A Minnehaha Avenue for All

A rebuilt Minnehaha Avenue should be a street for all users.  Another set of public meetings is happening next week, where Hennepin County will present revised designs for the street. One version will contain on-street bicycle lanes (somewhat similar to the current iteration), another a separated cycletrack option. Yet there seems to be a gulf emerging between cyclists and others over which of the two designs for the future of the street. There is a perception that cyclists want the cycletrack and everybody else wants the version with on-street bike lanes. Let’s hope after next week there is a little more agreement over a preferred alternative, since a cyclists-versus-the-world is not a desirable outcome. The insidious issue nobody seems to be discussing is Hennepin County seems to want a street that handles more cars, an alternative I don’t think anyone wants.

There is no reason why cyclists and businesses need to be on opposite sides of this issue. Accessibility is a core aspect of success for retail businesses. Customers need to be able to get to the store, be it on foot, bicycle, transit or by car. I’d argue that a reconstructed street that accommodates an increase cycling should be a win-win for businesses. Assuming car traffic remains static, doesn’t more cyclists passing your store mean more exposure and more potential customers?

Alas, the County believes car volume on Minnehaha will increase by about 25% (from 12,000 to 15,000 vehicles per day in one section). Why? Is it that the population is forecast to grow by that much, with the new population presumably driving as much as the existing? Or that the new road will be “improved” to accommodate more traffic and people will simply drive more? (They have no formal prediction for cycling or pedestrian increases.)

Ask lots of questions. First of all, question any and all traffic forecasts. Second, a 25% increase in traffic on today’s Minnehaha Avenue may be good for business (more potential customers), even if that creates more congestion (this can be a good thing). A road built to accommodate 25% more traffic may actually be detrimental to business and residents, as it would mean more cars moving faster past businesses and homes. But what if the new road accommodated the same amount of vehicles but 25% more bikes? Wouldn’t that make for a better street? Think about it – no net increase of cars racing by, but more bikes that pose less risk of killing people and create more potential customers for businesses. We cannot widen the street right of way, so the existing space must be used more efficiently. I see a cycletrack as a win-win; better for business, better for residents.

Peter McLaughlin, Gail Dorfman and maybe Linda Higgins are the only county commissioners whose territory is urban in any sense, so it is easy to understand why there may not be enough votes to approve a road that isn’t purely made for the movement of cars (that the Transportation Department and Public Works Facility is located in Medina doesn’t help the mindset for designing an urban street doesn’t help, either). But I’m not sure what the risk is – why should a commissioner representing Orono worry that a street in Minneapolis is built for truly multimodal purposes? The County should be designing roads appropriate for their current context, and for the future, which very likely will involve less driving.

Cyclists aren’t another faction with a narrow vision for exclusive rights to the public realm. They aren’t an abstract blur in spandex hell bent on stopping car traffic. They are young persons, moms, dads, grandparents, business owners, taxpayers, homeowners, renters. In other words, us. Some of us cycle rarely or never, some of us a lot. The fact is cycling is increasing and must be accounted for in future plans.

The Minneapolis Bicycle Coalition isn’t blindly in favor of a cycletrack. In fact, they don’t endorse the current Hennepin County plan for a cycletrack. The bottom line is this. If we rebuild Minnehaha Avenue to accommodate more car traffic, it probably will. If we build it to accommodate more bicycle traffic, it will. Think about what you really want. The one nonnegotiable piece of Hennepin County’s plan is the ability to move cars – everything else is in play, trees, bikes, crosswalks, parking. Worse, adding turn lanes will only encourage more and faster traffic. Simply put, a well-designed cycletrack can add people, traffic and beauty to the street without adding more cars. Tell Hennepin County you really don’t want more car traffic, but rather a better balanced street that is good for all residents and the businesses we frequent. Tell them to show us the good street design we have not yet seen.

Epilogue…at 4PM on Sunday August 11 Open Streets on Minnehaha officially ended and I watched as moving traffic returned to the street. Having wandered the street myself for the previous four hours, riding my bike, walking, playing four-square, drawing in chalk, riding the pop-up cycletrack, speaking with elected officials and those running for office, and meeting some old friends from Belgium (they were dutifully impressed), it was quite humbling to cede the street back to the automobile. Was it all a dream? Minnehaha Avenue is a street, not an expressway. It deserves better.

This was crossposted at Joe Urban.

Below – images of Open Streets

IMG_20130811_150411_831 IMG_20130811_144125_989 IMG_20130811_130107_888 IMG_20130811_125933_874 IMG_20130811_123612_754

Sam Newberg

About Sam Newberg

Sam Newberg, a.k.a. Joe Urban, is an urbanist, real estate consultant and writer. He lives in Minneapolis with his wife and two kids, and his website is www.joe-urban.com.

15 thoughts on “A Minnehaha Avenue for All

  1. Bill LindekeBill Lindeke

    I had the same sad realization at the end of Open Streets that things were going to go back to “normal,” i.e. an unpeople’d, loud, smelly, dangerous place devoid of life. It was like in the movie Awakenings when the people realize that their resurrection is only temporary.

  2. Sean Hayford OlearySean Hayford Oleary

    Your title is encroaching on my branding, Sam 😉

    I’ve actually been very disappointed in the Bike Coalition regarding Minnehaha. “Blindly” supporting a cycle track is exactly how I would put it. What is proposed goes against everything safe cycling teaches about how to drive a bicycle: everyone is out of sight of other vehicles, 50% of bicycles will be going against the flow of traffic, and turning maneuvers become far more erratic. The changes the Coalition have proposed (raised bicycle crosswalk treatment at intersections, less tree removal, etc) are simply lipstick on a pig.

    I would love for them to go back to the drawing board and find a way to make one-way cycletracks work. Short of that, leave it alone. It’s one of the safest bicycle routes in the Twin Cities. Why replace that with a facility taken straight out of a stroad in Apple Valley?

    1. Matt Brillhart

      Hear, hear!

      I agree with Sean that MBC has been supporting this ill-conceived sidepath out of ideology rather than practicality. However, in their defense, if they had given up we would *only* be talking about on street bike lanes right now…the conversation would essentially be over. I applaud them for challenging the County, but a 2-way sidepath is still wrong for this street.

      What was so bad about one-way cycltracks or protected lanes that they were dropped in the first place? ROW constraints? Greater parking loss?

      Don’t even get me started on the projected traffic increases…that is so incredibly frustrating. I wonder how that will play out on 66th Street planning in Richfield…

    2. Adam MillerAdam

      That’s what I was thinking. Minnehaha is already a great place to bike, with nice, wide bike lanes. Does it even need a re-design?

      I don’t bike it during rush hour, and haven’t really been on it with heavy traffic, so maybe there are times when further protections for bikers are needed, but in the afternoon or on the weekend, the existing design works great for cycling.

  3. Andrew

    I think the 2-way cycletrack on the one side of the road is weird and doesn’t feel right. I don’t see why we couldn’t just flip the existing bike lanes/parking lanes around to create a protected bike lane. Put in some bike boxes at the intersections. Viola.

  4. hokan

    Not even close to all cyclists support the cycle tracks options.

    But, it doesn’t matter any more. The public meeting will be presenting updates to the bike lane option. Cycle tracks are now off the table.

    I’m grateful for Hennepin County Public Works standing up for a safer road, and not giving in to the “but cycle tracks feel safer” crowd.

    1. Jeff Klein

      That makes two of us, hokan, and it makes this the only issue where I consistently disagree with the general position of streets.mn. I’m going to continue to list my frustrations with cycle tracks, which I really haven’t seen addressed by the writers of this blog:

      – They can’t be everywhere, which means that cyclists have to get used to using streets anyway
      – They get drivers not used to seeing bikes, and get drivers used to the idea that bikes don’t belong on the street. We need to *own* the street
      – They feel safer for someone in their first couple months of biking. After that they simply become inconvenient (for example, left turns, passing).
      – They are more expensive than bike lanes, which means for the same funding we can stripe more streets with bike lanes
      – They then need separate maintainence and plowing, which seems to always lag behind street maintainence

      1. Alex

        I disagree with you on all points (here are my disagreements sequentially):

        – Cycle tracks can be anywhere a bike lane can be, and they can be on nearly all “major” streets (i.e. the ones that we allow faster driving on)
        – Drivers need to get used to driving safely regardless of whether they see cyclists or not. People should drive safely even if there is a bike rapture tomorrow where all cyclists are magically transported to Holland or something.
        – Cycle tracks feel safer to this 13 year veteran of urban cycling. I’m stilling willing to ride on Lyndale, for example, when necessary, but I sure feel much safer on even Maisonneuve in Montreal. In my opinion left turns are less convenient in bike lanes, because most good cycle tracks offer a buffer space to wait for a gap in traffic. Passing is much more convenient in cycle tracks because you don’t have to judge the speed of a vehicle that is likely going much faster than you while you’re facing the wrong direction.
        -I don’t believe there is a significant capital cost difference when a street is fully reconstructed because cycle tracks are cheaper to build than an equivalent amount of roadway. I’ve never seen good data on this, though, so I’d welcome any you can provide even if it disproves my belief.
        -The answer to winter maintenance is to make the cycle track wide enough to fit a snow plow in.

        Regarding Minnehaha specifically, I think it’s actually a great place for a two-way cycle track because the intersecting streets to the west are almost all extremely low volume. If you add raised crossings the effect is the same as if you had half-mile segments with no intersections. And the sightlines are fine as long as you don’t jam parking up to the intersection – this could be a great learning experience for Hennepin County and Minneapolis because they tend to do this everywhere, to the detriment of biking and walking in this city.

        1. Jeff Klein

          Even if I buy that they can be on all major streets and cost no more to install when a street is completely redone, it’s still the case that it would take decades to add this new infrastructure on all major streets because streets are rarely entirely redone. We can stripe bike lanes almost any time.

          Left turns: I don’t want to come to almost a complete stop and then hump my bike out into a bike box and wait. I want to smoothly merge left and take the turn as a car would, which is simply so much faster and more convenient. And passing is a nightmare on cycle paths because they’re too narrow and you have to enter a lane of oncoming bike traffic rather than a lane of cars moving your same direction only slightly faster.

          Your comments on drivers seem to rely on how they *should* behave rather than how they *do*. In the last few years as biking has become much more common, the behavior of drivers has vastly improved. Because they *encounter bikers*.

          I’m also sure there’s a ton of money in the general fund to double the snow-plowing budget to include another pass for all the separated cycle paths. That’s the heart of the problem: rather than learning to share streets, we’re overlaying an entirely new infrastructure grid at a time we’re already drowning in maintainance costs. I’m a bleeding heart liberal and I think that sounds insanely wasteful.

          1. Alex

            I think some of our disagreement comes from the fact that we are two different types of cyclists. I’m not going to presume your preferences, but I like to ride slowly for piece of mind and because I don’t like to get sweaty. So I rarely experience circumstances where cars are going only slightly faster than me – typically they are moving at least 3x my speed. That makes it difficult for me to ascertain whether I have enough time to move into their lane, which happens often in bike lanes whether I’m behind a slower cyclist or need to avoid a car stopped in the lane. It also makes it difficult for me to make a left turn smoothly as you describe, since there is typically too many cars and not enough gaps to work my way in. Usually I find it easier to just make a two-stage turn.

            In contrast, I’ve never had to wait too long for a gap to pass another cyclist on a cycle track, even in Montreal where there are many more cyclists than in Minneapolis.

            I would like to get more info about driver behavior improving. I’ve seen the chart about crash rates staying level as the number of cyclists has increased, but that isn’t necessarily due to driver behavior being better, it could be cyclists behavior improving, or it could be that more cycling is occurring on the separated paths that have opened during that time. I have not seen a significant improvement in driver behavior since I started cycling in Minneapolis 13 years ago (or cyclist behavior for that matter).

            Regarding the cost, I don’t see how 12 feet dedicated to cycling will cost any more to plow than 12 feet dedicated to driving. The goal is to remove space from the rest of the street and dedicate to bikes.

            But yes, I certainly support bike lanes on existing streets. The thing is that they’re going to reconstruct Minnehaha regardless, so it’s the right time to discuss a cycle track there.

            1. Jeff Klein

              That’s a fair supposition, although I’m not in the top 10% of fast or agressive.

              In terms of drivers improving, that’s anecdotal, something me and people I talk to are pretty sure we’ve noticed.

              In terms of plowing, I am assuming it’s more work to plow something that’s separated rather than part of the road, especially since bike lanes take up existing road that would be plowed anyways. To me it seems like you’d need special equipment to plow a cycle path, like a separate driver in a separate machine.

              In any case, I’m not going to cry too much over any bike infrastrucure we get and in fact it’s exciting that we can even have the conversation. I’m just content with Minnehaha the way it is, and certainly it’s a mischaracterization to imply that all cyclists are on board with cycle paths.

  5. Sam NewbergSam Newberg Post author

    I’d love to hear the opinion of the Copenhagen or Amsterdam equivalent of Shaun Murphy – whose title is probably “Minister of Cycling” or something really cool.

    I have to agree with many of Alex’s counterpoints, particularly with safety. I suppose drivers may get used to not seeing cyclists if they are on a cycletrack rather than on-street bike lanes, but neither situation makes it OK to hit a bicycle, right? I think the answer is a combination of public safety campaigns and drivers education with stiffer enforceable penalties for hitting a bicycle. This seems reasonable if we truly believe bicycling is part of a long-term part of our transportation infrastructure, which I do.

    Look, the larger issue here is the mistaken impression that if cyclists get their way everyone else somehow loses. This is an unfortunate distraction from the real issue, which is if transportation planners get their way it will be easier to drive fast on Minnehaha Avenue and car traffic will increase, an outcome nobody wants.

    1. hokan

      I had a chance to talk briefly with Copenhagen’s Bike Coordinator a few years ago when he came to visit Minneapolis.

      I asked him how much difference bike infrastructure made to bike mode share. He said that he didn’t think it made any difference. The new infrastructure mostly was put in place because huge numbers of people demanded it (even at the low point in the ’70s, 25% of people in the city biked). He thought people would bike in any case.

      Of course Copenhagen is very different than Minneapolis, much more dense, motoring costs loads more, and it’s often quicker and easier to get between destinations on bike.

      1. Sam NewbergSam Newberg Post author

        That is interesting indeed! What this says to me is huge numbers of people must demand bike lanes, cycletracks, etc. From one perspective this is already happening, to others there is a lot to do. The other thing is huge numbers of people must demand more density to make biking a better option.

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