Time For Minneapolis to Phase Out Deadly One-Way Streets

[Image from the Star Tribune.]
Last week, another young Minneapolis bicyclist, Jessica Hanson, was hit and killed by a car driver speeding late at night through the city. The story is tragic, and the second fatality this year in the city. The details of the crash, a hit-and-run driver who wasn't using lights, might make it tempting to Jess' death senseless and random.

But unfortunately, a bicycle death on 28th Street is no accident. The Star Tribune article on the killing lists a few quotes from neighbors about 28th:
Jeff Carlson, a neighbor of Hanson’s, told other neighbors gathered Friday night that he was organizing a petition to bring to the City Council and Mayor R.T. Rybak to improve sight lines and make other safety improvements at the intersection where Hanson was killed.
Carlson said drivers as well as pedestrians on Pleasant and Pillsbury Avenue S., which is one block east, often have trouble seeing cross traffic on E. 28th Street, which is one-way eastbound, because parked cars on E. 28th Street block their view. That forces them to edge forward, nearly into traffic, before crossing the street or turning into the traffic.
Magalli Aguilar Ramirez, who has lived on the corner for 13 years, said that even without watching, the accidents she has seen there have been “too many to count.”
To me, neither of these comments reaches the root of the problem. 28th Street is one of Minneapolis's obsolete one-way death traps.

These streets have long troubled me. Back in 2009, I blogged about the danger of the city's one-way street pairs, again following the bicyclist killed in Dinkytown last year, and the issue has come up many times during Streets.mn's discussion of Park and Portland Avenues.

More alarmingly, 28th Street is the exact place that was identified as Minneapolis's most dangerous spot for bikes in the city's excellent crash report released earlier this year. 28th was almost off the chart of bike accidents:

Just six months ago, I wrote this about the report:
As you can see, the city's old one-way street pairings (26th and 28th Streets in South Minneapolis) have a terrible rate of crashes per cyclist mile traveled. (I'd wager that this information could serve as a proxy for pedestrian accidents, as well.) If the city wanted to increase safety overnight, they'd begin converting these street parings (as well as 35th and 36th, University and SE 4th) into proper two-way streets right away. This is something I've suggested before. High-speed one-way streets simply should not be running through dense residential urban areas.
Jessica Hanson's death was depressingly predictable. Minneapolis' one-way residential streets encourage drivers to speed recklessly in areas filled with people, and should have been phased out long ago.

History of Minneapolis' One-Way Pairs

As anyone knows who uses them, one-way streets have advantages and disadvantages. On the plus side: they reduce the number of potential collision points by half, and they simplify signal timing to make travel more efficient. On the other side, they're confusing, and they often make trips longer as drivers circle blocks to reach their destinations. There's a debate in urban planning circles about whether these two sides cancel each other out, whether efficiency gains are outweighed by the increased trip lengths. For this reason, cities like Cedar Rapids, Iowa, are thinking of wholesale converting their one-way streets back into two-way streets. For better or worse, lots of cities have one-way streets in the downtown cores.

Minneapolis is unusual because of the large number of one-way streets that run through residential neighborhoods far from the downtown core: 26th and 28th, 35th and 36th, Park and Portland, and Blaisdell (and 1st) in South Minneapolis; 4th and University in Southeast; and Fremont and Emerson Avenue in North Minneapolis. (They're often classified as "B Minor" collectors by the Minneapolis Public Works, in the city's Orwellian classification code.)

[Detail from the Minneapolis Comprehensive Plan showing 26th and 28th.]

Some years ago, I asked the late Minneapolis Planning Commission Chair Judith Martin about this odd bit of street design. She explained to me that these streets were legacies of the freeway construction era in Minneapolis. During the 60s, before 35 and 94 were built, these streets were attempts to increase traffic flows during the construction period. Once the interstates were completed, they just stayed around. It's hard to put an egg back into its shell.

Everyday Violence v. A Few Seconds of Travel Time

The problem is that Minneapolis' residential one-ways encourage drivers to speed at 40+ miles per hour with few stops through dense neighborhoods. Most high-speed streets have wide medians, shoulders, or boulevards separating high-speed traffic from people and houses. Not so here.  Many homes along these streets are literally shoulder to shoulder with an endless stream of cars traveling at dangerous speeds. To experience this for yourself, go stand on the corner of 28th and Bloomington where cars speed through a neighborhood filled with children, or walk down SE University Avenue where cars speed next to an unprotected bike lane and frat houses filled with college students... 

The problem with high-speed roads in residential neighborhoods is that cars become exponentially more deadly when they begin to exceed 25 miles per hour, and by the time they're moving at 40 or higher, traffic accidents are almost always fatal. These streets create atmospheres of "everyday violence" along houses and neighborhoods through which they run. Parents don't let their children play in the yard, people shut their windows, shops stay vacant, fewer people walk or bike to get around.

One-way pairs force deadly traffic speeds through neighborhoods filled with people, yards, bicycles, homes, and otherwise calm residential streets. Any time you have 40 mile per hour traffic ten feet from someone's yard, it's a recipe for disaster. These streets trade a minute or two of travel time for degraded safety and quality of life city neighborhoods. Is it worth it? How many "accidents" do you have to have before saving two minutes on your trip to the freeway on-ramp isn't worth it any more?

Fixing the Problem

[1st Avenue South used to be a one-way; now it's safe.]
There are two options to fix these obsolete streets. The simplest solution is to simply turn them back into two-ways. This would immediately lower average speeds down to safer levels, and simply navigation for everyone (including bicycles). About ten years ago, former Councilmember Dean Zimmerman successfully lobbied the city to convert 1st Avenue South back into a two-way street, and today its a pleasant, safe street for everyone. 

(On the other hand, Blaisdell Avenue, its "pair", remains a one-way "collector" street. Despite the bike lane, in my opinion its a dangerous place that degrades quality of life in the neighborhood.)

Likewise, in the downtown core, both Hennepin and 1st Avenues were converted from one- to two-way streets. Most would agree that they're safer today.
[Portland Avenue S: still one-way, but calmed and far safer.]

Another solution for one-way streets is lowering speeds through traffic calming. This is basically what Hennepin County did last year on Portland and Park Avenues, removing a traffic lane and striping a wide, buffered bike lane. Further down the line, the Minneapolis Bicycle Coalition has called for adding pedestrian bump-outs and an actual concrete (planted) buffer between the cars and people. Doing all this will make these streets safe again, and last years change was a big step in the right direction.

Fixing Minneapolis' deadly legacy should be a mix of these approaches. In my opinion, larger one-way pairs, like SE University and SE 4th, should receive thorough traffic calming: bumpouts, buffered cycle tracks, medians. We need to do anything we can to reduce average speeds below the fatality threshold, while retaining the efficiencies that come with one-way directionality.

For narrower, more residential one-way streets, the city should simply get rid of them. There's no reason for 28th and 26th, 35th and 36th, or Fremont and Emerson to be dangerous one-way streets in the 21st Century. They're unsafe for families, children, pedestrians, bicyclists, and even car drivers who are bound to speed unsafely through these dense, residential neighborhoods. The city should have gotten rid of these death traps years ago. Let's let this latest tragedy be the last.


I just learned that Blaisdell is slated for a sealcoating this summer. The city could take this opportunity to re-paint the street similar to Park and Portland. Still, in my opinion, the best solution for making a street like Blaisdell safe again is to convert it back into a two-way.


Barton said...

Interesting. I find one-way streets infinitely safer for cycling. For example, Hennepin downtown has become a complete nightmare since it has sharrows both directions.

The problem w/ may of the one-ways is that there are not enough stop lights/stop signs, and what there are are not enforced. This lack of "calming" and enforcement would still be there if the streets became two-ways, except now cars are watching on-coming traffic and not paying attention to what is happening on their right (where cyclists are typically found).

My personal wish for improving cycling in The Cities? Get rid of on street parking. Streets are for movement, not for nesting. With on-street parking removed, cyclists do not have to worry about dooring incidents, and now city planners have extra space to make lane markings like are found on Park/Portland (where, it must be said, you can still see MANY vehicle drivers using the bike lane as their own personal express lane - totally frightening).

Unknown said...

I think overall education is somehow needed and could also help. As a cyclist, I'm aware of all the additions and improvements made to our city for us cyclists. As an auto driver, I've not seen one whit of info or educational info addressed to me as a driver. All drivers (old and new) need to become informed on these changes somehow.

NiMo said...

To respond to Barton, getting rid of street parking will never happen, unfortunately. Free on-street parking is possibly the most popular government handout in America. You should read "The High Cost of Free Parking" by Donald Shoup. Fun fact from the book: value of all parking spaces in America>value of all cars in America.

One possible option for keeping cars from parking so close to the corner is to put up permanent cones near the corner to prevent cars from going there in the first place. I grew up in Washington DC and cars would always park all the way up to the corner in front of the Starbucks at Livingston St. and Connecticut Ave. NW until they put up such cones (see http://goo.gl/maps/xYDzW). And hey, once those cones are up, perhaps a bike rack or two could go in behind them! Haven't heard anyone complain about not being able to see over a bike before.

Jay Gabler said...

Great analysis! As an active biker and a Lowry Hill East resident, I'd love to see the one-ways turned into two-ways. Not only do the one-ways have all the dangers you describe, they create confusion on surrounding streets. I had a very hairy close call in my car crossing 24th Street because I unthinkingly assumed that in Uptown, parking on only one side of a street was an indication of it being a one-way street. Not so, and I was nearly killed. How many others have experienced this deadly confusion?

John Edwards said...

I cross 26 and 28 on foot and by bike fairly often. I agree its very unfriendly for pedestrians/cyclists. But from reports I've read about the hit and run, it was the cyclist on 28th with the driver crossing. A bigger problem for me are the drivers who treat every street in this neighborhood like a highway. The kind who drive the side streets for miles at hi speed to avoid traffic on Hennepin or lyndale.

JGmn said...

Having lived on Blaisdell for 12 years now, we like it. Car traffic all in one direction and really only "busy" during the afternoon.... it's much nicer to ride in a dedicated wide lane with traffic than squeezed in a two-way street with traffic---see the AWFUL Bryant Ave "bike blvd" for example of horrendous biking experience on a two-way street (granted the buses make it even worse).

eric said...

The car was on Pleasant, which is a two way street. This article makes no sense whatsoever. If anything, one-way streets are safer because there is more room and fewer surprises from approaching traffic. How would adding head-on traffic help? Welcome to the big city, we have one-way streets. Is the author from Nebraska or something?

Bill Lindeke said...

not from nebraska, though st paul is a close second. one-way streets are not safer, unless average speeds are reduced. that's pretty straightforward traffic engineering 101.

so i should think that the fact this happened at 28th, the #1 most unsafe street in the city according to our admittedly half-assed stats, is a coincidence? and the other fatalities in the last 5 years, 3 bicyclists on park and portland, 1 on SE university, one pedestrian this year on the 5th St 394 on-ramp, have nothing to do with high-speed one-ways?

eric said...

Want to drive both ways on 28th? Try it out! It's a two-way west of Hennepin. Report back. My initial review is that it sucks. You can find me walking my bike on the sidewalk over there.

Bill Lindeke said...

looks like nebraska might soon be lapping us on designing safe bike lanes: http://streetsblog.net/2013/07/09/lincoln-nebraska-thats-right-is-planning-a-protected-bike-lane/

I agree that Bryant is poorly done. If you want to see a good bike boulevard in the TC, your best option is the center part of the Riverlake greenway.

sheldon said...

just a minor correction. These one-ways were created long before the construction of 35 W and 94 was started. In fact, they happened even before the freeway plans were done. They were meant to move traffic "more efficiently" to and from downtown and the U and to relieve traffic on Lake Street. I do agree that they should have been eliminated when the freeways were done--since they served the same purpose. Maybe when (if) we get the streetcar on the Midtown Greenway, we can eliminate 28th and 26th as one ways.

Bill Lindeke said...

thanks Sheldon. this is information I learned from a planning professor, and haven't actually seen original source material on it. i'd be curious about documents on the conversion...


Anonymous said...

Outstanding blog, in my opinion site owners should acquire a great deal out of this blog its very user welcoming. life insurance rates

DP said...

Halloween is the spookiest time of year. On October 31, ghouls, goblins, and monsters of all sorts take to the streets for a few tricks and plenty of treats. Families will be out with their children who hope to score big and take home pounds of candy. However, spookier than the vampire making his way down your street is the increase in pedestrian accidents on All Hallows Eve. Even scarier is the fact that Halloween falls on a Saturday this year providing people with the opportunity to have a little too much fun.

An increase in pedestrians alone can mean an increase in the chances of drivers injuring those taking to the streets on foot. Because trick-or-treating typically begins as the sun sets, visibility of a driver and a pedestrian can become poor. Masks create an issue by blocking the vision of those wearing them. Additionally, young adults and teens tend to use Halloween as an opportunity to revel in the excitement that surrounds the holiday and overindulge in alcoholic beverages thereby impairing their abilities to drive. And while it’s fun to judge all the creative and scary costumes that people come up with each year, this can lead to a case of distracted driving. These factors significantly increase the risk of causing serious injury or death to a pedestrian.