Eyeing two unintended outcomes of the bicycle facilities arms race

bryant ave look west

Photo from Kevin J. Krizek

In less than a decade, the Minneapolis Midtown Greenway (Minnesota) has quickly risen to one of America’s most beloved darlings of a bike path[1]. Similarly, the short stretch of the Cedar Lake Trail to the Twins Stadium provides much needed closure over an important stretch for cyclists in downtown Minneapolis. Both are critical assets for a city nationally renown for its bicycle network. Both stretches are heavily used and dearly cherished (at least by cyclists). Both are astonishingly expensive. The former cost $1.6 million per mile; the later pushed more than $10 million for less than one mile.

Minneapolis is not alone in spending these lavish costs. The San Fernando Road Bike Path in Los Angeles was $2.3 million/mile. Planners continue to analyze a bike path in the BNSF eastside corridor (suburban Seattle, WA) that will likely come in at $10 million/mile. Boulder (Colorado) just spent $7.4 million for a new pedestrian and pedestrian underpass that spans less than width of a football field. Ironically, these costs are staggering to spend on facilities that advance a mode—cycling—whose strongest argument, historically, has its inexpensive and cost-efficient qualities.

Such costs are easier to swallow when someone else’s dollars are expended[2]. The facilities that result, generally speaking, close problematic gaps in a city’s system. In other instances, they provide much needed safety and solace for the young or inexperienced rider. Parents quickly point to off-streets paths as perfect venues for teaching their children how to ride a bike. These traffic-shielded facilities help entice new adult riders or less confident ones. A good off-street bicycle system provides a strong and much needed skeleton for the success of a city’s bicycle network. I’ll go head to head with any advocate of vehicular cycling[3] to point out the (usual) myriad benefits of a strong backbone.

Financials aside, I wonder if the degree to which bike facilities which go overboard are indicative of an arms race taken too far. They carry some unintended outcomes because they help set a tenuous precedent. Fully acknowledging all its glory, the Midtown Greenway set a new standard that will be hard to replicate elsewhere. The on-ramps are reminiscent of highway interchanges, carefully sloped and meticulously banked; travel lanes are wide enough for two semi-trucks travelling in opposite directions; the landscaping is lavish. The $5 million, cable-stayed Sabo bridge across Hiawatha is artwork unto itself. To help advance cycling, it is hard to argue with the Greenway’s grandeur. One of the reasons I bought my first home in the Seward neighborhood of Minneapolis was the appreciation potential that I anticipated from the home’s proximity to the Greenway. Celebrating elements of bicycling travel is healthy. And so is the competition on-going among communities nationwide, to become more bicycle-friendly.

However, cities are quick to point out the extraordinary elements of their construction—not only how they matched their peers but surpassed them. I speculate we will soon witness an up and coming city spending all their marbles, for instance, on a single intersection treatment. They will feel compelled to trump the Sabo bridge in its grandeur. This is problematic. High quality off-street trail features take valuable resources away from other smaller projects. The sheer costs of such keystone projects prevent their widespread application. They might require countless staff or lobbyist hours to procure funds. I wonder if they run the risk of reeking havoc on a healthy “arms race” that is occurring between cities.

But more concretely (pun intended), these “trophied” facilities create expectations among users (cyclists) that cannot be met everywhere in a city. Unless these facilities are always grade separated (which is unrealistic), they create conflict points with vehicular crossings. Repeated studies suggest that cyclists obtain a degree of inattentiveness while traveling along off-street paths that stop them from paying attention to auto traffic that may be present at crossings[4].

The corridors these facilities traverse rarely connect to key destinations for utilitarian cycling such as employment or commercial centers. Even if they do connect key corridors, users are still required to negotiate city streets to reach their final destination. Most trips—by car or bike—are analogous to a sturdy Minnesota oak: roots splaying out in one direction and branches and leaves in the other. The trunk portion of the trip may be along an arterial or some central facility. On either end of the trunk portion the traveler usually navigates city streets to arrive where they want to go. These city streets involve bikes mixing with traffic, traversing intersections and mingling with parked cars; the 20 year future looks like this will not change.

For cycling to meet the masses requires the masses to be somewhat prepared for traffic, intersections, and parked cars. These interactions could further serve as an impenetrable barrier to cycling for those lacking the experience or skills for such riding. Complex situations demand complex solutions and developing cyclists’ confidence to negotiate these areas is key to transforming cities. Adjusting user expectations is a big part of that. I suspect some cyclists appreciate the solace of facilities so much that they are considerably less content with other types of provisions—possibly to the point of being dissatisfied with anything less than bike-only highways. This creates an inadvertent barrier to mass cycling.

Cities should leverage resources for bike only facilities—but in a cost-effective manner that does not obsess of their qualities and aim to seamlessly mesh with the larger on-street system of which they are a part.

[1] USA Today describes the top 12 bike paths in America here: http://www.usatoday.com/story/travel/destinations/2013/07/23/best-urban-bike-paths-across-the-usa/2576801/

[2] Healthy portions of the costs of both of the Minneapolis projects were made available largely via pork barrel politics or via the recent stimulus package.

[3] Vehicular cycling generally refers to the practice of riding bicycles on roads in a manner that is in accordance with the principles driving cars in traffic. Proponents of this “movement” usually discourage separate treatments for cyclists and the sort.

[4] Krizek, Kevin J., Ann Forsyth, and Laura Baum. 2009. Walking and Cycling International Literature Review. Melbourne: Victorian Department of Transport. http://www.transport.vic.gov.au/__data/assets/pdf_file/0004/31369/WalkingCyclingLiteratureReview.pdf.


Kevin Krizek

About Kevin Krizek

Kevin J. Krizek is Transport Professor, Programs of Environmental Design and Environmental Studies at the University of Colorado Boulder. He was a 2013 fellow of the Leopold Leadership Program and received a 2013 U.S.-Italy Fulbright Scholarship to the University of Bologna (Italy). He is currently a visiting professor of "Cycling in Changing Urban Regions" in the School of Management Science at Radboud University in the Netherlands. Kevin blogs at Vehicle for a Small Planet and can be found @KevinJKrizek . Prior to moving to Colorado, he lived in Minneapolis and St. Paul and was an Associate Professor at the Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs at the University of Minnesota.