than the death trap it is today, and create a bicycle route that would rival the Midwtown Greenway in utility and comfort. It would really place Minneapolis on the map as a city that is doing creative and innovative things for bicycling and placemaking. In one fell swoop, you’d improve Minneapolis in at least five really important ways.
Can Hennepin County Think Oustide the Stroad?
Not only would this idea have benefits for all sorts of people living in the city, it’s very easy to do. Park and Portland Avenues are slated for a re-design and re-construction project very soon, and the plans are currently being worked out. Right now is the perfect time to think about re-designing these urban streets, which are really relics of a far earlier pre-freeway age that greatly devalued urban space at the expense of improving auto circulation. The plans are being worked out right now, and the great thing about cycletracks is that they’re pretty cheap to build if you’re already spending lots of time and concrete re-constructing a street. As Brendon has pointed out, its not that difficult to re-allocate some paint, install a little bit of concrete or plastic, and move the parked cars out away from the curb. It’ll likely cost less than one part of one part of one mile of freeway.
The problem is that this is relatively unlikely to happen, because Park and Portland are owned and operated by Hennepin County, and not by the city. Compared to the city, which is relatively forward thinking in terms of how they design roads, the county struggles with changing the status quo. When the topic of a Park and Portland cycletrack came up at the last Bicycle Advisory Committee meeting, and apparently engineers had made it clear that a buffered cycletrack was impossible due to “political pushback” and “pushback about winter maintenance.”
Now, I don’t know the details of either of these “pushback” situations. Political pushback typically means 1) people don’t like change, 2) somewhere, someone might have to walk a few more blocks for their parking spot, 3) some politician is annoyed that that they weren’t consulted earlier, or 4) it’s not in the latest highway design manual. None of these reasons are convincing considering the huge need for a change along Park and Portland, and the huge amount of people who would benefit from innovative thinking.
Along with an invocation of “emergency vehicles,” snowplow concerns are another thing that always pops up whenever you talk about re-designing a street. To me, though, snow plowing is a problem that just requires some creativity. The big problem for plowing is when cars drive over the snow, and pack down into ice. With a cycletrack, this issue disappears. You might even be able to plow it with one of those brush machines that the Universities use, or maybe a pickup truck like they use on the Midtown Greenway.
It’s frustrating that people routinely invoke wintertime to perform a ritual of “Minnesotan exceptionalism”, saying that, “sure that might work in [X city], but here in Minneapolis we have such extreme winters, so [Y good idea] is just impossible.” The truth is, lots of cities have both snow and cycletracks. Snow plow concerns shouldn’t be driving this conversation.
An buffered cycletrack makes sense for most anyone living in Minneapolis. The stories that Brendon’s post generated about people waiting to cross these streets forever, or almost getting killed, are an everyday occurrence. It’s no exaggeration to say that people living in these neighborhoods are terrorized, that they literally live in fear. By one relatively minor change, Hennepin County and Minneapolis could take great strides toward actually achieving and implementing some of the nice ideals that politicians and planners are always touting in speeches and planning documents. A Park and Portland cycletrack would foster liveable neighborhoods and dramatically encourage bicycling. Let’s do this!