Free Idea: Plow Bicycle Boulevards

It’s winter. Biking is people-centered and cultivates delight. Therefore we need more posts about winter biking.

The two posts linked in that last sentence were about winter biking gear. That’s a great and useful topic, but I want to talk about something else: space.

Bike lane on 1st Ave N blocked by snow

A bike lane on 1st Ave. N, ranging from entirely blocked to partially open.

To me, the biggest challenge to winter biking isn’t temperature or, directly, weather. It’s space. Right now, across Minneapolis (I’d wager St. Paul too), snow or parked cars, or both, have taken over much of the space where people would otherwise bike. Major streets haven’t been plowed to the curb, so if next to the curb is where people on bikes are supposed to go, sorry. And if that’s where cars are supposed to park, sorry again.  The cars have “no choice” but to instead park in the bike lane, if it happens to be clear of snow and ice.

Meanwhile, the “quiet side streets” haven’t been plowed at all. You can try to bike them, but it’s going to be rough, slow going, such that they really aren’t an option for trying to get anywhere.

That leaves two alternatives: trying to squeeze yourself into whatever space is usable on the street or not bike.

For me, I’m not going to bike if I have to put myself in front of cars. I don’t like and try to avoid it even in the best summer conditions, but I’m definitely not going to do it when I’m slowed and less stable because of winter conditions (thankfully, the bus is an option for my commutes).

This morning my bike commute started in our unplowed alley, continued briefly onto an unplowed city street, moved to a Park Board-maintained sidewalk (I needed the bridge to get over the creek) that I guess they’d say had been cleared, onto a Park Board path that was sorta clear and then onto the 17th Avenue “bicycle boulevard” that was cleared no more than any other side street.

That last bit struck me as an issue. We only have a handful of “bicycles boulevards” in Minneapolis. They’re really just side streets, sometimes with some extra treatments at busy intersections (but not always). Regardless, they’re meant to be part of the network of bike facilities that people can use to get around. In the winter, they just aren’t. But unlike the bike lanes on the busy streets that are filled with snow and cars, there’s plenty of space available on the bicycle boulevards. What if we plowed them as well as we do snow emergency routes?

From a purely technical viewpoint, I don’t actually know if it’s possible to get the same quality of road surface. I don’t know how much work car traffic itself contributes to clear pavement on larger streets. But we could at least get them as clear as the plows can do.

Finding the “bicycle boulevard” impassable, I turned as I usually do and squeezed into whatever space was available on 46th, turned again to do the same on Chicago and then again on Park. It was mostly okay (for me), in that I didn’t ever have to fully take the lane, but in places there wasn’t a whole lot of space (thankfully no one driving a car tried to crowd me either). It was a doable commute for the reasonably confident, but certainly not inviting.

Meanwhile, I could have been entirely out of those drivers’ way on the “bicycle boulevard” if it had been plowed.

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17 Responses to Free Idea: Plow Bicycle Boulevards

  1. JohnH December 20, 2019 at 12:26 pm #

    This piece is a little confusing as it is lead with a picture of a bike lane rather than a bike boulevard. Bike boulevards are the only way to cycle safe(r) in winter if your normal bike lane is adjacent to a lineup of parked cars. Certainly making them a snow emergency route would solve the issue.

    My only experience is on Bryant. South of Lake it is a snow emergency route. It is never an issue and always cleaned down to the pavement. They also seem to more liberally apply salt so maybe that is part of the solution. North of Lake, Bryant is not a snow emergency route, but generally OK given the decent amount of traffic it sees. Within 24 hours there is usually a double-track trough to bike in. The biggest problem comes in when oncoming car traffic comes at you and you play this game of chicken of who is willing to leave the safety of the double rut first. I’ve had a couple times where I relented and my studded tires could not maintain grip as they tried to climb out the side mountain of black ice. Slow speed front wheel washout.

    • Adam Miller
      Adam Miller December 20, 2019 at 12:32 pm #

      Having to ride in the car tracks isn’t okay. It should be plowed.

  2. AaronP December 20, 2019 at 2:59 pm #

    I’m trying my first winter biking this year, but I live in St. Paul and frankly I’m jealous when I see the condition of roads I see in pictures and videos in Minneapolis. Particularly on residential roads in St. Paul the ruts are so bad I can’t stay upright even with studded tires.

    • Adam Miller
      Adam Miller December 20, 2019 at 3:14 pm #

      Residential streets aren’t any good over here either. I just didn’t manage to take any pictures of them before writing this (although I would have held off on submitting it and gotten some if I’d known how long it would take to publish).

  3. coolerthanyou December 20, 2019 at 3:09 pm #

    Maybe as a roadway user, you should be paying a roadway tax like all of the other roadway users… you know… to pay for the thing you’re crying about not having… and the maintenance needs, and the “upgrades needed to enhance the bicycle-riding experience”?

    Or do usury/penalizing taxes only apply to people who you disagree with or make less money than?

    • Adam Miller
      Adam Miller December 20, 2019 at 3:12 pm #

      You’re not paying any roadway tax that pays for city streets. Meanwhile, I do pay property taxes to the city that do.

    • Brian December 20, 2019 at 3:27 pm #

      The argument you’ll get is that most city and county roads are entirely paid for by property taxes. Car owners pay no more than bicyclists, walker, or transit. Gas tax and registration fees pay primarily for state highways.

      • Adam Miller
        Adam Miller December 20, 2019 at 4:42 pm #

        Gas tax pays for part of state highways.

        In reality, people who drive less consume less road while still mostly paying the same for it, but narratives are hard to kill.

  4. coolerthanyou December 20, 2019 at 3:18 pm #

    I disagree: https://www.hennepin.us/your-government/ordinances/wheelage-tax

    • Eric Anondson
      Eric Anondson December 20, 2019 at 4:00 pm #

      The county pays for city streets?

      Then why did the city assess my property $15,000 to reconstruct my residential street?

    • Adam Miller
      Adam Miller December 20, 2019 at 4:35 pm #

      What Eric said, but I also own two cars registered in Hennepin County, so…

  5. Ian R Buck December 20, 2019 at 5:21 pm #

    100% agree that bike boulevards should be plowed with higher priority than they currently are. My neighborhood is significantly less bikeable in winter because Charles Ave isn’t plowed, and it is one of the main east-west routes.
    I do wonder though, if bike boulevards were plowed and other side streets are not, would we end up with lots more motor traffic on them?

    • Adam Miller
      Adam Miller December 20, 2019 at 5:53 pm #

      Yeah, probably. I’d take it though.

    • Mike Sonn
      Mike Sonn December 24, 2019 at 9:28 am #

      Only bcs we refuse to make our bike blvds real bike blvds with car traffic diverters and speed bumps, etc.

      It is possible to keep thru-traffic off bike blvds, but it takes commitment to make those streets truly bike/ped only. And that isn’t by keeping a stop sign on every block, like Charles.

  6. Brian December 20, 2019 at 9:40 pm #

    What would the city cut from the budget to pay for plowing bike lanes fully? This isn’t just a matter of plowing all the way to the curb. Snow would most likely have to be hauled away to keep the bike lane clear of snow. There is a significant cost to haul snow away.

    Minneapolis spends $13 million annually to plow city streets. My guess is that would it would cost at least $5 million annually to fully plow bike lanes.

    • Adam Miller
      Adam Miller December 21, 2019 at 7:58 am #

      The proposal wasn’t to fully clear bike lanes. It was to plow the bicycle boulevards like snow emergency routes, so that Bryant and 17th Ave and 40th St and whatever else get cleared like major streets.

      Yes, there is a cost to that, but we pay for cars to be able to get around and we should pay for people on bikes to be able to do so out of cars’ way too.

  7. Pete Barrett December 24, 2019 at 10:50 am #

    Is the idea that bike boulevards get cleared to the bare pavement?

    Major streets to get cleared to the pavement, but I think it is due to the plowing & the ensuing automobile traffic. It seems to me that even snow emergency routes like Maryland ave. are not down to the pavement until a good day or two after plowing ends.

    If the idea is that pavement packed with snow is OK as long as you have studded tires, maybe this works. I’d be in favor of some experimentation with this to see how it might work, and go from there.

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