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.”
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.