Minnehaha Avenue – Compromise, Frustration, Begrudging Acceptance (Maybe I’ll Take My Kids Fishing Instead)

minnehaha-tempHennepin County Commissioner Peter McLaughlin sent me a pointed email in response to my latest post about Minnehaha Avenue. He was frustrated that I didn’t mention the one bicycle advocate at the September 30 public meeting who spoke up, saying “these will be the best bike lanes in the city.” As well, I failed to mention lane widths will be 11 feet instead of today’s 12, and the numerous bumpouts will make crossing safer for pedestrians.

All of these things are well and good. I’m all for reducing lane widths and installing bumpouts. I’m still concerned a nice new street with left turn lanes will encourage even more car traffic. Maybe we have reached peak travel. Yes, trends are that traffic has been reduced overall since 2000 on the combined Hiawatha and Minnehaha Avenue corridor, but it has risen on Minnehaha because drivers are frustrated with Hiawatha. The the current design proposed for Minnehaha will very likely encourage more drivers to make the switch, and I don’t think it is good public policy to make it easier to drive.

As for the one bicycle advocate who said they’ll be the best bike lanes in town, he is certainly entitled to his opinion. And they may be the best lanes (this is a good topic for debate), but one other advocate felt as though we’re settling for “very good” (an on-street bike lane) when we could be getting “excellent” (a cycletrack). I can’t help but agree. I’ll also point out that many of the bicycling improvements, such as differently colored pavements and separate bike signals, are things county officials indicated they would explore but did not explicitly promise. Thus, it remains possible that the new Minnehaha Avenue will be a significant improvement for drivers but only a marginal one for cyclists. It is important that the cycling community keep up the pressure on Hennepin County to deliver on its promise to explore and then build these options.

One of the comments to the version of my post at Streets.mn indicated that while the cycling experience on Minnehaha, as currently proposed, will be an improvement, the fact that it will still be an unprotected on-street bike lane will keep it as bicycle facility primarily for the age 20 to 55 group, not 8 to 80 crowd. This is a very prescient observation. Allow me to illustrate….

The very day I posted this, my seven-year old son and I hopped on our bicycles and picked up my three-year old son at Jardin Magico, a business located on Minnehaha Avenue (Anyone wondering if cyclists actually spend money at businesses on Minnehaha? Well, I’ve dropped a lot of money at Jardin, and suggesting that I use Snelling Avenue to get there is ridiculous.). We headed down Minnehaha Avenue on our bikes for dinner at Sea Salt.

But heading down Minnehaha is a bit harrowing, and I consider myself a pretty seasoned cyclist. Since Minnehaha is a busy street, I’m not prepared to let Ellis (age 7) ride with me in the bike lane at any time, much less rush hour, so he rides on the sidewalk. No fewer than three times in the eight-block journey to Minnehaha Falls did a car coming from the west on a side street stop in the crosswalk, blocking my son from crossing the street when he had the right-of-way.

What is a parent to do? I can explain to him that he has the right-of-way to pass in front of these cars and risk being run down should the driver not see him, or swallow his pride and take the safe route and go behind. Even when it was clear, I had to kind of block the intersection with my bike and Burley and watch drivers’ eyes to see that they saw both him and me. Don’t get me wrong, on many days drivers who pull in to a crosswalk while my son and I approach on bicycle indeed back up and let us pass – courteous drivers exist – but not on this day.

As for me, I could see cars up the street in heavy traffic cheating over in to the bike lane, making me all the more aware of how our two bicycle and trailer would fare against any of those vehicles. Will I ride that route again? Hell yes; life is too short to not ride bikes on a 65 degree day in October! (And the fish at Sea Salt was excellent as always!) Should I have packed it in and just driven the car instead? It would have been easier. Will I recommend it to my peers? Not necessarily. And that is where the problem lies.

I’m trying to raise my kids in the city with a sense that they are entitled, as children, to get around by their own power as citizens. These kids spend enough time already strapped to their goddamn booster seats and car seats, I want them to know the world is bigger than the back seat of a mini-minivan (Mazda 5). Plus, kids need the exercise. I can’t help but think the message conveyed to them at rush hour along Minnehaha is they are second class. My seven year old should be able to ride on a cycletrack – he does after all, they are called bike paths along our parkways and around our lakes. So yes, this is about my children (“will someone please think of the children!!??” – Helen Lovejoy, The Simpsons), but it is about more people of all ages feeling like they have a place in Minneapolis when they aren’t driving. The current approved plan for Minnehaha Avenue falls short on this.

I understand the need to compromise. I’ve been on the Standish-Ericsson Neighborhood Association board for nine years – I compromise all the time! Besides, where else can we live in this country where I get to raise my kid in an urban environment with good schools, transit access, parks and pretty damn good bicycling? Not many, but I’m sure they are out there. It doesn’t mean I need to be happy about the plan for Minnehaha Avenue. After all, in three years the street reconstruction is scheduled to be complete, meaning my kids will be 10 and six years old. So no, they will not yet be able to cycle on Minnehaha, and I doubt many other parents will allow their kids to do so either, and that is really too bad.

Commissioner McLaughlin may have a point, this might be the best bike lane in the city (for a while, if it is), and yes it will have narrower drive lanes and bumpouts. But I’m disappointed because so much potential for Minnehaha Avenue is being left on the table. We have to stop settling for “good” when we need to be building “excellent.” I won’t let my kids ride on the new Minnehaha Avenue. Would you? But I’m just one guy. I’ll check back in 2030, and if vehicle traffic has increased and bicycle traffic hasn’t more than quadrupled, we can count Minnehaha Avenue as a failure. In the meantime, I may just buy a boat, go fishing and take my mind off all this.

This was crossposted at Joe Urban.

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.

10 thoughts on “Minnehaha Avenue – Compromise, Frustration, Begrudging Acceptance (Maybe I’ll Take My Kids Fishing Instead)

  1. Sean Hayford OlearySean Hayford Oleary

    I find your example of a car blocking your son’s travel on the sidewalk rather compelling for exactly the opposite side. This is a perfect example of the sort of thing that happens with off-street facilities, that doesn’t happen with on-street facilities. This sort of annoyance — and the associated safety choice — would have been a huge burden if the two-way cycle track were built.

    Hennepin County will come ’round to cycle tracks — almost certainly on Washington Avenue and possibly on 66th Street. But a two-way cycle track is simply too dangerous on a two-way urban street. Minnehaha’s unusual alignment, and the fact that it has a very successful on-street facility now, makes it an unappealing place to “reinvent the wheel[s].”

    1. Scott ShafferScott

      Do you think we have to accept drivers forever inching into crosswalks? I think the new paint at Lyndale and Franklin shows how an inexpensive treatment can fix motorists’ problem behavior.

    2. Matt B

      I was initially of the same opinion that a two-way sidepath (hesitant to call it a cycle track) was the right choice for M’haha…until I actually rode it a few times. I could see how a two-way sidepath could be the better option, given the infrequent major crossings to the west because of Hwy. 55 cutting off access. As long as the intersections with 35th, 38th, 42nd, and 46th were all carefully designed to be safe, I think it would be ok…the rest of the cross streets have minimal traffic going west of M’haha.

      1. Matt B

        I initially thought the 2-way sidepath *wasn’t* the right choice, until I actually rode Minnehaha a few times. I now see how the sidepath option could be viable.

        Damn typo really muddled what I was trying to say.

    3. Sam RockwellSam

      There is an easy solution to the car-in-the-crosswalk (or cycle track) problem: eliminate right-on-red turns. While this solution is not perfect — cars will take illegal right-on-red turns and some will stop in the crosswalk for the duration of the light — it would be an improvement. I do not remember having to regularly dodge cars in my daily cycle track commute in NYC, where right-on-red turns are illegal citywide.

      1. Sean Hayford OlearySean Hayford Oleary

        I agree, this resolves the problem at signalized intersections. (Assuming the motorist noticed the NTOR side before stopping; we have an annoying problem in Richfield of motorists blocking the Nine Mile Creek Trail on 76th St and 35W by completely blocking the crosswalk and then taking note of the NTOR sign and staying parked there until a green).

        But even with NTOR, it doesn’t resolve the problem at unsignalized intersections, of which there are several on Minnehaha. When a stop sign is used, creeping out is almost inevitable with traditional urban sightlines.

        (In New York City, as in downtown Minneapolis, there are relatively few stop-controlled intersections.)

  2. Scott ShafferScott

    Thanks, Sam. I don’t have kids yet, but I can’t imagine how stressful it is to bring young humans down this street on bikes. Last week I was riding down Minnehaha and guy in a parked car opened his door right in my path. I narrowly avoided crashing my bike.

    I hope Commissioner McLaughlin can enlighten me as to why cyclists on Minnehaha need to keep getting doored for the next 55 years.

  3. Joe

    Sam, thanks for writing this! As a new parent, I find this decision incredibly disappointing. I have heard 2 reasons for why the cycletrack didn’t happen, and both are unsatisfying. One, is that the engineers worked for 2 years on the redesign with no intention of having a cycletrack. When the community started demanding a cycletrack, they felt compelled to present it as a false option, but had no intention of going back to the drawing board. The other reason is that 4 Hennepin county commissioners were categorically against the idea of not prioritizing cars. In any case, this is a wasted opportunity. There are too many reasons to count to prioritize bicycling over driving (health, healthcare costs, air quality, road durability, not supporting oil companies…) but I could not believe that at the meetings, climate change was not even mentioned once. It seems we live in some sort of bubble where this is not a real concern for our leaders. Speaking of children and the future, this is a salient concern. You are right, we have to keep up the pressure, but I can’t imagine major change until the perspective of the engineers and leadership is transformed. More than likely, in most cases, this will require simply changing the personnel because while I am sure everyone is well intentioned, their perspective seems to be strongly entrenched. We should not only rely on engineers but should also have designers on the team that can not only ensure better aesthetics, but actually push the boundary for what is possible.

  4. Alex

    Good post, Sam. Too bad it will take flatlining cycling rates to convince some policymakers and advocates that cycle tracks will be needed to *increase* cycling. Seems to me that the people who are willing to bike in lanes or on the street are already doing so.

    Here is a question that’s a bit tangential to your post: were the bicycle signals mentioned in conjunction with a leading green for bikes? Because if not, I don’t see the point. Further, I’d prefer bike boxes as a way to get bikes ahead of cars when the facility is an on-street lane since they’re much cheaper than signals.

    1. Sam NewbergSam Newberg Post author

      Alex, I think both bike signals and leading greens, as well as bike boxes. The latter two I forgot to mention. All would be welcome, and we need to keep the pressure on the County to ensure they are included.

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