Hennepin County to demo a driverless shuttle on the Midtown Greenway


Minnesotans loved the EasyMile during a test on the Nicollet Mall. Now Hennepin County wants to see it ferry people down the Midtown Greenway. Hennepin County

The Midtown Greenway, the 6-mile bike trail that cuts east to west through the neighborhoods just south of downtown Minneapolis, would be a logical place for public transit.

In Minneapolis, buses and light rail radiate from downtown in a hub and spoke design. The trouble begins with connections the further they sprawl. The Greenway could connect the Blue Line, the Orange bus line, and the future Southwest Light Rail, allowing commuters to skip going downtown just to get back out.

The Midtown Greenway Coalition, the nonprofit that advocates for the Greenway, supports a green streetcar in the corridor. Most streetcar systems require imposing infrastructure like tracks, retaining walls, and overhead cables. But director Soren Jensen says any streetcar that comes to the Greenway should be wireless, with turf allowed to grow between tracks. He's closely watching Minneapolis' work on a $200 million streetcar line in the Nicollet-Central corridor to see what comes of that five-year-old proposal. 

But there's another way that could meet neighbors' demands for environmentally-friendly, nonintrusive transit: driverless shuttles.

The Minnesota Department of Transportation has been playing with a self-driving shuttle bus all winter, studying its performance on a closed MnDOT test road in Albertville. The department is now letting local governments borrow its EasyMile EZ10 shuttle for test runs, and Hennepin County is eager to see how it does on the Greenway.

The EasyMile has already transported more than 230,000 people in 20 countries, logging more than 75,000 miles with a perfect safety record.  

"I've ridden on the vehicle, and it feels a bit like the people-mover at the airport that runs between terminals," says county transit director John Doan.

If the Hennepin County Board approves the idea on Thursday, driverless rides will be offered on the Greenway over a weekend in April. They'll take place along a 2-3 block stretch, and share a one-directional bike lane with cycle and pedestrian traffic. The shuttle, which would only move as fast as 12 miles per hour max, would also have a human operator just in case.



Jensen says his organization would still prefer a streetcar. The route is projected to have 10,000 riders a day; the EasyMile has just a 12-seat capacity. 

If a permanent public transit system is ever built along the Greenway, it would go on the south half of the corridor, which has been reserved for transit purposes. 

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