Lake Street travelers brace for big changes

Between September 2011 and September 2021, Lake St. had over 1,500 crashes, 200 of them at Lake and Lyndale alone.
Photo by Henry Pan

Major plans underway to calm Hennepin County’s most dangerous street

Big changes are coming to Lake Street in the next two years. Metro Transit will upgrade Route 21 to an arterial bus rapid transit line, similar to the A Line that runs on Snelling Avenue in St. Paul and the C Line that runs on Penn Avenue in North Minneapolis. 

Some of the stations for the route have been built, including near and under I-35W and at Hiawatha in the eastbound direction. The buses for the route will be delivered later this year. 

But this project will be different. A report by Metro Transit found that even with upgrading the route, transit travel times could be slower than they are today if more people drive. That’s why the agency is working with the City and County to implement transit lanes, in addition to ensuring buses get more green lights. 

“Providing the space [for transit lanes] and really getting transit out of traffic with that signal priority makes a real difference in how buses travel,” said Move Minnesota Executive Director Sam Rockwell, whose organization supports Lake Street improvements.

This comes at a time when the road is due for a mill and overlay, where the existing pavement is ground up, removed, and replaced with a new layer. The County is also using this as an opportunity to make the street safer for those who walk, bike, drive and take transit, owing to its reputation for being the most dangerous street in the city and county. Between September 2011 and September 2021, Lake Street had over 1,500 crashes, with 200 of them at Lake and Lyndale alone. 

Louis Hunter, who owns Trio Plant-Based at Lake and Lyndale, has happened upon crashes while running errands near his restaurant. “They get scary, hell yeah,” said Hunter. “I walked to the store one day and there was an accident, and I was on the corner on Lake and Lyndale—I mean, on the corner… I had to jump back ‘cause it was a big crash,” Hunter recalled. 

In addition to transit lanes, the City and County plan to reduce the amount of through-travel lanes from two to one in each direction. With one lane being converted to a transit lane, another lane will be converted into a left turn lane. The city will re-time signals so people driving can make left turns without having to wait for a gap in traffic to do so. 

They will also ensure the crosswalks are compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act, which includes installing bollards with buttons that people may have to push in order to cross the street. 

black traffic light
Photo by ZEG Photo on Pexels.com

Will changes go far enough?

Some transit advocates and business owners, however, question how much the plan does to make the street safe for everyone and make transit an option more viable than driving. Wider sidewalks are not being considered, because the street was already rebuilt between 2006 and 2008, and the County thinks it’s good for 40 more years.

The limited scope is disappointing for Hunter, who wants to see wider sidewalks: “I want to be able to see a kid walk the street, cross the street—it’s dangerous for a kid to walk the street, cross the street right down here.” 

Advocates also criticized the installation of buttons that people may have to push in order to cross the street, calling it dehumanizing. The county says the buttons help those with limited mobility know when it is safe to cross. The county also says that the City traffic engineer will decide whether or not people who walk and bike will have to push those buttons in order to cross the street when they are installed.

Other advocates question the lack of center-running transit lanes, which have been adopted in cities like San Francisco, Eugene, Oregon, Cleveland, Ohio, and Boston over the last two decades. Such lanes have been touted by advocates, engineers and planners as being better than transit lanes that run next to sidewalks and parking lanes, in part because drivers who need to park or make right turns may make it hard for a bus to run fast.

The County decided not to pursue center-running transit lanes because they wanted to use the space for the left turn lane in order to make it safe and speed up traffic. 

“Given the width available to be re-striped, there is not enough space for a center left-turn lane, bus lanes in each direction, and a traffic lane in each direction,” said Hennepin County Engineer Chad Elios. “Additionally, when we assumed bus lanes in each direction in the transit and traffic analysis, severe congestion was observed due to left-turns and through traffic sharing the only travel lane.”

The County decided not to ban left-turning traffic, in part because they were worried about impacts on side streets. Said Elios, “While banning left turns can have advantages, a lot of other factors also need to be considered, making it a complex topic including impact to local business access, increased traffic on nearby streets, presence of a street grid, [and] enforcement of prohibited movements.”

Center transit lanes do have their drawbacks, which include challenges in ensuring people feel safe waiting for the bus in the middle of the street. “The details matter,” said Rockwell. “You’d need to be able to safely get to and from those stations as a pedestrian or a cyclist.” 

Construction on the B Line, which will cost about $65 million and be funded by a mix of federal, state and regional partners, will begin in 2023. The B Line is slated to open in 2024. 

When the B Line opens in 2024, service on the 21 will be reduced to run every 30 minutes, and will only run between Uptown Transit Station and Minnehaha. Preliminary plans call for a new route to run on Selby Ave. between Snelling and University and Downtown St. Paul, making the same stops the 21 does today.