Danger Lurks Around the Corner at Summit Avenue

Editor’s Note: One of the missing voices in bicycle planning in the Twin Cities is college students. This series aims to include the perspectives of a generation that is much less likely than their parents to own vehicles. The authors are Macalester students enrolled in the “Bicycling the Urban Landscape” course. The overarching objective is to provide intellectual and active engagement with bicycling, including understanding transportation politics, equity, bicycle culture, local, national, and global trends in bicycling, and steps toward increased bicycle mode share locally and globally. This piece was contributed by Hamzah Yaacob.

Attempting to make a left-turn from Summit Avenue onto North Fry Street

Attempting to make a left-turn from Summit Avenue onto North Fry Street

Whenever attempting a left turn at intersections on Summit Avenue in St Paul, I stick my hand out and edge my bicycle out of the bike lane hoping for oncoming vehicles to yield to me. Unfortunately, too often my polite gesture is flatly rejected and drivers simply speed inches from my bicycle jutted out of the bike lane. This conflict happens so frequently when I make left- turns, that I always make sure I look over my shoulder when I reach an intersection to let oncoming vehicles pass. Sometimes I’m lucky and there are no vehicles so I simply occupy the left turning lane to the annoyance of drivers who end up behind me.

Only will those with bodies made of steel turn without caution when leaving the safety of this white strip of paint. The rest, like myself, kowtow to traffic waiting for a kind driver to give way. Across the twin cities, turning out of bike lanes — be it left or right — at major or minor intersections is an art of negotiation that one often gets away with Minnesota politeness. But that won’t always guarantee safety.

This situation arises on Summit Avenue because its bike lanes are designed for one purpose only — to cycle in a straight line. The set-up is not ideal. While there is no specific data on the causes of the 114 bike-related crashes across the city from January 1 through November 8 reported by City Hall, it’s easy to imagine an unseasoned bike lane user feeling weary about having to jostle with traffic when turning. Making matters more dangerous, bike lanes along Summit are narrow and do not afford much space for bicyclists to stop and check for oncoming traffic, especially if the lane is occupied by several bicyclists at one time.

But bike lanes don’t have to disappear at every intersection. In Holland, bicyclists are separated from cars at all times, allowing them to seamlessly turn at intersections. Bike lanes remain propped up against the sidewalk, even at intersections. Turning curbs separate cars from bikes at corners, enabling cyclists to turn right without having to watch out for vehicles coming too close to them. By removing potential conflict during right turns, bicyclists will no longer have to wait for a motorized vehicle to make the turn first or fear getting run over, as is often the case along Summit.

A cyclist making a left turn does so at the opposite end of the intersection crossing making the turn as if a pedestrian. However, at no point do cyclists and pedestrians share the crossing. At busier intersections, bicycles are given special traffic signals, which grant them the same privileges as cars by giving them space independent of motorized traffic to turn or continue on a straight path. This design is more clearly illustrated in the video below.

Dutch bike lanes are often choked full of riders, making it imperative for planners to integrate bike paths into intersections. It would be a recipe for chaos if Dutch planners were to adopt bicycle lane designs similar to those of Summit Avenue with the sheer number bicyclists unable to seamlessly turn at intersections with unguided bike paths shared with cars.

Nonetheless, one might argue that unlike Dutch cities, the Twin Cities simply do not have the critical mass of bicyclists to justify re-designs of intersections. Furthermore, merely putting paint on the street to demarcate bike lanes has been a process that’s caused disenchantment amongst some road users. It’s quite likely that drivers will push back on having to wait longer at intersections or having less turning space. However, an increasing number of commuters turning to their bikes in the Twin Cities shows that when safe spaces are created for bicycles on the road, people respond by using them. The city can and should aim to make bicycling even more pleasant which undoubtedly convince those currently not bicycling but who are willing to commute by bike, to get out and ride. Also, perfecting the existing bike infrastructure will serve as an example for future projects. If the re-designed intersections work, it could be incorporated into the St Paul 2020 bike plan.

One potential candidate for Dutch-inspired improvements is the intersection at Summit and Cleveland. Summit Avenue bike lanes are a major thoroughfare that see healthy use, while Cleveland provides a vital north-south connection. Concurrently, minor streets with bicycle boulevards that meet Summit at intersections without traffic lights can adapt the Dutch model by providing guided lanes to and from either side of the street. Warning lights activated at the push of a button will inform drivers to stop and yield to crossing bicyclists a common feature along the Midtown Greenway when it crosses busy streets.

In theory, the bicycle goes where the rider wants it to go, much like a car. Bike lanes should therefore afford some degree of flexibility to the bicyclists. It might be idealistic to expect that every street in the city accommodate bike lanes much like cities in the Netherlands. But  at the very least, providing bike lanes at intersections will do a great deal to enhance existing bike infrastructure and make cycling along major on-street bike routes more pleasant. If marked lanes do not exist at intersections, bike lanes ironically serve to protect bicyclists during the safest parts of the journey: when all vehicles are travelling in a straight line without any conflict.

Macalester Student Perspectives

About Macalester Student Perspectives

Contributing writers to this column were college students enrolled at Macalester College in Saint Paul. These posts were part of classes in the Environmental Studies, Geography, and Urban Studies Programs.