A Blink of an Eye on Hennepin Avenue East

On Tuesday evening around 6 o’clock, my girlfriend and I decided to take a trip from our home in Stevens Square to the first-ever Northeast Night Market at 13th and Tyler St NE. We chose to bike; the sun was shining, the air was hot (but not too hot yet), and we knew that with as many RSVPs as the Facebook event had, parking would be a nightmare. Besides, we chose to live in a city where biking was not just allowed but encouraged, so the choice seemed natural.

Now, I’m a confident biker. I’m willing, if not happy, to ride on a street without bike lanes or sharrows. I try to spend at least an hour a day biking, and most days, I manage that. But my girlfriend isn’t, so we planned a route that would hopefully be low-stress; Park Avenue through downtown (busy, but it was after rush hour), the lovely Stone Arch Bridge, and finally the new Fillmore/Polk/Pierce/Tyler (“Presidents”) bike boulevard through Marcy-Holmes and the Northeast. It was actually my first time on the boulevard (built only last year!) and I’m happy to report that for the most part, while the signage could be improved, it is a pleasant and low-stress way to travel through the area.

But there’s one place where that isn’t true.

Photo of intersection of Hennepin at 5th Ave SE Minneapolis

Hennepin Avenue at 5th Ave SE

Where the bike boulevard crosses Hennepin Avenue E, at Fifth Street SE, the city elected to build only half a solution. Hennepin here is a busy four-lane road, on which cars race along at speeds far exceeding the posted limits. Because the grid here is thrown off by the railroad tracks, cyclists are given an awkward, if ostensibly workable solution; they press a button to activate flashing warning lights, wait for a safe moment to cross, then bike along the north side of Hennepin on the sidewalk until reaching Pierce Street NE, where preference for bikes is once again established. In theory, this is a solution which accommodates the needs of everyone. In practice, it almost got me killed.

Approaching the intersection at a low speed, I took note of the circumstances and came to a stop. I did everything right, as far as I could tell; I pressed the button (you can see it in the bottom right of the picture above), noted the flashing lights on the sign overhead, waited until the traffic stopped to yield for me, made eye contact with the driver, and then slowly proceeded into the intersection to cross.

Then I heard sustained honking and screeching brakes. I barely had time to look to my left; a driver had raced around the stopped cars (which is illegal, section 2b), perhaps assuming that they’d stopped to look at clouds, and noticed me just in time to slam to a halt. He stopped six inches away, if that. We made eye contact (kind of, he was wearing dark sunglasses); his face was impassive. As far as I could tell, the only thing on his mind was wondering why I had the temerity to be there.

Think about it. This man, whoever he was, was driving his SUV well above the speed limit, on a road already posted for a speed (30 miles per hour) which is plenty fast enough to kill someone. If any of a thousand things had been different — if he had been on his cell phone, if the stopped driver hadn’t laid on his horn, if I had been just a fraction less visible — there is a 60-85% chance that I would be in a morgue right now. It wouldn’t matter whether I was wearing my helmet (I was) or wearing a suit of armor (I wasn’t); at a certain point, physics takes over. I would be dead, or (at best) grievously wounded, and the driver might not even be under arrest.

And that’s doing everything right! Imagine if I had been careless for a moment, or if I didn’t understand the instructions, or if my vision were impaired. Even though I knew exactly the movements to make, even though I took every precaution, I still came a fraction of a second away from death because someone decided this intersection wasn’t worth a red light.

Minneapolis can brag about its Copenhagenize score or take visitors on trips down the Greenway, but so much of our network is held together by junctions like this, so fragile that a moment’s carelessness — to say nothing of depraved indifference — can end someone’s life in the blink of an eye. If we truly want to get serious about living in a city where everyone can get around comfortably by whatever means they choose, we need to do more than draw lines on a map. Just as a bike lane is meaningless if it’s always filled with parked cars, an intersection like this is worse than worthless if we don’t confront the choices which lead to that driver speeding through this blinking intersection far over the speed limit.

Because I may not survive another near miss.

Ethan Osten

About Ethan Osten

Ethan Osten is a writer, a co-chair of the Saint Paul Bicycle Coalition, an avid cyclist and bus rider, and generally a pretty boring guy. He lives in Saint Paul's North End.