“Even if you’re on the right track, you’ll get run over if you just sit there” -Will Rogers
Earlier this week, Hennepin County and the City of Minneapolis released preliminary design options for a reconstruction of Minnehaha Avenue (or County State Aid Highway 48 as the folks on 148 acres in Medina call it) between Lake Street and 46th Street in South Minneapolis. Full PDFs were posted showing on-street bike lanes similar to the existing layout or a separated two-way cycletrack on the west side of the street.
Out of these two options, the cycletrack option is clearly the better “complete street,” providing enhanced amenities for walkers, bikers, and transit riders. Yet there are still valid concerns to be addressed- intersection conflicts between bicyclists and cars, and concerns from local businesses and residents over the loss of on-street car storage and mature boulevard trees. Those minor difficulties can be mitigated and pale in comparison to the advantage to users and the potential for nuanced design which would enhance placemaking along the corridor.
For good insight into the tradeoffs of both options, check out Rebekah Peterson’s articles on TC Daily Planet covering impact on bikes and businesses. Peterson reports that Hennepin County will recommend the on-street bike lane option to the Minneapolis City Council (so if you disagree, make your opinion known to the project, your county commissioner, and your council member).
But do these two alternatives represent the two best choices for those who use Minnehaha Avenue to access adjoining land uses?
Multiway boulevards are a great answer to retrofit existing stroads, but what about scaling them down a little and using the main principle of separation to get more mobility and placemaking utility out of our narrower urban arterial streets? Challenge accepted.
What do we have to work with?
Minnehaha Avenue has 100’ right of way for most of the project length, tapering a fair amount wider near Lake Street. Yet for most residential blocks, it’s unrealistic to encroach upon the outer eleven feet of the right of way, which contains the existing sidewalk and about five feet of lawn. Additionally, it is preferred to keep the existing boulevard trees and the wonderful canopy they provide. Even within these constraints, a multiway boulevard is possible.
For the typical cross section, I propose a middle carriageway of 11 foot travel lanes surrounded by buffer medians. These medians serve multiple purposes. They allow for a tree canopy to be planted about 25’ apart in the middle, calming the perceived width of the street. Street lights can be provided on the medians providing better coverage and more diffused lighting options for the slip lanes and sidewalks. They can contain gutters on both sides, so the entire stormwater system can drain to these two medians even if the outside needs to change between a standard slip lane, cycletrack, or woonerf. Finally, they provide some snow storage space for the primary travel lanes.
Is flexibility valuable?
At certain spots, it makes sense to widen the center carriageway beyond 22 feet to accommodate bus stops or left turn lanes. This is completely doable by sacrificing street parking just the same as the two plans proposed by the county. Yet, unlike the bike lane plan, bus stops would not create conflicts with the cycleway. And, unlike the contraflow cycletrack alternative, vehicular conflicts at intersections still abide by the right-side behavior we find predictable.
But the true flexibility comes from the variety of treatments on the outside of the buffer medians.
In residential blocks dominated by single family homes, curbside parking supply may outstrip demand (despite a price point of $0 – really a testament to how zealously our culture adopted the religion of free parking that we’ve supplied so much of a private good that people can no longer consume more of it for free, but I digress).
Additionally, these are the blocks where the boulevard tree canopy is particularly valuable and adds significant value to the adjacent properties. Solution? Switch one side of the street to a six foot cycletrack rather than a 18.5’ slip lane and parking space. This allows for even larger grassy boulevards than we have today.
What about commercial nodes?
Business owners have shown a desire to maintain on-street parking and access to their existing driveways. Yet the conflicts between cars traveling multiple blocks and cars looking to parallel park or exit a parking lot creates frustration for everyone (and that’s without the additional problems found by squeezing bikes in a danger zone between the two). The concept of a woonerf helps solve this problem, separating these slow vehicular movements from congested traffic lanes. It means people can get to businesses in these nodes easier and safer, whether arriving by car, bike, or foot. The woonerf right of way is flexible and can accommodate nuanced needs on a parcel by parcel basis, such as on-street bicycle corrals or valet parking.
Woonerfs can also be more flexible and welcoming to bicyclists and pedestrians, since it is truly shared space. The sidewalk can actually blend right into the slip lane in these cases, virtually extending the pedestrian realm from storefront to café/display space to sidewalk space to car/bike throughway space to parking with one unified look and feel, capped off with the buffer median providing a vegetated/canopied buffer between people-centric space and space reserved for cars, buses, and even fast bikers who would rather not use the cycleway.
How could this be better than a cycletrack?
Cycletracks are great. I love riding on them. But we don’t like cycletracks because they’re cycletracks, we like them because of their advantages. By defining what we really like, we open up the possibility that there are other alternatives which also meet our needs but have fewer opportunity costs and more synergies.
Here’s why NATCO likes two-way cycletracks, and why I think a multiway boulevard could be just as good.
- Dedicates and protects space for bicyclists by improving perceived comfort and safety. Eliminates risk and fear of collisions with over-taking vehicles.
Slip lanes are shared space. So, while not dedicated, it has roughly the same perceived comfort. Just like cycletracks, slip lanes and woonerfs would be segregated from the travel lanes, buffering bicyclists from fast-moving cars. Slip lanes and woonerfs, designed for very slow vehicular travel of a block at most (except for bikes) mean that vehicles would not be in a position to try and overtake bikes.
- Reduces risk of ‘dooring’ compared to a bike lane, and eliminates the risk of a doored bicyclist being run over by a motor vehicle.
With multiway boulevards, there’s a wide and slow lane, so the normal condition would be for cyclists to “take the lane.” Furthermore, by placing parked vehicles on the left side, it further reduces dooring risk similar to a cycletrack.
- On one-way streets, reduces out of direction travel by providing contra-flow movement.
When NATCO talks about the advantages of contraflow bike lanes, the primary advantage is on one way streets where sightlines and complex turning movements are not a problem. On a wide street like Minnehaha Avenue, there would be significant left-hook potential for left turning vehicles since there are no other conditions in existence where left-turning traffic needs to look over their left shoulder to spot fast-moving through traffic while simultaneously expecting and yielding right of way to traffic approacing from ahead. In this case, a contraflow design can become a liability.
- Low implementation cost when making use of existing pavement and drainage and using parking lane or other barrier for protection from traffic.
On Minnehaha, the plan is to replace curbs, so we might as well take advantage of this investment to gain additional utility and placemaking potential for generations to come.
- More attractive to a wide range of bicyclists at all levels and ages.
We really need to know what qualities make a cycletrack more attractive to users if we wish to compare it to alternative designs. Obviously a cycletrack is more attractive than a bike lane which is more attractive than riding in a traffic lane, but we need criteria to dig into comparisons that are less obvious.
The quality of our results will be determined at a fine-grained level, no matter what type of facility we build. This requires compromise, neighborhood engagement, and placemaking more than it requires pro-forma compliance to engineering standards. We need to be creative with our use of scarce space. We need to think outside the box to find ways to get the most placemaking potential and mobility out of our neighborhood streets. We need to ask the right questions and not be afraid to challenge assumptions. If a cycletrack is built on Minnehaha Avenue, it will be a huge improvement. But why stop at better when we can do better yet?