Eyeing two unintended outcomes of the bicycle facilities arms race

bryant ave look west

Photo from Kevin J. Krizek

In less than a decade, the Minneapolis Midtown Greenway (Minnesota) has quickly risen to one of America’s most beloved darlings of a bike path[1]. Similarly, the short stretch of the Cedar Lake Trail to the Twins Stadium provides much needed closure over an important stretch for cyclists in downtown Minneapolis. Both are critical assets for a city nationally renown for its bicycle network. Both stretches are heavily used and dearly cherished (at least by cyclists). Both are astonishingly expensive. The former cost $1.6 million per mile; the later pushed more than $10 million for less than one mile.

Minneapolis is not alone in spending these lavish costs. The San Fernando Road Bike Path in Los Angeles was $2.3 million/mile. Planners continue to analyze a bike path in the BNSF eastside corridor (suburban Seattle, WA) that will likely come in at $10 million/mile. Boulder (Colorado) just spent $7.4 million for a new pedestrian and pedestrian underpass that spans less than width of a football field. Ironically, these costs are staggering to spend on facilities that advance a mode—cycling—whose strongest argument, historically, has its inexpensive and cost-efficient qualities.

Such costs are easier to swallow when someone else’s dollars are expended[2]. The facilities that result, generally speaking, close problematic gaps in a city’s system. In other instances, they provide much needed safety and solace for the young or inexperienced rider. Parents quickly point to off-streets paths as perfect venues for teaching their children how to ride a bike. These traffic-shielded facilities help entice new adult riders or less confident ones. A good off-street bicycle system provides a strong and much needed skeleton for the success of a city’s bicycle network. I’ll go head to head with any advocate of vehicular cycling[3] to point out the (usual) myriad benefits of a strong backbone.

Financials aside, I wonder if the degree to which bike facilities which go overboard are indicative of an arms race taken too far. They carry some unintended outcomes because they help set a tenuous precedent. Fully acknowledging all its glory, the Midtown Greenway set a new standard that will be hard to replicate elsewhere. The on-ramps are reminiscent of highway interchanges, carefully sloped and meticulously banked; travel lanes are wide enough for two semi-trucks travelling in opposite directions; the landscaping is lavish. The $5 million, cable-stayed Sabo bridge across Hiawatha is artwork unto itself. To help advance cycling, it is hard to argue with the Greenway’s grandeur. One of the reasons I bought my first home in the Seward neighborhood of Minneapolis was the appreciation potential that I anticipated from the home’s proximity to the Greenway. Celebrating elements of bicycling travel is healthy. And so is the competition on-going among communities nationwide, to become more bicycle-friendly.

However, cities are quick to point out the extraordinary elements of their construction—not only how they matched their peers but surpassed them. I speculate we will soon witness an up and coming city spending all their marbles, for instance, on a single intersection treatment. They will feel compelled to trump the Sabo bridge in its grandeur. This is problematic. High quality off-street trail features take valuable resources away from other smaller projects. The sheer costs of such keystone projects prevent their widespread application. They might require countless staff or lobbyist hours to procure funds. I wonder if they run the risk of reeking havoc on a healthy “arms race” that is occurring between cities.

But more concretely (pun intended), these “trophied” facilities create expectations among users (cyclists) that cannot be met everywhere in a city. Unless these facilities are always grade separated (which is unrealistic), they create conflict points with vehicular crossings. Repeated studies suggest that cyclists obtain a degree of inattentiveness while traveling along off-street paths that stop them from paying attention to auto traffic that may be present at crossings[4].

The corridors these facilities traverse rarely connect to key destinations for utilitarian cycling such as employment or commercial centers. Even if they do connect key corridors, users are still required to negotiate city streets to reach their final destination. Most trips—by car or bike—are analogous to a sturdy Minnesota oak: roots splaying out in one direction and branches and leaves in the other. The trunk portion of the trip may be along an arterial or some central facility. On either end of the trunk portion the traveler usually navigates city streets to arrive where they want to go. These city streets involve bikes mixing with traffic, traversing intersections and mingling with parked cars; the 20 year future looks like this will not change.

For cycling to meet the masses requires the masses to be somewhat prepared for traffic, intersections, and parked cars. These interactions could further serve as an impenetrable barrier to cycling for those lacking the experience or skills for such riding. Complex situations demand complex solutions and developing cyclists’ confidence to negotiate these areas is key to transforming cities. Adjusting user expectations is a big part of that. I suspect some cyclists appreciate the solace of facilities so much that they are considerably less content with other types of provisions—possibly to the point of being dissatisfied with anything less than bike-only highways. This creates an inadvertent barrier to mass cycling.

Cities should leverage resources for bike only facilities—but in a cost-effective manner that does not obsess of their qualities and aim to seamlessly mesh with the larger on-street system of which they are a part.


[1] USA Today describes the top 12 bike paths in America here: http://www.usatoday.com/story/travel/destinations/2013/07/23/best-urban-bike-paths-across-the-usa/2576801/

[2] Healthy portions of the costs of both of the Minneapolis projects were made available largely via pork barrel politics or via the recent stimulus package.

[3] Vehicular cycling generally refers to the practice of riding bicycles on roads in a manner that is in accordance with the principles driving cars in traffic. Proponents of this “movement” usually discourage separate treatments for cyclists and the sort.

[4] Krizek, Kevin J., Ann Forsyth, and Laura Baum. 2009. Walking and Cycling International Literature Review. Melbourne: Victorian Department of Transport. http://www.transport.vic.gov.au/__data/assets/pdf_file/0004/31369/WalkingCyclingLiteratureReview.pdf.

 


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19 Responses to Eyeing two unintended outcomes of the bicycle facilities arms race

  1. Froggie October 29, 2013 at 2:59 pm #

    While the landscaping may be “lavish”, I don’t see construction of the Greenway itself as “lavish” (and I’d hazard a bet a good chunk of that cost was due to needed cleanup). Now the Sabo Bridge, on the other hand…that was lavish…far more than what was necessary for a grade separation over Hiawatha.

  2. Sean Hayford Oleary
    Sean Hayford Oleary October 29, 2013 at 3:18 pm #

    The dollar amounts seem high out of context, but there are a lot of factors that are ignored in coming up with them.

    The first is context — $10 million is a huge amount for a mile of trail. But when we’re accustomed to spending $100 million for a mile of highway, is this totally out of line?

    The second is economic impact. The Greenway, more than any road project I can think of, has driven redevelopment in its area, including many high-value properties being built immediately adjacent. Is that enough to pay back the initial investment? Probably not, but I’d bet the ratio is far better than most “economic development” infrastructure investments. It’s certainly better than highway investments, which often decrease adjacent property value.

    The third is assignment of cost. Especially in the case of the Sabo bridge, who’s responsible for those millions? Is it the bikes riding on the bridge, or the thousands of motorists beneath it? Most people feel comfortable assigning the cost to bikes, but grade separation was only necessary because high-speed, high-volume auto traffic was a priority. The lavishness was only necessary because, surprisingly, riding in a metal cage over a highway is not attractive to cyclists. (I doubt cars would go for being surrounded on all sides by chainlink, either)

    • eirc October 30, 2013 at 5:58 pm #

      I agree with what you wrote here. Furthermore, bike trails have almost zero external costs. There is no pollution or noise to deal with, for example.

      Just to comment generally on this article, it appears the author is arguing that the Greenway (and the Sabo Bridge) are too nice and will cause cyclist to expect the same quality everywhere. Also, the Greenway is too nice so other cities might spend more money to try to equal or surpass it. Oh no! The horror!

      The second argument is, I think, that the Greenway is so nice that it will cause cyclists to somehow find it harder to deal with traffic on streets because they will become complacent or inattentive? What?

      The cure to both of these problems is to just rip up the Greenway and make eveyone bike down Lake Street. No money needed, no nice bridge needed, and cyclists will surely be mindful of traffic.

      • Jeff Klein October 31, 2013 at 10:39 am #

        The Sabo bridge is ignored by about half of cyclists since it requires a two-block detour, a substantial hill, and a remaining street crossing. On one had it’s a lovely testimate to the prioritization of bikes, but on the other it’s hard not to ask how many streets could have been striped for $5M.

    • Sarah October 31, 2013 at 10:02 am #

      Exactly. Discussing the price of a mile of bike trail means absolutely nothing without discussing the prices (and pros and cons) of the alternatives – namely, auto infrastructure.

      The Greenway isn’t just used by parents teaching their kids how to ride bikes – it provides a viable transportation alternative to driving. People need to get around somehow, and transportation infrastructure costs money. This post feels like more cars-are-the-default-option-and-bikes-need-to-fight-for-their-right-to-exist crap.

    • Rosa November 2, 2013 at 7:44 pm #

      We bought our house partly because it was close to the Greenway – even though at that point my commute was north-south instead of east-west, knowing the Greenway was near completion made me 100% sure I didn’t want to be more than 6 blocks from a Greenway entrance. In the years since it’s been completed, everything from our shopping habits to school and job choices have been shaped by the Greenway. I am sure the Hi-Lake Center stores, Midtown Y, and the nearby Cub, Target, and Rainbow have soaked up thousands of dollars I wouldn’t have spent there if they weren’t easily bikeable.

      And then consider the accident, congestion, and loss of life costs – the accidents I saw when the Greenway-parallel parts of my commute were on 28th & 26th instead were terrifying and I’m sure expensive, especially the ones involving wrong-way drivers around Abbot.

      The costs don’t seem that high, unless we’re considering bike facilities as recreation-only.

  3. Sean Hayford Oleary
    Sean Hayford Oleary October 29, 2013 at 3:34 pm #

    Your final point, as you probably realize, smacks of John Forester’s thoughts on “childish cycling.” I don’t necessarily disagree, but I think it’s worth noting the similarity.

  4. Walker Angell
    Walker Angell October 29, 2013 at 4:38 pm #

    I think I agree with everything you’ve said (and an excellent overall point btw). Are things considerably more nuanced than this though? Many people won’t ride anywhere until they can do the entire trip on segregated paths, but many others will tolerate some level of inter-mixing with motor traffic. I’d think that for many, if the most dangerous elements of their trip and perhaps the bulk mileage-wise, is segregated, they’d be happy. Each will have different tolerance levels though.

    I agree that intersections may be more important to real safety than the space between them. The Netherlands seems to have solved this fairly well though. Perhaps better design of our intersections and more limited allowance of right-on-red would settle this issue? I think that for the most skittish of riders (90% of our population?), intersections are much less of an issue because they feel that they can control when they get in to traffic at an intersection, but they cannot control that when they are riding with traffic or in a painted bike lane.

    A bicycle rider in The Netherlands doesn’t completely avoid mixing with motor traffic. However, when they do, the speed is 13-18 mph and is very often on a non-thru street that both limits traffic volume and actual speed. This makes a huge difference compared to riding with 35 mph motor traffic. Can we eventually get to a point where we say that any roadway without adequate safe bicycling facilities and that is a needed route for bicyclists, is reduced in speed?

  5. Benjamin Riggs October 29, 2013 at 5:01 pm #

    I wholly agree that ‘user expectations’ are in significant need of adjustment if cars and bikes are to coexist on streets with little conflict. Motorists’ expectations of excess speed and exclusive entitlement to city streets near destinations and in neighborhoods prevent mass adoption of cycling as a safe and pleasant alternative form of transporation. Until infrastructure changes such that motor vehicle speeds are reduced to near those of cyclists, and motorists are expected to yeild the right-of-way to cyclists riding lawfully, mixed traffic is going to remain full of tension and danger.

  6. Scott Shaffer
    Scott October 30, 2013 at 9:30 am #

    You write that $1.6 million per mile is “astonishingly expensive.” Compared to what? The cost per mile of building urban freeways? Or even of building and maintaining streets for cars? The cost of rail or bus transit?

    Or is it just more expensive than doing nothing at all, and leaving the abandoned rail corridor to drunks and drug dealers? Because when you factor in the rapid development along 29th Street and the positive externalities (and reduced negative externalities) of the rising bike ridership, I’m not even sure that doing nothing is less expensive, when you take the long view.

    You’re right that segregated facilities should integrate with street-level commercial destinations, and I’m always frustrated that the Greenway doesn’t have better connections to Lyndale, Nicollet, and Chicago. (The new ramp just east of Hennepin sure is nice.) But certainly you see that building these connections would have cost money, raising the sticker price from “$astonishing” to “$mind-boggling”.

    You write that the segregated bike facilities “rarely connect to key destinations for utilitarian cycling such as employment or commercial centers,” without mentioning that the Midtown Greenway is one of these rare cases. Wells Fargo Home Mortgage, Midtown Global Market, Abbott Northwestern Hospital, YWCA Uptown, and Calhoun Square are all less than a block away from the path. That’s at least 10,000 jobs right there.

    This seems to be a livability arms race, not a bike facility arms race. And I don’t see any problem with that.

  7. Chris Keam October 30, 2013 at 10:52 am #

    Always important to consider cost/benefit. I would argue that one big benefit to more robust cycling facilities is the benefit to taxpayers when cyclists aren’t being struck and injured or killed by cars. Not only are roadways not closed off for emerg vehicles and the subsequent accident reconstruction (a non-cyclist accident here in Vancouver yesterday shut down our main north/south freeway – Hwy 99 for hours at rush hour) which has a big impact on both commuters and businesses forced to scramble to work around the crash, we aren’t faced with the hospital bills that accompany seriously injured cyclists’ treatment and rehabilitation. Not as much an issue in the United States perhaps as individuals bear the brunt of that, but def. a consideration where healthcare is socialized. Seems to me we pay the piper either way, but infrastructure offers the added benefit of reduced suffering and in many instances, death. Still, food for thought and hopefully cycling infrastructure will get cheaper as we standardize best practices.

  8. Byron Francis October 30, 2013 at 11:00 am #

    Is it realistic to expect people to adopt cycling in large numbers? I have lived in southern cities most of my life and the road systems are rarely set up in grid formations like in many northern cities. This, coupled wth the fact that southern cities are usually more spread out, make me question the practicality of cycling as a true alternative. In northern cities, all your necessities and entertainment options could be within a few blocks. In the south, this is rarely the case. I recognize the cost as being relatively cheap in comparison to the costs associated with roadways for motor vehicles and other forms of transportation, but are cycle paths truly effective at reducing traffic? I would argue that a well planned train system would be more effective in most cities. Anyone have other thoughts?

    • Steve S. November 1, 2013 at 4:46 pm #

      Six miles (quite a bit more than a “few blocks”) seems to be the upper distance limit for discretionary cycle trips. And when the infrastructure is good, you’d be surprised how far people are willing to commute by bike–the Netherlands’ mean commute length is, surprisingly, one of the longest in Europe. Taken together, this implies that cycling continues to be optimal for significantly more spread-out conurbations than, say, walking (which has about a 1.5 mile commute limit, but can see discretionary trips of 3 miles each way or more in the most optimized places, e.g. Northeastern cities).

      In other words, if the infrastructure is there, and connects people with where they want to go, you can bet your arse that people will be willing to use it. Especially with the cost of gas getting too high to support discretionary trips (school, grocery store, yoga, whatever…) This will actually be true even in the most spread-out exurbs, because even there, it is rare for a residence to be more than five linear miles from most destinations.

      (A corollary of this point is, of course, that mode choice is dictated by infrastructure provision–if you have suburbia connected by good bike infrastructure, as is [surprising to some] the case in Denmark and the Netherlands–people will use bikes. While this does beg the question of what does constitute minimal “good infrastructure” for bikes, it’s safe to say that shoulders of stroads designed for 50 mph traffic, and signposted 35 mph, ain’t it.)

  9. Alex Cecchini
    Alex Cecchini October 30, 2013 at 11:12 am #

    If completely or moderately segregated facilities for bikes don’t prepare them for mixing in with other modes of traffic, is there a corollary to the same being said of autos exiting freeways or going from urban highways (Hiawatha, Olsen Memorial, even avenues designed with wide lanes, etc) to streets? Why is the onus on cyclists alone to bear the responsibility of safe riding when converting to a mixed-traffic environment, and why is this an argument against creating lower cost per mile facilities? Isn’t a better solution to make a street forgiving to error by changing the design? Ie, when a kid does dart out in front of a car, or when a car doesn’t see a cyclist riding near them, the speeds are low enough to not cause serious injury.

    • Steve S. November 1, 2013 at 5:09 pm #

      I’ll echo this sentiment.

      When I drive, I notice that when I begin my trip I feel comfortable driving slowly in my neighborhood; then, when I get on the highway and accelerate to highway speeds, I feel comfortable at highway speeds; but when I get off the highway I have difficulty readjusting to neighborhood speeds. I have also noticed that the cutoff, for cars, seems to be about 30 mph: when no part of your trip exceeds this speed for any significant length of this time, you never begin to feel uncomfortable driving slowly–indeed, when I am able to joyride I rarely find myself exceeding this speed; however, when you do exceed this speed for significant periods of time, turning a corner into a 15 mph zone feels like its own special circle of hell.

      It seems, in short, that there seem to be two psychological states of traveling–one associated with traveling about town, and the other with getting from place to place. Let’s call the slower-speed one the “street” mentality, and the other the “road” one.

      Trouble is, once the latter traveling mode has kicked in, it is difficult to return to the operative state of the former. I wonder if this is the root cause of the “cycle path inattentiveness” effect the author notes? That is, does being on a dedicated bike trail for a significant period of time trigger a cyclist’s “road” mentality? If that is indeed the case, then it becomes very difficult for a cyclist to readjust to the street, the same way it’s very difficult for a driver to readjust to a street after he’s been on the road for a long time.

  10. Faith October 30, 2013 at 11:34 am #

    Interesting comparison between this article and Walkers’ “Encourage Bicycling? Really?”. At a cost of $1.6 million/mile for the Greenway, it is about 10% of the cost per mile of Lexington Avenue reconstruction, which is $3.9m for a quarter mile. Asphalt and concrete, no matter what the use, is not cheap when you measure in miles.

    The most cost-effective manner that seamlessly meshes within a larger on-street system would be to construct bike only facilities within existing ROW during street reconstruction projects. The same money that would be spent for vehicle lanes could be then be repurposed for bike only facilities, which would ultimately cost little extra.

  11. Max October 31, 2013 at 9:09 am #

    This article seems out of touch with what its actually like to be a bicyclist in a city. I don’t think anyone assumes that their whole trip is going to be on a bicycle highway like the Midtown Greenway. Yes, some recreational bicyclists will only use trail/cycletracks, but that’s okay because it allows them to get acquainted to bicycling. When friends are new to bicycling we use the river paths, the stone arch bridge, the lake paths, and the Midtown Greenway. They quickly become comfortable with exiting these routes to grab lunch or ice cream. Months later they are biking everyday to get to med school or work. The confidence they just gained on the cyclepath transitioned them from cautious recreational bike to urban biker extraordinaire.

    I myself worked in Uptown and lived in Saint Paul and I would not have been able to get to my job without the Greenway, the bus is over an hour and I do not own a car. (Saint Clair Av to Lyn/26th in 45 minutes is a pretty sweet deal.) I would never expect my whole ride to be separated, but wouldn’t have made the ride without the trunk of my ride being separated.

    So keep the grade separated trails and cycletracks coming! It will make those long, crosstown routes accessible by bicycle and inspire a new fleet of urban traffic-mixing bikers.

  12. Evik James October 31, 2013 at 9:17 am #

    I moved to Golden Valley six months ago. I picked the house based on proximity to the bike trail that heads downtown. Two months later, I was able to offload my vehicle, saving me $800+ per month. I now commute via bike when weather permits and via bus otherwise. I am much healthier, happier, and less stressed than I was six months ago. Also, I no longer generate unnecessary toxic gas, street traffic, or noise. I was able accomplish all of this solely due to the investment in bike trails.

    The Cedar Lake Trail, Sabo Bridge, and Greenway have become indispensable to me. They are a real value to every driver and vehicle that I no longer encounter on the streets and highways too.

  13. Will Donovan III October 31, 2013 at 10:28 pm #

    Its pretty simple. the facilities mentioned are great, inclusive and well-used. Without them my trips into MPLS from St. Louis Park would be extremely dangerous and less efficient. I can safely take my kids with me(pulling or riding) on these facilities with a peace-of-mind that they, and I, are safe. I use them for safe trips for groceries, recreational rides and to get to the lakes, museums, stadium and even to find lunch/dinner spots. They are amazing.

    As an avid cyclist for recreation and transportation, I am well aware of the fact that these are not the same as riding on bike lanes in town with traffic. I am not an idiot and do not ride with the same passivity as when on a standard roadway and am offended by the remarks thereof. The idea that cyclist expect the same “lavish” facilities elsewhere is also hogwash. We simply take what we can get and pick the safest routes.

    They simply provide a safe alternative. They are way less expensive than auto facilities and are easier to maintain than standard roadways. They are assets that are worth every penny.