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More of your Twin Cities transportation questions, answered

From bike-lane etiquette to bus rider complaints, we get the answers to more of your questions about transportation in the Twin Cities.

A few weeks ago, we asked MinnPost readers on social media to share what they wanted to know about transportation in Minneapolis and St. Paul. Dozens of bicyclists, drivers and Metro Transit riders flooded us with questions. We published a few of those questions, with answers, last week— covering topics from speed limits to the status of bike sharing in St. Paul. 

But we had so many questions that we’re back for round two, this time exploring everything bike-lane etiquette to bus rider complaints:

What’s the status of the Nicollet Avenue streetcar? Alex Schieferdecker, Philadelphia

The city of Minneapolis’ plan for a 3.7-mile streetcar on Nicollet and Central avenues isn’t exactly dead. But it also isn’t progressing through the bureaucracy of transportation planning either. 

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Initial planning for the transit line began in 2007, under former Mayor R.T. Rybak. Using the Hennepin Avenue Bridge to cross the river, city planners mapped the streetcar to run from Central Avenue and Southeast Eighth Street in Marcy-Holmes to the intersection of Nicollet and Lake Street, which is currently blocked by a Kmart. Early studies showed the line would cost upwards of $200 million in construction and another $10.6 million to operate each year, while providing 9,000 trips daily and a new north-south connection between light rail lines

In 2010, the Minneapolis City Council agreed that it wanted to explore not just a Nicollet-Central line but a multi-line network across the city. The Federal Transit Administration answered local leaders’ funding request to study the transit option with a $900,000 grant, which helped pay for numerous environmental assessments and reports estimating a streetcar’s impact on the housing market and economy. 

Three years later, the council successfully lobbied the state Legislature to establish a special tax district surrounding the Nicollet-Central route, so the council could levy property taxes from new buildings along the route and raise money for streetcar construction.

A rendering shows how a streetcar might look in northeast Minneapolis.
City of Minneapolis
A rendering shows how a streetcar might look in northeast Minneapolis.
While there’s no formal streetcar plan yet, the city has dipped into that pot of tax revenue. In 2017, the city used $7 million from the streetcar tax fund to buy the property under the Lake Street Kmart, despite the fact that retailer’s lease doesn’t expire for decades. At that time, the city said it would work with the company on a relocation agreement and start exploring how it would redevelop the 10-acre site on Lake into mixed-use developments and new transit routes.

In an interview last week, public works director Robin Hutcheson said a team of city staffers is studying travel patterns along the Nicollet-Central corridor so that it has documented proof of the need for new transit investments there. When the city eventually decides what it wants to build a streetcar or other type of transit option it can use the new data in its requests for federal funding. 

“We wanted it [the streetcar plan] to go through the federal funding process, but there’s a lot of steps to that that have become pretty time consuming,” Hutcheson said. 

And though a possible streetcar is not off the table of options for now, Hutcheson emphasized that travel patterns and development have evolved significantly since Minneapolis leaders began discussing the transit mode more than a decade ago. More recently, Mayor Jacob Frey has expressed skepticism that the streetcar project will come to fruition, though Council President Lisa Bender, whose ward includes the southern end of the proposed line, has voiced support for the concept.

“We’re starting to be more assertive about moving a project forward on the corridor sooner rather than later,” Hutcheson said, without going into specifics. “We know that it’s just been too long since we’ve been able to implement something.”

After analyzing travel patterns this year, she said the team will use its findings to guide a public conversation about redeveloping the corridor with new transportation. “I’m more optimistic now at our ability to accelerate the work,” she said. 

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What is the discipline process for Metro Transit drivers who endanger lives with lawless driving? Ward Rubrecht, South Minneapolis

According to Metro Transit, a team of customer relations workers field complaints against bus drivers (or other aspects of the transit service) via social media, phone calls, emails and online forms

Passengers filing the reports must include the incident’s date, time, location, route and other information to help the customer-relations staff track down evidence and investigate the claims, according to Metro Transit spokespeople. That evidence can include GPS data that show where and when buses traveled, video footage of Metro Transit property or interviews with bus drivers and passengers to learn more.

Nicollet Mall Metro Transit bus to Northtown
MinnPost file photo by Corey Anderson
Nicollet Mall Metro Transit bus to Northtown
Last year, the team forwarded 6,000 complaints involving bus drivers to management, according to the spokespeople. In more than half of those cases, managers coached the drivers to improve their behavior, pending whether the complaint was related to customer service or driving, while just 4 percent of the incidents resulted in discipline. The customer relations staff deemed about 40 percent of the complaints unfounded, which means the transit agency did not take any action after its initial investigations. 

The spokespeople did not provide any additional information on the complaint process or subsequent investigations.

(In the case of emergencies, Metro Transit advises people to use its Text for Safety tool, 612-900-0411, to report suspicious activity or crime that’s an immediate threat to their safety.)

Minneapolis’ Complete Streets policy directed Public Works to look at traffic light timings and to reprioritize them for pedestrians years ago. What’s taking so long? Janne K. Flisrand, Lowry Hill

About 85 percent of all car-pedestrian crashes in Minneapolis occur at intersections with traffic lights, data show. Vineland Place and Lyndale Avenue near the Walker Art Center, 27th Street and Cedar Avenue in the Phillips neighborhood and Third Street North and Second Avenue South downtown are among hotspots for severe collisions.

The 2016 Complete Streets Policy establishes pedestrians as the city’s top priority in its transportation planning and is part of a broader plan for safety improvements, called the Minneapolis Transportation Action Plan. Essentially, that means the Complete Streets Policy is a set of values that the city wants carried out throughout all aspects of policy making in coming decades. And, yes, it includes a section on signal timing.

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It reads: “The operation of the public right-of-way is a significant opportunity to implement the City’s modal priority framework that prioritizes people as they walk, bicycle, and take transit. The timing of traffic signals will reflect this modal priority framework, such that signal timing plans will incorporate multimodal metrics. Ongoing monitoring and evaluation of the operation of the public right-of-way should support safe, comfortable, and convenient travel for people that choose to walk, bicycle, take transit, or drive a vehicle.”

In other words, the city promised to make sure its computer-run system for traffic signals gives people walking or biking on the streets not drivers priority. 

And according to Hutcheson, the city is adhering to that vow. She said crews do on-the-street reconfigurations of signal timing where there are issues (people can report signal problems by calling 311), and a team at the city’s traffic operation center monitors camera footage of streets to adjust signals intersection-by-intersection based on real-time traffic conditions. “We are constantly monitoring and adjusting traffic signal timing every single day,” she said. 

Hutcheson said staff at the operations center may shift the timing of a light cycle to give drivers more green time in areas of traffic gridlock. They use federal standards as minimums for pedestrian crosswalk times, she said, which vary by the width of intersections across the city. 

But with the incremental changes comes the need to reconcile the system on a citywide basis, Hutcheson said. Every two to five years, the city undergoes a comprehensive evaluation of its timing system and rolls out big-picture operational changes. The next analysis of that kind will happen soon, she said, considering traffic engineers’ concurrent effort to lower speed limits.

“No matter what, we’re going to have to do some signal timing changes,” Hutcheson said. “We’ll have to do an overhaul.”

How much faster do bus-only lanes make buses? Jonathan Foster, Minneapolis

Following cities such as Washington D.C. and Los Angeles, Minneapolis installed bright red, bus-only lanes in several areas of the city this summer: southbound Chicago Avenue (from East 28th Street to the Chicago/Lake Transit Center), northbound of Hennepin (between Lake Street and the Uptown Transit Station) and southbound from 25th to Franklin Avenue. In coming weeks, the city will test a bus-only lane between Lake Street and Franklin Avenue on Nicollet Avenue as well.

On Hennepin Avenue, only buses can use the northbound lane between 7 and 9 a.m. on weekdays, which means vehicles can’t park there. Then, during the evening commute between 4 and 6:30 p.m., the same rules apply for the avenue’s southbound bus-only lane. The rationale for bus-only lanes is that by giving buses their own space on the road clear of drivers making turns or changing lanes passengers will get from stop A to stop B faster.

Hutcheson said while the city and Metro Transit are still studying the full effects of the new bus-only lanes, a pilot project on Hennepin Avenue last year cut passengers’ travel times by 20 percent during commuter hours, according to the public agencies. That means a typical 45-minute commute was 36 minutes with the new design.

On Hennepin Avenue, only buses can use the northbound lane between 7 and 9 a.m. on weekdays, which means vehicles can’t park there.
MinnPost photo by Jessica Lee
On Hennepin Avenue, only buses can use the northbound lane between 7 and 9 a.m. on weekdays, which means vehicles can’t park there.
Preliminary studies of the bus-only lane on Chicago Avenue show positive results, too, she said; passengers’ travel times are down by about 40 percent. “The first glance at this is pretty darn good,” Hutcheson said.

Studies of bus-only lanes in other cities show similar results. For example, in Arlington, Mass., a dedicated bus lane cut riders’ trips by up to 10 minutes, according to Boston-area transit advocates.

Supporters say those faster, smoother trips are key in boosting transit ridership in the Twin Cities metro. Considering the success so far, Hutcheson said Minneapolis will test even more red, bus-only lanes in different parts of the city over the next 18 months. But, at this point, the new lanes’ locations are unclear.

Are bikes welcome in Minneapolis’ new bus lanes? Stephen Potts, Minneapolis

Technically, no, bikers are not supposed to use the red lanes during commuting hours, just like drivers. But it’s a pretty loose rule. Rather than citing bicyclists for the violation, the city is observing the behavior studying where and what times of the day cyclists use the bus-only lanes. “We’re going to evaluate,” said Hutcheson. “It’s interesting to see when you make space like that how people choose to use it.”

Can cars stop or park in bike lanes for any amount of time? When should cars come over into the bike lane to turn? And what are the rules about vehicle vs. bicycle-pedestrians right of way at all intersections, striped and un-striped? Peter Schmitt, Minneapolis

Per state law, “no person shall stop, stand, or park a vehicle” in bike lanes except for when signs permit otherwise, motorists can use the lanes to avoid a crash or police pull someone over. A ticket for the violation is $37. 

But enforcing the rule is a challenge, according to Hutcheson. In Minneapolis, the Regulatory Services department fields complaints, and often staff can’t respond to cases fast enough to cite offending vehicles. “It’s difficult because somebody will call 311 and a traffic-control agent will head right over,” said Hutcheson. “But if it’s a delivery truck, it may have moved by now. So, I think this is something that we want to work on.”

Enforcement could increase, though. As part of Mayor Jacob Frey’s citywide funding plan, he wants to create a new “Accident Reduction” unit within the police department to monitor for law breakers on the road, which would include drivers illegally using bike lanes. The Minneapolis City Council has yet to approve the proposal, which would create three new positions for traffic enforcement officers.

As for drivers using bike lanes to turn, state law does not provide a clear-cut formula for when motorists should cross the lanes, but it does require drivers to use their turn signals prior to changing lanes, yield the right-of-way to bicycles and use their best judgement for safety.

MinnPost photo by Corey Anderson
Per state law, “no person shall stop, stand, or park a vehicle” in bike lanes except for when signs permit otherwise, motorists can use the lanes to avoid a crash or police pull someone over.
Finally, vehicles are supposed to yield to pedestrians at intersections in all cases, no matter the designs of crosswalks, per state laws. The guidelines also say people on foot should give drivers at signalized intersections a few seconds after the light changes green before crossing the street. Also, the law advises pedestrians facing yellow and red lights as well as “Don’t Walk”or upraised hand signals to stay on the curb.

Bicycles, on the other hand, are legally “vehicles” under state law, which means cyclists must obey the same rules as motorists at intersections. That means people on bikes are supposed to yield the right-of-way to pedestrians and give audible signals before passing them.

I’m excited that cities can set some speed limits now, but how about turns on red? Is there any chance there will be a shift to no turn on red? Grace Riley, St. Paul

Already, the city has prohibited right turns on reds at some intersections based on their travel patterns and crash history. And while Hutcheson said they will continue to make the change on a case-by-case basis, a citywide ban is not in the cards.