The recent death of Alan Grahn on Summit Avenue at Snelling has provoked widespread calls for improvements to the Summit Avenue Bikeway. His is not the first death, the first crash or even the first crash of that type at that intersection. A gentleman named David Wuest was similarly hit by a motorist turning northbound onto Snelling in 2014. If one follows the Highland Villager and other local papers, one notes at least a dozen pedestrians and cyclists who’ve been hit on Summit in the last four years. These include: March 14, 2017 (Lexington and Summit); September 20, 2016 (Chatsworth and Summit); September 26, 2016 (Summit and Cretin); August 22, 2016 (Kent and Summit); July 10, 2015 (Summit and Snelling); September 21, 2015 (Summit near Dale); June 25, 2014 (Summit and Chatsworth); on and on… and, of course, there was Virginia Heuer who was killed back in September 2008, also near the Summit/Snelling intersection. Each of these crashes changed lives, sometimes forever.
This past Tuesday, Sustain Ward 3 organized a town hall meeting to talk about the Summit Avenue bike lanes. It was held at JBD Lecture Hall at Macalsester College. In attendance was Reuben Collins and Luke Hanson from Saint Paul Public Works, former council member and current mayoral aide Russ Stark, the two leading candidates for the Ward 4 city council seat (Mitra Nelson and Shirley Erstad), and reporters from various television and print media. Tom Basgen, representing Sustain Ward 3, gave a short presentation laying out some of the problems with Summit, asked for parking-protected bike lanes and some other treatments and then opened it up to the audience. In the course of the meeting, people expressed the following observations and desires:
- We have no real data. We need at least ten years worth of pedestrian and bike crash data for Summit, particularly at intersections. This data exists at the city and, for certain intersections, at MnDOT, but no one has presented or provided it to the public or even elected officials. I have been badgering MnDOT and Public Safety to get it, but, so far, to no avail.
- Cars are driving too fast on Summit. It is hazardous not only for cyclists but for pedestrians. Speed limit reductions should be implemented with engineering measures to reduce speeds.
- The width of the driving lane, which tops out at sixteen feet and the adjacent bike lane means that drivers will frequently speed around other cars that are stopped for pedestrians. Too often, pedestrians get hit.
- Intersections, particularly Snelling and Lexington but even Fairview and Cleveland are scary. There are turning motorists, oblivious to bikes and pedestrians, and drivers who sometimes run red lights to get across medians and their double sets of signals. Meeting participants suggested lane markings across the intersection to increase visibility of cyclists, or a “Barnes Dance” intersection signaling at Snelling, or Left-turn-only-on-arrow signal at Snelling (and maybe other intersections) and, related to this, special signals for bikes that are synced with motor vehicle and pedestrian traffic signals.
- There is little or no winter maintenance of the bike lanes. The city fails to tow vehicles during snow emergencies, prior to plowing. Ice and snow cause cars to park further from curbs until they are in the bike lane. This phenomenon has rendered Marshall Avenue unusable in the winter and makes Summit, even with its added width, difficult to bike on.
- For all the above reasons, parking-protected bike lanes should be tried because they offer better winter maintenance potential, and physically narrow the driving lanes, hopefully reducing speeds.
- If parking-protected bike lanes are installed, they need to be wide enough that faster cyclists can pass slower ones. The current configuration allows fast cyclists (of which there are many) to go out into the vehicle travel lane to pass slower ones. This has hazards for the cyclist who is swerving out to pass but it allows people who go slower to comfortably ride along in the bike lane.
- Instead of parking-protected bike-lanes, we should make center median lanes as this will increase the visibility of cyclists and avoid passing problems.
- Just the cost of plastic delineators for all of Summit to create a short term parking-protected bikeway would run between $175,000 and $200,000. This doesn’ t include costs of striping or of green lane markings at intersections.
- Many people told stories of being hit by cars, seeing others hit or nearly hit and worrying about loved ones or themselves getting hit.
- The pavement on Summit’s bike lanes is in terrible condition in many places, particularly near Lexington Avenue. Pot holes in the bikeway need to be prioritized and filled every spring, and crash and winter debris needs to be cleared.
- With current on-street bike lanes, there is a fear of getting “doored” by parked cars. This is particularly true on the stretch east of Lexington, and most riders ride in the outside of the bike lane to avoid being doored, which puts them closer to moving traffic.
In addition to the above observations and desires, the city and many bike advocates, including myself, don’t want to see the city spend a lot of money on something that makes cycling conditions on Summit worse than they currently are. This basically happened on large parts of Marshall Avenue which I believe was easier to bike on before the city constructed millions of dollars worth of medians. According to data I’ve seen, these medians haven’t produced any noticeable reduction in bike and pedestrian crashes and they’ve rendered parts of the street unbikeable in winter. This is because, with medians, the street has been narrowed to the point where winter cyclists are often forced to take the lane and there is no way for motor vehicles to pass them, leading to conflicts and road rage incidents.
With all this in mind, let’s look at the pros and cons of different treatment options on Summit and how they would or would not address people’s observations and desires.
PARKING-PROTECTED BIKE LANES
Snow and ice removal on bike lanes is a complex issue that a lot of people don’t fully appreciate. I was involved in a multi-year, Marshall Avenue Snow-Plowing Pilot Project and got to observe these issues up close. Whenever it snows, even at levels that are too low to trigger a “snow emergency” and plowing, the snow gets driven over and compacted by parking vehicles. Some of it melts and collects in the gutters where it re-freezes and gets further compacted. By the time a snow emergency triggers plowing, this ice is often welded to curbs, gutters and even the bike lane itself. It makes traveling in the bike lane difficult and, as a berm of ice builds up on the curb, drivers start to park further into the bike lanes.
One winter, public works tried to remove the ice/snow buildup on Marshall Avenue, all the way to the curb and had to resort to jack-hammering it out over multiple nights with multiple crews. The cost to the city for just five or ten blocks was over $30,000. The city would have to plow and/or brush the bike and parking lanes (including towing vehicles) after every snowfall, no matter how minimal, to ensure they remain passable. The cost of this would be astronomical.
Parking-protected bike lanes offer the possibility of better, less-expensive winter maintenance. Without cars driving over them and compacting the snow, they might remain clear and permit safer winter biking …but this is only if they get plowed. They would have to be plowed at the same time the city plows the street, to ensure that snow plowed off the street and parking lane isn’t just pushed into the bike lanes. The new, two-way protected bike lanes on Pelham got plowed until just north of I-94 but there was two blocks between the freeway and University Avenue where they weren’t plowed at all and were unusable for much of the winter.
Parking-protected bike lanes would also substantially reduce the dangers of being doored, because most vehicles have just a single occupant, on the driver’s side. Parking-protected bike lanes eliminate the threat of being hit from behind by cars, although, without data, it is unclear how much of a problem this is on Summit. The one safety drawback of parking-protected bike lanes is that they are more dangerous at intersections. This is because the cyclist is invisible to motorists (behind parked cars) until they suddenly appear at an intersection.
There are ways to mitigate this, but they require taking away parking spaces near intersections and more substantially painting and delineating the bike lanes at intersections to increase cyclist visibility. Since many crashes happen at intersections there is a data that shows that parking-protected bike lanes are actually more dangerous than in-street bike lanes but they are “perceived” as safer and thus induce more people to ride …and the larger quantities of riders increase visibility and safety. Here is a good article on parking-protected versus in-street bike lanes summarizing some of the data.
The other issue with parking-protected bike lanes is that, if they’re narrow, cyclists have to ride single file, no matter their speed. Having ridden on single-lane, median bikeways in São Paulo, Brazil or on tight sections of Mississippi River Boulevard, this can be frustrating and even dangerous. The section of Mississippi River Boulevard between Marshall Avenue and Ford Parkway has a bike path that is separated from cars but, due to walkers, slower cyclists, joggers and children it can be difficult or impossible to use it as a commuter bike route or for higher-speed cycling during rush hours.
Based on count data, many cyclists choose to ride in the street to avoid it and there have been many complaints and calls for a north-bound, in-street bike lane. It would be an epic fail if we created parking-protected bike lanes that couldn’t accommodate both slow and fast riders because both currently exist on Summit in substantial numbers. You’d need a bikeway of seven feet at minimum, with a center line and “slower traffic keep right” signage or pavement markings. In places, I question if there is enough space to do this, particularly if you eventually add the requested one or two-foot cement curb delineators.
BUFFERED BIKE LANES
Buffered bike lanes won’t change winter maintenance issues. They might slow traffic some but probably not substantially. This is because on-street parking necessitates that only painted striping (and not delineator poles) can be used. Buffered lanes also won’t prevent vehicles going around stopped cars and hitting pedestrians. But they could reduce driver speeds and increase safety somewhat just for the cost of paint. Unlike parking-protected bike lanes, hey offer cyclists of different speeds the flexibility to easily pass each other and could slightly decrease the threat of being doored.
CENTER MEDIAN BIKE LANES
Center median bike lanes could solve winter maintenance issues and avoid visibility problems of parking-protected bike lanes. With wide medians west of Lexington, they could offer sufficient space for cyclists to pass each other. East of Lexington, however, they would have to exist, un-protected in the middle of the street or new medians would have to be built to reduce cyclist exposure. More importantly, the experience of Minneapolis with center lanes on Hennepin Avenue (removed in 2009), and other data shows that center median bike lanes can be more dangerous than other types of facilities. This is particularly true at intersections. So-called “Left Hooks” are one of the most common types of bicycle and pedestrian crashes, where a pedestrian or cyclist is hit by a motor vehicle turning left. Center-street or median bike lanes increase cyclist exposure to Left Hook crashes at intersections. This is because even vehicles turning left in the same travel direction as the bicyclist are now crossing the cyclist’s path. This can be mitigated by special signaling, but most intersections along Summit are unsignalized.
STRIPING BIKE LANES THRU INTERSECTIONS AND SIGNAL CHANGES
Painting or using colored pavement to delineate bike lanes across intersections has no drawbacks and increases cyclist visibility. Given that left turns are one of the leading causes of bicycle crashes, Identifying which intersections have high-levels of Left Hook crashes and installing a detected left-turn-only-on-signal phase and bikeway signals would be beneficial. Other than nominal signal cost, it has no drawbacks and would even benefit motorists at these intersections by reducing vehicle-to-vehicle crashes.
Based on all of the above, I would recommend the following for Summit Avenue:
- Get some detailed bicycle and pedestrian crash data– ten or twenty years worth– for all of Summit and particularly intersections. Then we can identify the most dangerous places and the types of crashes that are occurring. Also get motor-vehicle crash data, particularly at intersections like Snelling. If there are a lot of left-turn motor-vehicle crashes (as well as bike and pedestrian crashes), then adding a left-turn signal phase would benefit all road users and, with data, would make signal changes an even easier sell. Data might help make the case for redesigning the Snelling or Lexington Avenue intersections to change or eliminate carriage-road merges at Snelling or the slip turns at Lexington.
- Stripe bike lanes on Summit across all intersections. It’s relatively cheap, has no drawbacks and can only help. Making these crossing lanes colored (red or green) would be especially good.
- Each spring, prioritize filling the pot holes in the Summit Avenue bike lanes, especially at intersections, and prioritize sweeping debris.
- Since the Summit bridge over Ayd Mill Road and CP Rail is scheduled to be rebuilt next year, and will be disrupting this section of the street, lets try a multi-year pilot of parking-protected bikeways on Summit between Lexington and Hamline Avenues. We could survey how well the lanes do with winter snow, ice and debris removal and how cyclists like them in terms of being able to pass each other, and their perceptions of (and real data on) safety. If they’re successful, we implement them on the rest of the street. If not, we either try to address problems with them or consider other solutions.
- Given that the street has different widths and different configurations throughout its length, we should keep in mind that there might be different solutions for different sections of the street, rather than a one-size-fits-all approach.
Saint Paul has a lot of bicycle needs. The biggest in my book is the doughnut hole of bicycle access in and around downtown. I would hate to see the city spend huge amounts of money and staff time on Summit Avenue only to come up with something that fails to improve conditions or makes them worse. So lets do the obvious things and test a section of parking-protected bikeway.
We can do these things cheaply and easily. Some of them may require approval from the Historic Preservation Commission and, in places like Snelling Avenue, MnDOT. But if people show up and put pressure on these entities, these obstacles can be overcome.
Like anything in life, getting a safer Summit Avenue Bikeway is going to take sustained focus and energy. Let’s do something, but let’s do it intelligently in a way that actually makes things better.