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.