Hennepin Avenue: In pursuit of worthy goals, enshrined in city policy, developed over many years

Hennepin Avenue, a street that was last rebuilt in 1957, is due for a reconstruction from Lake Street to Douglas Ave. This isn’t just a surface-level fix. The city will be digging up the street and replacing everything, from top to bottom (utilities). It’s not optional. It’s also an opportunity to rethink the way the street is laid out and who it serves.

The Plan

After years of engagement and planning, staff in the City of Minneapolis Public Works Department have recommended a new layout for Hennepin Avenue. Some of the headline changes:

  • Giving transit riders priority with 24/7 bus lanes. This would support a near term transit investment: Metro Transit’s E Line BRT (serving the route 6 corridor) opens in 2025.
  • A sidewalk level protected bike lane.
  • Pedestrian improvements like bumpouts, mid-block crossings, shorter crossing distances, and narrowing/consolidating parking lot curb cuts (for example, the terrible Starbucks double driveway between 22nd and 24th Streets would be reduced to one).
  • A left-turn lane for drivers at four intersections (22nd, 24th, 26th, and 28th streets). This would make traffic more predictable, adding safety and efficiency for drivers.

The Policies

The city’s Public Works Department has not arrived at this plan at random. It’s supported by a decade of policy guidance, developed with and approved by the City Council and the Mayor. Among these plans are the Climate Action Plan, Complete Streets Policy, Transportation Action Plan, Vision Zero Action Plan; Street Design Guide; Minneapolis 2040 Plan, and the 20 Year Streets Funding Plan.

The very broad summary of all this planning is that our city’s elected leaders have committed to specific ways that we will support and encourage people to walk, bike and take transit. They’ve committed to eliminating traffic injuries and deaths that disproportionately harm the city’s BIPOC residents (Hennepin is among the city’s high injury streets). The way you do that is by building infrastructure that makes it safe, convenient, and comfortable. Basically, we need to do things in a dramatically different way from the car-centric planning we’ve done for generations.

Follow Through

As a resident of the neighborhood, I think about how this makes it safer and more comfortable to get around. I think about my neighborhood becoming a more livable place. But there are larger issues: Decisions made for Hennepin Avenue set a precedent for other city streets — next time it might be the street where you live. The outcome for Hennepin Avenue also raises questions: Do the city’s policies matter? Are they optional? Are the climate, transportation, equity, and livability concerns — issues that motivated successive waves of elected officials to adopt these policies — just things we say we care about, but don’t rise to the level of follow through?

The impact isn’t limited to my neighborhood or even just Minneapolis. We’ve seen planning decisions made in Minneapolis influence the thinking of cities around the country.

What About Parking?

You may have noticed (if you’re that kind of person), that parking on Hennepin Avenue would be reduced from over 300 spots to just 20. Inevitably there are trade-offs. But before getting emotional about parking, consider the numbers from a traffic study conducted by the city. When including cross streets in the analysis, Hennepin Avenue constitutes just 40% of the on-street parking on the corridor. When you expand that analysis to include parking lots and ramps, Hennepin Avenue is just 10% of the parking. When looking at parking utilization, on-street parking ranges from 50-75% full (a.k.a. 25-50% empty).

And there’s always the chance people are overestimating the economic value of a parking space, whether empty or occupied.

The most vocal and organized opponents of the plan have been some of the local businesses. They’ve introduced a big red yard sign into the debate (all the greatest debates have them), which I suspect has led people to wrongly believe Hennepin will become a one-lane, one-way street. There was also a flyer in the windows of some businesses expressing support for “bus travel” and “adjoining bike paths” which was a cleverly disguised way of saying “we support what already exists and please relegate bikes to anywhere but here.”

The Lowry Hill Neighborhood Association came out against the Hennepin design last week. They want a delay. This would be delay on top of delay: Ward 7 Council Member Lisa Goodman successfully pressured Public Works to delay their recommendation last year, which had the effect of delaying Council approval. The issue was pushed back through most of 2021. Finally in December, Public Works announced their recommended layout. The new timeline for a City Council vote: “late Quarter 1 or early Quarter 2” of 2022.

It’s worth noting the the reconstruction has been approved for federal funding. At a certain point, delay must end, city approvals must happen — or else federal funding is put at risk.

Assume the plan were implemented as recommended by staff. Parking would go from abundant to tight. For some, that’s an inconvenience. But decisions about what to do with limited public street space are about trade-offs. If you start from a position that we can’t take space away from cars, then there will never be space to improve the situation for people traveling by modes other than cars.

Under this plan, you’d still be able to drive a car and visit destinations on Hennepin Avenue — in safer, more predictable traffic. As Metro Transit can tell you, adding Bus Rapid Transit means more bus riders. And in the most transit-accessible neighborhood in the state, those riders would be well-served by a bus lane. A protected bike route means safe access to destinations on Hennepin for bikers. Pedestrian improvements mean that for the 15,000 people who live in neighborhoods to either side of the project area, a stroll or a sidewalk meal along Hennepin Avenue is no longer something to avoid. These are all worthy goals, enshrined in city policy, developed over many years. A worthy trade-off.