New design has calmed speeds and some tempers. Is it a model for Southwest thoroughfares?
As a battle and as a finished product, West 50th Street represents the rare effort that calmed speeds — and perhaps calmed many critics’ tempers.
Instead of a speedway designed to move as many drivers as fast as possible, the area’s safety-conscious neighbors fought for a design that reduced speeds — and ultimately reduced the number of lanes, from four to three, including a center left-turn lane.
Other neighbors didn’t define "livability" quite the same way. The design reduced on-street parking — which angered some enough to counter the "Slow down on 50th" signs with ones reading "No parking, no businesses, no neighborhood."
Now that the paint has hit the pavement, relative calm prevails. There are legitimate concerns — that undeniably slower speeds force some drivers onto side streets and that some intersections don’t clear as fast. But the signs have come down, and city staff, residents and even business owners seem pleased with the finished product.
For now, West 50th may be Minneapolis’s biggest traffic calming effort — showcasing a new process of neighborhood involvement that balances cars and people. That process could eventually reshape some of Southwest’s main traffic arteries.
But is it too soon to declare the new West 50th a success?
The road to restriping
As the first major through-street south of the lakes, West 50th has always carried substantial traffic — often moving faster than the posted 35 mph speed limit (see chart).
In the mid-1990s, Fulton and Lynnhurst neighborhood residents formed the Neighbors for Safe Driving task force to combat West 50th’s speeders. The group made their own lawn signs and bumper stickers urging motorists to "Slow down on 50th."
Residents eventually won over Hennepin County (the county, not the city of Minneapolis, owns the street). Responding to resident-sponsored consultant’s plan, county engineers proposed what had been a suburban-only design — the three-lane road, with some modifications for parking at the Bryant, Xerxes and Penn Avenue business nodes.
The design created a three-foot buffer between the curb and driving lanes, moving cars further away from pedestrians and enhancing the feeling of safety. The buffer wasn’t enough to drive in, forcing through traffic into a single continuous lane. In the words of county engineer Jim Grube, the design "teaches you a bit of patience, and that’s not a bad thing on that street."
Restriping was also relatively cheap, easily accomplished within the county’s regular street-maintenance budget.
From July to October 2002, the three-lane restriping was tested on West 50th between Upton and Zenith avenues. According to Hennepin County officials, speeds fell an average of 2 miles per hour.
In May 2003, Hennepin County Commissioner Gail Dorfman, who represents Southwest and St. Louis Park, released a very preliminary restriping plan. The new configuration wiped out nearly all on-street business parking. A public meeting on the plan quickly became hostile, and the competing signs and campaigns emerged.
Dorfman’s office postponed the project and spent the rest of the year trying to work parking back into a plan other residents could accept.
Last fall, the county released a plan that added back 16 parking spaces and delayed altering the Bryant Avenue portion until Lyndale Avenue is rebuilt, which is scheduled for 2007 or 2008.
Life after restriping for W. 50th Street businesses
Lynn Gaspardo, owner of Doin’ the Dishes, 3008 W. 50th St., and her neighbor Merry Beck, owner of Gallery 360, 3011 W. 50th St., worked closely with Dorfman to secure adequate business parking.
Gaspardo said that the restriping has definitely slowed traffic and she’s heard many favorable comments about the setup. "People like that it’s clear. They know where they’re supposed to be," she said. "I think in general people like it."
However, Gaspardo added that there is room for improvement, such as adding crosswalks. Also, she said, drivers have undeniably shifted to nearby streets. "There’s a lot of clamor about people going too fast on the side streets," Gaspardo said, mentioning 51st Street specifically. "(The restriping) shifted the impatient people."
Gaspardo says the restriping hasn’t hurt business, but other business owners took preemptive measures just in case. Earlier this year, Broder’s Pasta Bar and Broder’s Cucina Italiana at West 50th & Penn began delivery, to serve customers who might be scared away by tougher parking.
Broder’s owner Tom Broder, a Fulton resident, said it’s too soon to pass judgment on this project. He said that with different seasons come different traffic challenges, and the restriping hasn’t made it through winter.
"There’s no way to tell whether this is going to work until you go through one calendar year. At peak periods [traffic has] been bumper to bumper" and snow and ice could worsen things, he said.
Broder said lost south-side parking on 50th has hurt businesses near Penn; many people are using his restaurant parking lot as a public lot. (So far, however, Broder said he hasn’t towed or booted anyone’s car.)
Dick Henke, owner of The Malt Shop at Bryant said he’s driven west of his business a few times since the restriping and said traffic has flowed well.
However, Henke said poor streetlight timing seems to be causing a backup. "I did have to wait through two lights to get through the [Minnehaha] Parkway," he said.
Henke also said trying to turn left off West 50th is hard, unless there’s a traffic arrow. "There’s no gaps left for a left turner," he said. "Both Penn and Xerxes have them, and that seems to keep traffic going."
Living with restriping
Pat Bogusz, president of the Fulton Neighborhood Association, said while most of the comments to FNA have been positive, her board has heard two complaints: left-turn trouble and side-street traffic.
However, she said overall the neighborhood group has heard more positive comments from businesses and residents. "People think it’s less chaotic," Bogusz said.
She said people say it’s slowed down traffic, and the new lane configuration keeps drivers from risky passes on the side. (Cars zipping around parked cars and left-turn blockages made weaving a constant problem.)
Bogusz also said the new setup seems to also force drivers to pay better attention.
Bogusz, who walks on West 50th, said she thinks the slower traffic will boost pedestrian use and business along the busy street.
Linden Hills resident Greg Abbott voiced his opinions about the project on the Minneapolis-Issues e-mail list (www.e-democracy.org/mpls). He said West 50th traffic seems to be flowing well, but the France Avenue intersection is terrible.
"The intersection is a bottleneck in all directions, which is causing cars to divert into residential areas to get around it," he said. "The current state of that intersection is bad for the neighborhood, bad for cars and maybe bad for businesses," he said.
Abbott wrote that he now takes Xerxes Avenue to and from Southdale to avoid the problem.
Abbott said he likes that there’s less passing on the road and thinks the left-turn arrows at Penn Avenue have been a great help to drivers.
Lynnhurst Neighborhood Association board member Paul Lohman said he thinks the project has slowed traffic and helped the area near Mount Olivet Church, 5025 Knox Ave. S. and Burroughs School, 1501 W. 50th St., where a large hill boosted speeding.
He said the Lynnhurst board has heard overwhelmingly positive comments from residents about the project, though some have mentioned "cut-through" traffic near the business nodes.
Peter Nussbaum, who was a Lynnhurst representative on the 50th Street Slow-down task force, said he thinks the restriping has worked wonders. "It’s no longer easy for someone driving 5 to 15 mph over the speed limit to pass on the right," he said.
Nussbaum did acknowledge however that "cut through" traffic on side streets has also been an issue for some residents, too, specifically on Oliver Avenue south of Penn Avenue.
Julia Blount, aide to City Councilmember Barret Lane (13th Ward), said their office has received many calls about the project, more positive than negative. She said residents are saying they feel driving on the road is more "civil" than before. "They feel safer and more comfortable," Blount said.
She said because the striping is still new, it’s too early to make a determination about the project’s success. "We’re still very much in the acclimation stage," Blount said.
In addition, she said the city and county are still getting feedback on traffic flows as part of a lengthy evaluation process.
Based on preliminary data collected after the restriping, city Transportation Engineer Beverly Warmka, said traffic is notably slower (see chart). With one through lane in each direction "you’re only going as fast as the slowest person," she said.
As for cut-through traffic, there will likely be no city or county action because statistics say the problem hasn’t worsened. Warmka said West 50th traffic volumes before and after restriping have remained consistent. "The people that were traveling on 50th are still traveling on 50th," she said.
Blount also said cut through traffic was a pre-existing neighborhood complaint.
The next big county road in Southwest to be repaved is Lyndale Avenue, between Lake and 56th streets. Although Lyndale’s implementation has been delayed — it was originally to be done in 2006; now it is slated for 2007 or 2008 (see page XX) — neighbors’ efforts for a traffic-calming design also succeeded.
"I’d never gone through something like this in my [10 years of] county work," Grube said. "It was more like the sort of detailed planning you do at the city level."
For at least one group of city residents, that’s exactly the idea.