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Tuesday, September 27, 2022

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Are the Minneapolis Mill District street diverters actually a good idea?

People driving lately near downtown Minneapolis’ Guthrie Theater have been scratching their heads and flipping on their hazard lights.

Seemingly overnight, Minneapolis city staff, led by the Police Department, brought in dozens of 3-foot concrete bollards and placed them at six key intersections along South 2nd Street. One-time MinnPost commentator David Brauer has dubbed it the Michael Rainville Autonomous Zone, in honor of the police-friendly council member who represents the area.

But are the bollards a bad idea just because they circumvent plans and process? Or did the Minneapolis Police Department (MPD) accidentally hit upon a solution to the increasing problem of speeding, reckless driving, and vehicular violence?

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I’m of two minds, and the answer is “both.” This is not how you want to make decisions, and transforming what was once a seamless part of the downtown street grid into an ungainly urban cul-de-sac is a bad sign in general. But the short-term changes slow and reduce traffic in a thriving, albeit wealthy part of the city, making them a bona fide public safety improvement.

Diverters as traffic calming

I give MPD credit for connecting the dots between traffic calming and overall public safety, which is something that’s not often done these days. The changes were triggered by a series of incidents during the 4th of July where people driving cars around the neighborhood shot fireworks at buildings and into crowds of people walking from the riverfront.

(Weirdly, the footage of culprits shooting fireworks from a moving SUV reminds me of the infamous video of an officer pepper-spraying demonstrators from an MPD Explorer; in both cases, the anonymity of the motor vehicle led to the impunity of the aggression.)

In other words, MPD might have come up with a good idea. Diverters and grid disruptions are a legitimate safety measure. The NACTO street design guide — the bible of US street design — lists diverters as a speed reduction mechanism that “encourage[s] motorists to drive at target speeds [by] break[ing] up the street grid while maintaining permeability for pedestrians and bicyclists.”

You can find other intersections in south Minneapolis that have the same kind of one-way designs, for example at Pillsbury Avenue and West 33rd Street, part of a 1980s effort to reduce through-traffic on neighborhood streets. Some of the city’s better “bicycle boulevards,” reduce through-traffic at key intersections along 42nd Street. Having a low-speed, pedestrian-first street isn’t even new to the Mill District: the city’s first (half-baked) “woonerf” is just off 2nd Street leading down toward the riverfront.

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The primary effect of the diverters — other than creating a constant stream of befuddled U-turning drivers (including a USPS delivery truck) — is to greatly reduce the number and speeds of cars on 2nd. Overnight the streets have become more pleasant places to walk, bike, or (God forbid) skateboard.

Diverters and grid disruptions are a legitimate safety measure.

MinnPost photo by Bill Lindeke

Diverters and grid disruptions are a legitimate safety measure.

Granted, the details of the barriers absolutely need key tweaks: “Except bicycles” signs should be added to the barriers as soon as possible; city staff need to better ensure that sidewalks are clear of obstruction; and the status quo is certainly ugly, making downtown look like a construction zone.

The wealthy enclave factor

One problem is that, compared to just about any other street change, the overnight bollard drop bears little resemblance to how cities typically operate. There was no sign of the community engagement or public votes that accompany most street changes, nor much sense of how this fits into larger city plans like the Vision Zero plan, the Transportation Action Plan, or any document with the word “equity” in it.

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For one thing, cutting off the street grid introduces suburban design sensibilities into one of the oldest parts of downtown. The new street patterns make the Mill District feel more like a gated community, which is rich because 2nd Street has been the epicenter of years of high-end downtown development. The blocks on either side of 2nd Street boast some of the city’s most valuable properties, like this $7M penthouse. In an area that was once a rail yard, and then, for decades, massive surface parking lots punctuated only by a haggard liquor store, you now find hundreds of of condos and apartments affordable only to millionaires.

Likewise, the new barriers remind me of the old trend of gated urban enclaves, often found in St. Louis and Kansas City. (You might recall the infamous photo of a gun-toting couple defending their “private street” in St. Louis back in 2020.) While these barriers don’t function as literal gates, they symbolize a break in the urban fabric, sending the message to the public that this place might have different rules and “you” might not belong.

If these changes have the effect of reducing public access to the river, especially the Stone Arch Bridge and Mill Ruins Park, they are doing a great disservice and should be immediately removed. Those parks belong to everyone in the city and state, and it’s not an exaggeration to say that St. Anthony Falls is literally sacred ground. The riverfront should never seem like the exclusive province of the wealthy.

The entrance to a historic gated community in central Kansas City.

MinnPost photo by Bill Lindeke

The entrance to a historic gated community in central Kansas City.

Why not my neighborhood? 

But there’s another possibility here: the street changes might be a good idea emerging from a bad situation. To apply the classic Kantian ethical test, I have to wonder: What if we did this everywhere?

(For the sake of argument, let’s keep that idea confined to the greater downtown Minneapolis area.)

For one thing, the actual process is something that cities like Minneapolis absolutely want to avoid. Making dramatic changes to streets only when an incident prompts wealthy people to go on the news, without any planning or public process, is a recipe for deep inequality.  And sprinkling hundreds of bollards and diverters onto most downtown streets would drastically slow downtown driving and make the city harder to navigate. (I wonder particularly about emergency vehicles.)

On the other hand, with widespread traffic calming on downtown streets, such as ideas found in the city’s Vision Zero Action Plan, many factors would probably change for the better. In the past two years, the city has seen a rash of reckless driving, with pedestrian injuries and fatalities way up. With aggressive deployment of bollards and diverters, traffic speeds would decrease and streets would be far more pleasant for walking, biking, and rolling.

The yellow plastic bollards that still stand in the center of 2nd Street, waving uselessly in the breeze, made obsolete by the lack of cars.

MinnPost photo by Bill Lindeke

The yellow plastic bollards that still stand in the center of 2nd Street, waving uselessly in the breeze, made obsolete by the lack of cars.

A widespread and systematic emergency concrete traffic calming roll-out would boost walkability and safety and, especially in the warmer months, would transform downtown into a family and dog friendly place. I’d bet downtown Minneapolis would feel far more like a walkable European city, where speeding traffic is not the defining feature of central city streets.  More to the point, if emergency concrete diverters are good enough for downtown’s wealthiest neighborhood, they’re good enough for the rest of us, too.

If you don’t believe me, head out this week to Gold Medal Park, the privately-funded oasis in the heart of the Mill District. Watch drivers crawl along South 2nd Street at 10 miles per hour, and enjoy the peace and quiet of a low-car community, the birdsongs and conversation broken only by the whirr of the landscape contractors endlessly leaf-blowing the immaculate grass of the artificial hill.

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