Nonprofit, nonpartisan journalism. Supported by readers.


Is there a solution for the buses vs. blockers bottleneck in downtown Minneapolis?

An SUV “blocking the box” recently in downtown Minneapolis.
MinnPost photo by Bill Lindeke
An SUV “blocking the box” recently in downtown Minneapolis.

There is no worse feeling for an insecure Minnesotan, hoping to follow the rules and not stand out from the crowd, than that of “blocking the box” downtown. Picture driving on a street full of traffic, and just as you approach the intersection, the light begins to turn yellow. In a decisive or impatient moment, you decide to “go for it” and enter the intersection.

But like clockwork, the light turns red, the cars ahead of you remain stubborn and unmoving, and there you are, stuck in the middle of the intersection. Trapped in your car, you block an entire street full of honking, glaring car drivers or — even worse — a hundred people riding on the packed city bus awaiting your exit from the intersection. 

This transportation tragedy is called “blocking the box,” and in bigger cities like New York and Chicago, it’s a cardinal sin for drivers that has long been a target for enforcement. 

Here in Minneapolis, on the other hand, box blocking has not typically posed a huge problem for the downtown transportation network. But with all the construction downtown this summer, that’s beginning to change. 

“One of the things I see far too often is people trying to beat the intersection,” said Anders Borg, an I.T. worker who takes the C Line bus downtown every day from his home in north Minneapolis. “We have to wait for an entire other light cycle. Hennepin and 6th and 7th in particular get to be quite a mess with people blocking the intersection trying to beat the lights.”

The injustice of the situation is painfully obvious to outside observers, or for any poor sap stuck riding in a blocked bus with a green light: one single individual in a car preventing a hundred commuters from moving on with their day. 

Earlier this summer, former Minneapolis Planning Commissioner Nick Magrino found a Nicollet Mall skyway and made a quick video of buses blocked on Nicollet Mall, set to the tune of Dean Martin’s “Ain’t That a Kick in the Head.” The tweet went viral and made the evening news that night, but four months later, the situation has hardly changed. Especially in a time when so much time, money, and resources are spent planning for improved downtown transit, routine “box blocking” is a sure transportation travesty.

“The evening seems to be the worst, the most unpredictable,” said Eric Anondson, a tech support worker who commutes to downtown Minneapolis on the bus from Hopkins each day. “In the morning, everything’s been smooth. I can know when I’m going to get there. But going home, it seems like Marquette is the worst for blocked traffic, cars blocking the box. And especially the routes that moved from Hennepin to Nicollet.”

box blocker
Courtesy of Nick Magrino
Hundreds of people are prevented from getting to their destinations because of scofflaw “box blockers,” as featured in Nick Magrino’s Twitter videos.
Blocking the box is not a new problem — and in bigger cities it’s become a police matter. For example, in New York City, solutions for “box blocking” have long been the realm of licensing and enforcement. For years, drivers caught blocking the box accrued “points” on their license; too many points and it was revoked. For the last decade, however, NYPD enforcement has treated bus blocking like parking tickets, allowing any enforcement officer to scan offenders’ plates and send them a fine in the mail.

Legally speaking, blocking the intersection is also illegal in Minnesota. State statute 169.15 2.(b) makes it a misdemeanor, and the rule could be enforced. But that’s not the approach favored by downtown business leaders, who want more focus on educating drivers.

“How do we help educate or encourage people to be aware?” wondered Steve Cramer, the head of the Downtown Council, the business group that sets the tone for a lot of the city’s transportation policy downtown. He’s been acutely aware of the issues around congestion and transit in downtown this summer. “I will confess to you that I have myself blocked intersections,” admitted Cramer. “I have guessed wrong at times, [and been] in the uncomfortable spot of blocking a street or right of way. It was not because I wanted to, but I just guessed wrong as to how quickly traffic ahead of me will go.”

According to Cramer, this summer’s logjams, while inconvenient, are actually a sign of progress. The chaos is part of the price that downtown travelers pay for so much construction and investment.

“The real issue has been the volume of construction downtown,” said Cramer. “The street projects, like Hennepin and 8th, the lane closures from high volume of development, they’re important and necessary work. But it does create challenges around free flow of movement, and the buses are the biggest things moving.”

This summer, the normal tensions were increased by the commencement of a three-year closure of Hennepin Avenue through downtown Minneapolis. Hennepin forms a major north-south bus spine, but because of the street reconstruction, all Hennepin buses have been rerouted a few blocks east along Nicollet Mall. That’s a big change for the street, which has seen its bus numbers go from 800 to 1,300 per day. 

For Nicollet Mall box blockers, that means they’re impacting almost double the number of people riding in buses. According to Metro Transit, they’re aware of the problem and trying to figure out solutions. 

“Approximately 40 percent of individuals who come in and out of downtown Minneapolis each weekday arrive on transit,” explained Drew Kerr, a Public Relations Specialist for the agency. “Our goal, as always, is to get these individuals to and from their final destinations as reliably, efficiently and safely as possible.”

According to Kerr, and a spokesperson for the city of Minneapolis, there are some ideas for improving the box blocking problem. These include better signage, shifting some detours, and removing some street parking to ease congestion. Without help from downtown drivers or the Minneapolis Police Department, there’s not a lot they can do.

“The easy thing you could do is send enforcement out,” pondered Eric Andondson, the Hopkins commuter. “That’s not that easy, I suppose, as it costs money, resources, and people. But at the least, I think they could change the timing and traffic lights so that when the cars do start clearing out, enough time is given to the opposite direction to cross.” 

For his part, Steve Cramer would like to see more help from traffic control officers, especially at key intersections in the city. But so far there hasn’t been a lot of money available for helping buses get through the city. “If I had my way, and there were more resources available, I would put them into helping to control intersections, and to help motorists, cars, and buses navigate through this congested downtown,” he said.

In the meantime, however, bus riders like Anondson, Borg, and hundreds of others are delayed by stray scofflaw drivers plaguing downtown intersections.

Hope for dedicated bus lanes?

On the other hand, the chaotic transit impasse might be changing in some parts of the city later this year. Last month, city transportation planners announced the creation of three new dedicated bus lanes on key streets running in south Minneapolis: Nicollet, Chicago, and Hennepin Avenues. The new bus lanes, helped along with a grant from the Bloomberg Foundation aimed at improving urban transit, marks the culmination of a few years of work.

“We’re starting with three bus-only lane pilots this late summer and early fall,” explained Lisa Bender, the City Council president who has pushed for better transit service in her 10th Ward of south Minneapolis. “Last summer, we had a three-day pilot on Hennepin on the boundary of Wards 10 and 7. In the few days, we were able to see the benefits of creating space for buses to travel outside of the congestion in rush hour. “

Dedicated lanes for buses have been tried in many cities, and often make a critical difference for rush-hour commuters.

“Helping buses run more efficiently and predictably will benefit half of the folks directly, and also benefit everyone else,” said Bender. “I expect we’ll see, with this longer bus lane on Hennepin, that it should attract more riders to transit.”

If experience is any guide, when the new lanes roll out, enforcement will continue to be a problem. Without some threat of tickets, or some solid design measures, it will be hard to keep drivers from using the bus-only lanes. In a few months, city planners and police officers might be revisiting the conversation about enforcement versus education, and whether it’s a good idea to begin giving out tickets to scofflaw drivers.

“Our bus network is the critical backbone of local transit service in our city,” said Bender. ”If we want to achieve our vision of creating walkable communities, where people can access jobs, schools, and other destinations by transit, we have to make sure to invest in a good transit system.”

The new bus lanes, along with the BRT lines planned for the urban core, will surely help with that transition, but only if drivers can change their behavior and give buses the right of way. 

Comments (29)

  1. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 08/07/2019 - 09:25 am.

    “…only if drivers can change their behavior…” And drivers changing their behavior seems unlikely.

    Since I am one myself occasionally, I can’t issue a blanket condemnation of drivers in general, but Minneapolis certainly has its share of drivers who, if not blatantly self-centered, are oblivious to their surroundings. The car ahead of them moves, they move. The car ahead of them stops, they stop. In both cases, lots of people appear to be afflicted with tunnel vision of a very narrow variety, so only when they stop (or go) do the glance around to see what’s happening. Glancing around when brought to a stop in the middle of the intersection by the car ahead of you is…um… too late.

    • Submitted by Mark Kulda on 08/07/2019 - 03:13 pm.

      That’s probably because they are usually distracted and perhaps with the new hands-free law there may be less distraction, but we can only hope!

  2. Submitted by Patrick Steele on 08/07/2019 - 09:39 am.

    Local buses should get the 2nd/Marquette treatment that the suburban commuters get.

    • Submitted by Todd Hintz on 08/13/2019 - 11:57 am.

      Cars block those intersections too. I take those streets on a daily basis and there isn’t a single day that goes by where someone isn’t driving in the bus lane and blocking the box.

      Education is a wonderful thing and we should pursue it, but by itself it’s not going to resolve the issue. People already know they’re not supposed to block the box, yet they end up doing it anyway because they’re not paying attention, feel entitled, or both.

  3. Submitted by Tony Kelly on 08/07/2019 - 10:15 am.

    Aside from maybe twice a year, I see absolutely no law enforcement downtown whatsoever. Blocking the box, running red lights, and speeding are completely unchecked. Want a series people to become extremely angry at you? Just drive across the 3rd ave bridge going 35 mph; everyone else is going 45+. Drivers aren’t going to voluntarily change their selfish habits except for a few enlightened souls. The rest need the stick of the law.

  4. Submitted by Brian Simon on 08/07/2019 - 10:18 am.

    “How do we help educate or encourage people to be aware?”

    Enforce the law? It only takes a few tickets to get the word out.

  5. Submitted by Matthew Steele on 08/07/2019 - 10:29 am.

    It is now painfully obvious that cars are actually an impediment to downtown mobility.

    1. We need to replace car lanes with dedicated bus lanes. It’s just a matter of geometry… bus lanes move far more people than car lanes. Ideally, these lanes can be contraflow to regular traffic like Marquette and 2nd, because that design discourages motorists driving in the bus lanes.

    2. We need cops preventing motorists from blocking intersections, rather than their current duties of pushing even more motorists out of parking garages and onto already congested streets during the PM rush hour.

    3. The city and private parking operators need to work on a pricing model based on when people depart rather than when they arrive (early bird pricing). We need to charge people more for departing parking garages between 4 and 5:30 PM, since that’s when those people are causing an outsized destruction of mobility for everyone else. Maybe we also need to pursue a London-style congestion-pricing model for the entire downtown.

    It’s ridiculous how long it takes buses to get across downtown. It’s not complicated to fix.

    • Submitted by Mike Schumann on 08/07/2019 - 02:58 pm.

      We don’t need any of that. What we need is serious law enforcement. It’s amazing how educational a few tickets are.

      Maybe Mpls could borrow a few parking enforcement officers from St Paul and kill two birds with one stone.

  6. Submitted by Elisa Wright on 08/07/2019 - 11:02 am.

    It’s hard to drive downtown. I avoid it if I can. It has to be even worse for people from out of town. I remember years ago when my family first moved to the area, how my mother accidentally turned onto Nicollet. Now there’s the awkwardness of the light rail intersections.

    Park & Ride is great for commuters, but difficult if you have to leave work at a certain time in order to catch a bus. If you are one if those people who ends up having to bring a lot of things with you to work, that is another problem.

    We used to spend more time there shopping or going to music events, but have been doing that less and less & strategically timing visits according to event schedules.

    Maybe we should treat the entire area as a MOA or Disney World or the airport& prohibit all but public transportation & emergency vehicles. We could have moving sidewalks in the skyways & street cars.

  7. Submitted by Alan Straka on 08/07/2019 - 11:44 am.

    Converting regular traffic lanes into bus only lanes forces auto traffic into fewer lanes. That might be just fine for buses but makes things more difficult for automobiles. I don’t see how that is a solution to overall congestion unless you are trying to discourage people from coming into downtown.

    • Submitted by Patrick Steele on 08/07/2019 - 03:23 pm.

      Nobody is discouraging people from coming downtown, but we should definitely discourage cars from coming downtown.

    • Submitted by Mark Snyder on 08/07/2019 - 04:07 pm.

      It’s not about discouraging people from *coming* downtown, but from *driving* downtown. While someone coming from White Bear Lake may not have a lot of options beyond driving, there are plenty of us who live near enough to a bus route or LRT station that can get us downtown without driving. More of us really need to try doing that. It is NOT that difficult to figure out and it’s often faster and cheaper when you account for the time spent searching for parking, paying for parking and then leaving a parking ramp if you were downtown for a big event.

      • Submitted by Diggitt McLaughlin on 08/11/2019 - 08:04 pm.

        Speaking as a longtime New Yorker. There are places along just about every significant route into NYC where drivers can park and use alternative transit: express bus, train, city subway. And the cost and OMG the HASSLE of driving in NYC is enough to keep them in two seats (instead of only the driver’s seat). If suburbanites want the hassle and expense of a) driving and b) parking in the city, the more comprehensive (and let’s face it, the more realistic) solution is to make it more of a hassle and more expensive. That’s why the rich now go hither and yon in the city by helicopter….and while I deplore the pollution, at least they’re off the streets.

  8. Submitted by RB Holbrook on 08/07/2019 - 11:58 am.

    Blocking the box isn’t just an inconvenience, it’s a hazard. Try walking across Marquette at 4th during evening rush hour, picking your way around blocked buses.

    Give out tickets, for crying out loud. If that seems too aggressive, roll it out gradually: announce that, for 30 days, only warning tickets will be given out. After that, there will be a fine for blocking an intersection.

    • Submitted by Todd Hintz on 08/13/2019 - 12:10 pm.

      It is indeed a hazard. Last year I was rising the bus on the morning commute and we had just dropped off several people at a stop. A driver across the intersection from us wanted to make a left turn and beat the bus, so she quickly darted in front of us as we started to pull out from the stop.

      She beat the bus but hard target focus and didn’t notice the pedestrians in the crosswalk. She nailed a guy pretty hard and rag-dolled him.

      And that was with zero buses blocking visibility and good weather conditions.

  9. Submitted by Kurt Anderson on 08/07/2019 - 12:31 pm.

    Why aren’t police officers photo-tagging the scofflaws in existing bus lanes?

  10. Submitted by Betsy Larey on 08/07/2019 - 12:52 pm.

    I used to go downtown once a week for something. Usually meeting friends for dinner or a Lynx game. I haven’t been there once this summer. The city has made their intentions very clear, cars are not wanted. I am not taking a bus from white bear lake. I now go to St Paul exclusively. Places to park and safer neighborhoods.

    • Submitted by Diggitt McLaughlin on 08/11/2019 - 08:13 pm.

      Back in the day when Petula Clark sang rapturously about Downtown, there WAS such a place as Downtown….and it was totally different from places closer to home. Why, Downtown had exotic restaurants, interesting bookstores, retail emporia for all sorts and manner of things, and loads of movie theaters.

      But this is fifty-plus years later! And wherever you might find a nifty little bookshop, it’s not going to be paying downtown rents. Every local strip mall has at least one exotic restaurant in it and any suburb worth its high-priced real estate has dozens of nationalities cooking there. The local plex-plex has more movie screens than the entire city center. If you want to meet up with friends who live in a different suburb, you have ring roads connecting your two centers of all this luxury. You don’t need to face the homeless and whatever else prompted you to leave downtown for a suburb!

      • Submitted by Dave Carlson on 08/12/2019 - 06:14 pm.

        Reminds me of the immortal Yogi Berra line, “Nobody goes there anymore, it is too crowded!” There are lots of other options to driving your car, such as park-and-rides and the LRT; I often use the latter when attending concerts and events downtown. And the numerous bike routes coming into the central city from most directions really do make biking a safe and convenient alternative.

  11. Submitted by Fiona Quick on 08/07/2019 - 10:16 pm.

    Funny how all this mentions delays for cars & buses but not safety of pedestrians & how their lives are being put at risk by blocking the box, people are running lights, blocking crosswalks, forcing pedestrians into oncoming traffic to walk around cars, which then try to move when the traffic frees up, almost running over the throngs crossing with the green light. This should be enforced, and Downtown is far beyond needing traffic officers at intersections. The white gloves and dance moves would be an extra touch.

    • Submitted by Todd Hintz on 08/13/2019 - 12:15 pm.

      If it were enforced, then my entertainment value would be diminished. I get a kick out of walking up to cars that are blocking the crosswalk and giving them a little education, as it were.

      Cars can just as easily wait behind the line as they can over the crosswalk or out in the box. They’ve lost zero time by waiting back a few feet, but the drivers simply aren’t paying attention to their surroundings until they’re trapped out in the middle, blocking everyone.

  12. Submitted by Joel Stegner on 08/07/2019 - 10:20 pm.

    Here is the deal. If there is no space for your car on the other side of the intersection, stay put. For people who cannot observe common courtesy, a large ticket will deter.

    • Submitted by Todd Hintz on 08/13/2019 - 12:23 pm.

      Thank you, Joel. This situation is not hard to figure out and not hard to implement. Unless there’s room for you across the intersection, don’t move your bumper.

  13. Submitted by Larry Sanderson on 08/08/2019 - 11:04 am.

    Has anybody thought about timing the lights? Or is it just easier to yell at drivers? Oh! Timing lights cost money? My personal favorite when trying to not block the box is the yahoos who make right turns on red in front of me because that’s obviously why I’m not going forward — to let them in. Another stupid idea, how about restricting turns during rush hour? If most of Hennepin Avenue can do it south of downtown, why not restrict turns in the current mess downtown?

  14. Submitted by Greg Laden on 08/11/2019 - 07:51 am.

    When gridlock driving was first addressed in New York City, decades ago, the police positioned tow trucks at numerous heavily used intersections in Manhattan and elsewhere in order to tow away what we apparently refer to today as box blockers. NY driver’s were instantlly educated.

  15. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 08/14/2019 - 08:37 am.

    Obviously many things can be done if you actually want to address this problem rather than admire it.

    The first thing I would do is take the problem away from the private business group that somehow ended up in charge of Downtown’s transportation infrastructure and policy. This is government function that should never have been privatized in the first place. Not to insult anyone but the myth of private sector efficiency and expertise in all things great and small has long since been revealed as a facile fantasy. Anyone who can’t imagine an effective public education campaign needs to go back to their day job.

    Any effective intervention will require… some actual intervention. The only rationale I can see for bending over backwards to ovoid any kind of enforcement is a misguided assumption that these drivers are “customers” of some kind. These are not “customers”, these are inconsiderate drivers behaving stupidly and causing a major inconvenience to others. Again, a business mentality won’t yield rational policy here.

    Everyone makes a mistake now and then but someone here already pointed out the fact that this is NOT rocket science. No matter what color your light is, if the traffic on the far side of the intersection isn’t moving… you don’t go. If the traffic isn’t moving, you stay put till it does move. You have to pay more attention in intersections. A minimal level of situational awareness is all that is required here.

    So absolutely, put traffic cops in these intersections and either ticket or scold box blockers.

    I don’t see how dedicated bus lanes solve THIS problem? Wherever a dedicated bus lane intersects with a blocked box, the buses still can’t move.

    Finally, I think it’s simply daft that anyone would take a main artery in a relatively small downtown area out of service for three years. I can’t imagine what they’re doing that could possibly justify that kind of disruption, or take that long. They build super-highway bridges and skyscrapers in less time than that. We’re talking about what? 5-7 blocks? Unless the street is about to collapse into a cave underneath it or something, if you can’t get the job done in a year, then don’t do it. This was a functioning street that everyone was using, and no matter what kind of “design” issues it may have had, having it was better than not having it.

    I would assume that budgets have something to do with the time frame, but again, if you don’t have the budget to get something done within a year, then to don’t it, or do something else that you can do in less than a year.

  16. Submitted by Gordon Everest on 08/25/2019 - 12:03 am.

    That would be Minn Statute 169.15 paragraph 2(a) not (b).
    Business would prefer us to educate rather than enforce the law???
    What better way to “educate” than to hand out some tickets. That way at least some drivers would get the message.
    .. For my part I try hard to never enter an intersection until I can see that I will be able to exit without stopping. Hopefully, the driver(s) behind me will see the logic of why I am stopping and incorporate it into their own driving habits.
    Don’t be a greedy driver. So you have a wait a light — big deal, just be courteous and respectful when you drive.

Leave a Reply