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.

11 thoughts on “Getting the most bike for your buck

  1. Marcus

    You sort of mention it, but feel the biggest benefit of cycle tracks is that it provides a safe place for children to ride. The coolest thing about Open Streets to me was to see all the kids on bikes. It’s sad to see once the street is back to normal that all the kids and their bikes are gone, like a black cloud comes over or winter comes back. Watching clips on Amsterdam or Copenhagen and their cycle tracks I am again amazed to see all the kids (even *little* kids) riding along like it’s nothing.

    I sound like the stereotypical “please think of the children”. The thing is though is that kids that bike are probably more likely to be adults that bike and adults that teach their kids how to bike.

  2. helsinki

    I appreciate the “cycle track pavement is cheaper to build and less expensive to maintain than a paved lane for cars” argument. This doesn’t get mentioned enough.

    1. Jeff Klein

      I appreciated the citation on that. Certainly I’ve voiced my skepticism, and I feel like that fact is at the very least unintuitive, but it’s worth consideration.

  3. hokan

    I’ve been on that Missoula bike lane you mention and it’s horrible. Often filled with pedestrians and occasional sidewalk furniture, and, worst of all, dumps you out into the street at every intersection … where motorists are often surprised to see you because they couldn’t see you moments earlier.

    1. Jeff Klein

      You know, I notice in that picture it actually looks like the trees are overgrowing the path. I couldn’t imagine trying to pass on that thing. It’s meandering and curvy and clearly isn’t meant to actually get you somewhere. It underscores society’s view of bikes as children’s toys rather than actual transportation.

      The constant appeals for protected bike lanes by the crew has began to wear me down. In particular this article makes a couple good points: if they’re truly not more expensive and they truly increase mode share, that’s appealing stuff.

      But the devil is still in the details. Once you start overlaying a separate grid for bikes, you are now responsible for getting every intersection and signal right, not to mention separate plowing and maintenance. And you’re responsible for convincing the public that they’re for bike commuters trying to get somewhere, and not for dog walkers and skate boarders and tricycles and who knows what else.

      I still think there are issues that skeptics bring up on every one of these articles that don’t really get addressed. And I’d still rather see every street striped and then work from there. But I suppose I’m grudgingly open to the things on a case-by-case basis.

      1. Scott ShafferScott

        Thanks for reading. Sorry I didn’t get to address all the counter-arguments in this post — sometimes you have to choose between being exhaustive and being focused, and I find the former exhausting. So I tried to focus on the arguments I hear the most often (the perceived cost).

        You’re right that intersections would require special attention and new (at least in Minnesota) treatments. But other cities have done some trial and error for us, and I don’t hold our engineers in such low esteem that I think they’re incapable of making it work.

        I’m worried that my post came off as single-minded. Protected bike lanes are only one part of a broader solution to make life in the city more efficient and healthy. We waste money and induce driving with subsidized parking, our tax structure doesn’t encourage land-owners to put their land to the highest use, and our finance regulations make it hard to build dense, mixed-use development. If development were denser and parkers were charged the real cost of car storage, urban cycling would be a lot more attractive.

        1. Jeff Klein

          Well, certainly we can all agree on your last paragraph. And I agree that it probably could work.

          I still kinda pine for a simpler, more elegant vision than this though. For example, this video that was just retweeted by @Streets.MN: It’s the German town that got rid of traffic signals and emphatically gave pedestrians, bikes, and cars equal access to the road. In one fell swoop they made everyone happy without new infrastructure. And the whole thing seems way more “Jane Jacobs” to me, with the slow traffic and shared streets, than an elaborate three tiered system with separate networks and signals for all three types of users.

          I am trying to become more sympathetic to those who find riding near traffic unappealing. But I do want to point out that riding near or in traffic gets much less intimidating when there’s less of it and it moves slower, which should be the big prizes anyway.

          Perhaps, though, this isn’t realistic; after all, this is a relatively small, very dense and very old city.

  4. Jeremy B

    Three things:

    1) Great post.

    2) The Strib just ran an editorial endorsing a protected bike lane on Washington Avenue between the North Loop and I-35 (and possibly farther to Seven Corners?). People who care about this ought to contact their Hennepin Cty commissioners and let them know that a protected bike lane on Washington should be approved. Apparently, the county commission might not have the votes for this.

    3) Beyond all the off-street infrastructure which makes cycling feel safer and more enjoyable, how about future Mayor Hodges order the Minneapolis Police Department to ticket people for the rampant speeding that makes cycling on city streets (including bike lanes and bike boulevards) a harrowing experience. This Atlantic Cities post makes the same point for NYC:

    1. Scott ShafferScott

      Thanks! I would love a crackdown on speeders, right-hookers, people who take rights on red where it’s prohibited. And anyone who blocks a crosswalk or a sidewalk with their car. Maybe the infrastructure needs to be fixed, but that doesn’t mean we can’t adjust behavior in the meantime.

      And anyone who’s interested in promoting this type of bike infrastructure can get involved with the Minneapolis Bicycle Coalition to learn/do more:

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