Mind The Gap: The Importance of Bridge Approaches

franklin-bridge-lane

Bike lane on the Franklin Avenue bridge.

It goes without saying that bridges are important. No matter what mode your travel, bridges are often the only way to get across a river, train tracks, a giant freeway, or (in other parts of the world) a canyon or harbor or whatever. Paying special attention to bridge design makes sense. And in general, Minneapolis and Saint Paul have gotten better at designing bridges for bicycles, as bike lanes are now standard on new bridges. For example, Saint Paul’s new Hamline Avenue bridge over the train tracks and quasi-freeway will include a bike lane in each direction.

But bridge design is only half the battle. Equally important is how the bridge traffic connects at both ends. Bridge approaches are particularly difficult because bridges present unique design challenges for traffic flow. Bridges are almost always straight with zero intersections, which means car traffic will almost inevitably speed. (Thus each city’s notorious speed traps: the NE side of the Hennepin Avenue bridge in Minneapolis, or the North side of the Dale Street bridge in Saint Paul. Back in my driving days, I was caught at both.) Because of this, bridge entrances have the same problem as freeway onramps: they’re dangerous places where drivers have to change their expectations, moving from a high-speed low-conflict environment into a low-speed high-conflict environment. How you design that transition is very important.

One of the frustrations of bicycling through the Twin Cities is that too too many bridge approaches are medicore and unsafe, offering little continuity with the streets on either side. Often bridges will have useless bike lanes that connect to nothing, making a mockery of the “bike lane” concept. (For example, the bike lanes on both the North Dale Street and the new Hamline Avenue bridge connect to nothing.) Here are three examples of why bridge approaches can make all the difference.

[Note: these are mostly from Saint Paul because a) that’s where I live,  b) its “Saint Paul week” on streets.mn, and c) Minneapolis has been doing more to improve its bridges for bicycles.]

 

Wabasha Street Bridge

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The bike lane gap on Wabasha Street.

While downtown Saint Paul is notoriously lacking in bike lanes, its bridges are a bit better. Both the Smith Avenue (“high”) Bridge and the Wabasha Bridge are striped with bike lanes. The only problem is that they don’t connect to anything on either end. This is particularly frustrating on Wabasha bridge because the south end of Wabasha  Street has bike lanes only two blocks from the bridge terminus. There’s a 1/3 mile gap in the bike lane, forcing bicyclists to share the road with traffic for this short stretch. For bicyclists comfortable in traffic, most of the time this works fine, But every once in a while a car driver will try to pass bicyclists at extremely close distances, and for anyone who doesn’t like bicycling in traffic, this gap is a significant barrier.

(On the North end of the bridge, downtown Saint Paul doesn’t have any bike lanes at all. So there’s that.)

The solution here seems obvious. The traffic count on this part of Wabasha is a mere 12,000 cars / day. The city could simply continue the 3-lane + bikes configuration up to the bridgehead for the cost of some paint without perceptibly impacting traffic flows.

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Looking South up Wabasha Street at the bike lane.

 

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The spot where the bike lane ends on Wabasha.

 

Lake Street / Marshall Avenue Bridge

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The Marshall Avenue bike lane gap.

This bridge is one of the most important in the city, connecting Minneapolis and Saint Paul at the hip. Unfortunately, its bridge approaches are medicore. On the East Side, Marshall Avenue has a similar situation to the Wabasha. A bike lane runs along Marshall Avenue for miles, only to stop short 1/3 of a mile before the bridge. This forces bicyclists to share the road with cars speeding down the hill for a tiny stretch before reaching the bridge’s bike lane.

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The intersection of the sidewalk, bike path, and river road at the Lake Street bridge.

On the other side, reaching the river road’s bike lane involves a strange do-si-do with a island median. The interchange between teh lovely river road bike lanes and the bridge forces you to either travel the wrong way down an onramp or jump a curb. Heading the other direction, there’s an almost blind intersection where cars come speeding up a hill under the Lake Street bridge.

Easy solutions exist for both sides. On the East Side, you simply continue the bike lane for the last 1/3 of a mile, again needing only a little bit of paint. Traffic counts are a bit higher (17,500 cars / day), but this is the city’s #1 bike lane intersection. On the Minneapolis side, you would have to install a stop sign on the river road and remove a bit of concrete to connect more smoothly with the bike path.

mpls-lake-st-bridge-1

The awkward curb cut, with a blind spot to traffic on the right.

The disappearing bike lane on Marshall Avenue.

Franklin Avenue Bridge

“Bike boxes” on the Franklin Avenue bridge.

Not long ago, the Franklin Avenue would have made this list. On the West side, Franklin’s bike lanes disappeared before you reached the bridge. On the East side, the intersection with the river road, Franklin Avenue, and the bike paths toward the University campus were impossibly confusing for all users.

Today, this bridge shows what a difference good approaches can make to create a continuous, relaxing bicycle trip. The city removed a traffic lane in each direction and installed bike boxes to make sure that bicyclists were given space and visibility at the challenging intersection on the East end. The city’s 2012 bike and ped counts saw 3,000 people crossing this bridge each day.

The bike lane at the West Franklin bridge approach.

So what?

Bridge approaches matter because small gaps in the bicycle infrastructure can have huge impacts. Even if 90% of your bicycle trip is safe, convenient, and comfortable, if the other 10% of the trip involves a harrowing gauntlet of speeding cars, many people will leave their bicycles in the garage.

These gaps might not seem like a big deal when viewed on a map, but they are very important if Minneapolis and Saint Paul want to follow through on “completing the streets” and creating bicycle facilities that work for everyone. There are a lot more bridges I could add to this list, places that become huge physical and psychological gaps in the bike system. Washington Avenue over the freeway, Broadway Avenue, Robert Street. At the same time, there is a lot of progress. For example, the new Lowry Avenue bridge is done well.

“Bikes may have full lane” sign leading to the Marshall Avenue bridge.

I’ve ridden down Marshall Avenue toward the Lake Street bridge probably hundreds of times, and usually the spot where the bike lane ends is no problem. You are travelling down the hill at a good clip, and cars usually give you room, moving over to the left lane. I typically “take the lane,” positioning myself just right of center. But once last summer, as I headed down the hill I heard a horn honking in the distance behind me, repeating over and over. I had no idea what it was. About halfway down the hill, the horn kept getting louder, and all at once, a red pickup buzzed past me, just an inch from my left shoulder. I was right next to the “bikes may take full lane” sign, and it was probably the closest I’ve come to being run over by a car. I was a few hundred feet from a bike lane in either direction, but as the truck sped across the bridge in front of me I became completely distraught. It took me a while to calm down again once I’d reached my office.

Experiences like mine are why bridge approaches need to be done carefully. A bike lane on a bridge is almost useless if it doesn’t connect to anything, or if the approach is dangerous and doesn’t address speeding cars. At the same time, you can’t go out of your way to avoid bridges. By definition, they’re choke points for all modes of traffic. Particularly for  bicycle trips, paying attention to these gaps can make all the difference.

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12 Responses to Mind The Gap: The Importance of Bridge Approaches

  1. brad July 16, 2013 at 3:13 pm #

    I wish the westbound Marshall/Lake bike lane led to something better, too. If you want to continue straight (not left or right to the river), you’re tossed right into Lake St traffic with a lot of cars turning and parking in the first block or two.

    The Minneapolis side of the Ford Parkway bridge isn’t that great, either.

  2. Janne July 16, 2013 at 3:48 pm #

    We had to fight for those bike connections on Lowry — the County was about to value engineer EVERYTHING bike out of the whole bridge when a chance acquaintance mentioned it to me.

    Summary of the success:
    http://mplsbike.org/blog/posts/lowry-bridge-success/

    More pictures:
    http://mplsbike.org/blog/posts/lowry-bridge-opening/

  3. Hokan July 16, 2013 at 5:52 pm #

    On Marshall Eastbound, the decision to drop the bikelane was one of safety. A 5-foot bikelane is just not enough for a cyclist traveling at 30mph … and it’s not too hard for even an old guy like me to get to 30 on that downhill. On the other side where I and many others struggle slowly uphill, the bike lane is a huge win. And btw, there are no bike lanes on the bridge. Perhaps you are thinking of the shoulders.

    On the Franklin bridge, I love the bike lanes, but not so much the bike box. The county (it’s a county bridge and it was the county that put in the bike lanes) will be redecking the bridge in a year or two and is talking about removing the bike lanes and putting in a sort of trail alongside the sidewalk. That might be OK for occasional users, but for daily commuters it will suck.

    • Bill Lindeke
      Bill Lindeke July 16, 2013 at 6:59 pm #

      that doesn’t make sense to me. just like “progress,” lots of bad decisions were made in the name of “safety.”

    • brad July 16, 2013 at 10:56 pm #

      Just curious about the “no bike lanes on the bridge” comment. Do you say that because there’s no sign? Sign or no, if it quacks like a duck… Now that you mention it, though, I see that most official bike maps lump together “on-street bicycle lanes and shoulders”

  4. Hokan July 16, 2013 at 5:52 pm #

    Eh, I meant “On Marshall Westbound, the decision”…

  5. Scott Berger July 16, 2013 at 11:51 pm #

    As someone who bikes from Minneapolis to St. Paul and vice-versa nearly daily, the biggest weaknesses in the route, in my opinion, are the Midtown Greenway to W River parkway snafu and the awkward Marshall-Lake bridge entry situations. Both are always awkward both for bikes and car alike. Of course, if they’d just extend the Greenway over the Mississippi…

  6. Eric Saathoff
    Vagueperson July 19, 2013 at 9:56 pm #

    “bike lanes are now standard on new bridges.”

    I have to take the Maryland Ave bridge over 35E to work. There is no bike lane. There is a wide sidewalk for part of it, but there is no indication that bikes and walkers are intended to share this space. I normally will ride west down Brainerd and then take the sidewalk as it is the only way to approach the bridge. Then, as soon as I cross the bridge, I make my way to the left lane on Jackson to get onto Rose. Maryland is not a comfortable street to ride, the bridge is better than it was but is still not meant for bicyclists, and the approaches suck big time.

    Maryland is also such a good east-west road to use as a bike artery. It would also be nice for a bus that would go all the way from White Bear Ave on the east to Minneapolis via Maryland, Gateway Dr, Horton, and Como – really all the same road. This could get many east siders directly to the Como Park amenities (zoo, etc.). Of course, having a straight cross-city busline that doesn’t have to go through downtown makes too much sense.

  7. Bill Lindeke
    Bill Lindeke July 19, 2013 at 11:05 pm #

    I used to live at Maryland and Western and I agree completely that Maryland is awful. But I thought they’d put a lane on the bridge section?

    I’d like to see a 4-3 conversion on Maryland. It’s a travesty as is, one of the most dangerous streets in the city (that also happens to run through a poor neighborhood with many children).

    • Eric Saathoff
      Vagueperson July 20, 2013 at 1:23 pm #

      I would love to see that happen. It appears that Ramsey County has a couple of projects to widen the street and add turning lanes to the street (http://www.co.ramsey.mn.us/pw), but I really appreciate the alternative of doing a 4/3 conversion. It’s clearly too late to stop the Arkwright construction and probably too late for the other project, as well.

      Adding a clear lane through the middle for emergency vehicles, reducing accidents related to turning vehicles, making it easier for pedestrians to cross the street – even slowing the traffic would really be an improvement for this stretch. In addition it would allow space for bike lanes, which would be a MAJOR addition, in my opinion, for St. Paul. Wheelock Parkway is not an appropriate east-west bikeway, and it doesn’t extend very far in its winding way, anyhow.

      I’m new to civic participation, and I’m wondering – how could something like this be accomplished (or even studied)?

      • Bill Lindeke
        Bill Lindeke July 24, 2013 at 10:44 am #

        Well, it involves building consensus at multiple levels: neighborhood groups, within city staff, the general public. I’m involved with the Saint Paul Bicycle Coalition, so get on our mailing list: http://www.saintpaulbicyclecoalition.org/

  8. Jeremy Mendelson
    Jeremy Mendelson July 24, 2013 at 3:05 am #

    Great piece.

    One reason bridge approaches are so hard to get right is that often you have 2 or 3 agencies responsible, for example Mpls, MnDOT, StPaul. At least one of them is going to be fixated on prioritizing motor vehicle throughput at the expense of bike and pedestrian safety.

    From a construction and maintenance standpoint, bridges are usually viewed as separate from their approaches. We need to find a way to change that if we’re going to make progress on this issue.

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