Protected bikeway in Boulder, CO

Getting the most bike for your buck

This is in response to Kevin Krizek’s recent post, “Diminishing returns of off-street bicycle facilities,” in which he warns Minneapolis against building bike infrastructure that is expensive and ineffective. I share his sentiment, but we disagree on what bike advocates want, and on which measures are the most cost-effective. In this post, I want to make three things clear: first, the preferred projects of Minneapolis cycling advocates, second, the costs of these projects, and third, the benefits of these projects.

what cyclists want

Coming soon to a community meeting near you.

What Minneapolis cycling advocates want

Contrary to Krizek’s claims, I’ve never heard anyone say “that off-street paths are necessary to connect every nook and cranny of a city,” and I don’t know of any campaigns to build “a complete off-street cycling network to every address in a city.” And I’ve been to a lot of Minneapolis Bicycle Advisory Committee (BAC) Meetings. If these statements aren’t hyperbole, then they’re just plain false.

The Minneapolis Bicycle Coalition, the BAC, City Council, and Mayor-Elect Hodges* all have the same goal regarding bike infrastructure: 30 new miles of protected bikeways in Minneapolis by 2020. A protected bikeway is defined as any dedicated bike facility (not a mixed-use path) that is protected — by parked cars, a curb, or those dinky plastic sticks on First Avenue — from motorized traffic. Protected bikeways don’t have to be off-street, and they don’t always require more space or funds than unprotected bike lanes.

The (negligible) cost of protected bikeways

I really want to hammer home that last point about cost. In public works, timing is everything. Bill Lindeke correctly stated the Coalition’s strategy for improving the city’s infrastructure: “The Minneapolis Bicycle Coalition isn’t asking for large expensive projects. They’re waiting for the city to reconstruct a street, and pushing for changes at moments when they’ll be practically free.” According to Hennepin County engineers, reconstructing a street (that they planned to reconstruct anyway) and adding raised, curb-protected bike lane costs about the same as reconstructing a street with an unprotected bike lane. Bike-specific traffic signals for the first option might cost a bit more, but the protected bike lanes offer other cost savings. For example, it costs less to build a bike lane when it doesn’t have to support the weight of a semi truck. A healthy skepticism of expensive projects is wise. But opposing high-quality facilities, when they cost the same as low-quality facilities, isn’t frugal. It’s foolish.


Protected bikeway in Boulder, CO

Doesn’t this look nice?

The benefit of protected bikeways

OK, so the costs of protected bikeways are insignificant. But that’s only half of the analysis. What are the benefits?

There are three big ones. Protected bikeways are safer, they attract more riders, and they spur economic development. It’s not just wacky bike activists in Canada and Portland who are convinced, either. The National Association of City Planning Officials (NACTO) promotes protected bike lanes (sometimes called “cycle tracks”) in its Urban Bikeway Design Guide, and the august Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) recently issued a memo encouraging city engineers to implement NACTO’s treatments. At the end of that FHWA memo, they append a pretty picture of a protected bike lane in Missoula, MT.

If you’re a cyclist who is comfortable riding with just a stripe of paint (or nothing at all) separating you from motorized traffic, you can ride around Minneapolis pretty easily. You can get to and from downtown via Fremont, Emerson, Lasalle, 1st, Park, and Portland. But many people would prefer to have some physical protection from cars and trucks for most of their journey. I’ve heard these types of people referred to as timid, meek, afraid, scared, and inexperienced. I prefer to call them “ordinary.” Ordinary people are relegated to cycling by rivers, lakes, and a pretty narrow strip of South Minneapolis. Marginal expansions of this protected bikeway network would have huge returns in terms of the number of ordinary Minneapolitans who would feel free to make trips by bike.

In Davis, Chicago, Portland, Montreal, and other North American cities, protected bikeways have been shown to increase bike mode share in a way that unprotected bike lanes don’t. So if the city’s goal is to reduce vehicle-miles traveled by making other forms of transportation more attractive (and it is), then the wisest and most prudent use of funds is to build protected bikeways during reconstruction projects of major streets, and making sure to connect these facilities to the larger network. That’s how Minneapolis can get the most bike for its buck.

* …and the Alliance for Metropolitan Stability, and the Bicycle Alliance of Minnesota, and Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Minnesota, and Nice Ride MN, and the Seward Neighborhood Group, and Spokes, and the Sierra Club, and Twin Cities Greenways…

Photo of Boulder, CO’s protected bike lane by flickr user Zolk.

Scott Shaffer

About Scott Shaffer

Scott Shaffer works for a nonprofit community development corporation in Minneapolis. He has a master's degree in urban and regional planning from the University of Minnesota. He and his wife live in the Powderhorn Park neighborhood with their daughter and two Siamese cats.