Joe Urban | Sam Newberg, Urbanist

A Few Questions for Hennepin County About Minnehaha Avenue

Dateline: 1:10 pm July 16, 2013 Filed under:

After attending last week’s meeting hosted by Hennepin County regarding the reconstruction of Minnehaha Avenue in Minneapolis, I have a few questions.

First question. Designs shown at the meeting generally indicate an increase in vehicular traffic of around 1% per year, or about 20% by 2030. Why? What is the County basing this on? Isn’t that a self-fulfilling prophecy? Build it and they will come. Making it easier to drive results in more traffic, something called induced demand. Do we really want more traffic on Minnehaha?

The question was raised during the meeting and the answer from the County representative was that household growth is predicted along the corridor, and that is reflected in the traffic count forecast. I pursued the question after the meeting. After all, this goes against the City’s policy to reduce VMT. A representative from the County responded that this is their road, so they can do what they want with it. They explained they have a county road system to maintain and ensure traffic flow. I think this is shortsighted at best and bad policy at worst. You readers can also tell me what else it is….

Let’s take the example of nearby Hiawatha Avenue (a state road). In 2000, traffic counts on Hiawatha Avenue near 42nd were 28,000 per day. In 2012 they had (drumroll) dropped to 22,900. What happened? Possibly the introduction of light rail service in 2004, which by the way exceeds 30,000 riders per day (true, not all 30,000 pass the same spot along Hiawatha, but…). In the same time period, on Minnehaha Avenue, traffic counts were 7,700 in 2000 and 10,100 in 2012. Sure it was an increase, but the total on the two together (Hiawatha and Minnehaha) went from 35,700 to 33,000, still a drop in traffic! The point is, the introduction of light rail service may have had something to do with a reduction in driving on Hiawatha, either by drivers who switched to rail or simply avoided Hiawatha because it became more difficult to drive. So even if the latter is the case, making it more difficult to drive results in less traffic. Just imagine if we’d allowed a freeway along Hiawatha – it probably would have created induced demand resulting in well over 50,000 trips per day, perhaps 100,000?

We should not be in the business of building roads anywhere in the city with increased capacity for vehicular traffic, especially since it goes against the city’s adopted plan to reduce VMT. County and state roadways shouldn’t magically be exempt from this policy. Why can’t we rebuild Minnehaha Avenue with a plan to keep traffic steady for 20 years, or even reduce it? Wouldn’t that be a success story? Why can’t we build a road that is planned to accommodate one-tenth of its trips by bicycle? One-fourth? An equal amount? 12,000 cars per day and 12,000 bicycles (I support a cycletrack, by the way). After all, we already have several routes in the city that exceed 1,000 bike trips per day. Can we do it? Induced demand works for bicycling, too, only it’s not a bad word anymore.

Next question. Why are left turn lanes part of the plan? After all, Minnehaha Avenue has existed for as long as I can remember without them. They consume valuable right of way width and add distance to crosswalks. I fully acknowledge as a driver that turn lanes make driving convenient, but how convenient do we want the street to be? When I inquired about this with a County representative, the response was “how does a fire truck get from the fire station on 38th Street to a medical emergency in the south part of the neighborhood?” Oh, no you didn’t just play the fire truck card! I didn’t say I wanted to block Minnehaha Avenue from fire truck access. My question was why do we need left turn lanes when they don’t exist now? And by the way, fire trucks seem to function just fine now.

I responded by speculating that perhaps a slower, safer, narrower road would result in fewer accidents and thus less requirement for said fire trucks, to which the County representative responded by saying that fire trucks don’t respond to traffic accidents. The hell they don’t! That’s patently false! I once totaled my car and a fire truck was first to respond. What bothers me about playing the fire truck card is it dumbs down the equation. A safer, narrower, slower street might not only have fewer accidents, a safer street that is easier to walk and bike along could very well have healthier residents and workers nearby, also reducing the need for first responses to medical emergencies made by fire trucks.

Third question. During the meeting a County representative implied that the proposed cycletrack will have too many crossing points, making it dangerous. Where does this claim come from? Can you provide the public with evidence that this is indeed the case? Where are other urban cycletracks and how many crossing points do they consider to be too many? What do the Dutch consider to be too many? What do Chicagoans consider to be too many?

Fourth question. Also in the meeting County staff gave the opinion that the culture of cycling is much more ingrained in countries like Denmark, and therefore cycletracks may not be the answer for Minneapolis. This is a spurious claim at best. Can you tell me how many cycletracks existed in Copenhagen 40 years ago? Did cycletracks magically appear and everyone started biking? Can you tell us why we shouldn’t pursue a policy to encourage more cycling by people of all ages, and make it safer?

Fifth question. How many trees will actually be lost? Not cut down for construction and replanted, eventually restoring a canopy, but lost for good (net loss)? This is an important distinction. Why must that number be greater than zero? Some of these trees have coexisted with traffic since the Model T, so why do we need to remove them now? What would a scenario look like where no net trees were lost and the cycletrack existed?

We’re not building a road for 2016; we’re building it for 2030 and beyond. I believe we deserve straight, well-reasoned and honest answers to these questions at the next meeting on Wednesday night.


  1. I don’t understand the disconnect between the county and city. Yes, this is a designated county road… that runs through the City of Minneapolis. The city has pipes and sewers and electricity running along it, properties served by Minneapolis schools and police, etc etc. These businesses and residents deserve for this to be a street and not a road. It’s also clear that the county isn’t taking total traffic in to consideration, just vehicular traffic. What are the counts of people on foot, bike, or transit along Minnehaha? With their super-scientific modeling technology, what would total traffic be under different design scenarios? The county (and city, and Met Council..) need to move people, not vehicles. Find the design that maximizes mobility for the best cost while maximizing property values along the street.

    As to emergency vehicles.. this is the fallback, fear-inducing response that I hear, particularly from non-professionals. Justify our wide roads because the emergency vehicles built to drive on them were designed with the wide roads in mind to begin with.

    It’s very frustrating that this project and the Washington Ave project continue to use a model of increasing vehicle trips despite so much evidence to the contrary.

    Comment by Alex Cecchini — July 16, 2013 @ 1:49 pm

  2. Lots of WTF from the county staff there, but to answer one point: left turn lanes mean you don’t need more than 1 through lane each way at least up to 15K daily traffic (some studies argue up to 20K), especially if you expect a lot of left-turning traffic. Yes, it means 11ft more to cross at the intersections, but that’s also 11ft for a mid-block planted median. I rarely got east of Hiawatha during my childhood (or even since then), so I don’t remember much on how Minnehaha used to be…I want to say it was 2 lanes each way for a stretch, not unlike what Portland used to be between 46th and the creek.

    Comment by Froggie — July 17, 2013 @ 6:58 am

  3. […] A Few Questions for Hennepin County About Minnehaha Avenue […]

    Pingback by Joe Urban » Blog Archive » Dear Hennepin County — August 14, 2013 @ 2:59 pm

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