The Case of the Erased Bike Lane

The streets will speak to us, if we stop and listen.

For example, Bill looked at the snowbanks that accumulate in our streets, and came up with some lessons we can learn from them. These seasonal curb extensions are called “sneckdowns” by street scholars, and they cover the parts of our streets that cars don’t use in the winter. The idea is that if we replicated them with concrete, we would have calmer, more pedestrian-friendly streets that would still be navigable for motorists.

Of course, winter isn’t the only time we can find evidence of traffic patterns by looking at the street. Behold the erased bike lane:

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That last photo is right outside the Minneapolis Bicycle Coalition’s office, poignantly enough. These bike lanes have been erased by cars driving over them. The paint has been worn away.

It’s not just the bare pavement that’s the problem. It’s the etiology of the faded paint that destroys the bike lane. (Etiology means the study of causes. Where there’s smoke, there’s fire, essentially.) A bike facility with faded paint can still function. The paint has faded on park trails and the Midtown Greenway, but these bike facilities still work great. What I’m talking about it when the paint is worn away by a torrent of car tires, which not only removes the paint, but more importantly it weakens the belief that the pavement is dedicated to bicyclists. The street is saying, “Cars drive here. This is not a dedicated space for bikes. Ceci n’est pas une bike lane.

A bike lane isn’t just a physical thing — it’s a social construct. Like money, it only matters because we all act like it does. Bike lanes serve their purpose if and only if street-users agree that these striped strips of pavement are dedicated for people on bicycles. Not for parking, not for snow storage, not for walking, not for corner-cutting cars, but for bikes. The fading of the paint, and the cause of the fading, erodes this foundation. It erases confidence in the bike lane, not just the paint.

So what can we do to protect the function of bike lanes, when they’re erased by motorists? Simply replacing the paint won’t replenish the confidence. We could curb bike-lane driving with curbs. Drivers respect concrete curbs more than they respect painted lines. I’ve seen people drive their cars on sidewalks before, but it’s a rare enough occurrence that it doesn’t pose a real threat.

I’m looking forward to the protected bike lanes that are scheduled to be built on Washington Avenue in the next year or two. I got into a Twitter tiff with an unsuccessful mayor candidate last year about the reconstruction, and he asked why the bike lanes on Second or Third avenues weren’t sufficient. I replied by saying something about access, and that there are a lot more destinations on Washington than there are on Second or Third. What I didn’t mention is that the Second Avenue bike lanes are often occupied by commercial trucks and people parallel or double-parking. These things don’t happen on well-designed protected bike lanes.

If you agree that we need better bikeways, check out Bikeways for Everyone, which is a campaign working to build a network of protected bikeways in Minneapolis. It’s a broad coalition of public health advocates, social justice activists, environmentalists, local businesses, neighborhood associations, and even a car-sharing company. There are many different ways to support the campaign. I wrote more about the benefits of protected bike lanes last fall. Let’s stop the erasure of bike lanes by making them permanent and protected.

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.

46 thoughts on “The Case of the Erased Bike Lane

  1. Matt SteeleMatt Steele

    The bike lanes along 42nd Street (Hennepin County Road 42) have never been repainted. It’s shameful. Sam Newberg and I were talking about this stretch at the Mpls Bike Coalition event last night.

  2. Matt SteeleMatt Steele

    It looks like all these examples have one thing in common: These Minneapolis streets are actually Hennepin County “roads.”

    Hennepin County does not seem to maintain their urban lane striping. Maybe they should outsource that to Minneapolis just like they do with stoplights. Or maybe the local urbanist community can crowdsource a lane striping rig.

      1. Matt SteeleMatt Steele

        County stripes them, at least according to county transportation department officials and one of their lane striping workers (with whom Sean Hayford Oleary and I talked for the better part of an hour).

  3. Walker AngellWalker Angell

    Scott, great post. REALLY glad to see Bikeways For Everyone getting off the ground. An organization like this has been sorely needed in MN for a long time.

  4. Kassie

    One of the bike lanes I bike on is not marked as a bike lane anywhere (except on a map) which basically makes it not a bike lane but a large shoulder. The other bike lane I often bike on is also not marked, but also is driven on so much there are places where the lane isn’t marked as a lane at all, so also basically not a bike lane. Past the place I pull off, the first one also allows parking in the bike lane, making it super not useful.

  5. Sean Hayford OlearySean Hayford Oleary

    One tiny niggle: a bike lane is a place for “corner-cutting cars”. Cars are required to and should merge into bike lanes prior to turning right (or left off a one-way). By necessity, this will wear away paint on the approach to intersections.

    1. Matt SteeleMatt Steele

      I think they mean corners on curving streets, such as Park/Portland. Motorists use bike lanes to expand their turning radius through the curve.

    2. Scott ShafferScott Shaffer Post author

      Matt’s right, I was talking about curving streets (like Oak Grove/15th Street), and not corners at intersections.

      At intersections, I wish wish WISH right-turning cars would move into the bike lane to be flush with the curb. That would make right hooks much less common.

      1. Joe Ede

        Can the city or does the city have a bike lane, bike signage maintence program that checks these bike areas annually for up keep etc? If not – how can we help to form such an alliance?

  6. Janne

    Scott, thanks for the bit about the “social construct.” Personally, I also think of it as a “social contract.”

    The blatant disregard for what I think should be an important and respected social contract is why I feel so irate when every day as I bike into work, there’s a school bus double-parked in “my” bike lane, or why I am so saddened by Downtown East construction crews removing lanes without warning for three days, and then putting them back and removing other lanes for three more days. As a person who rides a bike, the consistent disrespect for the “contract” makes me feel less inclined to respect social contracts that were designed for someone else (i.e. street lights, stop signs, parking lots). I try to not give into those feelings and disrespect other social contracts, but it’s hard.

    1. Scott ShafferScott Shaffer Post author

      I’m trying to come up with analogies to let motorists understand what it’s like to have their dedicated space regularly invaded by larger vehicles. Maybe if they had to merge with several big tractors on their way to work? Maybe if there were a lot of tanks on 35W? Maybe if airplanes regularly used 94 as a landing strip?

      1. Janne

        I love the idea of regularly shutting down 94 without warning for use as overflow airplane storage as an analogy. Or letting random businesses on major streets store stuff in the middle of the driving lanes for indefinite periods without any notification or process (Hennepin? University?). Part of it is the lack of alternative routes, part of it is the lack of notification, part of it is the frequency, pat of it is the total obliviousness of everyone to the fact that it’s not OK.

        This morning, a school bus, a postal carrier vehicle, and a mini-van were all double-parked in my four-blocks of bike lane. During rush hour, downtown.

      2. Matt SteeleMatt Steele

        Yet have you ever noticed the alarm and effort to sign a detour that goes into closures for roadways for cars? Shut down a small section of the Crosstown on a weekend for bridge deck repair, or overnight Lowry Tunnel closures for maintenance, and they sprinkle the metro with notice signs and detours. We could probably fund Bikeways for Everyone if we stopped worrying about short-term inconveniences to motorists so much.

  7. Froggie

    Some of the wear is also the result of winter snowplowing.

    It all boils down to regular line repainting and the priority of such. What I’m gathering from these photos is that it hasn’t been a high priority for the city yet. In the town I live in, for example, they just today got around to repainting several crosswalks (though to be fair, they still have yet to repaint the yellow centerlines on the 6 roads in town that are actually paved).

    Of note, in one of those article photos, one can barely see the centerline either.

    1. Scott ShafferScott Shaffer Post author

      You make a fair point about Oak Grove/15th Street (the first two photos). The center line is also a casualty of careering cars (on straight segments, the lane lines are intact).

      I’ve heard people blame erased bike lane lines on snowplows before. I’d believe it if I saw bike lanes that were plowed in the winter.

  8. Sean Ryan

    We are lucky to get any lines repainted before fall in Minneapolis. Cheap paint barely lasts a winter. As for photos # 1 & 2, the odd lane changes on Vineland/ W15th have led to weaving and confusion, exacerbated by the complete lack of road striping since the first paint was worn away, coupled with a wide & curving road surface.

  9. Matty LangMatty Lang

    I remember that unsuccessful mayoral candidate. I still see him every once in a while in Strib articles complaining about multi-modal investments.

  10. Nicole

    I recently did a 311 complaint about the lack of paint on the bike lane on 54th St. The response was closed with the note that “all bike lanes are repainted once per year on a set schedule”. Except… it’s now July, and I haven’t seen a single bike line with fresh paint anywhere in South Minneapolis!

    Also, I didn’t even know that 42nd was supposed to have a bike lane, except for that little stretch between Nokomis and Hiawatha…

    In addition, it seems like every time we run into a wall about improving bike infrastructure, that wall is called “Hennepin County”. Why is Minneapolis not in charge of it’s own streets (not that the city is doing such a rock star job either, but at least there’s some political will there…)!?! It makes me crazy.

    1. Matt SteeleMatt Steele

      Absolutely correct. We need to be in charge of our own streets. A few (of many) things that would help in this regard:

      1. Turn back streets to the local level. There’s precedent for this: Many Mpls streets were once state highways, turned back to the county (Lyndale, Lake, Hennepin, Broadway, etc.) Rochester has a recent example of this: The U.S. 63 designation was recently routed along Hwy 52 around town so that Broadway through the heart of Rochester could be de-stroaded under local control.

      2. Eliminate state aid design standards from state law. We’re the only state in the country that forces rural highway design standards onto urban streets by statute, and the results are awful.

      3. In the meantime, get some people on the Hennepin County board that aren’t stuck in the 80s.

      1. Froggie

        I know you’ve often harped #2, but probably easier than trying to get the Legislature to change the law would be to take advantage of the loophole within the law that allows lower standards than published in urban areas if the engineers sign off on it.

  11. Cameron ConwayCameron Conway

    Great article, Scott! I love the talk of all the psychology behind this, which absolutely applies to crosswalks as well. Nothing breeds antagonism and misunderstanding between transportation modes than a completely inconsistent guide for using the street. I agree that nothing does a better job than physical lane separation, even if only a small curb. For crosswalks, we really need to revise which intersections get painted. Most of our urban centers are pretty embarrassingly underserved compared to similar cities.

    Until we can consistently budget out the capital cost of physical delineators for the majority of bicycle facilities, I’d really love to see the city start to use thermoplastic paint as the default for crosswalks and bike lanes. It costs about five times as much but also tends to last 5-7 years. Worth it, in my opinion.

    1. Scott ShafferScott Shaffer Post author

      Thanks! Ugh, don’t get me started on crosswalks, marked or unmarked. I think MNDoT should run a “Don’t be a creep!” street safety campaign where they discourage drivers from creeping into crosswalks. Definitely another space that drivers give no respect.

      At least here in MN. I was flabbergasted by drivers in Seattle and Portland who actually obeyed the law and yielded to pedestrians in unmarked crosswalks.

      1. Nicole

        Don’t get me started on crosswalks! I regularly cross at Keewaydin Place and 34th Ave S (by Town Hall Lanes) and will literally be standing in the street and cars don’t stop nine times out of ten. Newsflash: Just because it’s a 3-way intersection instead of a four doesn’t mean it’s not a crossing folks!

        I’ve asked for some sort of pedestrian markings there to no avail.

      2. Michelle F

        In Oregon, it’s the law that you must allow a pedestrian to fully cross the intersection before entering it – I think this increases drivers’ respect for them, since they are not edging in waiting for the pedestrian to get out of their way.

        1. Cameron ConwayCameron Conway

          As far as I know, the law is the same here unfortunately. What causes Oregonians to actually obey that law has to be some sort of cultural difference, I assume.

      3. Rosa

        do you remember “don’t block the box?”

        I would rather see some ticketing & enforcement. It would have more effect, for sure.

  12. Michelle F

    I’m not sure this was the intent, but it got me thinking of an “in between” solution to bike lanes vs. protected bikeways in the common sense — a “speedbump” style barrier that kept cars from creeping in, but that they could cross to park, and that bikes could easily come out of to take the lane or merge into left-turning traffic… is anyone proposing barriers like this? I feel like it would make more people a lot happier than the more common suggestions…

        1. Scott ShafferScott Shaffer Post author

          Thanks! It’s fun to count the ways that DC has messed up protected bike lanes. Down the center of the street? With little plastic bumps 15 feet apart? It’s just silly.

      1. Matt SteeleMatt Steele

        Here you go: **Armadillos are not found in the MUTCD. Not Allowed.**

        They are awesome, and we need things that are “not allowed.”

        1. Froggie

          There’s quite a bit that exists out in the field that isn’t in the MUTCD, and FHWA knows it. Just a matter of getting FHWA to sign off on experimentation/testing…which is how a lot of now-accepted bicycle marking/infrastructure got started.

      2. Walker AngellWalker Angell

        There have been a number of issues with them. Tops is that they’re simply not durable and replacement has proven expensive. And that’s in places without snow plows. From a safety standpoint they help, but not nearly as much as a curb or line of parked cars. I think drivers view them as not much more than a pebble or speed bump so aren’t as cautious as they are around things that cause damage and clearly say ‘don’t go here’ like curbs or parked cars.

        They’re limited in how much they help subjective safety so they’re good for people on the bubble between bold and enthusiastic but not so good for the other 90% of the population. They also do not prevent debris from being thrown in to the bicycle lane by faster motor traffic.

  13. Jeremy Werst

    On the one in front of the coalition’s office, isn’t that actually quite new and originally the thermoplastic stuff? Everyone keeps touting that as the way forward to get around the paint fading every year, but from what I’ve seen it gets pulled up by plows (yes, some are plowed in the winter, and that is one of them) because they don’t recess them. When they started using it a few years ago, they milled before putting them in so they were below the level of the road. I’m not sure why they stopped that…

    1. Froggie

      Thermoplast markings are often used in the South, but they are a horrible idea for northern climates for the exact reason you mention: they get scraped up by the snowplows.

  14. Cameron ConwayCameron Conway

    If anyone is in need of a well-striped bike lane pick me up, the U of M just restriped all the lanes on the West Bank and on the Washington Ave Bridge! Delightfully fresh and bold.

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