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.
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!