Cedar Ave Trail

Bloomington’s Bicycle Infrastructure Revisited, Part Three

This is part three of a three-part series on Bloomington’s bicycle infrastructure. Part One provided historical context and my personal views on what makes good bicycle infrastructure, while Part Two looked at factors behind the ambivalent outcome of some recent projects. Part Three will look at data as to how the infrastructure is actually used as well as look at some future projects. All photos and graphics are by the author unless noted.

How Infrastructure is Used

Before I get into the data, I’ll remind everyone that regardless of your personal opinion on if it’s a good idea or not, riding your bicycle on the sidewalk is legal in Bloomington. For any age and anywhere. The laws on this seem to be so commonly misunderstood I thought I’d better cite them. First, there’s the state law that says bicycles may be ridden on the sidewalk except in business districts.

A person operating a bicycle upon a sidewalk, or across a roadway or shoulder on a crosswalk, shall yield the right-of-way to any pedestrian and shall give an audible signal when necessary before overtaking and passing any pedestrian. No person shall ride a bicycle upon a sidewalk within a business district unless permitted by local authorities. Local authorities may prohibit the operation of bicycles on any sidewalk or crosswalk under their jurisdiction.

169.222 OPERATION OF BICYCLE, Subdivision. 4. Riding rules

So cities may follow the default state law banning riding on sidewalks only in business districts (like Minneapolis does), they may ban bicycling on any or all sidewalks or they may allow bicycling on any and all sidewalks. Bloomington city code specifies the latter.

Pursuant to M.S. Chapter 169, as it may be amended from time to time, and unless otherwise posted, persons may ride a bicycle upon a sidewalk in the city, but must yield right-of-way to any pedestrian on the sidewalk. YIELDING THE RIGHT-OF-WAY shall mean leaving the sidewalk if necessary.

§ 8.13 BICYCLE AND PEDESTRIAN REGULATIONS. (b)   Bicycles on sidewalks

Although mute on “business districts,” it’s likely the code would use the opportunity to specify it if the intent was for it to be banned. City communications in some cases direct bicyclists to use the sidewalks. And my conversations with city staff indicate the at least short-term intent is to have bicyclists use the streetscaped sidewalk areas around 98th and Lyndale, which is very much a “business district,” as well as the sidewalks along East Bush Lake Road and the aforementioned sidewalk along American.

I’d also suggest people keep in mind the Portland study that grouped bicyclists into four categories. The Strong and Fearless, The Enthused and Confident, The Interested but Concerned and the No Way No How.

If you remove the No Way No How group (those that won’t bicycle no matter what) from the dataset, 88% of those remaining are “interested but concerned.” Keep that figure in mind when viewing the data.

Here’s the data on how Bloomington infrastructure is used.

Four- and Five-Lane Roads with Sidewalks

To get anywhere useful in Bloomington, you still need to ride on roads that have nothing but sidewalks for bicyclists. Sometimes you’ll see some brave and fearless riding in the street, but the vast majority of both kids and adults use the sidewalk. In fact, in surveying close to 100 bicyclists, I didn’t see a single kid or teenager on the street. Note also how close the 88% “Interested But Concerned” correspond to the 85% that in practice are using the sidewalk vs a traffic lane.

"Bicyclist Facility Use: Streets with Sidewalks Only. Street: 15%. Sidewalk: 85%.

There’s no point in making a chart breaking this down by demographics as I didn’t see a single kid or teenager using a traffic lane on a street like Old Shakopee Road. I did see a very few on very low-volume streets that still had sidewalks like Nicollet Avenue south of 102nd Street, where the street is very wide (enough for the city to stripe shoulders if they wanted to) and you can probably ride several blocks without encountering a car, but this wasn’t included in the scope of the study.

Three-Lane Roads with Marked or De Facto On-Street Bicycle Lanes

These are the former four-lane death roads, having been road-dieted down to three lanes and shoulders on county- and city-maintained streets, arterials and collectors. The shoulders on city-maintained streets are not signed as bicycle lanes for political and practical reasons and in some cases, off-peak parking is allowed on them, but they function as bicycle lanes for all practical purposes.

Arterial Street Official Bicycle Lane, Portland Avenue
Collector Street Bicycle Shoulder
Collector Street Unofficial Bicycle lane, 102nd Street
Bicycle Facility Use: Streets with On-street Lanes. Street: 58%. Sidewalk: 42%.

Here, breaking down the data by demographics, we see that the majority of kids and teenagers of Bloomington simply aren’t comfortable with nothing but a stripe of paint between themselves and cars. The difference between teens and younger kids is probably not significant, but between both of them and adults clearly is.

Bicycle Lane Use by Demographic. Adults are roughly 80%. Teens and kids are roughly 30%.

An interesting follow-up might be comparing unprotected lanes on higher volume, higher speed arterial streets, like Nicollet Avenue (AADT 5000-10,000) and the lower volume collector streets like 102nd Street near my house (AADT 2500 or so). Or rush hour vs non-rush hour. Anecdotally and not surprisingly, especially for kids, utilization of the on-street lanes seemed correlated to motorized traffic volume. But I think the obvious lesson here is that we shouldn’t be satisfied with on-street lanes.

Roads with a Multi-Use Path

Cedar Ave Trail
Cedar Avenue Trail
France Ave Trail
France Avenue Trail

Here again, I was surprised. I expected the percentage using the multi-use path (MUP) to be higher than those using the sidewalk where an MUP isn’t available.

Bicyclist Facility Use: Streets with Multi-Use Paths. Street: 11%. Sidewalk: 5%. MUP: 84%.

As you can see, it’s not. It’s possible there’s a problem with the limited data I have in this category (about 50 bicyclists). But I think there may be other factors to explain it. Essentially all of the data are from Old Cedar Avenue and France Avenue, mixed together. Old Cedar Avenue, apart from rush hour, isn’t a relatively bad place to ride your bicycle in traffic. Traffic is in fact light enough that next year the four-lane death road section from 86th to Old Shakopee Road will be converted to three lanes with an overlay project. So it might be interesting as a follow-up to compare data from there to data from France Avenue, which is a relatively bad place to ride your bicycle in the road. I didn’t spot a single bicyclist in a traffic lane on France Avenue.

Alternatively, I also think induced demand for bicycling along city streets isn’t as much as we’d like, due to the lack of a real connected network talked about in previous parts. And unlike say, Lake Harriet Parkway, or the new river bottoms trail, even if it is the full 10 feet wide and smooth, an MUP along a city street still isn’t especially scenic and pleasant. So we’re left mainly with people that would have ridden their bicycle anyway. And either they’re brave and fearless enough to ride on the street even if an MUP is available, or they’re not going to ride on the street no matter what, using a sidewalk if necessary. This isn’t an excuse to not build high-quality bicycle infrastructure, just my explanation for the data.

Meanwhile, the parking lots on Old Cedar Avenue and Lyndale trailheads are packed with people driving their cars over and either walking or unloading their bicycles. The Old Cedar Avenue trailhead is less than three miles from my house, but given that I own a car, do you really think I’m going to ride my bicycle in a traffic lane down Old Shakopee Road, or on the sidewalk next to Old Shakopee Road no matter how nice the weather is or how much time I have?

Also note that to my surprise there were users on the sidewalk where one was available on the opposite side of the street. The obvious takeaway, and an obvious problem with one-sided MUPS, is that sometimes you have to cross a busy street twice to use it. For short distances that tradeoff vs just using the sidewalk isn’t worth it.

Looking to the Future

Over the years I’ve lived here, I’ve seen a lot of improvements. But we still have a long ways to go, and advocacy is very much necessary. There needs to be more pushback when the city government and engineers make horrific, anti-bicyclist design choices like at 106th and Xerxes. And need to push them to keep applying for regional grants.

In these modern times, Bloomington now has Bird Scooters, and a few teenagers and I in my neighborhood have privately owned e-scooters. State law is that these are not allowed on sidewalks or in the parks (and that riders under age 18 need to wear a riding helmet). But these are largely ignored and, with the lack of a bicycle network, essentially have to be ignored to get anywhere without putting your life into your hand by riding down a traffic lane. I don’t know of anyone that’s been stopped by police for a scooter or bicycle violation, and I’ve never heard of it occurring while I’ve been listening on my police scanner either.

Going forward, I have three specific suggestions:

Focus on the Lyndale corridor. The whole situation at Lyndale is beyond the scope of this article, envisions something much grander than an MUP and could easily be a topic in itself. But to summarize, in the 1980s the area was leveled, the decrepit buildings along with a building with real historic character, a blacksmith shop owned by the father of Vikings great Milt Sunde. The city rebuilt it in their 1980s vision of what a suburban downtown should look like — strip malls with parking in front. Now they instead envision something more like Burnsville’s Heart of the City. This would include a bicycle facility on or parallel to Lyndale.

Ultimately though, developers aren’t banging on city hall doors begging and pleading to be allowed to build five over two mixed-use buildings. There are some non-mixed-use apartments popping up, which are OK, But the city can’t stop developers from building more low-intensity suburban-style commercial buildings in the area. There’s a state law that allows property owners to rebuild what was there before if it’s destroyed. The owners of the Southtown Wendy’s really pushed the intent of the law when they wanted to voluntarily demolish their nonconforming building down to the dirt and rebuild, and the city set a legal precedent by letting them.

So now in the 98th and Lyndale area, we have developers wanting to replace Clover Center with a one-story grocery store, or a one-story office building with a car wash. And all the city can do is ask nicely for a few more trees in front, otherwise they’re afraid they’ll be sued. Going forward we need to finalize a vision for a bicycle facility so provisions can be made when properties redevelop

We also need to fix the gaps in our network, where a bicycle lane disappears near an intersection. Some of these can be fixed with paint, like as done on the county arterial streets where if a turn lane is necessary, it’s the people in cars that are a guest on the bicycle lane, not the other way around.

86th Street and Old Shakopee Road
86th street and Old Shakopee Road, a little paint can improve this situation by making right-turning vehicles a guest in the bicycle lane and not the reverse.

Some of these are more complex. We can certainly stop building new intersections with this issue, like Xerxes and Old Shakopee Road.

Xerxes Avenue, note the disappearing bicycle lane at the left.

And finally, we need to focus on the Old Shakopee Road corridor. Although plans call for an off-road corridor and it’s important for east-west movement across the city, it’s not seen as a priority by the city. Here again, results for even new construction projects are mixed. Sometimes the city will build sections during road projects, like at 86th. Sometimes they won’t, like at Xerxes. A project at Old Cedar is coming up and primary plans show no trail section will be built, so this is one specific thing we can advocate for.

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.