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?
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).
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.
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?