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The downtown Third Avenue redesign debate: Which is better — four lanes or a 'road diet'?

MinnPost photo by Bill Lindeke
Gridlock happens in downtown Minneapolis most days like clockwork.

Few things are as frustrating as rush-hour traffic in downtown Minneapolis. On Tuesday I took the 94 bus from downtown St. Paul and watched the city blur through the window as it zipped down the freeway. The second we arrived downtown, we were instantly enveloped by the traffic. As three stoplight cycles went by with no forward progress, the bus driver kept letting people off, because anyone could walk faster than the mass of halted cars. Gridlock like this happens most days like clockwork.

The maddening rush hour makes the debate about redesigning Third Avenue, a key north-south street through downtown Minneapolis, an odd surprise. A City Council committee split 3-3 earlier this month on whether to go with staff's four-lane proposal or adopt a counterintuitive “road diet” design that would swap two traffic lanes for a turn lane in the center. Proponents of the three-lane option point to studies suggesting the “smaller” street would be just as effective for car traffic, and a better place to walk or bike. Opponents remain convinced that a road diet would just make congestion even worse.

History of the Third Avenue bike lane

During the downtown rush hour it’s only the bicyclists who seem to have any success, zipping around cars lined up like so many sunbathing turtles. But while riding a bike through downtown might be expedient compared to the rush-hour alternatives, it doesn’t look pleasant. On many streets, especially the ones without bike lanes, bicyclists keep their heads down and their tires in the gutter, surrounded by honking traffic and tailpipes emitting their subtle stench. 

Third Avenue, connecting the Convention Center to the Mississippi River and the bridge to Northeast, is one of few two-way downtown streets, and there is wide support for building a protected bike lane along it next year. Unlike most of the city’s downtown bike lanes, the new project will have a buffer between the bike lane and the moving cars, increasing comfort and safety for more people.

“We’ve been saying since 2009 that we need a north-south high quality, comfortable bike route in the heart of downtown. It is really an important connection in the city,” Ethan Fawley, the director of the Minneapolis Bicycle Coalition told me. The coalition had initially wanted protected bike lanes to be built as part of the city’s Marquette and Second Avenue bus project, but began focusing on Third Avenue when that proved impossible.

The question, though, is what the rest of the street is going to look like. After careful study, the city public works department had proposed a three-lane “road diet” layout that would keep planted medians along the street, while dropping one of the travel lanes in each direction in favor of a center turn lane.

Courtesy of the City of Minneapolis
The "road diet" design

However, after critical feedback from downtown businesses over the winter, city staff changed the project plan, dropping the planted medians in favor of a four-lane design more in keeping with today's street layout.

Courtesy of the City of Minneapolis
The revised, four-lane design

For some downtown leaders, the three-lane plan seemed like a case of street-design mission creep. Council Member Lisa Goodman, who represents the downtown retail core, called that idea “disingenuous” and an attempt to change driver behavior by removing travel lanes. 

The traffic perspective

The debate offers the classic example of what engineers call a “road diet,” also known as a 4-to-3 conversion. The idea can be a bit counterintuitive: For any four-lane road with two lanes in each direction, left-turning traffic inevitably clogs up the street. As one traffic engineer recently explained, engineers love left-turn lanes because they guarantee free-flowing traffic and more consistent speeds. That's why, at least in theory, a three-lane street can be as effective at moving cars as a four-lane street. And, more important, the smaller design dramatically improves safety. (Minneapolis examples include Riverside Avenue on the West Bank, which was converted about five years ago to a three-lane “road diet” design.)

That’s true up to a point. Somewhere around 20,000 cars per day, according to most national standards, the congestion benefits of the road diet disappear due to problems around “traffic stacking.” For the Third Avenue case, when comes to moving cars as efficiently as possible through downtown, according to the Minneapolis city data [PDF], it remains unclear which layout would be better. Under most conditions, the two designs perform about equally well, and that’s a big selling point for advocates.

“We recognize this is going to be a high-profile corridor downtown, a catalytic project for the city,” Fawley told me. “It’s important to get it to be the best it can be for everyone. We think that the three-lane proposal is the safest and greenest, and it has been shown it can work from a traffic standpoint. We know other stakeholders who are concerned about numbers that staff put forward, but we feel we need to trust the numbers or try it out.”

Courtesy of the City of Minneapolis
Even with inflated traffic projections, the estimated cars per day used in the city traffic study fall within the range where a 4-3 road diet performs well.

Still, looking at Third Avenue today, and how clogged it can become at rush hour, it’s difficult to imagine that less is more. Downtown City Council members like Lisa Goodman and Jacob Frey have remained skeptical that a change to three lanes could be accomplished without making traffic worse and hurting downtown businesses.

“I understand this issue and I’m a supporter,” Goodman told me when I asked about bicycling downtown. “But what I’m not a supporter of is trying to get a pound of flesh out of these business owners by saying that getting a bike lane isn’t good enough. There are almost 200,000 people in downtown daily. Getting people in and out might not be a priority for bikers, but it is a priority for downtown.”

Beyond the bicycling debate

The Third Avenue debate is particularly salient because of its proximity to City Hall, the gorgeous 1908 Romanesque building that sits at the corner of Fourth Street. It remains an open question what the streets around the majestic stone building might look like, and the stakes move beyond the bicycling debate.

“Third Avenue, being at the center of city government, should be the symbol of what the city’s priorities are,” Julia Tabbut told me. Tabbut is the vice chair of Minneapolis’ 15-member Pedestrian Advisory Committee, one of the city’s two citizen committees focused on street design. She has spent the week lobbying council members in favor of the three-lane design that would improve the City Hall streetscape. 

“If somebody is coming in a wheelchair, you can’t get to the entrance on 4th Street without passing along this sidewalk, where there’s no actual room for wheelchairs. We measured and it’s 56” between the wall and the nearest fencepost. Nowhere is that acceptable,” Tabbut explained. 

Last week, after heated debate, the proposal deadlocked in a City Council committee. It ended up forwarding the new street project without an official recommendation, leaving the decision up to the full City Council, which will decide the matter on Friday.

'It's a safety issue'

“Primarily it’s a safety issue,” Tabbut told me. “Greening helps humanize the environment and makes it a place where you can feel OK being on foot. But the safety consideration is more important. Right now you have four lanes of traffic to cross. If they take out those medians and add bike lanes, it's six lanes of things going with no break. And knowing that from an engineering standpoint, it doesn’t slow traffic to make this change [to three lanes], and that it would make drivers safer too, I see no reason why we’re even having this argument."

Downtown Minneapolis has been battling congestion forever, an eternal war between transit, drivers, freeways, exit ramps and parking lots. But over the last few years, there’s been a visible change in focus toward paying more attention to sidewalks and less attention to the endless rush-hour clogs. With both Washington Avenue and Nicollet Mall slated for reconstruction that would add new sidewalks and bike lanes next year, the question remains whether the rest of downtown should follow suit.

“Normally adding a bike lane would be called a victory,” Goodman said. “Now this is about a lane diet. That means trying to change people’s behavior by eliminating lanes of traffic so that people will not drive as much. That might make sense outside the downtown core, it might make sense in someone else’s ward, but don’t think that makes sense on one of the core streets in downtown Minneapolis.”

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Comments (24)

Non-arterial Vessel?

Why must this also be about downtown walkers/bikers?

Third Ave. is the one fairly clean N/S artery in the immediate core, with important motor access to key government facilities as well as commercial towers...all without the complications of certain adjacent streets.

What seems ignored here is the vital mass transit/commuter flow across the bridge to Central Avenue and the northern regions of Hwy. 65. Great expense has recently been justified in the upgrading and proper timing of lights along this vital corridor. Those planners clearly have acknowledged its significant value as the one valuable N/S arterial.

As one who often travels this route, I must say it is perhaps the most directly efficient arterial to and through downtown. To clog the heart of it would be foolish.

Dear Minneapolis: Not everything is about your downtown vision revisions.
Given fairly few pedestrians along the way, perhaps it's more sensible to divide the sidewalks as N/S walking/biking lanes. Remove meter parking, split the walks with effective planter box barriers for purpose separation, and improve four-lane vehicular movement. The sidewalk separation would also pretty much prevent mid-block pedestrian street crossing, as well, a subject long in discussion.

It is a worthy goal to improve bike-ability in the City core; however, government employees from Blaine and further north do not bike to the Government Center and beyond to corporate offices, etc.

Anyone doubting reality should simply park anywhere along Central Ave. during commuter hours, or when major sports events are scheduled. They will observe how efficient and busy Central is as it goes to and from the downtown core.

Let's get serious about this stuff. The automobile/transit bus traffic is fact of our future, regardless of musing, wishing and otherwise dismissing. We need to be far more pragmatic about various special agendas; otherwise, we will simply create dysfunctional complexities of the future.

Clogging 3rd?

Part of the point of this debate is that 3rd does not have enough traffic on it to justify a 4th lane, so why have one? There's no evidence to suggest that reducing from 4 lanes to 3 would have a significant impact on travel times for drivers. If an extra lane was required for proper flow, traffic engineers would have no problem recommending one.

Dear Not Minneapolis:

We don't have to make our city worse for your convenience.

Also, there is no meter parking on 3rd Ave. The only parking is police/city/emergency parking by City Hall. Much of the street already has planters separating traffic lanes, already making mid-block pedestrian crossing difficult to non-existent. The four lane proposal accommodates protected bike lanes already, but removes those planters. We could keep the planters if we went to three lanes south of 8th street, as originally proposed by Public Works based on their numbers, which show tha the fourth isn't needed.

One way to get serious about this stuff is to actually know the street and proposal you're talking about.

Frankly

I know it pretty well, especially its serial planning confusion, and travel it frequently for downtown missions. Get with the spirit of sensible design, not trendy thinking that will be out of fashion in another ten years.

Effective arterials are purpose built for motorized traffic, with clever concessions for others. We have little history of clever Minneapolis street planning, if you look elsewhere downtown. The Mall is now looking forward to its fourth iteration in about fifty years, none having been what they were meant to be when promoted to the public. Isn't it also interesting that nobody seems to mention much about anything south of the government center?

Probably the worst thing that can be done for bikers and pedestrians is to screw around with the auto traffic, making everyone just a bit too confused about what to do when and where.

Bad logic

So, your argument basically boils down to "don't confuse drivers or take their lanes away because they'll misbehave, so let's reward them by keeping things how they are."

Maybe we would like drivers to start behaving and not think they are the only ones roads are built for (hint, no matter what you think about 'arterials' roads are meant to serve users other than those in cars, you're thinking of highways and freeways). As someone said above, those of us that actually live here and use 3rd DAILY (not just whenever you wander into town) would maybe prefer it be less of car-sewer and more of a street that everyone can safely use. Cars are quite literally the most dangerous thing in America, so maybe if we spent a little less time helping them move faster through places with pedestrian and cyclists we could save a few lives. I know you're more concerned with saving a few seconds than a human life, but I very much hope the city council doesn't agree with that set of values.

Great Post.

In addition to this what role does our lack of 'don't block the box' play in downtown congestion?

Business arguments

What exactly are the arguments that businesses are making against the "road diet" proposal? The "road diet" option gives the same throughput on 3rd, plus the dedicated left-turn lane makes things more predictable and safe for drivers. Nothing induces road rage like some driver who decides to turn left at the last second and stops an entire lane of traffic, which would happen if this project moves forward with 4 lanes.

All I've heard out of CM Goodman is "business wants this, therefore we must listen." Show me some facts or data on why the 4-lane configuration helps business and then let's weigh those benefits against the safety costs associated with having 4 lanes. The fact that traffic will flow just as smoothly under either option makes the arguments put forth by CM Goodman about this "changing people's behavior so they don't drive as much" seem disingenuous as well.

To me, the proposed three-lane configuration is a slam dunk. It moves traffic at a similar rate to the four-lane proposal, is a safer design, keeps the nice median, and adds more green space, as pictured above. And we shouldn't have this because we some businesses are upset that their street will look too nice? Give me a break, and let's get this done already.

I have to object a little

The implication that your recent trip through downtown is representative and the assertion that gridlock happens "like clockwork" on downtown streets isn't really true. It happens sometimes, especially when something is under construction (which these days seems like always), but no, gridlock and sitting at a light for multiple cycles is not the norm.

If it was, CM Goodman and the business owners would have a point. But the actual traffic counts and even the projected increases used by the engineers (which may or may not actually come about) show that there aren't enough cars on 3rd Ave south of 8th Street to necessitate four lanes. With three, even during rush hour, delays would be minimal. The lane simply isn't needed.

On top of that, we know that a four lane configuration is more dangerous for pedestrians, especially vulnerable older or mobility-impaired pedestrians. Four lanes means a longer walk to get across the street and a longer time exposed to distracted or inattentive drivers.

Moreover an unneeded fourth lane encourages more dangerous driving. With three lanes, left-turning vehicles are out of the way of through traffic in the center turn lane. With four, they're blocking a travel lane, encouraging through traffic to weave between lanes to avoid them. That means the extra lane will cause crashes and further endanger pedestrians and other vulnerable users.

My office is right off of 3rd Ave. These days I bike the last block to the office, on 3rd Ave., on the sidewalk because it's not currently pleasant to bike. I'm hopeful that we're planning to add a protected bike lane fix that problem. Let's fix it for cars an pedestrians too by choosing the three lane option.

fair enough

Most of the time 3rd Avenue is pretty free flowing, if slow going because of the large number of signals. Still, 5pm seems to be the crunch time, does it not? Sure was this week!

But yes, I think relying on actual counts and data should rightfully trump my anecdote.

Bill

I believe all comments have been fair, but certainly somewhat blind to seasonal issues, especially winter snow hedges and little ice berms.

snow

Every time a change to the street comes up, someone mentions snow. In my experience, the effect of snow is greatly exaggerated, much like the effect of cold. We'd be much better served building our cities for the 300+ days of good weather rather than concentrating on the small number of terrible days. More creative plowing is the way of the future.

snow

Exactly, Bill. We have places - Downtown is one of them - where our streetscapes are far too valuable to worry about snow storage. They are valuable enough to justify snow removal. Just as Public Works and DID already do. It's a non-issue.

Traffic Superstitions

Today's Strib published a superstition-laden letter by the E.D. of the Building Owners and Managers Association, and Pres. of the Minneapolis Downtown Council. Their preferred design is not recommended by anyone other than a few other people operating on traffic superstition rather than traffic science. The city's own transportation staff preferred the three lane option for nearly the entire planning process, until this small gang threw a political wrench in the plans of experts. This was evidenced at the TPW Committee meeting where a variety of CMs asked staff if there is any benefit to this last-minute design change (they sheepishly couldn't fabricate anything). CM Palmisano was put on the spot when she tried to get answers that didn't exist, and at least CM Reich and CM Yang were smart enough to be silent and avoided sticking feet in mouths, despite voting with Palmisano to be on the wrong side of history. Downtown Minneapolis is far too valuable of a place to make streets less efficient and dangerous (for motorists!) due to non-experts' superstitions.

Theory needs testing

Any significant change ought to be tested, using stripes, j-barriers, cones, whatever, to get a practical sense of the consequences. Unfortunately the City of Minneapolis' official street mavens resemble ostriches in their reluctance to try things out before setting them in stone, witness the usual afternoon rush hour problems at the Cedar/Riverside intersection (they were warned and refused to do a test trial). A similar situation has arisen for the intersection of Cedar/Minnehaha/Franklin where proposed untested changes seem more likely to impede rush hour traffic than not.

Got this right

You bet. There may be few places as subject to group think as government planning offices of any particular mission.

One wonders sometimes if these people apply the theory of "planning while driving around."

As has been the case for many other routes, this is hardly the first Third Ave. revision to be planned and built.

The logical extension of

The logical extension of "planning while driving around" gets you exactly what you'd think: more lanes to drive a car in. Fortunately, we don't elect cars to city government.

Or, more effective lane design...

Perhaps you have not encountered the well-proven technique of "management by walking around," simply adjusted here for street design.

It is truly amazing what can be understood by getting out from behind the desk and strolling through the factory, in this case, getting behind the wheel and driving around the streets.

If you consider current commercial construction plans in process of design and proposal, you should expect more cars downtown, not fewer. Any significant rail impact is decades away from realization. The Minneapolis development agenda is very much to make this city a greater "Little Chicago."

Bill has written about transit plans and purposes, with many cogent comments given. LRT at this time is more about commercial revitalization and development than commuter transportation. The SW Corridor may be the exception; but, it's years away from going anywhere. As for the Bottineau...who knows what that may do?

Perhaps you know many downtown workers who ride bikes in February. I do not. Cars are here for yet a very long time, so we must more effectively expedite their movements.

Confusing Comment, Science of Traffic is Known

Your comments seem to confuse me, why is 4 lanes better than 3? The traffic engineers say it's not, the models say 3 lanes is actually (not significantly but) slightly better at moving vehicles efficiently. I can understand wanting a test run, but why insist on 4 instead of being agnostic? Why are you insisting on making the road slower and less safe for vehicles?

As is noted, the bike lanes are going in either way, so your last paragraph makes even less sense.

And "Planning by driving around" would be great planning... for drivers alone. Let's have someone drive every street, walk every street, bike every street and take every transit line; afterall, approximately 40% of downtown workers use transit, if only a few percent bike or walk, suddenly driving is less than 50% of workers.

Personally

I find I get a much better view of how driving works when I'm not driving. Walking, biking or riding a bus give you the chance to watch what others are doing much better than sitting behind the wheel of a car.

I don't think people who don't walk, bike or use transit have any idea how dangerously people drive. Once you start to notice that someone runs nearly every red light, that people almost never stop before turning right on red, that cars veer dangerously between lanes often without looking, that maybe half (or more) of drivers are talking or texting, etc. you it gets a lot easier to understand how we need to do more than put up a speed limit sign to get safe streets.

Cars are already expedited, and this proposed change won't change that. The choice here is between safer for cars and pedestrians or more dangerous, not cars versus no cars.

Road diet

In its zeal to place every city street on this "diet," Mpls has made traveling into, and through, North Minneapolis very difficult. Why? I would like to see some of these proponents try, for example, proceeding West across Plymouth Ave beginning at the river anytime after about 4:30pm. It's dangerous for the residents when cars detour through side streets to avoid sitting through multiple cycles of lights.

What's your solution

What's your solution? Knock down all the buildings to widen the roads? At some point you have to give up on always having a zipping commute in your car because you can't build enough lanes to fix that. Once you make that realization that you can never build your way out of rush hour congestion it opens you up to the idea that you can make streets less unpleasant for non-drivers since serving rush-hour car volumes without congestion is impossible anyway.

My solution? Uh, leave the

My solution? Uh, leave the roads they way they were instead of eliminating lanes?

Please Re-Read the Article

Should we be left in static? Forever with an imperfect system, we cannot attempt to improve? 3-lanes was recommended by staff specifically because it works as well (or better) than 4 in this scenario.

North Minneapolis would be a fantastic case study. Worldwide areas with more corruption see less organized traffic (thought to be the little guy finally gets a situation where they're equal to oppressors, and thus feel entitled for retribution, or not waiting for them); would North Minneapolis see more "erratic" driving behavior because oppressed communities, who see corruption as it affects them are concentrated there? You say people are detouring through neighborhoods, this isn't usually seen with other 4-3 conversions in the cities, so if you're right then it's not because North has worse drivers, but likely due to more oppressed populations living in the neighborhood.

Four Lanes Decided

by Minneapolis City Council.