Fellow Minneapolites, let’s stop being our northern humble selves for just a quick second and truly boast a fact that we’ve known for a while now: we live in the best biking city in America. Bicycling Magazine crowned us champs in 2010. WalkScore’s Bike Score doesn’t list us because we don’t have a large enough “population”, but we score nearly 9 points higher than Portland (and those are 9 actual, empirical, data-driven points, too!). Most recently, Forbes gave us a shout out for our biking prowess.
The best part is, Minneapolis isn’t trying to keep the status quo, but is constantly striving to improve. In their Draft Protected Bikeway Update to the city’s bike plan, 30 miles of protected bike lanes are listed to be implemented by 2020. That would be, according to my head math, a very large increase to Minneapolis’s already good biking infrastructure. (Don’t worry, St. Paul, you are getting there, too). Although the Protected Bikeway Plan doesn’t address every single trouble point in the city, it is certainly a wonderful start.
However, there is one key element that isn’t addressed in the Protected Bikeway Plan – the all too common conflict points with bicycles and transit vehicles.
The Frustrating Double Conflict Point
Our large network of on-street bike lanes usually gives bicyclists a more comfortable ride than riding in a general purpose lane. However, that comfort is shattered at transit stops. In order to load and unload passengers from the sidewalk, the bus driver is essentially required to come as close to the curb as possible. This means the bus needs to jump into the bike lane, therefore cutting off any potential bicyclists behind it. Many bike riders will veer to their left and try to bypass the stopped bus, creating a dangerous blind spot for oncoming traffic. Meanwhile, buses approaching bicyclists near bus stops need to slow down to avoid a crash. This slows down transit travel times and can potentially create a ripple effect in the network. None of this is good.
Generally, transit advocates are also bike advocates, but with regular on-street bike lanes, this conflict point becomes an unavoidable ally-versus-ally battle. It’s like a Myrmecologist trying to avoid stomping on a massive ant colony. (If you didn’t have to look up the word Myrmecologist, very nicely done, you get a terminology high-five.)
As a bicyclist, I am constantly on the lookout for oncoming buses even when I’m in a bike lane. As a transit rider, the mere seconds delay to wait for a biker can cause my bus to miss a traffic signal, which can cause me to miss my transfer, which can cause me to arrive 15 minutes late to work on the day where a coworker brought in Mel-O-Glaze Donuts, which can then cause me to be donut-less for the whole morning. Like, I said, none of this is good.
The Solution – Floating Bus Stops
This conflict point can be entirely avoided with the implementation of floating bus stops. I asked my very talented friend Stephanie Erwin to imagine what she thought a floating bus stop would look like in her mind, and the result was exactly what I had hoped:
In reality, floating bus stops are bumped-out bus bulbs which have a bike lane running behind the bus stop amenities. This simple configuration allows transit vehicles to stay in their own lane without jumping in front of cyclists, and gives cyclists added protection from vehicular traffic at the bus stop. This design is truly a win-win for both transit operators and bike riders.
Floating bus stops come in all shapes and sizes. These bike-bus conflict evasion strategies have been used in Europe for decades, and have just now started to catch on in various cities around the US, including Seattle, San Francisco, Chicago, and Austin.
The National Association of City Transportation Officials (NACTO) lists best practices for all types of bike facilities. In their design guidance figure for one-way protected cycle tracks, NACTO recommends: “At transit stops, consider wrapping the cycle track behind the transit stop zone to reduce conflicts with transit vehicles and passengers.” This is, at its core, what a good transit-bicycle intersection design should entail.
The bike lane behind the bus amenities can be constructed with a sunken curb and gutter to allow a true separation from pedestrians and bikers. With Minneapolis’s harsh weather conditions, it’s likely that the more feasible design is to have the bike lane and adjacent sidewalk at the same level, but be paved with a different type of material. Building bike lanes at sidewalk level avoids potential plowing challenges in the winter.
The one flaw with the floating bus stop design is the bike-pedestrian interface. The floating stop requires pedestrians to cross the bikeway, thus causing potential conflicts with moving bikers. This problem can be mitigated using several traffic calming strategies, such as adding speed tables and highly reflective crosswalk paint at pedestrian crossing points. This forces bikers to acknowledge and hopefully yield to pedestrians in a more efficient and safe manner. Bike Walk KC has listed some good recommendations which address these conflict areas.
Apply Locally, See Results
For the best biking city in America, Minneapolis is sorely lacking in the bike-bus conflict mitigation department. Off the top of my head, I don’t believe there is a single true example of a floating bus stop within the city limits today.
Luckily, several projects in the coming year or two will be deploying modified versions of floating bus stops. The Hennepin-Lyndale Bottleneck project will feature a type of this, with the bus stop and shelter protecting the two-way cycle track behind it at the Groveland intersection. In addition, the Washington Avenue reconstruction from Hennepin to 5th Street will not only feature the city’s first true curbside cycle track, but will also feature a modified version of a floating bus stop.
Several current and proposed transit routes exist in the same corridors that list protected bikeway implementation in the city’s plan. In North Minneapolis, near term protected bikeway implementation is slated to occur along Fremont & Emerson Avenues. This corridor also contains the route 5 bus, one of the busiest transit routes in the city. In the next several years, another arterial BRT line is planned to run along Fremont & Emerson Avenues. The deployment of the arterial BRT line will be a great opportunity to build floating bus stops at conflict points.
Meanwhile, University Avenue and 15th Avenue SE in the Marcy-Holmes neighborhood list protected bikeway implementation in the near term, but also contain the busy 3 route 6 buses. Adding floating bus stops in front of the proposed two-way cycle track on University and the one-way cycle track on 15th Avenue will certainly encourage bike use, especially for college-aged suburban warriors adjusting to city biking for the first time.
Yes, Minneapolis might be the best biking city in America, but it still pales in comparison to cities in Europe and even some cities in the US at bike-bus conflicts. We need to start thinking about strategic places to build floating bus stops on highly traveled bike corridors, starting in downtown Minneapolis and St. Paul. Minneapolis’s Protected Bikeway Plan should include language that encourages implementation of floating bus stops at transit-bike conflict points; otherwise, protected bikeways will continue to break down at these crossroads like regular on-street lanes do today. Deploying good design for bikers and transit users will only improve the livability of the city. Our “best biking city in America” rating depends on it.