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For climate action and equity, Hennepin Avenue is where the rubber meets the road in Minneapolis

After years of passing plans claiming the city is serious about climate change and safe streets, the Hennepin Avenue redesign actually puts these ideas into practice.

Ask anyone who’s had to make a left turn, and you’ll find out that Hennepin Avenue has never really worked all that well as a high-speed arterial road.
Ask anyone who’s had to make a left turn, and you’ll find out that Hennepin Avenue has never really worked all that well as a high-speed arterial road.
MinnPost photo by Bill Lindeke

The amazing thing about the proposed design for Hennepin Avenue in South Minneapolis is that it looks exactly as it should. For many years now, Minneapolis leaders have passed ambitious plans declaring a new vision for city streets and public space: There’s the Climate Action Plan (2013), the 2040 Comprehensive Plan (2019),  a Vision Zero Action plan (2019), and the Transportation Action Plan (2020). And just last month, the City Council passed a new Complete Streets policy that doubles down on prioritizing transit, bicycling and walking. They all passed with near unanimous support from the City Council and mayor, and all declare that the City of Minneapolis will change how it builds its streets.

Too often, though, plans like these gather dust while status quo inertia prevails. But that’s not the case this year on Hennepin Avenue in South Minneapolis. In a bit of straightforward action, the street redesign proposal reflects promises kept.

“We start from policy plans adopted by the city council,” said Becca Hughes, a transportation planner, to the skeptical members of the Uptown Special Services District during a meeting earlier this month.

In other words, if city leaders pass enough plans prioritizing walking and transit, eventually the streets start to change. After years of engagement that has gradually narrowed down the designs, the final design proposal prioritizes safety, transit and climate action.

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“We do all of our technical analysis, traffic studies and other types of analysis,” Hughes explained. “We roll that into it so that we understand the factors, then we take public input. It’s exhaustive, [with] thousands and thousands of comments. We knew this was going to be controversial, because there’s only so much space in the public right-of-way.”

Safety first

Two months ago, I wrote about how impressed I was by two Minneapolis street reconstruction efforts on Grand and Plymouth Avenues, that each show the potential of 21st century street design. The over mile-long Hennepin Avenue reconstruction will have far more impact.

City of Minneapolis
For one thing, the street won’t be a death trap any more. Ask anyone who’s had to make a left turn from or onto the street, and you’ll find out that Hennepin Avenue has never really worked all that well as a high-speed arterial road. The status quo four-lane design is a magnet for crashes and speeding, and is the reason why South Hennepin appears high on the list of the city’s most dangerous streets.

Instead, the new design is a deluxe version of a four-to-three conversion, with left turn lanes and only one thru lane for cars. Importantly, the street design includes what traffic engineer JoNette Kuhnau calls a key safety feature: a raised center median that will slow speeds, limit turns and reduce crashes.

Prioritizing buses

To me, the most unbelievable statistic about South Hennepin is that, before the pandemic, about half the people traveling down the street during rush hour were taking the bus. It’s wild because, if you glance at the street, you see nothing but cars. Most people, business owners included, never realize that half of the people traveling down the street aren’t driving.

This is why the proposal’s dedicated bus lanes are great. Having dedicated lanes aligns perfectly with the upcoming Metro Transit E Line aBRT project, guaranteed to boost numbers a well-used route. With the new lane, Hennepin Avenue transit riders can expect to pop from Uptown to Downtown in just a few minutes. Compared to the old #6 bus, eternally mired in congestion, I am confident that the route will blow ridership estimates out of the water.

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Bike lanes and sidewalks

The most controversial part of the proposal swaps out most on-street parking for safer sidewalks and a two-way protected bike lane. As a long-time student of Minneapolis bike planning, I never thought I’d see the day when a protected bike lane was proposed for Hennepin Avenue. If passed, I’ll be carefully watching how it works.

Biking down Hennepin Avenue as it is today is not something I’d recommend to anyone; it’s the kind of experience best reserved for bike messengers and the sandwich delivery crowd. Having an actual separated bike lane available should be a huge boon to getting around South Minneapolis. Watching people discover a safe bike route on what had been an inaccessible street will be fascinating.

Opposition centers on parking

Of course, not everyone is on board with the proposed design. On the one hand, there’s a grassroots campaign of residents supporting the plan that have been canvassing the area for months, gathering signatures and sending comments to City Hall. On the other hand, the business association is upset. There’s an anti-Hennepin-redesign sign hanging in the window of the Corner Balloon Shoppe and the owner of the Café Meow is a vocal opponent.

The biggest complaint revolves around on-street parking, but the existing situation has long been a classic case of mismanagement. Without parking meters ensuring turnover, and with narrow lanes making exiting a car dangerous, the existing spaces were not the best use of the public street.

For many months of the year, when the street is narrowed by snow, on-street parking on Hennepin Avenue is reserved for the daring.
MinnPost photo by Bill Lindeke
For many months of the year, when the street is narrowed by snow, on-street parking on Hennepin Avenue is reserved for the daring.
But here’s a spoiler. People have been complaining about parking in Uptown for generations, and will continue to do so for the foreseeable future, no matter what the city does. Free parking in a dense neighborhood is an unsolvable problem, and smart planners have long known that the real solution is simply prioritizing the street space for those who need it most, while making it more welcoming to walk to and from your car.

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A national example of change

When I moved back to Minneapolis from New York City twenty years ago, Hennepin Avenue reminded me of Manhattan’s famous Broadway. Both are historic trails dating to indigenous people, predating land development and the street grid. Both run at an angle, creating triangular chaos at intersections and opening up public space that could theoretically be used in creative ways. And for most of the 20th century, thanks to mid-century engineering, both streets were dominated by private car traffic despite running through the densest neighborhoods in their respective cities.

In New York City, the last fifteen years have seen a sea change on Broadway, with the addition of bike lanes, the transformation of much of the space into plazas, and other tweaks that have made Broadway a far better place to spend time. If this proposal passes, I believe South Minneapolis’ Hennepin Avenue will see a similar transformation to a street that centers around transit and walking. If so, it’ll set a stellar example for how mid-size cities can lead the way on equity and climate change.