I Drive, I Park, and I Support 24-Hour Bus Lanes

I’m not an expert on public transit, city planning, or urbanism. In fact, other than looking up bus schedules and complaining when street signs didn’t make sense, I hadn’t thought much about these things at all before a couple years ago. That’s why I’m writing this. 

I want to talk directly to people like me: My fellow Minneapolis residents who are privileged enough to own a car, drive most places, and haven’t really been asked to think that hard about the social impacts of that driving and parking.

There’s a big decision about public transportation coming up on Thursday. The City Council will decide whether there will be 24/7 bus lanes in the upcoming Hennepin Ave. S. redesign. If you haven’t thought about that decision much, or have decided to oppose it based solely on the “it will be bad for small business” talking point going around right now, I’m writing this for you.

If you haven’t heard anything about this project, spend 10 minutes or so reading about it on the city website, and then come back.

Now, here’s a summary of the action taken so far. A couple weeks ago, the majority of the City Council voted to approve a new design for Hennepin that includes bike lanes, improved sidewalks and pedestrian infrastructure, safer streets, and (most controversially) 24/7 dedicated bus lanes. The 24-hour bus lanes are controversial because they will remove almost all of the current street parking on this section of Hennepin Ave. A few days after the Council vote, Mayor Frey vetoed the “24-hour” part of the plan in favor of “dynamic” (i.e., part-time) bus lanes that would allow people to park there some of the time—similar to the bus lanes on Hennepin right now.

You’re all caught up. Now I’m going to tell you why, even though I drive and park on Hennepin Ave., I support eliminating street parking in favor of having 24-hour bus lanes.

I’m not going to argue that this change won’t affect you at all. It might be inconvenient for you—maybe a little, maybe a lot. There’s also a good chance it may benefit you, especially in the long-term. I’ll come back to that later. But, for now, let’s imagine it’s 4 years from now (when the project will be complete), the 24/7 bus lanes go into effect, and you don’t like it. 

Let’s assume the worst case scenario: You drive a car and frequent businesses on Hennepin. It’s already hard for you to find parking, and the dedicated bus lanes further decrease the spots available. You’ll have to spend more time searching side streets for parking. When you do find parking, it will be far away and you’ll have to walk a long way, wasting more time and energy. Maybe it will be so draining or frustrating that you decide to stop patronizing those businesses altogether.

I’ve been there. I’ve had those feelings and I have made decisions about when and if I’ll go to certain areas due to available parking.

All that considered, there are several reasons why I support dedicated bus lanes. I’ll break down a few of them here.

I Hate Parking

I moved to Minneapolis in 2020. For the 10 years before that, I lived in St. Paul (with a brief stint in Roseville). During that time, I went to Minneapolis occasionally. Most of my friends also lived in St. Paul, so I usually only ventured to our (objectively more hip) neighboring city if I was going to a specific business (shout out to The Herbivorous Butcher and Moonpalace Books), special event, or festival.

When I was on the fence about heading into Minneapolis for something, heavier traffic, the unfamiliar streets, and difficulty finding parking all factored into my decision-making process. In my mind, driving and parking in Minneapolis was super stressful.

It wasn’t until I moved to Minneapolis that I started challenging those beliefs a bit.

First of all, I realized that a big part of the stress of driving and parking came from just not being as familiar with the area. As I started to learn street names and the locations of various businesses and amenities, I became more comfortable driving to them and finding parking. I learned when and where parking might be available so I could zero in on those spots. That learning process has significantly reduced my driving and parking anxiety.

But, I also realized something even more important: having to plan your trips around parking is both not fun and not necessary!

I drive most places, but not everywhere. There were times when I lived in St. Paul, especially when I was going somewhere with friends, that I took the bus or the light rail into Minneapolis. Sometimes we also took a Lyft, paid one of our friends with a car to drop us off, or used a mix of different forms of transit There were times when my car was snowed in or broken down and I couldn’t drive. I’ve also started making more of an effort to walk when I can—both for my mental health and to reduce my carbon footprint.

I’ve taken trips to plenty of other cities, inside the U.S., in Europe, and in Mexico, and didn’t have access to a car. I walked and took transit everywhere. And once I learned the transit system, it was great.

Not having to worry about driving, traffic, and where to put your car when you get there is kind of awesome, actually.

I want to be able to get around my city without a car just like I got around when I visited Chicago or L.A. or Madrid. My primary reason for not using transit very often right now is time. Driving is usually a lot faster. Fortunately, we know about a guaranteed method for making public transportation faster: building more and better transit infrastructure!

You know, like, 24/7 bus lanes. 

I want to use public transit more often. I hate parking and sitting in traffic and I want to reduce my carbon emissions from driving. Dedicated bus lanes on Hennepin will help me do that.

Bus Lanes Do Not Kill Small Businesses

If you’ve been on Hennepin Ave. at all this past year you probably know about this concern. It’s the primary reason why this is a debate at all, and it’s probably why you’re reading this.

A lot of small businesses on Hennepin and neighboring streets, Mayor Frey, the new Director of Public Works Margaret Anderson Kelliher, and some Council Members like Lisa Goodman and my own representative, Linea Palmisano, keep saying it: removing street parking hurts small business.

It’s easy to see why this caught on. It feels intuitive. It’s absolutely true that some people may choose not to go somewhere if there is not convenient parking—I’ve done it myself. But, this is far from the full picture.

Why do you think anyone wants to redesign Hennepin at all? Well, there’s a lot of reasons, but a big one is that a lot of people don’t drive. And a lot more people, myself included, would drive a lot less if it was easier to choose a different transportation option. People use all kinds of methods to get places: public transit, bikes, scooters, skateboards, wheelchairs, other mobility devices, or their feet. And all of these people also shop at businesses, eat at restaurants, and use other public services.

Here’s where I’ll bring out the research. We are not the first city to consider a project like this. Plenty of other cities have removed on-street parking on key thoroughfares in favor of bus lanes, bike lanes, or pedestrian-only areas. Several studies of many of these projects have shown that removing on-street parking did not reduce business. In some cases, it increased business.

And when you really think about it, this also makes a lot of sense.

Have you ever gone to a shopping mall? How about a street festival? Have you ever walked or biked to your local coffee shop or grocery store even when you could have driven? Have you visited a city with pedestrian-only shopping areas? I’ve done all these things. I go to places and spend money there even knowing that I’ll have to walk pretty far to get where I want to go. In fact, walking is often an intentional part of the experience.

Having to walk some distance to get somewhere is not a deal breaker for most people, especially if you really like a certain business. And making public transit faster and more accessible in a particular location increases the amount of people who will go there by that route.

So, even if you’re not totally convinced that removing parking is good for business, I hope you’ll admit that there is some doubt here. It’s by no means a given that removing street parking on Hennepin will doom all of its businesses, or even reduce business at all. It may very well do the opposite. Considering how widespread this suggestion is, I really encourage you to take the time to read these sources and do your own research.

But, whether you’re convinced on this point or not, let me direct you to my final, and most important, reason for supporting 24/7 bus lanes on Hennepin Ave.

Some Decisions Aren’t About Us

Having a car is a privilege. Having the option of choosing between multiple forms of transportation is a privilege. I have both of those privileges and several others: being white, having a steady comfortable income, (usually) having the ability to walk places comfortably, living in Southwest Minneapolis – an area of the city that has long been prioritized for city infrastructure investments.

The truth is: most decisions about public transportation are not about me.

These decisions most deeply affect people who do not have most of my privileges. They affect people who don’t have cars and often don’t have much of a choice about how to get places. They disproportionately affect disabled folks and those without much discretionary income. They disproportionately affect BIPOC people, and people who live in areas of the city that have historically been deprioritized for public investments. If you don’t know many folks who primarily use public transit, Hennepin for People talked with many bus riders about how 24-hour bus lanes will benefit them in these short videos.

People like me (and you?) who have a lot of privileges and want to have a positive impact on the world, need to be willing to do some things that will inconvenience us. This is one of those occasions.

Dedicated bus lanes on Hennepin will increase the speed of public transportation on one of our busiest streets. It will benefit those folks who have to take the bus to work and to run errands and see friends and family. It will benefit future generations who will be most impacted by the effects of climate change.

And even though this decision isn’t about privileged drivers, it will still benefit us. That’s often how privilege works. More 24/7 bus lanes (on Hennepin and elsewhere) will significantly reduce our carbon footprint as a city, reduce traffic congestion, reduce noise pollution, help clean up our air and water, reduce the amount of time we spend stuck in traffic, and reduce traffic accidents. Even the people who are opposing dedicated bus lanes usually don’t dispute any of these benefits. They just say we need to balance them with the potential damage to businesses (see previous section).

If you’ve been paying attention to the facts about our current climate emergency, you should know that this is not the time for compromises. Climate change is already making our winters colder and summers hotter. It’s already causing more severe natural disasters and killing both people and animal species. If we want anywhere in the United States, including Minneapolis, to continue being comfortable and livable for our older selves and future generations, we need to made bold changes, not compromises. Helping and encouraging more people to use non-car forms of transportation more often is one of the most effective things we can do to slow down climate change.

Is it possible some people could be harmed by this decision? Yes – the number is small, but there will be some folks. If you’re connected with any of them, you can support your full community by supporting 24/7 bus lanes and residents who may be negatively affected by the construction and the reduction in parking.

If you know someone who has limited mobility and they’ve told you that the removal of street parking will be difficult for them—ask if there’s anything you can do to help. Can you volunteer to help drive and drop them off on certain days? Can you help get them connected to Metro Mobility? Can you pick up their groceries when you pick up yours? Can you donate to organizations who already help with these things?

Have business owners on Hennepin told you they will lose business? Ask if they have seen the above research. If they have and are still worried, assure them that you will still shop or eat there after the Hennepin redesign and ask your social circle to do the same.

Being a good neighbor means making some sacrifices for the good of the community. It’s the responsibility of those of us who have options and resources to help spread them around.

What Can We Do?

If living in Minneapolis for the past few years has taught you anything, hopefully it’s that our elected and appointed city leaders sometimes get things wrong. Mayor Frey’s decision to veto 24-hour bus lanes on Hennepin was wrong. The Council Members who voted against them, and any who do not vote to override his veto this Thursday, are also wrong. They’re wrong to assert that this decision will hurt businesses, and they’re wrong to think that even if it did, that’s a good enough reason to forego an incredibly positive piece of infrastructure for our city. Mayor Frey also made several other false or misleading statements in his veto letter, which you can read about here.

So what can we do to help right those wrongs?

Email your Council Member before the council meeting this Thursday, 6/30, tell them you support 24/7 bus lanes, and let them know why.

If you have flexibility in your schedule, show up to the planned protest today at 5 pm and to the council meeting Thursday at 9:30 am.

If the Council fails to override the veto on Thursday, this won’t be their last vote on a possibly inconvenient but ultimately incredibly valuable public transit project. Look out for opportunities to support those projects in the future. Follow Our Streets Minneapolis to stay up to date.

You can also start taking the bus! Even if it’s just once a month, or to those big events where you know parking will be a disaster, that can add up to be really significant. As you may expect, transit ridership was down during the pandemic and our leaders are now using that fact as a bad faith argument against investing in more transit. You can reduce your carbon footprint and help support better, faster transit just by using it every once in a while.

So, now that you have all this knowledge, what are you going to do?

Removing street parking from Hennepin Ave., and other streets in Minneapolis, might inconvenience me. And I’ve decided to support it anyway. What about you?

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