Joe Urban | Sam Newberg, Urbanist


The Urban Future of Hiawatha Avenue

Dateline: 10:01 am December 7, 2011 Filed under:

There is an opportunity to create a more humane, livable Hiawatha Avenue, and, to try out a metaphor, now may be the time to step out in to the intersection and begin our journey across. Hiawatha Avenue should become an urban boulevard that unites neighborhoods rather than divides them, particularly near light rail stations where pedestrian counts have steadily increased since light rail service began and development continues to occur. What’s nice is I’m not the only one who believes this.

As part of the Minnehaha-Hiawatha Community Works program, Hennepin County has identified several potential improvements to the area around Hiawatha. Among the myriad issues to address, Hiawatha itself was cited as a dividing line between neighborhoods, a hostile barrier to cross. To that end, some of the proposed Community Works solutions include improved pedestrian crossings of Hiawatha Avenue (State Highway 55), notably at 38th and 46th Streets near light rail, but also at 32nd. The proposed improvements are wonderful, and are necessary first steps towards making Hiawatha a better street in the future.

Let’s get right to it. Hiawatha is a “Stroad,” in the words of Chuck Marohn of Strong Towns. Marohn writes about our 45MPH world where stroads are neither streets nor roads and do nothing well – they are not fast and access-restricted enough to move traffic efficiently nor slow and humane enough to concentrate density in a pleasant urban environment. At 40MPH, Hiawatha does nothing well, yet it is built to MnDOT highway standards that are hostile to pedestrian movement. Fix Hiawatha and you solve a number of issues, make the street safer for all, make Minneapolis more attractive to residents and visitors and increase property values at the same time.

The proposed changes by Hennepin County are good; they include curb bumpouts, increased pork chop size (the island between through-lanes and the right turn lane), straightened crosswalks (ADA compliant), lengthened walk signals for crossing Hiawatha, widened center medians (in case the signal still isn’t long enough and you get marooned), and the possibility of restoring the southern crosswalk across Hiawatha on the south side of 46th Street (ironically removed right after light rail service opened to accomodate a second turning lane on 46th Street).

The efforts of Hennepin County (with cooperation from the City and State) are steps in the right direction and to be applauded, but we must demand more. Every proposed change, while an improvement to the pedestrian experience, still does nothing to tame Hiawatha, reduce its speed or make it a more livable street. Yes this is a busy corridor that must accomodate a lot of everything (cars, trucks, trains, pedestrians, bikes), so not everyone will be happy. But, while the spotlight is shining on Hiawatha for these proposed improvements, let’s increase the wattage.

It isn’t ridiculous to imagine an “urban/urbane” stretch of Hiawatha Avenue. Plenty of highways change character through different zones – think about when a rural two-lane highway passes through a town. The two-lane 55MPH zone slows to 40, becomes four lanes perhaps as it passes edge-of-town dreck, slows to 25 or 30 and becomes two lanes with on-street parking in the historic town core, then reverses this pattern as it exits the town. Why should Hiawatha not do the same in our TOD pedestrian-overlay zones, most notably at 38th and 46th Street?

To add to the proposed improvements:

1. Reduce the speed limit to 30 MPH (at least between Minnehaha Creek and 35th Street)
2. Allow parking on Hiawatha Avenue. Use the existing shoulder.
3. Plant trees along the street that will actually one day create a pleasant, leafy canopy.
4. Build crosswalks a different color than the roadway.
5. Reduce curb radii – make corners sharper to slow turning cars.
6. Increase walk signal timing so an old lady or family with small child can make it across.
7. Add crossing gates for sidewalks, not just traffic lanes.

The first one is simple. Just reduce the speed (and enforce it). I’m not going to sit here and pretend that an unenforced 40MPH speed limit on a roadway built for and often driven at 50 is okay. It is not. If we are really concerned about pedestrian safety and creating transit villages around our light rail stations, slow the vehicle and enforce it. It is well established that a slower-moving car is far less likely to kill a pedestrian, so start there. Furthermore, a slower street is not as noisy, a quality of life issue for pedestrians and the increasing number of nearby neighbors as well.

This dovetails nicely in to the second point of allowing on-street parking along Hiawatha. One great way to slow traffic is put stuff in the way (not literally in the way, but near the travel lanes). Using the existing shoulder for someting other than a barren, windswept open space will help naturally slow traffic – drivers instinctively slow down when there perception is they could hit something – again, this has been proven. And why not? There is no doubt demand for on-street parking: commuters would be thrilled to park near the light rail station, and there’s no neighbors to incense along Hiawatha versus the neighborhood streets; and retail uses in our proposed transit-oriented developments can use all the parking they can get, especially as we try to reduce off-street parking.

Tall trees not only provide shade for buildings and pedestrians, they add beauty to a corridor sorely in need of it. Furthermore, tall trees (although antithetical to traffic engineers) along a roadway slow traffic down. The existing stunted trees along Hiawatha are a joke and need to be replaced by taller grander trees that will add to the beauty of the street. Those proposed bump-outs? Put trees on them.

Straightening the crosswalks according to ADA is great, but at a minimum don’t just stripe them but paint the pavement a different color from the street. Best case, pave them with colored concrete. Or use bricks, but this is Minnesota and with winter that may not work as well. The point is they have to be distinctive to drivers, as this will raise awareness that people may be crossing the street, making it safer to do so.

The existing proposal calls for curb bumpouts to reduce the distance from curb to curb (and which might also slow traffic! Clever!). This is a great start, as reducing the literal distance across the crosswalk from 94 to 74 feet is important, but also consider squaring off corners. This can reduce that distance even more, and slow down turning cars. Obviously where truck traffic still exists to feed grain elevators, for example, sufficient turning radii needs to be maintained, but some corners do not have this issue and can be squared off.

I’m assuming the proposed addition of a few seconds to the signal crossing timing is based on some measure of reality for person A to cross Hiawatha in a given amount of time, but I’m far from convinced it is enough based on discussions with neighbors and personal experience. The traffic engineer must walk it him or herself, with a small child in tow. It is the only way to be sure there is enough time.

Also, crosswalk signals need to automatically turn to Walk when the light turns green. Cars don’t have to push a button for the light to change, why should a pedestrian? In fact, the light should change to Walk a second or two before the light turns green to give pedestrians a little head start.

Crossing gates come down to block vehicles from entering and crossing the tracks. This is a safety measure intended to protect cars from being hit by trains. Unfortunately, pedestrians do not receive the same treatment. They are relegated to second-class status, as the back side of the crossing gate swings only partway over the sidewalk and is easily sidestepped. This sends the signal that pedestrians are not as important as vehicles. Either treat pedestrians as equals or remove all crossing gates. Look no further than Chicago to see how it is done.

Don’t add walls or other impediments for pedestrians. If people want to cross at 45th Street (interestingly enough, dozens do so safely every day even without a crosswalk), and enough people are doing so due to existing and future housing or employment, a signaled crosswalk may be necessary. But do not build a bridge. They are costly and foolish and nobody uses them. To quote Charles Dickens from All the Year Round, “most people would prefer to face the danger of the street rather than the fatigue of getting upstairs.” Even with the $5 million Midtown Greenway bike bridge, beautiful as it is, a sizeable proportion still cross at grade on 28th Street. We need to take in to account human nature and not engineer a solution to everything.

This is a long list, and but for MnDOT highway standards and some likely neighborhood opposition, imminently do-able. The bottom line is Hiawatha Avenue was designed and built to move cars, and done so before light rail came along, and as a result the pedestrian was an afterthought. Walk along or across Hiawatha and you will agree with me. Hennepin County is on the right path, but much more needs to be done.

Some of you will shout Hiawatha is a highway, let’s leave it alone. I say it is not. It is a faux-highway in form but is compromised in a number of ways and doesn’t move traffic very efficiently. It is also decidedly not an urban street, either. In the era of highway building a limited-access highway was once proposed and neighbors rose up and defeated it. We used a portion of the right-of-way for light rail and sold the excess to developers, and what we are left with is neither highway (road) nor street, but a stroad. We must acknowledge that we’ll never really have a highway, so the only way to go is to make it more like a street, particularly in light of the success of light rail and the demand for development near stations.

To immediate neighbors like myself (potential NIMBYs), yes, the time it takes to approach the Hiawatha corridor and drive along it may very well increase (in some ways that is the point). But the increase may only be a couple minutes, and besides, if land use changes along Hiawatha and around light rail stations continue to occur, you may not need to drive as far or even drive at all to meet your daily needs. For those of you traveling from downtown to the airport, Eagan or beyond, we have a really nice train for you to ride (with park and rides at Fort Snelling and in Bloomington), or you can drive the recently rebuilt I-35W and Crosstown interchage. But if you do choose to drive along Hiawatha, we hope the experience is a safer and more beautiful one.

Some of these changes can be made with little or no cost. For example, remove the no parking signs and allow parking. Get grants or donations for trees. Costs that are incurred can be charged to immediate landowners, as they will benefit most from changes (the increased rent you can charge to live on a more beautiful, traffic-calmed and easier-to-cross street will pay for those costs over time). This is a gateway to Minneapolis – perhaps the chamber of commerce or convention and visitors bureau could help find dollars or corporate sponsors for improvements to livability and beautification.

Life is about the journey, not the destination. Even if you don’t believe that, you have to admit the journey along and crossing Hiawatha, whether by car, bicycle, on foot or even in the train, leaves much to be desired and there are countless ways we can improve it. Hiawatha is viewed more as a necessary evil for those traveling along or across it, and that really isn’t good enough for Minneapolis, is it? What kind of signal are we sending when a first-time visitor to our city rides the train in from the airport to downtown and looks out the window at Hiawatha Avenue today?

I welcome the improvements proposed by Hennepin County, but we can and must to more. Hiawatha should be a welcoming place. A more attractive, humane and livable Hiawatha Avenue unites rather than divides some very nice Minneapolis neighborhoods, attracts even more development and improves the value of all nearby real estate (even auto-oriented), bolsters the city’s tax base, and makes a more pleasant experience for those who live, work, learn and play in the area as well as those seeing Minneapolis for the first time.

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