A Kid, Some Bottles, and an Engineer On a Bike

By U.S. standards we have fairly good pedestrian and bicycle infrastructure around the Twin Cities. For many years Minneapolis was ranked number two in the nation and quite proud of it. In 2011 we even jumped up to number one briefly.

How times change. We were back to our comfortable number two in 2012, the League of American Bicyclists has dropped Minnesota to number four among U.S. states, and folks from Portland (not even in the top 50 bicycle cities in the world) are, rightly, criticizing our bicycle infrastructure in relation to theirs.

For a metro and state that prides itself on our top rankings we may have a rocky road ahead. Indianapolis, New York City, Chicago, Washington DC, Seattle, Tucson, Memphis, Austin TX, and others aren’t nipping at our heals, they’re getting ready to jump past us and leave us in their dust. It’s not inconceivable that we could quickly fall out of the U.S. top ten. Ouch.

We need a kid, some bottles, and an engineer on a bike.

A Kid

One of the most effective ways I’ve found to communicate to someone what makes for good bicycling infrastructure is that it should be good enough for their 8-year-old to ride to any destination two miles away—alone. And, do it with some friends. And, we should never worry because we know that they’ll be safe.

children riding bicycles in netherlands

Infrastructure throughout The Netherlands allows kids to ride to school, sports, and stores safely and on their own. This results in better health and better academic performance.

Three keys to infrastructure for our eight-year-old:

–  Safe. Cycleways should be safely segregated from motor traffic, wide enough to accommodate all users, free of debris and obstructions, and have safe crossings at every minor and major junction.

–  Intuitive. Cycleways should be simple and intuitive. It should be obvious where the cycleway leads, particularly near and through intersections and roundabouts. Crossing buttons should be easy to find and reach.

Not surprisingly, I’ve yet to meet anyone who thinks that sending a kid off down [Park, Portland, Summit,] or any number of our current bicycle facilities is a good idea. Many dedicated bicyclists say they wouldn’t even do it if they rode along with them.

Not surprisingly, I’ve yet to meet anyone who thinks that sending a kid off down Park, Portland, Summit, or any number of our current bicycle facilities is a good idea. Many dedicated bicyclists say they wouldn’t even do it if they rode along with them.

–  Inviting. Cycleways should not encourage users to shortcut safety measures. Crossing buttons that are difficult to access or don’t work, signals that cause long waits, crossings far away from where people want to cross (desire lines), paths or tracks that cause jarring bumps or have branches, mailboxes, or other impediments are all things that cause people, our children included, to not use the infrastructure designed for their safety.

Everyone within three miles of grade school should be able to safely ride their bicycles to school. And within five miles of middle school and within ten miles of high school

Some Bottles

If you’re riding through The Netherlands and come across someone with some empty bottles in their basket and notice that every time the bottles rattle they stop and write something down or take a picture, you’ve discovered a key element to their bicycle infrastructure.

This is how smooth they believe their cycleways should be[1].

curb cut

Typical U.S. reverse slope curb cut. This is a smoother one, many are much more jarring. Note also how it narrows so that bicycle riders must all navigate to the middle to avoid an worse bump—going over a curb.

Rider comfort is part of it, particularly for older folk whose joints aren’t what they once were, but as this engineer told me, it’s mostly practical—“if you can’t carry some beer home on your bicycle, what good is it?”

I recently got a bit of first-hand experience when I’d went to pick up lunch for my wife and I. I had two sandwiches and two cups of soup. I checked the lids before heading back home but one still did not make it safely. People should certainly be able to ride to a local cafe and take some soup home without these problems.

Netherlands handcycle

No curb cuts in The Netherlands. Paths are either at road level, crossing is raised to path level, or a gentle slope is used for the transition. Note the man in the picture is in a wheelchair to which he’s attached a hand-cycle.

Jarring bumps and poor surfaces can also be dangerous for many elderly and significant impediments for disabled. As this engineer said “if my beer can ride safely, so can my oma.”I’d guess he was about 55 so his oma, or grandma, likely isn’t too young and he said that she still uses her bicycle for her primary transportation and rides somewhere nearly every day.

On most of the routes I ride in the Twin Cities, the bottle breakers aren’t from wear or potholes, but poor design. The top offenders are curb cuts with a jolting reverse slope designed in (and that also fill with water, ice, and slush). The truncated dome tactile pads, while perhaps good for pedestrians and those with disabilities, are not so good for people on bicycles.

bike racers on path in netherlands

No jarring curb cuts, properly radiused curves, and good width allow everyone to use well designed bicycle facilities safely.

Ideally these crossings should be completely smooth. Bicycle and pedestrian paths should continue across many junctions at path level with the driveway or road rising to meet it (sometimes creating a tabled crossing similar to a speed table if necessary). This not only eliminates bumps for pedestrians, bicycle riders, and those with disabilities, but increases safety since it helps to keep the entire crossing clear of water, slush, snow, and ice as well as alerting drivers to the existence of the path and slowing them down a bit.

Would you want to ride along this path? Not only is there a jarring bump with every one of those curb cuts but you can't ride side-by-side with a friend. This also indicates that cars in these driveways have right-of-way.

Would you want to ride along this path beside Lexington Avenue? Not only is there a jarring bump with every one of those curb cuts but you can’t ride side-by-side with a friend. This also indicates that cars in these driveways have right-of-way.

If a curb cut cannot be avoided, the transition should be as smooth as possible for all users, should not collect water or slush, should be full path width, and provide sufficient passing area beside the tactile pad for bicycles and disabled.

An Engineer On A Bike

I’ve had numerous discussions with traffic engineers and city planners about pedestrian and bicycle infrastructure. Some seem genuinely interested in how to improve things and ask lots of the right questions. Others, not so much. The simple issue either way though is that it’s difficult to really understand some things without experiencing them.

Most engineers I know like to experience what they design. Sailboat designers sail their boats and often numerous iterations of them. They also ask other sailers for feedback. When I designed performance spaces I attended performances and worked in them. I wanted to know how each functioned (or didn’t) for all of the various users so I could make improvements on the next one.

There is no substitute for this. No amount of reading, studying, photos or discussion can make up for actual experience.

Traffic engineers and planners aren’t like this. Many never walk or ride a bicycle or take a wheelchair on the corridors they design. How many have their children ride to school on the roadways they’ve designed?

Someone did smooth out this curb cut a bit after many complaints.

Someone did smooth out this curb cut a bit after many complaints.

It’s interesting to take engineers, planners and city council members on bicycle study tours of their city. How quickly they realize that what they thought was great infrastructure on paper isn’t so great from the seat of a bicycle or in a pair of Keds.

While a one-time study tour is very helpful to point out specific issues, it’s when someone experiences walking and riding on a routine basis that they really understand. It’s one thing to jarringly bump over a curb cut once or struggle to reach a beg button and realign to cross before it changes back to red once. It’s another to do so routinely.

We need our traffic engineers and planners, from every city and county, to walk and ride the roads and streets they’re responsible for on a regular basis. Every engineer and planner should ride some number of miles of their streets each and every month. And every bit of every road and street in their jurisdiction should be ridden by someone at least twice per year.

Similarly, I think that each should also visit The Netherlands and attend David Hembrow’s Study Tour. Each should also have a copy of the CROW Manual for Bicycle Design.

City and county employees should be encouraged to walk or ride bicycles to work and to lunch when close enough.


Despite what I said earlier, it’s not really about being 1st or 30th. Nobody who’s child or parent or spouse is killed by an errant driver really cares. Ranking pales in comparison to making our streets safer and to getting more people walking and riding bicycles and obtaining the health and other benefits of doing so.


These children have a truly safe route to school.


This intersection provides a simultaneous green to all bicycle riders for all directions while all motor vehicles have red. This design has proven very efficient and safer than alternatives. Note how smooth the transition is from roadway to bicycle path.


There are two driveways in the foreground. Note that the bicycle path (or cycletrack) continues with consistent material, grade, and color.


There are four driveways here. Who do you think has right-of-way? Would you rather ride along this path or the one above along Lexington Avenue?


At this minor road crossing the bicycle path has priority and is consistent material, grade, and color. The path also pulls away from the busier roadway so that turning cars encounter the path at a perpendicular angle which makes bicycle riders much easier to see than if the path continued directly next to the traffic lane.




Here motor vehicles have right-of-way over bicycle riders so bicycle riders are given sharks teeth to indicate that they should yield to motor vehicles. The bicycle path is still very smooth and has a consistent grade but color and material are consistent for motor vehicles. The pedestrian crossing is to the left.


Bicycle riders (and disabled) have right-of-way.


Bicycle riders (and disabled) have right-of-way.


A safe route to school.


[1] They do have special bicycles with measuring instruments now but the engineer I talked with believes the bottles still work best.

Walker Angell

About Walker Angell

Walker Angell is a writer who focuses mostly on social and cultural comparisons of the U.S. and Europe. He occasionally blogs at localmile.org, a blog focused on everyday bicycling and local infrastructure for people who don’t have a chamois in their shorts. And on twitter @LocalMileMN