I tend to navigate by landmarks and familiar routes more than street names, especially when I’m riding a bike. After all, my focus is usually on the conditions that directly affect my safety, health and wellbeing more than street signs. Namely, the people in cars with whom I’m sharing the road.
So it took me a few days to realize the intersection of 12th St N and Linden Ave W — where Alex Wolf was killed by driver last week while riding his bike — was one that I’ve cycled through untold thousands of times since I started to commuting by bike.
Note: When I looked at this view of the intersection, I was gobsmacked to see the complete absence of vehicles. In the past three decades, I have never once seen that intersection this empty, day or night. It’s almost eerie to look at this way.
This intersection is also part of a detour route around sections of the Cedar Lake Trail (one of the most popular and heavily traveled trails into and out of downtown) that are closed due to light rail construction. In other words, one of the safest and best routes relied upon by people who travel by bike is closed, and the detour sends bike traffic through some of the worst and most dangerous stretches of road in the city.
If you don’t know the spot, it’s also the functional termination of the bike lane running east to west on 1st Ave N — one that runs through the heart of downtown, crisscrossing numerous intersections where drivers begin accelerating for nearby highways, speeding through with little or no regard for traffic signals. Past bars and restaurants, where delivery trucks park in the bike lane to load and unload at all hours of the day. Past businesses and clubs and the Target Center, where taxi and rideshare drivers swerve and stop unpredictably when picking up or dropping off people. Past the downtown bus depot where drivers regularly occupy the bike lane with what seems like absolute impunity. If you’re a regular traveler of this route, you expect that you’ll have to ride in the vehicle lane for up to block to get around them.
The intersection of 12th St N and Linden Ave W itself is a living Venn diagram of all the worst and most cynical ideas in urban transportation infrastructure and planning.
A largely unprotected bike lane on a busy city street that suddenly comes to an end? Check.
An intersection that requires pedestrians and cyclists to cross multiple lanes of turning traffic to continue their journeys? Check.
An intersection that includes both an on-ramp and an off-ramp where drivers are accelerating to or decelerating from highways speeds as they enter the intersection? Check.
Cars and semi trucks regularly cutting across or driving in bike lanes to make right turns? Check.
Signs and signals that don’t allow foot or bike traffic to cross without contending with turning vehicles? Check.
If you’re riding a bike westbound out of downtown and heading towards south Minneapolis, you hope to catch the traffic signal cycle on the previous block in a way that allows you to move safely from the bike lane across two lanes of traffic into the left turn lane at 12th, then head south.
This is tricky, but it’s safer because you only have to cross two lanes of traffic at the intersection. Even though they’re coming off the highway, it’s a long straightaway that allows you to see them coming (and theoretically allows them to see you). Of course, during rush hour, there’s a good chance that southbound traffic will be backed up across the intersection in a way that prevents you from reaching the narrow bike lane on 12th. But that’s another story.
If you can’t get through the intersection that way, your only other option is to cross to the west side of 12th, stop and sit in the unprotected bike lane, waiting for the light to change so you can continue south. Sounds safe, right? In reality, said bike lane is usually occupied by drivers turning right to the freeway entrance ramp. And even when they’re not physically in the bike lane, they’re in a hurry to get to the highway and largely indifferent to people trying to cross the street.
Of course, your next challenge is to get through the intersection at Hennepin Ave, the busiest of all downtown streets. Again, drivers turning westbound onto Hennepin will be veering into, traveling in, or simply cutting sharply across the bike lane to complete their turns.
Some of them actually signal their intention to do so, but mostly you’re left to guess at what they’re doing and hope that they’ll take the time to look for you before they turn. Every time I get through this spot, I breathe a sigh of relief.
At this point, I imagine you’re thinking that this is a ridiculous amount of description, detail, cautions, considerations, and decisions necessary to survive passing through a single intersection. And you’re right.
In the days immediately following Alex’s death, my friend Andrea posted this on Twitter:
i’m now coming to realize bicyclists mostly get from point A to point B safely by pure luck and i hate it
— andrea (@whtegrlinacrowd) November 22, 2019
When I read it, what shocked me was how right she was. So I started thinking and writing about my own experiences at that intersection, and here we are.
If your only experience with traffic is from the perspective of traveling inside a vehicle, you take being seen, being given space and feeling safe for granted, even in the most hectic situations. Those assumptions don’t apply to people on bikes or on foot – especially in intersections like this one. Every person who rides a bike through this stretch is making their own version of the analysis I just described, doing their own calculations, and making their own choices in real time. And unlike the people around us in vehicles, most of us aren’t looking at our phones while we’re doing it.
People who ride bikes are regularly asked to explain or defend “all the bikers who run red lights and stop signs and break the law.” Setting aside for a moment the fact that, statistically speaking, people who ride bikes break the law at roughly the same rate as people who drive cars – maybe even much less — and also accepting the fact the some people on bikes blow through signals and stop signs for no good reason, here’s what I tell them:
We do it because every day we encounter intersections like this one that are designed and managed in a way that values the speed and convenience of people driving cars above and beyond the safety and survival of literally everyone else — especially people on bikes.
Given the choice, we’d rather pass through these intersections following the law to the letter and arrive safely on the other side to continue our journeys. Like everybody else, we’re just trying to get where we’re going in one piece. But if traffic conditions give us an opportunity to cross against a sign or signal in a way that makes us less likely to get hit by a vehicle, a way that’s actually safer than “playing by the rules?” Yeah, we’ll do that. Not every single time, just when it’s actually less dangerous than waiting for a green light that will send two more lanes of traffic straight at us. Because the laws and the roads aren’t designed to protect us, and none of it will mean a damn thing if we end up dead.
Police will assume that we were at fault no matter what actually happened, and file reports written to absolve drivers of responsibility. In the rare case that a driver is charged, tried, and convicted, the sentence they receive will be slap on the wrist compared to what a person would get if they used anything besides a car to maim or kill someone. Media will focus on whether or not we were wearing helmets, despite the fact that there isn’t a helmet made that’ll keep us safe from what several tons of moving metal will do to our bodies. Comment trolls will say that we got what we deserved, that bikers are all just lawless scum, that streets are for cars and cars alone, that bikes cause traffic jams and should be banned from downtown, etc. ad nauseum. And nothing will change.
I knew Alex only in passing. He worked for a while at One On One Bicycle Studio, a shop I’ve spent a lot of time in over the years. I don’t know what precisely happened or what Alex was doing in the moments before his life was ended suddenly, violently and senselessly. I just know how easily it could have been me, tens of thousands of times over. And that someday, maybe it will be.
A version of this essay was originally posted as a Twitter thread from ARTCRANK.