Community Voices features opinion pieces from a wide variety of authors and perspectives. (Submission Guidelines)

Design details of Minneapolis’ Interchange shortchange pedestrians

MinnPost photo by Joel Kramer
Above the tracks there stands a giant lozenge-shaped trellis that looks visually elegant but does nothing to shelter passengers waiting for trains from the rain or snow.

The Interchange in Minneapolis, while serving as a much-needed transit hub, begs the question of whether, in our auto-centric age, we have forgotten the nuances of pedestrian life.

The Interchange has opened next to Target Field in Minneapolis to well-deserved acclaim, providing a multi-modal transportation center that brings together automobiles, bikes, trains and pedestrians in a complex weave of roads and rails, plazas and platforms.

The complex, designed by Perkins Eastman and built by Knutson Construction, makes all the right urban-design moves. It provides green space and hardscape for fans to gather before and after baseball games and for residents in the growing North Loop neighborhood to relax in a car-free zone, complete with a lawn and coffee shop giving people a reason to linger.

The Interchange seems to work very well for vehicles. The trains appear to have plenty of space in which to maneuver and the cars have ample room to swing into the parking garage and to drop off passengers in a turn-around that circles under the train tracks.

And the overall movement of pedestrians seems clear enough. People getting on and off trains can see where they need to go, and those arriving on foot have both elevators and a giant cascading outdoor stair that connects the train level and the adjoining Fifth Street North.

At a detail level, though, the Interchange shortchanges pedestrians or makes somewhat empty gestures toward them. Above the tracks, for example, there stands a giant lozenge-shaped trellis that looks visually elegant but does nothing to shelter passengers waiting for trains from the rain or snow. For that, people have to huddle under the small train shelters that cover only a small fraction of the platforms. The trellis does provide a sense of arrival, but given its enormous size and minimal function, it seems like a waste of money.

Trellises also circle around the amphitheater and along the backside of the grass area. While those may someday support the climbing vines that the designers have shown in their evocative renderings, these trellises suffer from the same problem as the larger one over the tracks: They seem enormously overbuilt for the minimal shade or shelter that they provide. When people pack the amphitheater to watch a performance or sprawl across the lawn to enjoy the day, these trellises may fade into the background, but with the space largely empty, as it will be most of the time, these white-painted structures stand out as well-intentioned but somewhat gratuitous.

The more disturbing aspects of the Interchange have to do with the relationship of people to cars and trains. The sidewalk along the southwest side of Fifth Street North, for example, simply ends, directing people to cross the tracks and walk along the exterior of Target Field. This may look logical in plan, but in person, it seems perverse, forcing people to leave the side of the road and to cross two railroad tracks to continue their route. I suspect a lot of pedestrians will refuse and continue along the road, without a sidewalk to protect them.

Thomas Fisher
Thomas Fisher

Similar pedestrian-related miscues occur elsewhere. Cars, for instance, share the lower plaza with pedestrians, providing no real separation between vehicles from people. While not a problem most of the time, that may pose a safety problem after games or other events, with people and vehicles leaving at the same time. Along the tracks above, railings separate the train platforms from the upper plaza, forcing people entering or exiting trains to funnel through a narrow passage, unable to take advantage of the adjacent plaza to queue.

Worst of all, the platforms between the existing light rail station and those of the Interchange have a space clearly not intended for passengers, but still accessible on foot, immediately adjacent to the train tracks. How many people will follow the circuitous path laid out for them by the transportation planners or take a seemingly dangerous shortcut between the platforms because they can?

The way in which the Interchange treats pedestrians points to a larger problem. Not only do transportation planners seem to prioritize vehicles over people when it comes to the design of public space, but they also appear to have lost any sense of how pedestrians actually behave.

I am sure this doesn’t stem from malice or malfeasance. It may reflect, though, our having viewed cities for so long through car windows at a speed that can blind us to the nuances of the pedestrian experience. Talking about such things may seem — well, so pedestrian — but if we don’t start making people more of a priority in big transportation projects like this, someone is going to get hurt.

Thomas Fisher is dean of the College of Design at the University of Minnesota.

WANT TO ADD YOUR VOICE?

If you’re interested in joining the discussion, add your voice to the Comment section below — or consider writing a letter or a longer-form Community Voices commentary. (For more information about Community Voices, email Susan Albright at salbright@minnpost.com.)

You can also learn about all our free newsletter options.

Comments (5)

  1. Submitted by Neal Rovick on 06/12/2014 - 08:05 am.

    “Meteorite shields”That’s

    “Meteorite shields”

    That’s what I call the design of most new canopies.

    Too open to provide shade or protect people from rain or snow.

    But perhaps, just perhaps, they will stop a chunk of rock that is falling from the sky.

    To have a friendly place there has to be shade, and protection from rain or snow.

    The people might want to hang out there. And that would be bad and scary.

    So faux canopies go with faux friendly places.

    Designer hubris says that people will want to walk where they intend them to go.

    But being the effort-minimizers that walkers are will send them to the shortest, most efficient route.

  2. Submitted by Connie Sullivan on 06/12/2014 - 12:01 pm.

    Finally, a coherent discussion of the existence of pedestrians in our city, that makes us actually see that pedestrians are different from those whose ride (whatever they ride). Thanks!

    Can any of the faults Dean Fisher finds in the Interchange’s design here, which are urgent (are we just waiting for someone to die first?), correctible?

  3. Submitted by Pat McGee on 06/12/2014 - 12:47 pm.

    The Interchange makes no sense

    Why are there 2 stations mere feet apart? It makes no sense to stop at one platform and another a minute later?

    The Targt Field sidewalk is a major hazard in the winter. It is NOT cleared and not lit. Just talk to the many folks who have sustained falls on the dark ice in mornings and evenings trying to make their way from the Northstar to the bus garage. (Complaints to Target Field are shrugged off with comments that they only clear and light the sidewalk on “game days”.)

    The entire Interchange area is extremely windy and there are no functional windbreaks.

  4. Submitted by Joe Musich on 06/12/2014 - 10:27 pm.

    thanks…

    Drivers anywhere in this city including bikers are empowered to have priority. I try to cross the now “traffic calmed” Lyndale on my evening walk. I got to be careful. Even at stop lights those turning value their turn more then my body. Even on back streets stop signs do not mean a thing other then maybe a rolling stop. I wonder if enforcement could be as financially lucrative to bust drivers for pedestrian related malfeasance as much as laying in wait for speeders ? Just askin’

  5. Submitted by Janne Flisrand on 06/14/2014 - 12:00 pm.

    Spot on. And, there’s more.

    People on foot should be the most protected and be awarded the most conveniences of any people in the city. It’s disappointing that this space, supposedly created for people on foot to connect between other ways of getting around are so ill served.

    I believe that people on bikes should get the second most protection and conveniences. Unfortunately, the Interchange has done a similarly poor job with that, neglecting to provide any sort of connection with the major bike trail parallel to the tracks, and by adding a bike “gutter,” with all the honor and glory that word implies, as the main way to move around through different levels in the space.

Leave a Reply