How well do regional parks agencies promote utilitarian cycling?

Take a look at the following three photos, and see if you can spot the similar theme. These are all photos of the trail along West River Parkway taken since the Fall of 2009 (click images to enlarge). The parkway is owned and maintained by the Minneapolis Park & Recreation Board (MPRB).

Each of these photos shows a location where some element of the trail design was compromised to avoid having to remove trees. When I use the word “compromised”, I’m splitting hairs a bit and using it in an engineering sense, meaning that some measurable dimension does not meet the generally accepted design guidelines. The trail, which was fully reconstructed in 2009, meanders around the trees, rather than requiring the removal of trees. For example, in each of these cases, the trees are located too close to the edge of the trail without what the MnDOT Bikeway Facility Design Manual calls “horizontal clearance”. In other places, the trail narrows, or doesn’t provide the recommended 3′ separation between the path and the back of the curb. In some cases, the result is that these locations wind up being bottlenecks or experiencing some operational challenges during peak hours (which I presume is probably Saturday mornings in June or something similar).

I don’t intend that to be a criticism, and this isn’t really a post about trees. This is a beautiful trail – one of my favorites in the Twin Cities. Despite the “compromised” design, I’ve yet to hear a report of someone crashing into a tree because it was too close to the trail. Also, the trees are beautiful old oak trees – it would certainly be sad to see them torn down unnecessarily. For the record, I like trees, but I would have preferred the trees removed (we could plant dozens of new trees for a couple thousand dollars) and the trail standardized, but I’m also aware that this may be a minority opinion.

I don’t know why the MPRB decided not to remove the trees, but I’m going to go out on a limb and assume that it was simply because as a park board (rather than a transportation agency), the MPRB tends to naturally prioritize trees more than a transportation agency might. I wonder, how would this trail design have been different if, say, Hennepin County had designed the trail?

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We might design a trail differently for recreational users than we would for commuters. For example, a recreational trail might purposely meander, taking users through interesting terrain, or highlighting scenic areas. The trail would highlight the experience, rather than utility. Trails designed for commuters, on the other hand, might be flatter or straighter. Imagine Minnehaha Parkway for recreational users, Midtown Greenway for commuters.

Throughout the metro area, many of the prime trail routes used by commuters are managed by parks departments rather than transportation agencies. The MPRB and Three Rivers Park District (3RPD)collectively control most of the major commuter routes in the west metro, and St. Paul Parks & the DNR control much of the east metro trails (although, Hennepin & Ramsey Counties both own a few trails as well).

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I’m not trying to suggest that parks departments are wearing blinders, nor am I proposing transferring the trails to other agencies. I am certain that the engineers and planners at the MPRB, 3RPD, DNR, and other major parks departments, are aware of just how critical their trail facilities are to non-recreational cyclists in the Twin Cities. I’m also certain that they want to increase the number of people using their trails for any purpose – recreational, utilitarian, or otherwise. And yet, I don’t always hear them speaking the transportation language. For example, the MPRB 2020 Comprehensive Plan doesn’t mention non-recreational cyclists at all. The plan primarily assumes that people are riding bikes to reach “natural areas”, rather than to reach downtown, the University of Minnesota, or any other major destination located along the trails.

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What are the implications of major bicycle facilities critical to promoting bicycle commuting and utility cycling being owned and managed by agencies whose primary objective is to provide recreational opportunities?

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9 Responses to How well do regional parks agencies promote utilitarian cycling?

  1. Nathaniel M Hood
    Nathaniel April 5, 2012 at 2:09 am #

    1- Great post. In the case of the West/East River Road trail, my hunch is they wanted the winding nature trail feel. I occasionally commute on Mississippi River Blvd (same scenario, but in St. Paul) and use the road as opposed to the trail. I imagine a handful of commuter cyclists do this in Minneapolis on W. River Road.

    2 – "I don’t know why the MPRB decided not to remove the trees, but I’m going to go out on a limb and assume that it was simply because as a park board (rather than a transportation agency), the MPRB tends to naturally prioritize trees more than a transportation agency might."

    – Removing trees can be politically contentious, even when done with the best of intentions. Unless there is an encroaching danger, such as Emerald Ash Borer, trees usually stay up.

    3 – "Throughout the metro area, many of the prime trail routes used by commuters are managed by parks departments rather than transportation agencies."

    – This is a great point and reminded me why Streets.MN is necessary. This is precisely what expanding the conversation about land use and transportation is all about!

    Best -Nate

    • Reuben Collins
      Reuben Collins April 5, 2012 at 3:13 am #

      Re: #2 – yes, removing trees is never popular, especially when they're stunningly gorgeous 100 year-old oaks along the Mississippi River. I'm sure the project was much easier for the agency to implement as a result.

  2. Froggie April 5, 2012 at 2:37 am #

    I'm of the firm belief that our excellent parks and trails system was the "original enabler" of utilitarian cycling in Minneapolis. I certainly used it a good bit back before I left.

    • Reuben Collins
      Reuben Collins April 5, 2012 at 3:15 am #

      Froggie, I'm in complete agreement. The Twin Cities excellent trail network is the primary reason that utilitarian cycling is a realistic option for many people in the first place. My own daily bike commute would hardly even be possible without using a portion of the Grand Rounds.

  3. Alex April 5, 2012 at 3:42 am #

    Nice points, and thanks for linking to the MPRB comp plan, which beyond saying nothing about utilitarian cyclists says almost nothing about any cyclists whatsoever. As a longtime utilitarian user of Mpls parks, both for walking and cycling, I'd say the problem is less one of facility design than of connectivity. Actually this is less of a problem on West River Pkwy than it is in some other parks – Loring Park's cycle path, for example, ignores several important access points and basically requires you to enter/exit at Hennepin or Yale. But there are several parks I can think of that don't have paths connecting to some adjoining streets – Brackett, King, North Commons – it should be a goal to at least have one accessible path connecting to every street that intersects a park.

  4. Bill Lindeke
    Bill Lindeke April 5, 2012 at 6:35 am #

    #1 I like the trees. It's super fun to ride on the river road, especially the Southern East River Road portion.

    #2 I am not sure if this concern is that much of a problem. I guess one thing that jumps to mind is when off-street "recreational" trails are the only focus. These trails are really useful for getting around, but only if they also connect somehow to actual places people are going. For example, you need to make sure that cycling is safe and comfortably not just on the Midtown Greenway, but also on Lake Street or Franklin Avenue and/or places where people are actually going. Recreational cycling trails are great if they actually connect to useful street routes.

    • Reuben Collins
      Reuben Collins April 5, 2012 at 7:40 am #

      @Bill – yes, I'm not trying to suggest that there's a major problem here, or that the existing recreational trails aren't also well suited for commuting. Perhaps the tree issue was a bad example.

      This question is perhaps a bit academic. Do transportation and parks officials bring different perspectives to how trails are used? Are transportation agencies more likely to view trails as a means to access other destinations, and thus more likely to plan for those connections? Are parks agencies more likely to view trails as the destination itself, and thus less likely to plan for connections?

  5. Scott F April 10, 2012 at 7:41 pm #

    "I don’t know why the MPRB decided not to remove the trees, but I’m going to go out on a limb . . ."

    Was I the only one who got a chuckle out of this?

  6. Jessica S April 15, 2012 at 4:57 pm #

    "What are the implications of major bicycle facilities critical to promoting bicycle commuting and utility cycling being owned and managed by agencies whose primary objective is to provide recreational opportunities?"

    I can think of two big implications: inconsistency of signage and inconsistency of infrastructure availability!

    Earlier this spring, while biking around Lake of the Isles and Lake Calhoun, I noticed that all the signs dividing the bicycle trail from the pedestrian trail had been covered with a "BIKES MUST YIELD TO PEDS" sign. The pedestrian trail was almost entirely free of snow, but these signs made the bike path a total free-for-all for walkers, joggers, strollers, etc. My first reaction was to think these were counterfeit signs (much like these fake NO PARKING signs in Malibu: http://articles.latimes.com/2011/nov/10/local/la-….

    I doubt the trails around the lakes serve some commuting purpose, but it still demonstrates MPRB's role in maintaining bicycle infrastructure. My point with this particular example is that:

    (1) MPRB already uses non-standard signage that is inconsistent with the bicycle infrastructure and road signage in the rest of the Twin Cities. In the best of times it is blatantly ignored by countless joggers running in the middle of the bike trails around the lakes. In this case, the MPRB covered the existing confusing signage with stapled cardboard to change the message in a way that didn't look legitimate, and wasn't consistent with the rest of their signage.

    (2) MPRB can change a narrow one-way bike trail into a mixed use trail overnight, making it completely useless for bikes, creating excessive opportunity for bicycle-pedestrian conflict, and further de-legitimizing their signage directing bicycles and pedestrians to use separate facilities. If MPRB's mission is creating recreational opportunities, then turning the ped path into a ski trail (even long after most of the snow has melted) at the expense of bike commuters isn't a problem. But it does mean that bike commuting facilities should be managed by agencies that are more transportation-minded.

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