Old Cedar Ave Bridge

Bloomington’s Bicycle Infrastructure Revisited, Part One

Back in 2016, I wrote an article about Bloomington’s bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure, with examples of the good and the bad. In addition, I wrote two related articles in 2014 and 2018 about the conversion of four-lane death roads to three-lane sections. It’s now been a few years, so I felt it was time to revisit it from different angles, incorporating changes to the infrastructure since then. Images are mine unless otherwise noted.

Some History and Context

I’ve lived in Bloomington my entire life, in the same house; due to the paths we took in life the parents wound up moving out of the family home instead of the kids, and we rented and eventually bought it from them. There are many things to like about Bloomington: It’s easy to drive around, crime is still relatively low, there are mature trees — but the lack of sidewalks inhibits walking around the neighborhood, and the lack of bicycle infrastructure is a problem, too.

As kids we just dealt with it. Growing up in the 1980s and ’90s, we’d all ride our bicycles on the only thing available — the sidewalks. (Readers should note that per state law and local ordinance, any bicyclist of any age may ride on any sidewalk in Bloomington, and in some cases, the city sanctions the practice.) The sidewalks were narrow and steep. They were bumpy on our skinny-tire 10-speed bicycles, and some of the intersections didn’t have curb cuts, so we’d have to stop and pick up our bicycles to lift them over the curb.

But we were taught streets were for cars, and to stay off a busy street if it had a sidewalk we could ride on instead. Not that any of us was brave enough to ride in the street even if we had been allowed to. In the kitchen junk drawer I still have a keychain that reads “You’re a 1st Class Citizen — Keep up the Good Example,” given to me by a police officer as a reward when he saw me riding my bicycle on the sidewalk instead of the street.

Portland Avenue. Four lanes of vehicle traffic flanked by curbs and narrow sidewalks on either side.
Portland Avenue in its old “four-lane death road” configuration, as it was when we were growing up.

As a car-owning adult, I drive to work, I drive whenever I go shopping and I drive when I go get food. It’s easy to just order online, drive to Walmart’s pickup spot, get a week’s worth of groceries loaded in my trunk and be done with the chore for the entire week. I work out of my home but am only allowed a half hour for lunch; if I’m “eating out” I have just enough time to head to a drive-through or take-out, grab something to go and get back home. But I understand other people want or need to use bicycles for transportation. And during my free time, I like to walk, ride my bicycle or take my e-scooter around the neighborhood.

Current Context

The mayor and city council, while officially non-partisan, have a definite liberal slant and seem — at least in theory — to understand the needs of non-motorized travel. But demographics and the layout of the city present a lot of challenges. Most notably there’s pushback from bicyclist-hating grumpy old men. They’re horrified that their tax dollars might benefit someone in the community other than themselves. Horrified that they might lose an entire 30 seconds of their life if they get behind a car going under the speed limit on a three-lane road. And they think that our community shouldn’t be allowed to have nice things. Besides opposition to bicycle infrastructure, they managed to sink a project to give us an all-ages community center to replace a senior center in a decrepit former elementary school.

A few more issues:

  • The city is allergic to using eminent domain, or even the threat of it, to acquire land for even a clear public purpose like transportation infrastructure. Richfield throwing hundreds of residents out of their homes to build Best Buy under the threat of eminent domain was one of the most truly evil things I’ve seen a city government do, and that and the general Kelo v. New London backlash are why we now have a state law banning uses like that. But on the other extreme Bloomington won’t even take a couple of feet of grass for clearly public, transportation purposes.
  • There’s a lack of money: Anything that can’t be done with paint or as a minor part of an existing funded reconstruction has to compete with the rest of the metro for regional funding and usually requires county involvement.
  • The city council tends not to question or push for better outcomes from their engineering staff. I have noticed a change in attitude over the years from engineering to being more open toward accommodating the needs of bicyclists. But only as long as it’s not hard or expensive or affects motor vehicle traffic in the slightest or anything like that, no no no.
  • Long sections of street aren’t coming up for complete reconstruction at the same time. With only a couple of blocks needing reconstruction, the momentum is to put things back like they were to match the rest of the street.
  • Most of the city was built in the 1960s with no thought of bicycle infrastructure. So that’s what we have to start out with. And unlike newer cities, there are generally residences on arterial and collector streets, which as noted above means the local residents have things to say about proposed changes.

Good Infrastructure and Bad Infrastructure

When talking about good, OK and bad bicycle infrastructure, there are two graphics I really like to use. The first is “Build it For Isabella,” who was the face of the 2012-2015 project to advocate for protected bicycle infrastructure. The idea is that bicycle infrastructure should be comfortable enough for a 12-year-old girl in a skirt to ride, not just a 30-year-old Lycra-clad road warrior.

Build it for Isabella. Isabella: 12 years old and ready to ride. Meet Isabella. Like most girls her age, she is exploring her independence. She just started 7th grade and loves doing cartwheels in the grass with her friends and sharing her life through Instagram. She is ready to travel her world by bike, but is the network ready for her? Isabella wants to bike to school, the library and the ice cream shop, but her mom worries about getting across or along busy streets. Isabella likes to ride, but she's still small and her skills aren't fully developed. She's sometimes a little wobbly and it's hard for her to see over parked cars near intersections. What does Isabella need to ride safely around her world? Are we planning low-stress, connected networks that work for Isabella? What if every project was designed with Isabella in mind? If we build it for Isabella, wouldn't it work beautifully for the rest of us too?
The Green Lane Project

The second is the City of Portland study of transportation cyclists. In a given population, some are willing to ride their bicycles no matter what, even if it’s sharing a lane with cars. At the other extreme, some just won’t. But most people wind up in the middle, neither refusing to ride nor totally strong and fearless. Isabella and her grandfather as well as myself and most of Bloomington are in this 60 percent, and we should be building infrastructure for them.

Four Types of Transportation Cyclists in Portland. Less than 1% are Strong & Fearless. 7% are Enthused & Confident. 60% are Interested but Concerned. 33% say "No Way No How."
Portland Department of Transportation

Sidewalks back in the day and today are widely used by bicyclists, so we’ll count them as “bicycle infrastructure.” But they’re not good bicycle infrastructure. They’re too narrow — older ones are 4 feet wide — too steep and bumpy, often jog back and forth and have no boulevard space. And they’re often obstructed by trees, shrubs and street furniture. Would you want to ride a bicycle down this sidewalk on Old Shakopee Road? Would you even want to walk down it?

Old Shakopee Road, Bloomington: a four-lane road with a narrow sidewalk to the side.
Old Shakopee Road

These are assuming there even is a sidewalk. Most streets, including the one I live on, don’t have even that. On the other end of the spectrum, we have what I consider the ultimate in bicycle infrastructure, multi-use paths (MUPs) — ideally on both sides of the street so that if your destination is on the same side of the street you don’t have to cross it twice on a round trip. Here’s a nice MUP on Old Cedar Avenue. The Wright’s Lake Park mural is in the background.

Old Cedar Ave. A two-lane road with a multi-use path on the side.
Old Cedar Avenue

And the crown jewel of our bicycle infrastructure, the restored Old Cedar Avenue Bridge.

Old Cedar Ave Bridge, a truss bridge over the Mississippi River that now contains a multi-use path.
Old Cedar Avenue Bridge

Some old, narrow asphalt trails that are crumbling and only a couple of feet wide are still along Normandale Boulevard, Old Shakopee Road and France Avenue.

Normandale Trail: only a few feet wide and highly dilapidated.
Normandale Trail

In the spectrum of bicycle infrastructure, while they don’t exist in Bloomington, there are also one-way cycletracks and plastic bollard “protected” lanes. A plastic flim-flam stick isn’t really any better than paint, so I won’t waste space discussing them. But I’ll comment on cycletracks.

I’d be absolutely terrified to use the cycletracks on Washington. There is only a couple of feet of space and a curb (that disappears near intersections, leaving no protection at all) between yourself and cars on an extremely trafficked street. In Richfield, the cycletracks have boulevard space, street furniture and trees between myself and cars, and I was willing to try them out on a bicycle. I’ve not personally tried out the Jackson Street trail, but that seems to be ideal for bicycle infrastructure in crowded urban environments.

Putting this all together, what I would consider to be an ideal bicycle facility would be painted lanes for the strong and enthused and MUPs on each side for the rest of us. Such an example doesn’t exist in or around Bloomington, and probably won’t because of the right-of-way constraints that are what they are. But two that come close would be Portland Avenue in Richfield (lanes and an MUP on one side), and Normandale Boulevard (no lanes but MUPs on both sides).

The Bloomington Bicycle Network

Considering the context and my opinions on what good and bad infrastructure is, some progress has been made. I haven’t seen a sidewalk without a curb cut since the early 1990s. Over time, the MUP network has grown and most of the four-lane undivided “death roads” have been reconfigured to two and three-lane configurations. (See articles here and here.) On city streets, the shoulders are generally not signed as bicycle lanes for practical and political reasons. In a few places, off-peak parking is even allowed where it was before the conversion. But they function as bicycle lanes so I count them as such. Here’s one near my house on a street that was four lanes undivided when I was a kid

Shoulder near my house on a street I’ve ridden down many times as a kid and adult.

Here’s a map showing the current status of Bloomington’s bicycle network with the changes in the past five years or so.

Bloomington Bicycle Network 2022. Includes off-road trails and on-street lanes.
Basemap from Google

Despite the progress, it’s still frustrating where we are now. By far the biggest problem is the lack of protected infrastructure (or any at all) over large parts of the eastern part of the city including the main east-west corridor on Old Shakopee and the concentration of industry and businesses along Lyndale. And often the shoulders disappear near intersections to make turn lanes for motorists, which ruins the network effect for bicyclists.

A few of these, such as 86th and Lyndale, have been fixed. But there’s still a lot left, and the city is in fact still building more of these situations when streets are completely reconstructed, as at 86th and Old Shakopee Road, or Xerxes Avenue and Old Shakopee Road. Particularly bad is Xerxes Avenue, where the curb pulls in so southbound bicyclists have to merge into the general lane for all traffic, not just the lane for right-turning traffic. Complaining to the City Council and engineering staff about this horrible design got absolutely nowhere, so all I can do now is complain here.

Xerxes and Old Shakopee Road.
Xerxes Avenue approaching Old Shakopee Road looking north: Southbound the bicycle lane ends, forcing bicyclists to merge into the lane for all the car traffic before the right turn lane begins (out of the frame to the left).

Part Two will go into case studies of some of the more notable recent projects and why they came out with ambivalent outcomes, and Part Three will present data on how this infrastructure is actually used and look ahead to future projects.


About Monte Castleman

Monte is a long time "roadgeek" who lives in Bloomington. He's interested in all aspects of roads and design, but particularly traffic signals, major bridges, and lighting. He works as an insurance adjuster, and likes to collect maps and traffic signals, travel, recreational bicycling, and visiting amusement parks.