New Oak Street Protected Bike…What is That?

Like a vestigial twin growing its own weird, hairy tumor, the already complex Washington Avenue transit mall has sprouted a new unsightly appendage:


Looking North from the West side of Oak St. at Washington Ave.

The Oak Street protected bike… whatever this is. I was very skeptical of protected bikeways for a long time and this is exactly why. For someone who is relatively comfortable biking in traffic, any gains made in the pleasantness of biking along the street are outweighed when you are shunted into quagmires like this at intersections.

That’s why I was so stoked after I watched this video.  The video depicts a design for incorporating protected bikeways into intersections that manages to keep things efficient and intuitive for bikes, while also improving crossing for pedestrians by allowing them to cross the bikeway and then the rest of the street in stages.

Protected Intersections For Bicyclists from Nick Falbo on Vimeo.

Contrast that to this design. Look at all those arrows! Take a moment to appreciate how completely crazy it looks.

Here’s a diagram of how it’s supposed to work:


To proceed straight/north or turn right/east from Oak Street SE, there are 2-stage turn boxes – Cross Washington with the light, wait, then cross Oak St. to the northbound lane or eastbound Washington (link)

Is that two-stage right turn really going to make a vulnerable or inexperienced road user feel protected, or just perplexed? After all, something that used to be intuitive and safe to do immediately most of the time now takes an additional signal phase and sets up the possibility of a right hook from southbound traffic coming off Washington.

Cyclists are often hit in crosswalks because they’re moving faster than what drivers usually anticipate from a crosswalk (i.e. walking speed). It seems like only a matter of time before a car with a green light heading east on Washington turns right with the way apparently clear, just as a cyclist completes Phase I of their Right Turn Operation and begins their personal journey toward Phase II, putting their paths into sudden, unavoidable conflict.

Yes, the protected intersection in the video does require an extra smaller-than-one-signal-phase amount of delay to turn left, but turning left usually takes a long time and blocks up other traffic at busy intersections anyway, so adding a relatively small amount of delay to the left turn process would reduce overall delay and solve more problems than it created, while converting right turns into a two stage process adds delay and creates new problems, such as the right hook described above.

It’s concerning that, like the rest of the transit mall, this bikeway (or at least the intersection with Washington Ave.) will turn out to be an instance of trying to micromanage traffic so minutely from a theoretical remove, that most of what’s prescribed will be frequently ignored or misunderstood because it seems to have no bearing on the actual situation at hand. I’ve personally never, ever seen anyone using one of these bike boxes along Washington for example:


The fact that no one ever uses these makes it even weirder that they’ve almost disintegrated already.

I suppose, in fairness, we should give this design a chance to play out. The city does have a pretty good rationale for the design they chose: “One-way protected bike lanes result in more parking removal.”

13 thoughts on “New Oak Street Protected Bike…What is That?

  1. Sean Hayford OlearySean Hayford Oleary

    I agree this seems convoluted and unintuitive — and yet another problem with two-way cycletracks, especially when they don’t run for the full length of a corridor.

    However, I wouldn’t put the SE Washington Ave bike boxes in the same boat. My understanding is that those are necessary to make a left turn that’s compatible with the LRT signals. That’s the same reason University has fully protected left turns (no longer OK to yield on green) through St. Paul. It’s actually pretty dangerous on Washington to simply make a regular left turn on green.

  2. Brian C. MartinsonBrian C Martinson

    Sharing your skepticism of this particular piece of engineering, I rode it last night, along with my wife, who is not a fan of urban riding. It “worked” better than I expected, but this was also at a low-traffic time of day.

    I think it also essential that a no-turn-on-red be added for EB Washington ave traffic at that intersection!!

  3. Alex TsatsoulisAlex Tsatsoulis

    First off – full disclosure – I work for the Mpls Bicycle Coalition, though this is totally from my personal perspective. I’ve ridden this every day this week so far (I keep hoping to find a better route for the morning daycare ride), and it’s still a work in progress (they were putting in the green stripes yesterday afternoon as I rode through). I think the intersection works ok for what it is, but it does look super confusing at first glance. It’s a challenge connecting to it from Oak if you’re coming off of University and headed to East River (stay left for the through lane, then hard right after train tracks into the jumble of arrows), but it was pretty straightforward when I was riding along the bikeway headed towards Washington this morning.

    It will be improved with the addition of bike boxes, though obviously there’ll still be a bit of a learning curve. With the options available, it’s probably the best option – if there were more space to work with, it probably wouldn’t seem as confusing. We’ll see how it goes when the students are all back and riding in it!

  4. Matt

    Without critiquing any other piece of it, requiring a two-stage “turn” to proceed straight northbound on Oak is completely absurd.

    Is it correct to assume there are no immediate plans to extend the protected bike lanes north of Oak? Extending the lanes northward on Oak would at least remedy this crazy idea of “turning” to go straight, though it would be quite complicated to get around the SB bus stop on the other side of Washington

  5. helsinki

    –“an instance of trying to micromanage traffic so minutely from a theoretical remove, that most of what’s prescribed will be frequently ignored or misunderstood because it seems to have no bearing on the actual situation at hand.”

    I couldn’t agree more with this statement.

  6. Alex

    Well stated. I would add that having this bikeway end two blocks shy of both the 4th/University bike lanes and the Transitway Bikeway creates a gap that is going to inspire a lot of creative cycling.

    While I am a fan of two-way on-street cycleways (a la Montreal, the only successful North American cycling city), and think that Oak is a good spot for one, the city should probably have held off on striping it until they could get it all the way to 4th St, even “temporarily.” Since there is no reason whatsoever for Oak to have two northbound lanes north of Washington now, they should have been able to figure something out.

    1. Tyler SchowTyler Schow

      I would imagine the issue is navigating the bump-out and how to handle the massive amount of bus riders that use the stop there.

      1. Matt Brillhart

        It does seem that an extension north of Washington Ave will require more significant reconstruction to accommodate that bus stop.

        Ideally the protected bike lane would be routed behind the bus shelter and waiting area (floating bus stop). North of the bus stop, I’d route the protected bike lane in the current parking lane, and retain a parking lane by eliminating one southbound traffic lane

      2. Alex

        Sure, but there is a lot of roadway there to work with. Off the top of my head, I came up with a section that fit in a 6′ bus loading area between an 8′ cycle track and the bus pullout. The issue is less one of design and more one of process. How does trying nothing now help with the issue of complexity? If we acknowledge that the status quo is both temporary and unsuccessful, why not take a stab at a design solution with the understanding that it can be changed if it’s also unsuccessful? In this case the risk of doing nothing is the failure of the Oak St cycle track.

  7. Andrew

    A problem I have that hasn’t been mentioned yet is with the sight line issue that has been created when a bus or larger vehicle is parked at the Oak street bus stop just south of Delaware street. When I’m heading north in the new bike lane towards the Oak/Delaware intersection, and the vehicle traffic is turning left onto Delaware, the vehicles turning can’t see me because of the bus parked in the designed bus stop area blocking their view.

    1. Rosa

      that’s a pretty universal problem anywhere a bus stops, right? Or a semi parks or anything else big is on the street. Cars turning when they can’t see.

      1. Andrew

        What makes this location especially difficult is that motorists taking left turns are not used to looking behind them for oncoming bicyclists – they are trained/used to looking for oncoming bicyclists. This increases the likelihood for parallel running collisions. (Pedestrians move slower and are located in the crosswalk vs. the travel lane giving more time to see/react). The bus stopping there makes it almost impossible to see a biker until the last minute. With or without the bus stopped, I think with the skewed stopped bar expecting a motorists to turn their head that far back to look for northbound bicyclist is unlikely. This has been my experience when biking this in the mornings.

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