Minneapolis: Unlocking Downtown with Transit Malls

Are the streets of your downtown all too similar to each other, all full of lots of cars and maybe a few trucks and buses?  Do the differences between parallel streets, in commercial character and pedestrian life, seem feeble compared to the mass of identical traffic lanes that dominate the visual impression?   Often, the most efficient downtown network designs, and the best urban design outcomes, result from making parallel streets more different from each other, more specialized around different functions.  Streetcars (trams) used to drive such specialization, and sometimes still do, but elsewhere cities need to find their way back to that logic, with or without streetcars.  One of the first big American successes in this direction was the Portland transit mall, which opened in 1977.  There, two of the most central streets in downtown were given over primarily to transit, while parallel streets one block over were devoted mainly to cars.

Now, partly inspired by that example, the City of Minneapolis is about to implement a major change to its downtown street patterns that will much improve the flow for transit across the city.  It comes from my last major consulting project in the US, the Access Minneapolis study.  The client was the City of Minneapolis, and the lead firms were Meyer Mohaddes and Nelson\Nygaard.

In the old arrangement, the major volumes of buses that needed to get through downtown Minneapolis mostly ran in single-lane bus lanes with no passing capability, where every bus was as slow as the slowest bus.  Buses were also spread all over downtown, with a few running on almost every street, creating an arrangement that was illegible for passengers.  The spread-out pattern also meant relatively few buses at any stop, hence relatively few passengers waiting, hence poor shelter from the city’s harsh climate and often personal safety concerns.

Marq2-home After years of study, meetings, and spirited discussions, we recommended a new arrangement.  North-south buses (the largest volume) would mostly be consolidated on just two north-south streets right through the center of downtown — Marquette Avenue and Second Avenue South.  Each street would have a double-width bus lane in one direction (similar to the Portland transit mall minus light rail) with car traffic in the other direction.  I’m always surprised there aren’t more two-lane bus lane arrangements, because although they’re a big commitment, they use space really well: A single-width lane with no passing capability starts getting seriously gummed up around 60 buses/hour, but double-width lanes handle 180 buses/hour.  Doubling the width triples the capacity.   It can also dramatically increase speed and reliability.

(Again, this is compared with a single lane with no passing capability, because in Minneapolis the old single bus lanes were contraflow; i.e. the next lane of traffic was in the opposite direction.  Single bus lanes where buses can also pass via the adjacent lane can do somewhat better than 60 buses/hr, depending on how congested the next lane is.)

Double-width lanes generally run best in a skip-stop configuration, in which 2-4 groups of routes serve different stops, in a pattern that repeats every few blocks as you go down the street.  This also makes the service more legible, because each stop represents a particular part of the city or product type.

To get to this outcome, of course, we had to think about whole bands of parallel streets together.  Focusing buses on these two streets meant buses were removed from other streets, allowing them to be specialized around other uses.  We had to consider the accesses to the parking structures.  We had to deal with a range of options for Nicollet Mall, a famous “transit mall” that had become a great pedestrian space but had never worked very well for transit, because it had only one lane in each direction.  Hennepin Avenue, an entertainment and nightlife district, was restored to two-way operation as part of the plan, undoing a one-way couplet that had always strained against the older structure of the city.

For the consultant, planning projects end when we write a final report, send a final invoice, and leave town.  It’s hard to describe the pleasure of seeing our work, filtered through the excellent work of many others, finally appearing on the street, where it will unlock potential both for downtown development and also for the whole transit network that depends on it.  If you’re in Minneapolis, let me know how it goes!

8 Responses to Minneapolis: Unlocking Downtown with Transit Malls

  1. Timmay628 November 23, 2009 at 6:25 am #

    As a consultant helping to prepare the City of Minneapolis Pedestrian Master Plan I am pleased to witness the city’s commitment to capital improvements that truly shape downtown Minneapolis’ walkable environment. Improving our quality of life can be costly at times, but the Marquette/2nd Avenue reconfigurations are a very good example of a major project with far reaching positive impacts. It works very well!

  2. Aaron M. Renn November 23, 2009 at 7:44 am #

    I don’t know enough about this specific project to comment, but I’ve always had a bit of a suspicion of transit malls after the ill-fated Chicago State St. experiment. Too many buses on a single street I think is often a negative to the pedestrian experiment. Now this isn’t a complete street closure, so I’m interested to see how it works in real life.

  3. Jarrett at HumanTransit.org November 23, 2009 at 1:27 pm #

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    Yes, that's why we dismissed the idea of putting all the buses on one street in a two-way configuration.  Portland Mall is two narrower one-way streets (three lanes each) which are two transit lanes on the right and one car-truck-delivery lane on the far left.

  4. Aaron M. Renn November 23, 2009 at 1:47 pm #

    I’ll have to check it out next time I’m up in Minneapolis.

  5. Eric November 23, 2009 at 6:48 pm #

    I love the concept and thanks for the handy facts! We’re attempting to differentiate our street network here in Charlotte with the streetcar project, mimicking, not only Portland, it turns out, but naturally reinforcing our old historic streetcar fabric. The imprint of the streetcar line was preserved through the auto-centric years by making the parallel streets more service oriented than pedestrian oriented.
    I think the happiest example of street differentiation and the benefits of legibility and hand-in-globe land use – traffic flow – urban form integration (a happy triplet!) is Savannah’s Historic District. The lessons of there are literally never exhausted the more I meditate about that place.

  6. Peter Smith November 24, 2009 at 7:09 am #

    i’m the biggest hater of buses out there, but that said — it seems, from this design, that Minneapolis is the biggest hater of bicycles out there. that doesn’t really comport with my understanding of Minneapolis — maybe i was wrong…

  7. Paul Cone November 25, 2009 at 11:19 am #

    Actually, the left lane on the Portland Mall is a thru lane for cars and bikes, with no stopping, even momentarily to let out a passenger. else you get a big fine. Deliveries have to come from another street. It used to be that you had to turn off the Mall midway, so it was not through for cars or bikes — now you can drive or bike the whole way. Why is that? Retailers insisted that people be able to drive by their establishment, even though they can’t park in front of it. It’s a compromise.

  8. Nathanael November 29, 2009 at 12:57 am #

    Nice design. Hope the choices on the Nicollet Mall work out well. Biking seems to be getting bigger and bigger in Minneapolis, so making it into the “main bike route” may be highly effective. If only it were linked to the Midtown Greenway….. :-)