Momentum is growing in Minneapolis to put something more than paint between cyclists and traffic, and it appears that bike advocates could be near their first victory in the fight for cycle tracks.

Cycle tracks give bikers a physical barrier between the bike lane and general traffic, often a curb or a raised surface, but sometimes also parked cars or a boulevard. The idea originated in Europe but is spreading in bike-friendly U.S. cities as a way to encourage potential bike commuters who feel timid about riding on busy streets in painted bike lanes.

“Cycle tracks make people feel safer and get more people riding,” cyclist Tami Traeger said at a recent community meeting held by Hennepin County to discuss its planned $12.3 million reconstruction of Minnehaha Avenue S. in 2015-16.

But critics of cycle tracks say they can cause trees and parking to be lost in some locations while making it harder for drivers to see bicyclists.

The county has considered cycle tracks in three recent projects, and Commissioner Peter McLaughlin said he expects cycle tracks to be recommended as part of a six-block, $8.9 million reconstruction of Washington Avenue S. scheduled for 2014.

“We’re trying to create a new balance,” he said. “We’re moving away from the autocentric era.”

Minnehaha seems less likely, because of its peculiar layout angling across the city’s street grid, which creates intersections with acute or obtuse angles that county engineers believe make sightlines trickier when bikers are partly masked from drivers behind parked cars. They also recommended that the street be rebuilt with conventional, albeit slightly buffered, painted bike lanes because that option takes fewer parking spots and trees.

The Minneapolis Bike Coalition contends that tree and parking losses are exaggerated and that intersections can be made safer. The group advocates for expanded bike facilities, helped pass the city’s bike master plan and runs the Open Streets events in which major streets are temporarily closed to cars.

Paint won’t stop a car

Some feel bike lanes aren’t sufficient for Minnehaha. “What we’ve heard consistently is that paint isn’t going to stop a car,” said Seward neighborhood resident and bike activist Sheldon Mains.

Cyclists have had better luck pressing their case on Washington. Some county designs developed for the stretch between Hennepin and 5th avenues call for cycle tracks built at the sidewalk level and protected by a 2-foot-wide strip or a wider boulevard.

Farther east on Washington to 11th Avenue, which awaits future funding, a cycle track could be protected by a boulevard or by parked cars.

Cycle tracks were pioneered in Copenhagen. The closest thing to one in Minneapolis might be a short on-boulevard bike path on the east side of the Lyndale-Hennepin Avenue bottleneck or the 1st Avenue N. bike lanes, which are buffered from traffic by parked cars.

But one expert says that the track designs developed for Minnehaha and Washington differ in having them designed into a wholesale reconstruction of the streets, rather than being add-ons.

“It would be our real first model cycle track,” said Steve Clark, a manager at Bike Walk Twin Cities, which has administered $28 million in federal funding for bike and pedestrian facilities.

Bike advocates view the reconstruction as a rare opportunity to make a heavily traveled road more bike-friendly. Jennifer Lowry, the county’s design engineer on the Washington project, said cycle tracks would represent an insignificant portion of the reconstruction’s cost.

Some question benefits

Not everyone thinks cycle tracks promote safety. Longfellow neighborhood resident Kevin Baumgartner argues that the very obstacles such as parked cars that keep bikers away from traffic lanes also screen them from the view of motorists when they reach intersections. He pointed to the debut of the 1st Avenue lanes.

“People didn’t know where to park,” he said. “People who rode their bikes didn’t understand where to bike. And during the winter, when there’s snow on the ground, that problem is amplified.”

Nevertheless, cycling advocates turned out by the dozens recently to push for a cycle track on Minnehaha at a community meeting to review county designs. One design that county engineers drafted but aren’t recommending would put a two-way, 10-foot-wide cycle track on the avenue’s west side; it would be at the height of the top of the curb.

A ‘new generation’ of bikers

The Minneapolis Bike Coalition and the city’s Bicycle Advisory Committee favor cycle tracks on Minnehaha, arguing that it’s inherently safer to separate bikes from cars and that intersection modifications can ease car-bike friction. The county calculates that the cycle track design would remove twice as many trees as otherwise needed and increase the number of lost parking spots from one-quarter to one-third.

McLaughlin said the debate is about fitting competing users into the 56-foot width between Minnehaha’s curbs. “There’s a place for cycle tracks,” he said. “I don’t know that Minnehaha is the place for it.”

The coalition also was unsuccessful in getting the county to install cycle tracks when Portland and Park avenues were repaved, but it did get a reconfigured bike lane with substantial buffer space on either side.

Others say cycle tracks help the city stay competitive in attracting young workers.

“There’s a whole new generation of people coming out,” said Tina Blondell, 60, a Longfellow resident. “They’re riding bicycles only.”

 

Twitter: @brandtstrib