Project: Washington Avenue


Location: Hennepin Ave to 5th Ave Downtown


Washington Ave Bike Lane

Hennepin County will finish its reconstruction of Washington Avenue from Hennepin Ave to 5th Ave in downtown Minneapolis in 2017.

Additionally, the County will re-stripe the lanes on Washington Avenue from 5th Ave to I-35W. This re striping will reduce the outlined portion of Washington from three lanes to two, leaving room for full-time parking and bikeway. It is a fantastic opportunity to extend the protected bikeway on the reconstructed segment almost to the University of Minnesota.

I'm guessing you probably don't think much about the width of car lanes. I can't blame you--they are just there. But right-sizing car lane widths is the cheapest and easiest way for us to improve walking, biking, and greening in our city. Here are a few details on how narrower lanes can be valuable and examples from 8th Street to Washington Ave where we can put this to use now. 

Next year, Hennepin County will finish its reconstruction of Washington Avenue from Hennepin Ave to 5th Ave in downtown Minneapolis. It will have world-class sidewalk-level protected bikeways. We hope that this top-notch bikeway will connect to protected bike lanes that extend to the University of Minnesota to connect the two biggest destinations in Minneapolis. But currently we are inches short of that. We hope to get there in the coming months with your support!

Washington Avenue rendering

Rendering of under construction Washington Ave from 5th to Hennepin

On Tuesday, December 17, the Hennepin County Board approved the plan for Washington Avenue from Hennepin Avenue to Interstate 35W in two construction phases. The new Washington Avenue will have narrower lanes, fewer through lanes, enhanced pedestrian space, and a protected bike lane. They'll break ground on the project in 2015.

The coalition is very excited about this outcome and what it means for the area, but we're not the only ones. The Star Tribune wrote an editorial supporting the plan including the protected bike lane, emphasizing the importance of enhancing the livability of downtown. The Downtown Council was a strong supporter of the plan, as well. The opportunity to remove a barrier between downtown Minneapolis and the riverfront doesn't come around very often.

Commissioners Jan Callison, Linda Higgins, Gail Dorfman, and Peter McLaughlin voted for the measure. Callison cited the traffic analysis that showed that the reduction of traffic lanes would have little effect on overall capacity, thanks to signal synchronization and plans for a new ramp onto north-bound 35W from 4th Street. That reassurance, along with the support from local residents and businessowners for a more livable corridor, pushed her into the "yes" camp. At last week's meeting, Dorfman mentioned the importance for building a city that attracts the younger generation, a sentiment echoed by McLaughlin when he said, "this is really about moving to the future."

This was a huge victory for people who work, live, and play in downtown Minneapolis, and we'll be enjoying the benefits for generations. It wouldn't have happened without the strong support of local businesses and residents. Thanks so much to everyone who helped.

On Tuesday, December 10, the Hennepin County Board of Commissioners had a meeting about the Washington Avenue reconstruction (among other things), and the Board agreed to vote on the project next week.

The plan

Hennepin County plans to reconstruct Washington Avenue from Hennepin to 5th in the next couple years, and then from 5th to 35W soon* after that. To gather input about this important project, the public works department held public meetings, interviewed stakeholders, and listened to Downtown Council's goals for the area. One plan has emerged as the runaway favorite: removing two through lanes for motorized traffic, expanding the sidewalks, and building a protected bike lane. This is part of a complete streets strategy that enhances the level of service for everyone on the street, not just the people in cars.


Join the Coalition on September 26th for a crisp fall ride. Grab some free Jimmy John's, get tagged by ZAP Twin Cities, and learn about the fight to build better bike infrastructure in Minneapolis. The Joy Ride will tour parts of Minnehaha and Washington avenues.

Meet at Father Hennepin Bluffs Park. Check-in will start at 5:15, the group will depart at 6pm, stopping at Gold Medal Park, Harriet Brewing on Minnehaha, and ending at Sea Salt Eatery/Minnehaha Park around 7:15pm. An expert will talk about plans to redesign Washington and Minnehaha avenues. At the end of the ride, there will be an informal informational socializing session.

Commuter Connection will bring their ZAP equipment so you can get your bike tagged. There will be bike limbo (with prizes) and FREE Jimmy John's sandwiches at Father Hennepin Bluffs Park, so don't be late!

RSVP for the Joy Ride on Facebook.

The Washington Avenue public meeting was held on May 14 from 5-7pm. It was an "open house," which means that people could drop in anytime in that two hour window to see the four different options Hennepin County has designed for Washington Ave. Options were laid out in detail on giant printouts on the walls and on the table; these maps showed an overhead picture of the current Wash Ave along with the proposed changes drawn in. There was no formal presentation, but staff were available to answer questions. After viewing the different layout options, attendees were asked to fill out a small packet in which we could express our preferred vision for the future of Washington Ave. 

The meeting was well attended by bicycle coalition members; a big THANK YOU to everyone who came! We are confident that our voice was heard and that we are well on our way to making Wash Ave safer for cyclists and pedestrians and more livable for all who spend time in this area.

If you were not able to attend the meeting, you can still make your opinion heard! Hennepin County's survey link is still up and will be open for at least the next few days. Be sure to check out the great blog posts here and here that detail the Minneapolis Bicycle Coalition's take on the Wash Ave redesign. Take 5 minutes to fill it out, and bug all your friends to do the same: WASH AVE SURVEY 

This was my first public meeting and I found the environment friendly and unintimidating. Plus, there were free cookies! Thanks again to everyone else who came out, and to everyone who has filled out the survey already. 

Ever read a blog with an executive summary?  Here you go.  

Because this synopsis of the Washington Avenue traffic study gets a little wonky, here’s the executive summary: 


Hennepin County just released a report that shows it could reconstruct Washington Avenue, eliminate two lanes in the process, and still reduce congestion by optimizing the signal timing.  The great news from this study is that it substantially weakens (or even eliminates) the short-term congestion-based argument against removing the lanes.  


Before I dive into the long version, I want to insert the perspective of the Minneapolis Bicycle Coalition.  We disagree with Hennepin County that questionable assumptions about future traffic growth justify six lanes rather than five lanes. We also disagree with the policy decision that livability of the 5,000 current neighborhood residents living within two blocks of this project is less important than 90-180 seconds of travel time caused by the additional year-2035 commuters who may or may not ever appear on Washington.



Now for the long version, with more detail and background – wonky enough I had to get some assistance writing this up:


Hennepin County is planning to completely reconstruct Washington Avenue between 5th Avenue and Hennepin Avenue, and is also studying potential improvements in the Mill District between the 35W ramps and 5th Avenue.  To help inform the designs for the new street, Hennepin County commissioned Alliant Engineering, Inc. to complete the “Washington Avenue Traffic Operation Analysis,” which was made available to the public via the County’s website last week.  


Some of the assumptions in the report have been questioned, as you can read in Brendon Slotterback’s blog post at


With all due respect to Brendon, I take a different view Alliant Engineering’s work.  I actually love their Traffic Operation Analysis.  


I love it, because it offers careful, honest, and precise analysis of the traffic conditions on Washington.  Some may argue that the report takes a very narrow view of the world.  They might say it excludes the things that downtown residents and employees care most about, like a consistently compelling downtown experience, leading the nation in transportation options, creating green infrastructure, showcasing the riverfront, or forging connections to the University of Minnesota (to plagiarize freely from the Downtown Council’s 2025 plan).


They might also say the traffic analysis fails to adequately consider the Downtown Council’s vision for the greening of downtown

Lack of green in downtown


Some critics would say that traffic engineers get paid to view the world through a straw.  I would argue that this is not a shortcoming, because the fact is that most professionals, whatever their profession, get paid to view the world through their particular straws.  So rather than criticizing this report, I have a different proposal.  


Let’s join the traffic engineers for a moment, look through their straw with them, and see what we can learn from their highly focused analysis.  


The main point of the report is to compare the performance of a 6-lane street (described in the report as 5 lanes with center turn lanes) to the performance of a potential 5-lane street (described in the report as 4 lanes with center turn lanes).  The report includes several variations on each layout that adjust the use of right turn lanes, but these variations are sideshows to the reports main event, which is addressing the question of whether 6 lanes are needed to adequately move traffic on Washington.  The report focuses on the afternoon rush hour in particular, because that is the period of highest congestion along Washington.


What the traffic study shows is that even if you completely ignore the tangible, economic benefits of greening downtown and creating a world-class, attractive and people-friendly corridor, it still makes sense to build Washington Avenue as a 5-lane street, based on today’s traffic counts.  Why?  Because with optimized traffic signals, 5 lanes will have less congestion than the current condition with 7 lanes.


The first reaction from some people who hear about reducing the number of lanes on Washington is “are you crazy, the traffic barely moves with 7 lanes, how on earth could it be better with 5 lanes?”  The answer is that the number of lanes is not the only factor in moving traffic.  The coordination of signal timing along a street is equally important.  A ‘green wave’ of well-timed signals can move lots of cars through a single traffic lane, while a less coordinated sequence of green lights causes delay and frustration, even with a smaller number of vehicles.  


On precisely this point, the report provides a useful comparison by showing how many vehicles can be transported, per lane, when signals are optimized.  During the afternoon rush hour, 3rd Street, which has 3 west-bound lanes, moves more than 2,000 vehicles through its busiest blocks (Figure 6, Page 16).  Washington, despite having an equal number of west-bound lanes as 3rd Street, never moves more than 1,400 west-bound vehicles, and nearly all blocks carry fewer than 1,100 vehicles (Figure 6, Page 15).  So with good signal timing, 3rd Street moves roughly 670 vehicles per lane during rush hour, while Washington only moves roughly 370 vehicles per lane.


The point is that with good signal timing, a lane of traffic in the downtown grid can move 670 vehicles in an hour.  So, by reducing Washington to 2 lanes in each direction, and improving the signal timing, Washington could have increased capacity, and become much less frustrating for people commuting by car or bus.  But you don’t have to take my word for it, the traffic analysis states clearly that “a 4-lane cross-section…  is expected to generally operate acceptably under existing year 2011 traffic volumes and optimized signal timing.“ (Page 22) 


The diagrams that demonstrate this conclusion are striking.  Using traffic simulation software, Alliant Engineering projected the level of congestion that would result from each scenario, on a block-by-block basis, and compared that to the current condition.  Figure 1 (Page 47, and top in the graphic below) shows the baseline ‘current condition.’  All of the blocks between Hennepin and 35W have at best moderate congestion (yellow), with most of the blocks showing congestion (red).  Figure 2, Scenario 3 (Page 48, and bottom in the graphic below) shows how traffic would move after a reconstruction that eliminates one lane in each direction.  Notice the number of blocks that turn from red into yellow or green (which indicates smooth traffic flow)?  Comparing Figure 1 with Figure 2, it’s clear that improved signal timing would make a big impact on this corridor.  Washington Avenue after the reconstruction would be much improved for motorized commuters, even with two lanes removed.  

Comparison of traffic flow on Washington - current 7 lanes vs 5 lanes

So, if a 5-lane Washington Avenue will move traffic acceptably, why is there hesitation from the County on this?  Why isn’t the County simply proceeding to design the best of both worlds – a street that improves conditions for commuters while maximizing livability for local neighbors at the same time?  Why does the study recommend on page 38 that the County maintain 3 through lanes in the west-bound direction, and maintain a 6-lane road?  


Because of 2035.  As directed by Hennepin County, the study presumes (and full credit to the study’s authors for their careful and transparent documentation of their assumptions) that every year, traffic counts on much of Washington will increase by 0.5%.  (And as Brendon pointed out in his post, that assumption doesn’t match current trends, or even current declining traffic count trends on Washington Avenue, shown in this chart.)


Washington Traffic Counts - peaked in late '0s early '0s, declining since


This increase, if it occurs, will result in roughly 13% more vehicles by 2035.  The study then builds from this assumption a model of traffic flows after this 13% increase.  Many conclusions are based on this 2035 traffic forecast.  For example, by 2035, on the blocks west of 5th Avenue, there will be an average of 1,300 westbound vehicles per day on Washington during the afternoon rush hour.  This increased traffic will cause increased delay, which Alliant Engineering has quantified, down to the nearest second, shown in the chart on page 30.  So, maintaining 3 west-bound lanes will result in 2035 travel times across Washington Avenue of 5 minutes, 28 seconds.  Reducing the width to 2 west-bound lanes will result in 2035 travel times across Washington Avenue that range from 7 minutes, 4 seconds (Scenario 6a, which includes right turn lanes) to as much as 8 minutes, 30 seconds (Scenario 9, which removes some of the right turn lanes).  IF traffic counts increase 0.5% per year.  


In simpler English, if 3 travel-lanes aren’t maintained in the west-bound direction, 2035 travel times from 35W to Hennepin Avenue will increase by 90 – 180 seconds, for an average of roughly 1,300 vehicles during the afternoon commute.


This is the brilliance of the Alliant report: it states, with unselfconscious ‘looking at the world through a straw’ honesty, that 1.5 - 3 minutes of time during the afternoon commute of 1,300 people in 2035 is more important than creating a world-class, game-changing new Washington Avenue that would improve livability for thousands of downtown residents and employees, starting in 2014.


American Trio Lofts


To put the impact on those 1,300 2035 commuters into perspective, let’s take a moment to count the number of downtown residents who would benefit from a greener, 4-lane Washington Avenue starting in 2014.  Let’s pretend, for the sake of discussion, that the only residents who are impacted by Washington are the ones who live within 2 blocks of the section studied by Alliant.  Let’s only count apartments and condos that are already built or under construction, and ignore development sites with pending proposals.  Also, for the sake of a rough estimate, let’s say that every apartment and condo has an average of 1.4 occupants.  


So here’s a list of residential buildings with the estimated number of occupants.


Velo Apartments


222 Hennepin


River Towers






The Carlyle


RiverWest Condos


The Whitney


Metropolitan Lofts


North Star Lofts


Stone Arch Lofts


Washburn Lofts


Humboldt Lofts


Mill District City Apartments


Park Avenue Lofts


Saint Anthony Mills Apartments


Zenith Condos


Bridgewater Condos


StoneBridge Condos


Emanuel Apartments


American Trio Lofts


The Crossings


607 Washington


The Atrium



The total number of residents within a 2-block radius of the study area is roughly 5,000.  


On one side of the scale are thousands of residents, plus thousands of visitors and thousands of employees, who would start benefitting in 2014. On the other side is 60-180 seconds for 1,300 commuters in 2035.  The holistic public policy calculus, and the political calculus, should be glaringly obvious by now.  


The commissioners at Hennepin County, especially Peter McLaughlin, have the chance to deliver a legacy project to Downtown Minneapolis.  The time is now for residents of Downtown to make it clear that the greening and livability of Washington Avenue matters to thousands of residents who deserve at least as much respect as a commuter in 2035.  Please show up to the meeting on May 14.  And if you can’t make it to the meeting, email or call (612-348-7844) Peter McLaughlin to let him know what a greener Washington would mean to you.









At a public meeting May 14 (from 5-7pm at Mill City Museum), Hennepin County will offer four design options for Washington Avenue downtown. (Note that each option presumes 6 lanes between Hennepin Avenue and 5th Avenue South. We strongly support 5 lanes instead with more space for greening, cycletrack, and sidewalk. You can see our prefered layout here.)

We strongly support having a well-designed protected bikeway (or cycletrack) on Washington (Layouts 3A or 3B as discussed below). We need to build bikeways that attract the roughly 60 percent of people who are interested in biking, but concerned about riding in traffic next to cars, buses and trucks. Protected bikeways feel safer and attract new riders. They can work for kids, seniors, parents with a toddler in a Burley, and everyone in between. They encourage more shopping at local businesses and a livelier street environment.






A protected bikeway in downtown Vancouver (source)


Riding in a protected bikeway is five times safer than biking on the street or in a painted bike lane, according to a University of British Columbia study. A new cycletrack on Pennsylvania Avenue increased ridership by 200% in Washington, D.C. in the first year. After construction of a protected bikeway in New York City, local businesses saw a 49 percent increase in retail sales.

The Minneapolis Bicycle Advisory Committee and Minneapolis Pedestrian Advisory Committee both support a protected bikeway on Washington Avenue. And protected bike lanes have received near unanimous support from a variety of community stakeholders at two design charettes.

We will insist that the protected bikeway be well designed. That includes high-visibility crossings at intersections, separate bicycle signals where appropriate, smart interactions with bus stops, and clear delineation of the bikeway so people walking (including blind people) do not inadvertently end up in the bikeway.

The options Hennepin County will present the public meeting (as presented at a design workshop May 3; these are not yet available online):

•       Layout 1: Wide Pedestrian Zone; No Bicycle Facilities

We don’t understand why this option is even up for consideration. Washington is on the City’s Bicycle Master Plan map. Hennepin County has a Complete Streets policy. Bicycling was tied for the top ranked priority at the first open house and the third ranked (of eight options) in the online survey. None of the groups at stakeholder design workshops left out a bike facility. There is clearly space for a bicycle facility under any scenario. This shouldn’t be on the table and honestly reflects the work that still needs to happen to routinely incorporate bicycling into projects from the start.

•       Layout 2: Buffered Bicycle Lane Adjacent to Curb

While bike lanes are much better than nothing, most people will not ride in an on-street bike lane next to fast moving traffic with only a painted line to separate them. This has been shown in cities across the world and is readily apparent when you compare who rides on trails versus who rides in bike lanes in Minneapolis. Given the opportunity on Washington to build something to serve the next 50+ years, we do not feel an on-road bike lane is adequate.

•       Layout 3A: Cycle Track Adjacent to Road

This option has a 5-foot wide protected bikeway separated from the road by a curb and a 2-foot buffer zone. A 6-foot wide green and furniture zone separates the bikeway from the main walking area. This proposal does a nice job of separating people biking from people walking, but offers a less than ideal barrier between the bikeway and the street.

We do not have a strong preference between 3A and 3B and would prefer a 5-lane street that allows the best of both of those proposals.

•       Layout 3B: Cycle Track Adjacent to the Pedestrian Zone

This option has a nice 7-foot wide green and furniture zone separating the bikeway from the street. The 5-foot wide protected bikeway is separated from the sidewalk by a 2-foot buffer. County staff says that material and color differences would help differentiate the bikeway from the sidewalk to reduce conflicts, but it is admittedly less than ideal with such a narrow buffer. The bikeway would be brought closer to the street near intersections to increase visibility.

Again, we do not have a strong preference between 3A and 3B and would prefer a 5-lane street that allows the best of both of those proposals.

Washington Avenue is an unsafe and unattractive barrier in the middle of downtown Minneapolis. It severs downtown from the Mississippi River, degrades quality of life in a growing downtown, and creates a hostile highway between the North Loop, Downtown, and the University of Minnesota.

Now is the time to change that. Now is the time to build a Washington Avenue for everyone. With Hennepin County fully rebuilding Washington from Hennepin to 5th Avenue South, there is once-in-a-generation opportunity to make that change. The new Washington Avenue should invite the redevelopment of surface parking lots and connect people to the riverfront. We want Washington Avenue to be a great place to live, work, and visit. You can help us get there!

Hennepin County is hosting a public meeting 5-7 p.m. Tuesday, May 14, at the Mill City Museum, 704 South 2nd Street. Input gathered at this meeting will help determine the design of Washington Avenue that will last for 50+ years. Please come! It will be an open house format, so you can arrive anytime from 5 to 7 p.m.

Key messages for the public meeting:

  • I support a well-designed protected bikeway (or cycletrack) on Washington. We must design this bikeway to serve everyone. More details here on why a protected bikeway is right choice along with details of the options the County will present at the meeting.

  • I want five car lanes - not six - with that extra 11 feet of space dedicated to more green space and improved areas for walking and biking. The County’s analysis shows that five lanes are enough to support today’s traffic. Yet they are choosing six lanes based on a guess that traffic may grow 11 to 13 percent by 2035. The consequences of that guess are longer distances to walk across the street, less space for greening, and narrower biking and walking areas. More details on five vs. six lanes will be coming soon.

If you can’t make the meeting, contact Hennepin County Commissioner Peter McLaughlin with your messages, including a personal story about why this maters to you.











Uninviting Washington Avenue today. All pavement and no life. A barrier to the neighborhood.














What Washington could look more like with new greenspace, a protected bikeway, and fewer lanes. A neighborhood asset that attracts people and businesses.

Let’s be honest, does anyone really enjoy traveling along Washington Avenue? Does anyone ever feel safe when commuting on Washington Avenue? This seven lane roadway that cuts off the vibrant Downtown from the beautiful Mississippi River feels likes a hostile highway for all - car drivers, bicyclists, and pedestrians.  In 2014, Washington Avenue will be reconstructed between Hennepin Avenue and Fifth Avenue S. This is a once-in-a-generation opportunity to transform Washington Avenue from its current state as an unsafe, unattractive barrier into a street that invites people to linger and explore – a street that truly links Downtown to its nearby neighborhoods and all they have to offer. We want Hennepin County to rebuild Washington Avenue for everyone!

The “Need to Know” facts for Washington Avenue:

  • Washington Avenue has a lot of potential to be a major connector/corridor for bicyclists and pedestrians to Downtown, North Loop, Cedar-Riverside, and the University of Minnesota. 


  • Hennepin County has not released the reconstruction plan yet, but will be releasing it any day now. We hope to seecycletracks included in the reconstruction plan. Want to learn more about cycletracks? Read this document for more information. 


  • You can contact your County Commissioner today to tell them that the inclusion of a cycletrack on the re-designed Washington Avenue is important to you. Use this Ward Finder to figure out who your County Commissioner is and how to contact them:


  • This is one of the city’s widest corridors. There is adequate room to accommodate infrastructure improvements for bicyclists and pedestrians. There is no reason that this corridor cannot be a thriving, lively, safe, and enjoyable destination.


  • People want these infrastructure improvements – just ask any of the 500 individuals who stopped on the Stone Arch Bridge to hand-write a letter to Councilmember Lisa Goodman, Mayor Rybak, and Commissioner McLaughlin to ask for a cycletrack on the redesigned Washington Avenue.

The Minneapolis Bicycle Coalition will be updating as the project progresses. Stay tuned for more blog posts and details as they come our way.

While we wait to hear from Hennepin County, we would like to hear from you:

  • What are your thoughts on Washington Avenue?

  • How do you travel along Washington Avenue? Or do you avoid it all together?

  • Do you enjoy traveling along Washington Avenue in its current state?

  • How could Washington Avenue be more enjoyable to travel and linger along?

Volunteers Molly and Betsy co-wrote this post.

(Photo Credit: Mill City Times)

Source: Mill City Times (


Momentum is building for a big transformation on Washington Avenue in the heart of downtown, and you can help make this a reality. The next step is a public meeting hosted by Hennepin County to review draft design concepts on Tuesday, December 4 from 5-7pm at the Open Book. Please come to the meeting and bring your friends!

Washington Avenue South is going to be fully resconstructed from Hennepin Avenue to 5th Avenue South in 2014. The street and sidewalk will be torn up and replaced from building to building and the way it is put back will likely last 50 years. This is an incredible opportunity to implement a world-class separated bicycle lane, or cycletrack. These facilities have all of the advantages of off-street trails, separated and protected from vehicle traffic. With good design at intersections, they are safer and more attractive than on-street bicycle lanes, particularly for new riders.

The opportunity to improve walking, bicycling and public space in the corridor is so great that we collected over 500 hand-written letters in support of improvements this summer and delivered them to Hennepin County Commissioner Peter McLaughlin, Councilmember Lisa Goodman and Mayor R.T. Rybak. Many great things have come from our advocacy and the efforts of partners including the Downtown Council and downtown business leaders:

  • Hennepin County is creating a design plan for the whole corridor from Hennepin Avenue to Seven Corners, not just the small portion that is being reconstructed.

  • Hennepin County hosted a design charrette last Friday to develop ideas that will be presented on Tuesday. In a room full of diverse stakeholders representing residents, businesses, and other partners, bicycling ranked as the #2 priority for the design. Every group, five out of five, included a curb-separated bicycle lane (known as a cycletrack) in their design.

  • Mayor R.T. Rybak is now a strong supporter of incorporating continuous bicycle facilities in this critical connection between downtown and the U of M and has urged key partners to stay open minded about incorporating a cycletrack on this corridor.

  • The City has determined that traffic volumes warrent five traffic lanes instead of seven in most segments of the corridor. This leaves more space for bicycle lanes, a wider sidewalk and greening, so the public will not have to choose between one or the other.

This process alone is a huge breakthrough in how Hennepin County and the City can work together to take advantage of maintenance projects to implement improvements in our streets. Now that we have the chance to truly participate in the conversation, we hope you will come out to the public meeting to voice your support for safe and protected bike lanes on Washington Avenue.

Key messages for the meeting include:

  • We support a continuous bicycle connection through downtown

  • A curb-separated bicycle lane (cycletrack) will be the most likely to support bicycling by all types of bicyclists

  • Cycletracks have a number of benefits for pedestrians -- they provide a buffer between auto traffic, shorten the crossing distance across the street and, because they attract more bicyclists, will increase activity in what is often a very empty landscape today

Last week, we had the honor of delivering over 500 hand-written letters to Minneapolis Councilmember Lisa Goodman, Mayor RT Rybak and County Commissioner Peter McLaughlin.  All of the letters – written by downtown Minneapolis residents, workers and visitors – request that the City and Hennepin County install protected bicycle lanes on Washington Ave S as part of the upcoming reconstruction project.

Washington Avenue today has seven lanes of traffic. Despite the difficult conditions, hundreds of people bicycle on Washington Avenue S, in numbers equal to those on the much more comfortable S 2nd Street one block north.

About a dozen dedicated volunteers from the Minneapolis Bicycle Coalition gathered the letters from pedestrians and cyclists traveling within two blocks of downtown’s Washington Ave S. The support from people passing by was overwhelming. After seeing a photo of Washington Ave S today and a rough idea of what it could look like with protected bike lanes, hundreds of people put down their groceries, pulled over in the middle of a bicycle ride, handed their baby to a friend or otherwise stopped what they were doing to write a letter.

Washington Avenue could look more like this Boulevard with curb-separated bike lanes (cycletracks) in Paris.

The letters tell the personal stories of why protected bike lanes would make a big impact on downtown. They demonstrate the diversity of the people who want to see protected bicycle lanes on Washington Avenue S become reality.

Along with the letter-writing campaign, the Minneapolis Bicycle Coalition has been doing outreach to downtown stakeholders, businesses and decision-makers. These groups, like those who wrote letters, generally support and are excited about protected bike lanes on Washington Ave S. Some, however, ask “Why, Washington? Why can’t people just bike on 2nd Street, or 3rd and 4th Street?”

Why would anyone want to bike on Washington?

Most people who bicycle downtown know why you end up on Washington Ave S so frequently, even with the hostile and unsafe conditions there today – it’s the only street that really connects, from the North Loop through downtown and across Seven Corners to the University.  According to the City of Minneapolis bike counts, people bicycle in nearly equal numbers on S 2nd Street, one of the nicest streets to bike on in Minneapolis, and Washington Ave S, one of the least friendly. This demonstrates the demand for bicycling in this corridor.

Washington Avenue is full of destinations – large office buildings, small businesses like Big Brain Comics and Core Power Yoga, restaurants and, increasingly, residences.  A protected bike lane on Washington Ave S would have a number of benefits to these users, helping provide a safe link from downtown to destinations to the West and East. Even planned improvements to S 2nd Street (a tunnel to the East and eventual removal of stairs on private property to the West) will not remove the demand for bicycling on Washington Avenue S.

Consider a visitor staying at the A-Loft hotel and using the Nice Ride bikes right in front of her hotel.  She wants to bike to Town Hall Brewery at Seven Corners, which also has a Nice Ride kiosk. Using Washington Avenue, she has to make one turn, and her trip is less than half a mile long.  Using S 2nd Street and the new tunnel planned along the river, her trip would be more than twice as long, and will require 9 turns.  (Left on 9th Ave, right on 2nd street, left on 13th Ave, right onto tunnel trail, right on trail/driveway at bridge 9 entrance, right on 1st St S, Left on 19th Ave S frontage road, left onto 19th, right on Washington.)  What are her chances of not getting lost?  The same basic comparison holds true for someone staying at the Holiday Inn Metrodome (or residing in a dorm or apartment near Seven Corners) and biking to Grumpys, or Spill the Wine, or Sawatdee, or the Guthrie, or pretty much anywhere downtown.

A protected bicycle lane on Washington Avenue S would benefit all of these businesses, bringing students from the University of Minnesota and other visitors into downtown. Nearly 7,000 people bicycle across the SE Washington Avenue Bridge between the West Bank and the East Bank every day. This shows not only the tremendous potential for reducing automobile trips into downtown by providing safe and accessible bicycling and walking facilities, but also the potential customer base for downtown businesses if those people continued their trips into downtown.

Furthermore, a protected bicycle lane would benefit pedestrians, particularly in the soon-to-be-reconstructed stretch from Hennepin Avenue to 5th Avenue S. In this segment, pedestrians have to walk along a relatively narrow sidewalk with no buffer, close to seven lanes of fast-moving traffic. Large office buildings with blank walls lend a feeling of isolation to the few pedestrians who walk along this stretch today.

A protected bike lane, especially if built with a raised curb, would create an active buffer for people walking along the street, not only separating people from moving cars, but bringing life to the corridor.  A wider sidewalk would have many benefits, but with no activity-generating uses, there is the danger of creating totally unused dead space in the heart of downtown.

A curb-separated bike lane (cycletrack) on Vassar Street in Cambridge, MA. Protected bike lanes are gaining popularity in the US because they have resulted in huge increases in bicycling in European cities. (Photo by City of Cambridge)

What about traffic?

The rough vision for Washington Avenue S that the Minneapolis Bicycle Coalition has circulated shows a reduction from seven lanes of traffic to five lanes.  The resulting cross section would have two travel lanes in each direction with a center turn lane, leaving plenty of space for a wider sidewalk, trees and protected bike lanes.  But this is just one of the ways that bicycle facilities could be added to Washington Avenue S.  In fact, bicycle lanes could be added to this stretch and to the East today by simply reducing the width of the 13 foot travel lanes to a more reasonable 11 feet.

A five-lane Washington Avenue could include a sidewalk, two rows of trees, a curb-separated bicycle lane and a median/turn lane.

As Hennepin County continues with its planning process for this reconstruction, we hope there will be a robust conversation about the pros and cons of different street configurations.  However, given the goals of doubling downtown’s population, the increasing demand for walkability and bikeability in people’s location choices, one needs to ask:

Is a seven lane stretch of road in the heart of downtown Minneapolis compatible with city and county goals for increasing walking and bicycling and promoting a livable, vibrant downtown?

In Their Own Words

Here are some excerpts from the over 500 letters we collected from supporters of adding protected bike lanes to Washington Avenue S:

Washington Avenue is a key route used by bicyclists to get to the University. . . . As more people use bicycles instead of cars for short distances, the overall health of the city improves.” – Janice, 55403.

 “A protected bike lane would help keep bikers like myself safe and help Minneapolis stay in the top spot as #1 bike city.” – Blake, 55410.

 “I am . . . FREQUENTLY asked to take people to establishments on Washington Avenue and it is very nerve-wracking w/o a bike lane!” – Pedicab driver.

 “This is a major thoroughfare used by both cars AND bikes. It’s a gateway to downtown MPLS, the University, & other areas. I think a bike lane would be a boon to increasing business to the area.” – Melissa, 55404.

“I live downtown & bike with my kids and even grandkids.” – Illegible signature, 55404.

“I use my bike to train to support the NATO mission in Afghanistan. Keep me and my fellow bikers safe.” Lieutenant, USMC, 55414.

 “I live in downtown Minneapolis. I run downtown everyday and would appreciate the space and safe environment for walking.” – Erin, 55414.

 “As a biker and car driver, I understand and appreciate the convenience of making all the lanes separate.” – Meghan, Minnetonka.

 “I live, work & play in downtown Minneapolis. I do not own a car. . . . I am strongly in favor of protected bike lanes on Washington Avenue.” – Megan, 55404.

 “I . . . need to use Washington Ave frequently to get from one side to the other. I do not have a car and bike all the time to get to & from work / everywhere. Please put in safe bike lanes. It will make my parents worry less.” – Caroline, 55414.

 “Safer, greener, more family friendly; a great combination.” – Roger, Portland Ave in downtown.

 “I’m a lifelong resident of Minneapolis and I vote, and I’m in favor of protected bike lanes on Washington Ave.” – Jack, 55407.

 “I have season tickets to the Guthrie and work at Orchestra Hall. The livability of downtown is extremely important to me. A bike lane/cycle track would have a calming effect on a wonderful downtown neighborhood and destination.” – Julie, Richfield.

500 Letters Supporting Washington Ave Bike Lanes

The Minneapolis Bicycle Coalition will present more than 500 hand-written letters to downtown Minneapolis City Council Member Lisa Goodman (Ward 7) at a 9:30 am meeting on Wednesday. All of the letters – written by downtown Minneapolis users and residents – request that the City and Hennepin County install protected bicycle lanes on Washington Ave.

Washington Avenue is set to be fully reconstructed in 2014, from building to building, between Hennepin Avenue and 5th Avenue South.  The project, sponsored by Hennepin County, provides a once-in-a-generation opportunity to redesign and rebalance the street.  Washington Avenue should serve as a gateway to the river and to downtown, supporting the new residential, office and commercial uses that have been springing up for the last decade.  But today it is a seven lane thoroughfare cutting through the heart of downtown.

Transforming Washington

By reducing the number of traffic lanes to five, Washington Avenue could include generous sidewalk space, greenery and a curb-separated bicycle lane (sometimes known as “cycletrack”) on each side.

A five-lane Washington Avenue could include a sidewalk, two rows of trees, a curb-separated bicycle lane and a median/turn lane. (Graphic by Matthew Thompson)

This design would dramatically reduce the distance pedestrians would need to cross to get from one side of the street to the other, making it easier to walk in the heart of downtown.  It would provide a connection for bicyclists of all types and skill levels and create a safe bicycle connection from Nicollet Mall (which dead-ends into Washington) to the riverfront.

Washington Avenue could look more like this street in Paris.

What about Traffic?

Washington Avenue currently carries about 21,000 vehicles per day in the six lanes plus center turn lane. There is an existing two-way pair (3rd Street S and 4th Street S) just one block from Washington with an additional three lanes of traffic in each direction that each only carry 9,000 - 12,000 vehicles per day, according to MnDOT. They provide a strong alternative to Washington Avenue because 3rd and 4th are both one-way streets that can offer a wave of green lights to reduce congestion. Today, 3rd Street provides direct access to Hwy 394, and in a few years 4th Street will provide direct access to 35W.

There are also two big changes coming that will alleviate traffic congestion on Washington Avenue:

  • A $13 million project to build a new freeway on-ramp from 4th Street South to northbound 35W to reduce congestion on Washington Avenue

  • Retiming of all traffic signals in the City, which will help make traffic move more efficiently

Washington is a Missing Connection

Even with the uninviting conditions, hundreds of people already bike on Washington Avenue, which is lined with small businesses and an increasing number of residential and office destinations. There is an existing bike lane one block north, on 2nd Street, but it does not connect to points west or east and does not provide access to the destinations on Washington.

The Big Picture

The goal of our proposal is to create a balanced environment on Washington that serves drivers, pedestrians, bicyclists, residents, employees, and visitors well. Most of all, we want to make Washington Avenue, and the blocks that border it, a great place to live, work, and visit. With added trees and green space, a better pedestrian environment, and a bicycle facility, Washington Avenue will better support Downtown’s vision for growth. The Downtown 2025 Plan sets the goal of doubling Downtown’s population. This will only be feasible if Downtown continues to transform itself into a place where people want to live.

From Vision to Reality

We have done outreach to downtown organizations and neighborhood groups and have gotten mixed reactions to the proposals. Some people love the idea of making downtown more pedestrian friendly and particularly like the idea of greening. Others are concerned about slowing down car trips. For these changes to become reality, strong support is needed not only from the bicycling community but from downtown residents, businesses and visitors.

We need volunteers to reach out, build support and find out more as the project develops. Email to get involved!

Watch for news of public meetings for this project this summer.


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