Joe Urban | Sam Newberg, Urbanist

Let’s Get to Work, Minneapolis

Dateline: 4:49 pm October 27, 2016 Filed under:

Cycling home from Merlin’s Rest the other evening started out lovely. I passed by the Eero Saarinen-designed Christ Church Lutheran, and found its tower so nicely uplit in the night sky that I circled back, stopped, and stood in the courtyard for some time, listening to the fountain and watching clouds scuttle past the moon. I continued my ride down to 38th Street and Hiawatha, where my reverie was disrupted by a coincidental chain of events reminded me that, despite progress, our city is still fundamentally built for the movement of cars. It’s time to get to work.

Begging for a Progressive Public Works Director

Still Begging for People-Friendly Streets

The short three-block stretch of 38th Street recently was rebuilt with narrower lanes and the addition of bike lanes. An improvement over the beat up, windswept asphalt to be sure, and I can’t wait to see those trees planted. I was road-testing the new bike lane, heading west towards home. Of course, the problem is the westbound bike lane doesn’t continue through the Hiawatha intersection. Besides, my house is south of 38th Street, so I typically hop up on to the south sidewalk prior to reaching Hiawatha and cross using the crosswalk.

I rode on to the sidewalk just east of the freight tracks and fell in behind a couple walking west. Crossing the tracks, they reached the drive lane exit from the recently-built Longfellow Station. Lo and behold a car exiting reached 38th Street and stopped for traffic, blocking our sidewalk path. An opaque dressing on the chain link fence blocks the view to the east from this drive lane, so exiting cars wind up blocking the sidewalk all the time.

After going around the back of the waiting car, the couple continued west to the pork chop island on the east side of Hiawatha Avenue, and arrived exactly one second too late to push the beg button to cross. This, too, happens all the time. What happened next is also quite common and unnerving to watch. It was later in the evening and traffic was light. They looked both ways, and despite having submitted an application to cross the street, determined that it was safe to proceed rather than wait for the Walk signal. They made it halfway, waited a couple more seconds and crossed the rest of Hiawatha. By this time I had reached the pork chop island and re-pressed the beg button (repressed indeed!). Listening to the incessant “Wait! Wait! Wait!” droning on for a few seconds, I, too determined it was safe to cross, and set off. Just like clockwork, as I arrived at the far curb, the Walk signal appeared. Thanks a lot!

So here we are, 12 years after light rail service on today’s Blue Line opened, having witnessed a large-scale so-called transit-oriented development get built, upgrades to Hiawatha Avenue crosswalks and the entire rebuilding of 38th Street, and yet the fundamental experience of the cyclist and pedestrian has not improved a whit.

We haven’t moved the dial.

I don’t have plans to move, and I’m sure as hell not going to stop visiting Merlin’s Rest, but the fact is, I’m not any more likely than before to choose to walk or bike when I travel east of Hiawatha; driving continues to “feel” by far the safest and is certainly the most comfortable choice. And yet, the biggest concern among citizens continues to be the light timing of Hiawatha Avenue. These things together conspire to explain my frustration at a lack of a comprehensive solution. I applaud the leadership of staff and elected officials that has resulted in recent development and street upgrades. But the question must be asked – if we’ve already “improved” the land use and the transportation, what additionally needs fixing?

The one glimmer of optimism I have (for my children’s lifetime, not mine) is the Minneapolis Bicycle Coalition is adding pedestrian issues to their scope of activism and advocacy. Their success with bicycle advocacy give me hope we can help pedestrians, which is basically all of us at some point or another. These are battles worth fighting, and I’m happy to know there are allies in my corner. There is much to do. Let’s get to work, Minneapolis!

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