Like the Streets.mn Voter Guide, the Minneapolis Bicycle Coalition has posted answers to bicycling related questions posed to city council and mayoral candidates. Question six asks “when would you vote against or overrule a BAC recommendation?” I read those responses carefully, and as expected, most candidates didn’t really take that one on or provide a concrete example. I have one. If I were running for office, my answer would be “when it removes on-street parking, particularly in commercial zones, and especially when that loss of on-street parking hurts small businesses.”
Increased cycling has many benefits to the city and local businesses, and as a cyclist I believe we must continue exploring new bike routes and on-street solutions for cyclists. But on-street parking is and may always be a valuable asset to cities, and too often we acquiesce to moving traffic and sacrifice on-street parking instead, and I think that is a mistake. Not all properties in Minneapolis and elsewhere were developed with ample off-street parking. Some have none. A great number of businesses and residents rely on it. Thus, removing it for a bike lane is can actually hurt small businesses, making the city less livable. The answer is not to build more parking lots (many planning departments agree). I don’t know about you, but one of the wonderful aspects of cycling in the city is the many small businesses as destinations. I don’t want that to change.
During a community planning meeting for the RiverLake Greenway, I spoke up with concerns that a commercial node that includes Chris & Rob’s was losing parking, cautioning that lost on-street parking would not be good for business. (Here is my post from that time) I advocated for an alternative like sharrows or some combination of narrower driving and bicycle lanes in order to preserve that valuable on-street parking. Alas, a sensible solution is elusive because of the “Standard.” According to road standards, the volume of traffic along 42nd Street requires a certain lane width which precluded sharrows. “Why not relax that regulation a little to allow for sharrows or painted lanes?” I asked. “Because we have to move traffic,” I was told. I then suggested that this portion of the route simply have signage but no alteration to the right-of-way; no bike lane, no sharrow, no lost parking. After all, just two blocks to the east the bike route to this day is just signage because it crosses Hiawatha Avenue, a state highway, and no suitable solution could be found that fit within MnDOT rules. (see image below for 42nd Street today – Chris & Rob’s at right)
I visited Chris & Rob’s a few months after the Riverlake bike lane was in and No Parking signs up across the street (the direction of travel from which most customers arrive), and they showed me how business fell off by 15% the DAY the No Parking went in to effect. I visited them again yesterday and that loss of revenue has persisted. So bravo – it worked! Traffic is moving as smoothly as before on 42nd Street, but more if it is passing Chris & Rob’s without stopping. And Chris & Rob’s is now considering purchasing a nearby vacant lot to be used for surface parking (I don’t think this is the outcome the city, county or neighborhood would really prefer).
I was also told at the community meeting that the hoped-for outcome of the bike lane is to encourage more cycling to businesses. As someone who already cycles to Chris & Rob’s, I don’t buy this argument. Maybe some day the modal split will be so, but I don’t believe in hurting the income of a business in the meantime while hoping more customers will arrive by bike on what remains an unpleasant biking street.
On-street parking isn’t just a necessity, it is also an asset. It slows the traffic by placing parked vehicles closer to moving cars, and also provides a real and perceived buffer between moving traffic and the sidewalk, making pedestrians feel safer as well as making them safer from errant drivers.
I’m not the only one who thinks this – Jeff Speck explicitly points out in his book Walkable City that bike lanes and transit lanes should never displace on-street parking, just moving traffic lanes. I wholeheartedly agree.
Bikes aren’t to blame here, and the last thing I want to suggest is that we must choose between bikes and businesses. In fact, well-placed bicycle lanes (and parking) is good for business. I want cycling to be part of the city. What is to blame is the “Standard,” the expectation that free-flowing automobile traffic is a right rather than a choice, and traffic engineers’ ability to set of guidelines for lane widths, speeds and clear zones. Cyclists and businesses must form a stronger alliance to fight the real enemy – the “standard.” Unfortunately the standard for moving traffic is entrenched while urbanism doesn’t yet have a recognized standard, and while we allow traffic engineers to have the final say, all in the name of making roads safer by moving cars faster, when in fact the opposite is true.
Even if you hate bikes, you have to admit that slower-moving cars are more likely to stop at a business they are driving by. And I’m not proposing blocking traffic (although in some cases that is a very good idea!), but rather the powers that be need to relax their standard just a bit – allow narrower lane widths, slower speed limits, something. The solution is so easy and realistic it should be possible. A better, more complete street would likely have the opposite affect and increase business.
To compound things, just this past week the city put up No Parking signs two blocks west of Chris & Rob’s along 42nd Street, in front of two more small businesses, one of which (the Nokomis Pet Clinic) has no off-street parking (see image above). All because the parking lane was yet again displaced by a bicycle lane.
To the city and county’s credit, working with input from our neighborhood association, 42nd Street striping within one block of commercial nodes at Cedar and 28th Avenues shifts to preserve critical on-street parking (effectively a sharrow situation), but businesses like Chris & Rob’s and Nokomis Pet Clinic lose theirs. This inequity must be corrected. Bikes aren’t the problem – road standards are. Sure you say, try fighting the various levels of officials and engineers who can cling to road standards, good luck with that. Well, that is precisely the fight we have to pick if we are to have a meaningful breakthrough on improving the urbanism of our cities so biking and small businesses can thrive. For now, I’m asking nicely; can we please restore on street parking on both sides of 42nd Street in front of businesses?
So that, my friends, is where I as a city council member might go against a recommendation of the BAC. But that doesn’t matter right now. What does matter is, for all the wonderful improvements the city has made with regard to biking, some are already or threatening to affect local business. Like I said, I comes to a decision between bikes and businesses, don’t make the false choice, make the right one. What good is a Complete Streets policy if there’s nothing along those streets? It’s time the lanes of moving traffic gave up something.
This is crossposted at Joe Urban.