Real World Urban Design Experiment #1: Franklin Avenue Road Diet

It’s notoriously difficult to do a proper “scientific” studies of cities. The main problem is that you can’t run controlled experiments on cities. Cities are too large, complex, and filled with persnickety humans. You don’t have a “control group,” you can’t run an experiment, and I guarantee you that the Institutional Review Board would never approve.

That’s why urban planning relies on models, hypothetical theory, and inductive reasoning. Pretty much the only thing that planners and civic engineers can reliably study are the movement of cars and the taxable value of real estate. (Data for anything else, such as people moving on foot, crime, or behavior change, is almost impossibly tricky.) That’s one of the reasons that car volumes and real estate values become the main emphases for city policy.

But have no fear. All that can change now, thanks to these easy to follow Real Life Planning Experiments. There are a few places in the Twin Cities where you can experience two sets of scenarios right here, on these very streets. These are places where you have a “control group” (Test Case #A) and an “experimental group” (Urban Street Subject 5.2-C5). These are places where the conditions are similar enough that you can come to some preliminary conclusions about different urban designs, different treatments, different planning approaches.

Following these easy steps, you can conduct your own Real World Analysis. Walk, bike, and drive through the city. Find out for yourself whether urban design really makes a difference. The world is your laboratory.

Experiment #1: Franklin Avenue Traffic Calming

Research Background: Franklin Avenue between Hiawatha (Highway 55) on the East and Interstate 35W on the west is one of the most diverse, long-struggling parts of South Minneapolis. Pushed up against three different freeways, it’s right in the old zone of density that used to surround the downtown. This part of the city was filled with old run-down apartments and single room occupancy hotels that were bulldozed during the 60s. Today, Franklin Avenue is one of the most diverse and interesting parts of Minneapolis. In some places, the street has been struggling to attract and retain businesses. Meanwhile, there are also many thriving restaurants and retail establishments all up and down this part of central Franklin Avenue.

[The control group sidewalks.]
Working Hypothesis: A 4 – 3 lane road diet (with bumpouts) makes streets more comfortable and more efficient for all users (but especially people on foot). These kinds of conversions are a win-win-win scenario, improving traffic flow and safety, dramatically improving the pedestrian environment, and catalyzing economic development along the street.

Control Group: The West side of Franklin Avenue (between 35W and Chicago Avenue) has four 12’ car lanes with narrow sidewalks (between 3' 6" and 5' wide).

Experimental Group: The East side of Franklin Avenue (between Chicago and Hiawatha Avenue) has two lanes plus a turn lane, with large sidewalk bumpouts.

Methodology: Take a walk down Franklin Avenue, from South 4th Street to Bloomington Avenue. What do you notice? How does the street change as you go from the West half to the Eastern half? What kind of differences do you notice? What kinds of changes in traffic behavior do you see? How does the street sound? How does the street feel as you walk? What kinds of businesses are nearby on each half of the street?

Repeat the process using an automobile. Repeat using a bicycle (at your own risk). 

Preliminary Findings: Please post these in the comments below.

[The control group is on the left; the experimental subject is on the right.]

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