Are The Plymouth Bridge Lanes A Success?

Protected bicycle lanes were installed on the Plymouth Avenue bridge while it was undergoing repairs in 2013. Since that time the bridge has seen an 81% increase in bicycle traffic; quite the increase indeed. How are we to interpret this? On the one hand it is obviously a success in that riders clearly have chosen to take Plymouth over other bridges in the area. I am going to suggest, though, how we may understand this rise in the context of larger infrastructure issues. On the whole, I believe, the increase is best understood as a judgment against the paltry number of protected lanes for vulnerable road users available elsewhere in the city.

Where are people going when they take Plymouth? (This piece is thinking of cyclists moreso than pedestrians) It seems to me the most likely destinations are to and from downtown, both for work and for entertainment, and to the West River Parkway, mostly for recreation – though I imagine that the prolonged closure of the parkway further down has temporarily lessened this particular aspect. Some may be on their way to North Minneapolis but the number of people moving between NE and North on bike doesn’t seem comparable to the other destinations.

Does Plymouth move people efficiently and safely into downtown? Not really. Plymouth is on downtown’s outer edge and there are no destinations on it. One either takes the parkway and exits further down, navigating a minor maze of smaller backstreets; or the lanes on 2nd, which temporarily and inconveniently terminate at Hennepin; or Washington, which doesn’t have cycling facilities at all and where the traffic is speedy and inconsiderate.

The bridge is also physically inferior to other downtown bridges. To make room for shipping, the bridge has a large arc which takes a fair amount of physical exertion to cross. What’s more, the thing is hideous. Unadorned slab concrete meets drab, thick railing at the sidewalks, which are separated from the new cycling lanes and auto traffic by gigantic, oversized concrete blocks usually used for temporarily redirecting traffic when roadwork is being done; white bollards have never been exactly breathtaking; and the lighting is likewise, unremarkable, high up, boring, and anesthetic. What can be said is that it offers a pretty good view of downtown during a sunset.

All of which is to say that cyclists take Plymouth in spite of its relation to Downtown and other cycling facilities rather than because of it. We are so desperate to feel safe that we quickly find and regularly use what few separated lanes are available.

Is there another bridge that makes more sense to house protected cycling facilities? Yes absolutely, namely, the Hennepin Avenue Bridge. It is better for all of the reasons the Plymouth is not. By contrast the Hennepin Bridge brings one right into the heart of downtown; to its workplaces, it’s entertainment destinations, its grocery stores, the government centers, its movie theater, and in addition, it also connects to the parkways and, notably, the forthcoming cycle tracks being installed on Washington.

It’s also physically superior in every way. It’s iconic and historic, to such a degree that local bike companies mold their rear dropouts to highlight it. It also hosts the soon-to-be-relit Grainbelt Premium sign, the stately Nicollet Island, with its hotel, park, and adorable Victorian homes, and connects Downtown to St. Anthony Main. It is a flat bridge, much easier to cross for children and the less than able-bodied. It is grand and beautiful. The Hennepin bridge may even, and I hope it does, carry the Central/Nicollet rail line, which would give it even greater advantages for urban dwellers who don’t rely on automobiles.

We cyclists still take it regularly but it in no way lends itself to us. There are no bicycle lanes, just a thin, unmarked shoulder, often filled with road debris. And cars fly by at well over 40mph in three – three – full auto lanes. I am harassed regularly by drivers when I choose for my own safety to take the rightmost lane, despite the other two lanes easily being able accommodate them.

Now I am not suggesting we take the lanes off of the Plymouth Bridge. I don’t want in any way to say we need to take away helpful cycling infrastructure. What I am suggesting, though, is that given the obvious weaknesses of this connection, we must understand its statistical success as an indicator of a dearth of better facilities, so we can work to improve them.


Tony Hunt

About Tony Hunt

Tony Hunt rides his bike places and is just narcissistic enough to want to tell people about it. He majored in Greek and Latin at the University of Minnesota. This, he believes, qualifies him to write about anything. You can follow his rantings at

7 thoughts on “Are The Plymouth Bridge Lanes A Success?

  1. Wayne

    But then there wouldn’t be three ridiculously wide car lanes built to highway specifications in each direction! Where would the city police camp out to write speeding tickets to hit their quotas (because the design speed is far in excess of the marked speed).

    Snark aside, I would love to see actual protected bike lanes on the Hennepin bridge. Also to have the future streetcar (if it ever really happens) get a dedicated lane to share with buses only.

  2. Adam FroehligAdam Froehlig

    I would disagree that Hennepin connects to the Parkways better than Plymouth, especially on the downtown side. Riding Plymouth does not require riding on the sidewalk and then transiting either a multiple-switchback ramp or stairs in order to get to West River Pkwy.

    1. Tony HuntTony Hunt

      Oh I agree. I meant to highlight that it in fact does connect, but you’re right, not as seamlessly as the Plymouth. Everything else it does better. As in much better

  3. Sean Hayford OlearySean Hayford Oleary

    I’m rarely east of the Mississippi, but I was over in St. Anthony on bike a couple of weeks ago, and was startled as to just how bad that connection is. I feel more intensely unsafe in the less than one mile from St. Anthony Main to downtown than I do in eight miles on my usual ride to Richfield. That’s a disgrace.

    However, I don’t get the comparison to the Plymouth Bridge, or the implication that Plymouth was a waste of effort. It was low-hanging fruit, and since North Minneapolis has been generally underserved in new bikeways — and has been significantly cut off from downtown by the Basilica Junction and I-94 — it makes sense to go there.

    But yes, I’d love to see similar designs implemented on the Hennepin bridge. As is often the case, remember jurisdictional control: Hennepin bridge is part of CSAH 52 (a county highway that mysteriously starts at Old Shakopee Road, runs to 61st St, disappears for seven miles, then reappears at Washington and Hennepin). So, of course, Hennepin County would have to cooperate on any changes.

  4. Jules Audy

    Didn’t the number of cyclists crossing the Plymouth bridge go up 81% simply because previously the bridge was under construction?

    I’m afraid the protected bike lane has made crossing the bridge less safe in the winter. The bike lane’s not well plowed because those bollards are in the way. This year it was an icy mess at times.

    I fully agree that the Hennepin Avenue bridge is pretty bad. It has a marked shoulder (a single painted line) that is sufficient over most of the bridge. But coming from downtown toward Riverplace things get terrible by the Nicollet Island Inn–it’s bad in other direction in front of De Lasalle. An expansion joint is raised up, making for a severe bump, the shoulder exits into a right turn lane that forces you to merge back into traffic (there’s a nasty crack that runs parallel along the turn lane) and then the bridge narrows and you have to shift into traffic farther. Taking the right lane is safest, though sometimes I don’t have it in me.

    I’d love to see the Hennepin Avenue bridge improved. Out of downtown, maybe a bike lane could be introduced down the left side of the bridge so it would be easier to turn left (north) on Main Street Crossing the three lanes to turn left can be done but it takes a bit of daring.

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