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.