A sane lane in insane times

46th & 1st in Kingfield
A profoundly civilized intersection: 46th & 1st in Kingfield is but one of a number of spots in the city where the kindness of strangers informs the traffic rules. Photo by Jim Walsh

The best meme going around these long hot summer construction days is the one reminding all Minneapolitans who eschew biking or walking for driving that we’re part of the traffic, not above it all. Or, as Jane Jacobs wrote in her groundbreaking 1961 critique of urban planning policy, The Death and Life of Great American Cities: “Traffic congestion is caused by vehicles, not by people in themselves.”

Point being that if you don’t like sitting in traffic, it’s up to you to change your vehicle, mind or route, and for the last two years as traffic has ratcheted up to hyper videogame levels in the Twin Cities, I’ve been heartened by a single sane lane development — an oasis amid the hot tar and tempers.

West 46th Street has historically been a busy thoroughfare leading to freeway ramp entrances to north- and southbound I-35W, but with construction and closed entrance and exit ramps being part of the new normal, 46th Street has regularly become a long line of bumper-to-bumper traffic to and from South Minneapolis. Rush hour is a parking lot, most other times of day a crawl.

But something wonderful has happened amid the honking horns and frayed nerves: Inevitably, and with surprisingly regular frequency, drivers have taken to stopping at 1st Avenue to allow other drivers to make left hand turns and to let other cars merge onto 46th Street. There’s no stop sign or traffic cop telling them to do as much, it’s just happening, and at this point it’s become a reliable trend at all hours of the day and night, and every time I bear witness to it, it makes me smile.

Sure enough, this is one for the thanks-I-needed-it bin. By now you’ve probably gathered that in these dark times of divisions and being told how different we are from one another, I’m always on the lookout for things that restore my faith in humanity. This one passes the test: It’s nothing short of a village-made roundabout, one of those simple things that goes uncommented upon, but in actuality is everything.

A we’re-all-in-it-together philosophy informs all good spirituality; it’s a mindset that favors harmony over haste, collaboration over competition. As electrical engineer William Beaty wrote on his personal website, “A single solitary driver, if they stop ‘competing’ and instead adopt some unusual driving habits, can actually wipe away some of the frustrating traffic patterns. That ‘nice’ noncompetitive driver can actually erase traffic waves.”

This miracle on 46th Street is usually accompanied by a wave and a nod from a complete stranger, and in that moment, social-political-racial-gender-urban-versus-rural divisions melt away, all the ants in the ant farm get along for a few seconds, and we all go on our merry way with the news of the day and all the dread it can bring giving way to simplicity, thoughtfulness and a momentary calm during the storm.

I’ve lost count how many times it has happened, and of course it’s not the only intersection in the city where drivers are taking it upon themselves to be polite. The polar opposite of this natural phenomenon, of course, can be witnessed most every minute of every day, in which oblivious pedestrians and stuck-in-their-own-world drivers, scooter riders and bicyclists refuse to recognize, much less go with, the flow. Namaste to them, and it’s up to the rest of us to pick up their slack, but more importantly, these dolts are missing out on the big feeling that comes from executing a small kindness between strangers.

Unlike so much of life, it’s spontaneous, generous and extremely civilized. The question is, how do we tap that moment and make it part of the fabric of our bursting-at-the-seams urban jungle? Minneapolis-St. Paul is hardly the quaint little river town it once was. “Minneapolis is growing faster than it has since 1950,” Mayor Jacob Frey told a housing-themed news conference last year, and the Twin Cities added 75,000 people between them in the last eight years, far outpacing the rest of the region’s population growth.

We now live in a big city, with a fast-growing population and the creeping condos and growing pains that go with it. But anyone who has traveled knows that the most vibrant cities are the ones in which literally millions of drivers, pedestrians, bicyclists and motorcyclists share the roads, merge, meld, wave each other along and, yes, make sane lanes like the one that has cropped up organically on 46th Street, and wherever else the people have the power.

Jim Walsh lives and grew up in South Minneapolis. He can be reached at [email protected].