Did you know that Minneapolis has an 11-lane street? Did you know that some of our most picturesque places, some amazing architecture, and one of the most heavily traveled bike routes in the city sit cheek-to-jowl with what is effectively an at-grade freeway? It’s true. It’s called Hennepin Avenue, it’s called Lyndale Avenue, it’s called Highway 55, it’s called the Loring Greenway, and it’s the Bottleneck.
The Bottleneck is historic, it existed long before the freeway systems and the automobile, and according to Alex Baumann, used to be a swankier place. I imagine prior to the automobile, the intersection of two major streets like Hennepin and Lyndale was a place of lively commerce, a place where commercial enterprises wanted to be and housing was in high demand. Since then, it’s become a combination local street, county road, state highway and freeway on-ramp. Combined, the north and south segments in the Bottleneck serve about 50,000 cars per day. Over at Strong Towns, Chuck might call it a “stroad“, but I’d say it’s more accurately described as a streeway, given it’s massive size, speed and access to the interstate. I think few would argue this stretch of street/highway serves local land uses well, it’s much more oriented towards moving lots of cars to other places, fast.
And that’s the issue. I argue that first and foremost, this street should serve local travel (by car, bike and bus) and local land uses, with emphasis on regional travel being secondary. Downtown was cut off from the rest of the city by a freeway, a decision we won’t likely be reversing soon. But as one of the few remaining connections across that barrier, how can we make this public space serve the city and residents and create a safe, livable space? I want to throw out a few possible ideas, not as perfect solutions but as conversation-starters. Some of these ideas are fantastical, many are very expensive. I’ll admit, this isn’t an exercise in what is possible in the next 5 years, it’s an exploration of what the best solution for a livable city might be long-term.
1. Provide more access to the freeway/remove some access
Access to the freeway, especially 94 eastbound is especially concentrated in the Bottleneck. Southbound Lyndale/Hennepin can enter 94 east, and BOTH Hennepin and Lyndale south of the freeway have eastbound access. The next place to get on 94 headed east is on the other side of downtown, at S 6th Street, which is 2 miles away (or you can enter 35W at Franklin, ~1 mile away). Could more east- and westbound access be added at Nicollet, 1st or 3rd avenues? Off-ramp access from 94 westbound could also be added at 1st and/or Nicollet. Additional access at these places may ease congestion in the Bottleneck and provide some opportunity to reduce the number of lanes.
Also, do we need access to eastbound 94 at both Hennepin and Lyndale headed north? Could we get rid of one of these ramps and possibly consolidate, say at Hennepin? This also leads me to my next wild idea:
2. Bury (more of) the freeway
I-94 is already in a tunnel under the Bottleneck. Let’s also do the following: tunnelize the on-ramp to 94 eastbound from Hennepin Avenue headed north. Remove the eastbound on-ramp at Lyndale headed north. Remove the flyover on-ramp that allows access to 94 eastbound from Lyndale/Hennepin coming from the north and instead provide a tunnel access at Dunwoody Boulevard. Don’t make drivers from southwest Minneapolis drive all the way through the Bottleneck past 394 to get on 94 westbound, engineer a westbound tunnel access at Hennepin/Franklin. While we’re at it, why not bury 94 all the way to Plymouth Avenue (or further?) and return Lyndale to it’s former glory.
With these on-ramps and additional lanes tunnelized, a lot of space is freed up for local traffic, boulevards, medians and bike paths that aren’t in conflict with pedestrians.
3. Remove all eastbound freeway access
A lot of drivers are using the Bottleneck to access 94 east, either from the north or south. If you removed these access points, what would happen? Drivers would disperse to other access points, like Franklin, 6th Street or Cedar Lake Parkway. This might not be the best strategy since it would just push congestion to other freeway access points, but it would mean you could recreate Hennepin/Lyndale as more local access streets. This strategy could be paired with some of the access additions specified in #1.
How about instead of a crazy mess of overpasses and double Lyndale Avenues, we just create a giant roundabout on top of the Lowry Tunnel? While traffic won’t be reduced, flow might become more even, throughput may increase and traffic may even be slowed. Downsides – taking land may be necessary and it probably means no reduction in the number of lanes would be possible north of the roundabout. I have not a clue how large or how many lanes across such a roundabout might need to be. Some transportation engineers will surely weigh in.
5. More north-south access.
The bottleneck is the bottleneck because the grid is broken to the east and west of these streets. North-south access is cut off. It’s theoretically possible that some of the bottleneck-iness of the area could be relieved by connecting the grid. To the east, connect Spruce Place to Pillsbury and Willow Street to Pleasant over 94. To the west, connect Colfax to Bryant Avenue South, Dupont to Dunwoody Boulevard and Emerson to Northrop Lane. These solutions would likely be highly unpopular with residents.
6. Make Hennepin less convenient as a regional link, better for local users.
Part of the congestion in the bottle neck is caused by commuters who use Hennepin Avenue to get to Saint Louis Park and points west, instead of using 394/Highway 100. While Metro Transit won’t be studying Hennepin for Rapid Bus because it’s too complicated (even if it has superior performance measures), this isn’t a limiting factor in my imagination. Let’s put a dedicated Rapid Bus Lane down each side of Hennepin (or a peak lane that switches sides), taking the space from a travel lane. This will give space to transit, upgrade one of the poorest-performing (but busiest) lines in the system and simultaneously discourage regional traffic from using a local connection when a regional one is available.
These are my thoughts, based on my many trips through the Bottleneck by car, bike and bus. I’m sure there are other potential solutions. There may even be some folks who think we don’t need to do anything to the area. I would argue that we do, and now is as good a time as any to start dreaming. If you’ve got thoughts, you know where to leave them.