Bryant Avenue Is Amazing

Following the recent reconstruction of Bryant Avenue — which included a major street reimagination with a two-way, off-street bikeway — the project was included in People for Bikes’ nationwide list of best new 2023 bikeways, which represents quite the glow-up compared with the previous award the bikeway was bestowed.

In light of these changes and this well-deserved recognition, let’s examine why the bikeway works, the user experience and how we can get more similar bikeways built.

What Makes Great Bikeways?

First, what makes a great bikeway? Most importantly, one that meets the needs of people of “all-ages and abilities.” Some anti-safety, anti-bike folks will claim that only young, strong males can get around by bike. Currently, too much of our bike infrastructure, or lack thereof, is the type that often is unwelcoming to many people who would otherwise love to get rolling. With good infrastructure, anyone is welcome and in places where their cycling infrastructure is well-designed, a full spectrum of people use it. 

Photo of Utrecht, Netherlands showing all walks of life bicycling.
When bikeways are designed to be safe and comfortable like this one in Utrecht, everyone is welcome, not just the “strong and fearless.” Photo by Zack Mensinger.

While there are many different takes on what makes good bike infrastructure, the Dutch have arguably been most successful in enabling the greatest number of their population to choose to ride, so we’ll evaluate the reconstructed Bryant based on the five principles from the Dutch CROW Design Manual for Bike Traffic: cohesion, directness, attractiveness, safety and comfort. First, we’ll look at what Bryant Avenue was like before the project and then at how the new design fits into these principles.

Prior Conditions

A broken asphalt street surface with a faded sharrow and no other bike infrastructure.
Prior conditions of Bryant Ave — including a faded sharrow bike symbol. Photo by Zack Mensinger.

Before reconstruction, the 60-year-old, 2.5-mile stretch of Bryant Avenue between Lake Street and 50th Street West was a wide, two-way street with parking on each side. While designated as a bikeway, this was effectively in name only, as the route lacked any actual infrastructure to keep people on bikes safe from conflict with cars — there were only painted bike symbols with two arrows on each block (“sharrows”), indicating that the road was meant to be shared by bikes and cars. However, “sharrows” are frequently misinterpreted by drivers to mean that cyclists must get out of the way of cars. The street was also in dire need of repair, with many potholes and even some streetcar lines that poked through the asphalt in spots.

According to Minneapolis project documents, prior to reconstruction, pedestrians, bicyclists and transit users made up 25-50% of the activity on this corridor with up to 2,300 pedestrians, 500 bicyclists and 2,900 transit users (along with 2,000 to 3,900 cars), depending on the day/time. Parking was in major oversupply with only 50% of on-street parking spaces occupied even at the busiest times (Saturday evenings).

Based on the city’s study of traffic patterns and data, speeding was a major issue in this corridor before reconstruction. Between 44th and 45th Street, for example, 42% of vehicles traveled above 30 mph. Based on crash data from the last 20 years, bicycle and pedestrian crashes were overrepresented on Bryant, with 13% of all crashes involving a pedestrian or person on a bike compared with 8% city-wide. While bicycle and pedestrian crashes were infrequent, when they did happen they were more likely to result in injury to the pedestrian or person on a bike.

Major Reimagination

The city’s goal was to use a planned full reconstruction of the street to:

  • Improve pedestrian safety, access and comfort.
  • Create an all-ages and abilities bicycle connection in the area.
  • Support existing and future transit services in the area.
  • Use green infrastructure to collect and treat stormwater runoff.
  • Accommodate business deliveries and customer access.

There were a few bumps in the road, including a major stress test to the design with record-breaking snow during the winter of 2022-2023. Snow removal wasn’t perfect (here, or anywhere in the city) and led to some issues with getting in and out of driveways, getting out of parked cars and concerns about emergency vehicle access. Data and feedback from phase one led to a few design shifts for phase two of the design. Though design features vary slightly between the two phases, the full length of Bryant ultimately was chosen to include:

  • Dedicated sidewalk (six feet)
  • Sidewalk level two-way bikeway (ten feet) with a buffer between the street and bikeway
  • Chicanes and bump-outs
  • Narrowed traffic lanes (12 feet)
  • Reduced parking (only on the right side)
  • Rain gardens and stormwater management
  • Some raised crosswalks
Image from City of Minneapolis informational presentation about the Bryant project.

User Experience 

How does the Bryant project stack up to the design principles for all-ages and abilities bikeways?

  • Cohesion: Does it function as part of a broader, similarly welcoming network of connections? Yes, there are great connections to both the 40th St bikeway and the Midtown Greenway, plus easy connections to the lakes and Minnehaha Creek Trail. By connecting east to nice bikeways on either Blaisdell or 1st Avenue South, you can make it all the way to downtown on separated facilities. 
  • Directness: Can you get where you need to go without the need for many detours and re-routes? Yes, the bikeway offers a straight shot since the bikeway stays on the same side of the road for the full 2.5-mile length and doesn’t require any jogs to other streets to remain on a similarly high-quality facility. 
  • Attractiveness: Are there fun things to see, places to visit, other people, enlivened neighborhoods, and much more? Yes! Bryant offers MANY destinations including restaurants, bike shops (Farmstead), coffee shops (Canteen), a dispensary and record store (Flipside), a vet’s office (Lake Harriet), a doughnut shop (Bogart’s) and several schools and parks.
  • Safety: Does the route use a safe systems approach focused foremost on eliminating the most impactful hazards, which is automobile traffic in the case of people biking? Largely yes, though it would be great if every intersection (not just a few) had raised crosswalks and painted bike/ped crossings. Lake and Bryant is the least safe intersection in the corridor, but that’s because Lake Street isn’t a safe travel corridor due to the volume and speed of cars. There are a lot of driveways that intersect the bikeway, but that’s due to homes/apartments on the east side of Bryant not having alleys. Generally, this is a minor issue because even the busiest driveway has extremely minor traffic and folks pulling into/out of the driveways have been very cautious so far, in our experience.
  • Comfort: Is the facility not just technically safe, but actually feel safe and pleasant for all users? Yes! Users of all ages and abilities have been using Bryant since the new bikeway was completed. It has been well-maintained through the winter by the city to enable year-round biking for those of us happy to embrace the seasons and ride year-round.
A group of bicyclists on the Bryant Avenue bikeway.

Evidence that a bikeway is safe: all-ages and abilities are regularly using it, including families with young children! Photo by Laura Groenjes Mitchell.

How Do We Get More Bikeways Like This?

Minneapolis is already planning for several projects similar to Bryant and received Safe Streets for All funding to address a wide range of other dangerous street elements. St. Paul recently approved an update to their bike plan that would feature a large number of separated bikeways, though the ultimate design and implementation of these projects is not certain as the plan doesn’t specify designs and timelines — nor is funding in place for most of the proposed network.

An impressive aspect of the Bryant project was that despite including such a major reconstruction and reimagination of the street, it cost far less than many recent or upcoming reconstructions in neighboring St. Paul. The Bryant project cost about $11 million per mile, compared with projects in St. Paul that cost three to four times more on a per-mile basis and feature no, or less robust, bikeways.

The biggest barrier to more Bryant-quality bikeways on the St. Paul side of the Mississippi is the need for a broader, more consistent culture change at St. Paul Public Works. As one of us has written about previously, some projects achieve really great outcomes, but too many others leave a lot on the table. For example, the recent Prior Avenue reconstruction doubled down on painted bike lanes that are narrower than called for by St. Paul Street Design Manual and don’t feel welcoming to most interested riders, especially those with children who might want to bike to Merriam Park or Four Seasons Elementary. Separated bikeways were dismissed as being too expensive, despite the need for a high-quality connection across Interstate 94. Compared to the smart water retention features on Bryant, the Prior project included no retention or permeability features and instead paved over previously existing green space. It offered some minor pedestrian improvements, but maintained a huge excess of street parking. Even on projects that do feature separated bikeways, such as the Minnesota Street reconstruction, the bikeway installed is narrower than what is safe or designated by St. Paul’s own design manual. While the update to the bike plan offers a lot of potential, if the same inconsistent priorities are applied to the projects by engineers not trained to design safe streets, they’ll likely fail to attract as many riders as they could with better, more safety- and comfort-focused implementation.

A group of kids on Bryant Avenue.
Kids and families can be thought of as “indicator species” for safe bikeways. Photo by Laura Groenjes Mitchell.e bikeways. Photo by Laura Groenjes Mitchell.

Another barrier to such projects lies at the state level. Currently, state aid guidelines don’t allow singe-lane one-way streets, despite evidence that multi-lane one-ways are dangerous. This insistence also means that for state aid corridors, space for innovative, multi-modal designs like Bryant may be limited, forcing project staff to choose less safe options without adequate separation from car traffic.

Future projects also need to ensure they’re context-specific. For example, in the Summit Avenue Regional Trail Plan, which offers many of the same features and benefits as the Bryant project, paired one-way bikeways were a better option because Summit has busier, two-way car traffic. Hopefully whoever is planning future projects can similarly identify these important contextual differences to ensure bikeways are safe and attractive for as many people as possible. 

Bicyclists on Bryant during the snowy winter.
Separated bikeways are much more easily cleared of snow, meaning they can be used by more people year-round. Photo by Laura Groenjes Mitchell.

Another way to get more such projects built is to start with pilots of affordable test projects that can demonstrate the benefits of a calmer, more welcoming, people-centered street. For example, when both Minneapolis and St. Paul either fully or partially closed the Mississippi River Boulevard to cars, we had a taste for how much better these already nice facilities could be. Bikeways on Pelham and St. Anthony in St. Paul or 26th Street, 28th Street, 40th Street and 1st Avenue in Minneapolis all fall into this category as well, providing good upgrades in the short-term, with the possibility for stronger, safer facilities in the future. We could use a lot more of this to help build a connected, higher-quality network in the meantime and grow ridership while working on more robust long-term implementation.

Lastly, we don’t need to reinvent the wheel! Unnecessarily complex planning and endless outreach for the sake of checking boxes gets expensive. Not every street and project is a unique snowflake that needs a bespoke design. Worldwide, we know what works to make people safe and comfortable when traveling outside a car — we need to just start focusing on building such facilities as quickly as we can. Bikeways like Bryant can give a huge new group of people the freedom to choose biking over driving in the Twin Cities.

Take a virtual trip down the Bryant Bikeway yourself, where you’ll pass lots of other cyclists of all ages out in February! Video by Laura GroenjesMitchell.