It's been about a month since a portion of Washington Avenue was reconfigured in downtown Minneapolis' North Loop neighborhood, and motorists have wondered why a driving lane in each direction has been taken away.
Washington had been a four-lane thoroughfare with two travel lanes in each direction. In August, Hennepin County crews applied fog seal to the street, then repainted the lines to convert the segment between Plymouth and 5th Avenues N. into a three-lane design with a center turn lane to be shared. Bike lanes with a buffer zone between the travel lanes and on-street parking were added.
The segment between Hennepin and 5th Avenues N. also was redone to add bike lanes, but the four-lane design was maintained to accommodate the 20,000 to 25,000 vehicles that use the stretch on a daily basis and the large volume of traffic that turns left onto Interstate 394 at 3rd Avenue N. But north of 5th Avenue, traffic volumes drop by about 30 percent. That made it conducive to a three-lane design, said Robert Byers of the Hennepin County Transportation Department.
The idea is that the new configuration will increase comfort and safety for bike riders, lower vehicle speeds and likely reduce crashes as a result of better lane definitions.
The area has seen a renaissance in recent years with the addition of condos, businesses and restaurants, increasing interaction between vehicles, bicyclists and pedestrians.
"The exposure was going to get worse, and we wanted to proactively get ahead of it," Byers said. "Three-lane designs are twice as safe as four-lane undivided designs. It still preserves traffic, and pedestrians and bicyclists are safe."
Naturally when change comes, there is some negative reaction. Some southbound motorists have been confused by the sudden loss of a lane at Plymouth Avenue. Northbound drivers are forced to squeeze into one lane at the 3rd Avenue railroad bridge. The latter has led to some backups during the afternoon rush, but "those who think we have added congestion may undervalue the congestion that was there before," Byers said.
The redo on Washington is still a work in progress, and transportation officials will continue to monitor its effects, Byers said. Early returns suggest it is having a positive effect.
"The perception is that more people are bike riding on Washington Avenue," Byers said. "The general feeling is that it's an easier place to ride for the casual rider. Traffic keeps moving."
Anecdotal evidence collected by observation and stopwatches show that travel time between Plymouth and Hennepin Avenues is not any longer than before the changes were put in, said David Frank, president of the North Loop Neighborhood Association.
"I think it's fantastic," Frank said. "The North Loop is not only a drive- and bike-through area on their way to work. It's a place they are going to," he said. "I don't want people to suffer through traffic. Slowing it down to make it a more pleasant place for those of us who live, work, shop and hang out there is by far more important than the perceived slowdown."
More changes are in store. Next year, Hennepin County is planning to rebuild Washington from Hennepin to 5th Avenue S.