Minneapolis bicycle facilities — A brief evaluation

Background Reading

by John S. Allen

Source: BikeExpert Blog

Arrival and departure via St. Paul

Biker and Snow Plows share the street in Chicago

Biker and Snow Plows share the street in Chicago

I rode through St. Paul on my way to and from Minneapolis. Most of the street design in St. Paul is conservative, in both the good and bad senses of that word as it applies to bicyclists. The arterials (I rode mostly on Kellogg, and University Avenue) had wide outside lanes, but with signal timing and actuation that could have worked better; traditional residential neighborhood street design in a grid system, providing good connectivity, but without measures to restrict the speed and volume of through motor traffic. I saw little bicycle use on the streets in most of St. Paul.

About center-of-the-street bike lanes

In spite of the many bike lanes in downtown Minneapolis, I also saw little bicycle use there, though I grant that I was there in mid-afternoon, not at a peak commuting time. The weather was warm, though not uncomfortably hot, as I examined the downtown streets.

Minneapolis striped some of its bicycle lanes in a highly unusual location — down the middle of streets, between travel lanes that flow in opposite directions. I do not know what the reasoning was for this location of the bike lanes. Bike lanes in this location are not even considered in the AASHTO guide, the Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices or other engineering references.

But I would also suggest that bike lanes in the middle of the street do little to encourage bicycle use. They represent the most arbitrary and unusual lane placement I have seen anywhere, allowing cyclists to operate according to neither standard vehicular rules nor standard pedestrian rules.

Such lanes also conflict with Minnesota traffic law, to wit:

Minnesota Laws, 169.222 Operation of bicycle.

Subd. 4. Riding on roadway or shoulder. (a) Every person operating a bicycle upon a roadway shall ride as close as practicable to the right-hand curb or edge of the roadway except under any of the following situations:

(1) when overtaking and passing another vehicle proceeding in the same direction;

(2) when preparing for a left turn at an intersection or into a private road or driveway;

(3) when reasonably necessary to avoid conditions, including fixed or moving objects, vehicles, pedestrians, animals, surface hazards, or narrow width lanes, that make it unsafe to continue along the right-hand curb or edge.

Nonetheless, certain advantages are conceivable:

  • less conflict with parked vehicles and entering traffic — center bike lanes are about as far from the “door zone” as it is possible to get;

  • easier snow clearance than with bike lanes at the side of the roadway — though on the other hand, if the street is narrowed by plowed snow, motor traffic will likely intrude into the center bike lanes, making them useless — and if the street is not narrowed, the absence of motor vehicles in the center bike lanes will slow the melting of snow there. The most workable location for cyclists after streets have been plowed is in the normal travel lanes, which are further cleared of snow by the pounding of motor vehicle tires.

  • If the bike lane is on the left of a same-direction bus lane and buses do not turn left, then there are no unusual conflicts between cyclists and motor traffic. (However, in Minneapolis, buses do turn left across the bike lanes.)

But I do not consider these advantages at all decisive. The center bike lanes upset the normal pattern of traffic movement far more than bike lanes at the sides of the street:

  • While conflicts with right-turning traffic are reduced, conflicts with same-direction left-turning traffic are greatly increased — and are more difficult to avoid — more details on the page about Hennepin Avenue;

  • Cyclists must merge or walk to/from  the center of the roadway, sometimes across multiple lanes, to get to/from the bike lanes lawfully, or to make a right turn.

  • Cyclists are in close proximity to opposite-direction motor traffic, and have very little warning to avoid an oncoming vehicle that initiates a left turn.

  • Cyclists generally travel slower than motor traffic, and placing them in the center of the street upsets the orderly pattern of vehicles’ overtaking on the left.

  • Many cyclists were observed making nonstandard movements, supporting the observation based on theory,  that these bike lanes lead to confusion and encourage such movements.

Center bike lane/same-direction motor traffic:

This issue deserves a bit more examination.

It might be argued that the conflict between bicycle traffic in a center lane and left-turning motor traffic is a mirror image of the well-known “right hook”  by a right-turning vehicle when the cyclist is on the right side of the roadway. The conflict is similar, but there are some important differences:

  • As cyclists usually travel slower than motor traffic, riding near the right edge of the roadway is consistent with the normal pattern of speed positioning between intersections.

  • As left turns are much more frequently impeded by other traffic than right turns, cyclists in a center bikeway will be overtaking motorists who are waiting to turn even when traffic is not congested or stopped by traffic signals, increasing the potential for conflicts.

  • Traffic can turn left or make a U-turn at any location. Traffic can only turn right where there is a cross-street or driveway.

  • When traveling near the right edge of the roadway, the cyclist (or any vehicle operator) may merge to the left into the stream of through traffic, in order to overtake traffic waiting to turn right, and encourage right-turning motorists to slow and follow or to overtake on the right. In order to avoid turning conflicts with vehicles waiting to turn left when riding in a center bikeway, the cyclist would have to merge to the right into the left-turning traffic and would have to wait along with that traffic, or else merge into the next lane to the right to overtake.

  • When traveling near the right edge of the roadway, the cyclist may avoid a collision by turning right along with the offending vehicle. When in a center bike lane, the cyclist must turn across active lanes of traffic where there may be other vehicles.

The University district (and 11th St. S.)

On my page about the University district, I note that the bike lanes do not solve the problem of poor cyclist behavior, and tend to exacerbate it at intersections. a particular problem is the “right hook” conflict, which is avoided by cyclists’ overtaking on the left as described in the section from Minnesota law cited above, and motorists’ merging to the right as described in the section cited here:

169.19 Turning, starting, and signaling.

Subdivision 1 g) Whenever it is necessary for the driver of a motor vehicle to cross a bicycle lane adjacent to the driver’s lane of travel to make a turn, the driver shall drive the motor vehicle into the bicycle lane prior to making the turn, and shall make the turn, yielding the right-of-way to any vehicles approaching so close thereto as to constitute an immediate hazard.

Avoiding leading bike lanes up to intersections at the curb, or using “bicycle boulevards” to create bicycle-preferred routes and clearly delineate correct vehicular paths for through travel, would help with this problem. Such measures are practical in a grid network of streets.

The rate of helmet use among students in the University district also is distressingly low.

All in all, the students’ anarchic behavior points to an opportunity I have repeatedly stressed, that colleges and universities could be educating their students about cycling, enforcing the law and providing incentives for helmet use — a triple win situation because it would avoid injuries and fatalities among students, more than pay for itself in avoided medical expenses and lost alumni contributions, and educate the future leaders of society about bicycling issues.

Parking

As noted on the first page of this series, there is a substantial number of parking installations in downtown Minneapolis. These are a good development, and suggest that a process other than the one which led to the center-of-the-street bike lanes is at work.


TakeAways

Is it possible that we should reconsider the placement of bike lanes which are situated in northern climes? At present the placement to the far right (in some cases against the right curb) creates a problem for cities trying to plow main arterials without dumping snow into the bike lanes. In fact in Chicago the real struggle is to find a nice way to clear the expansive sidewalks in the Loop area without that snow being dumped again into the Protected Bike Lane.

Moving the lanes to the center of the road echoes the notions of the BRT movement. It allows bicyclists to stay on the crest of the road where the drainage is more conducive to their narrower higher pressure tires and all but eliminates the problems of cars passing to close on the left of the bicyclists.

In fact if the bike lanes are centered over the double yellow stripe it would be illegal for cars to ever pass them. But more to the point is the fact that bikes would always get the best plowing possible of snow by being at the center of the roadway.

Expensive Options

Ottawa Canada has been struggling with the costs related to snow removal for winter riding. If the lanes are nestled against the curb then you have to do more than simply push it onto the sidewalk or back towards the crown of the roadway. You really need to invest in small snow blowers that can lift the snow into special container trucks (riding ahead of or behind the snow blower) where it can be carted off to a location away from the bike lane for storage.

Something as simple as moving the lanes to the center allow a city to use the same strategy for snow removal for all of the traffic lanes (including the bike lane).