Finding room for bike-car coexistence

  • Article by: STEVE BRANDT , Star Tribune
  • Updated: November 21, 2011 - 12:11 PM

Some new and novel approaches to bike boulevards are aimed at luring the skittish out of their cars and onto their bikes.

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Members of the Minneapolis Bike Coalition toured city bike improvements recently.

Photo: Steve Brandt, Star Tribune

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With snow arriving next month, there’s a long list of bike improvements being announced in Minneapolis just in time for when many bikers hang it up for the year.

Some of the improvements for which the city is holding grand openings are complete. But incompletion didn't stop the city from holding a grand opening three weeks ago for one bikeway that is gathering a lot of the buzz.

That's the new Bryant Avenue bike boulevard, which stretches 4.5 miles. It was only half-done in some sections when I rode it last week. The reason for the buzz is that bikers and motorists are being asked to share the street in a new way. It's so new, in fact, that the idea required federal approval as an experimental technique.

Turn onto Bryant Avenue between Lake Street and 40th Street and you'll find new green lanes with bike markings in the middle of what traditionally have been the traffic lanes. The northbound lane is complete but the southbound lane was nowhere near finished when I rode it last week.

This section of Bryant previously attracted a fair number of bikers comfortable riding in traffic without bike lanes. The street can't accommodate bike lanes without eliminating parking. So the city used painted "sharrows" urging bikers and motorists to co-exist, with bikers usually keeping well to the side.

But now the green bike lane essentially runs down the middle of each traffic lane. So what's a driver to do?

"If a car comes up behind you, they either have to wait or safely pass around you," said Jamie McDonald, who owns a bike shop at Bryant and Lake. The city backs that up, and notes that state law does, too.

I can just imagine the tempers of drivers rising. But people who want to move fast should be over on Lyndale Avenue, according to defenders of the new lanes.

Bikers also face a learning curve. "I was slightly confused by it," said Anker Heegaard-LeGros, who commutes on Bryant on weekdays. Like a number of other bikers I observed, he rides in the several-foot-wide buffer zone that's between the green lane and parked cars. So why not put the bike lane there? One reason is fear of having bikes collide with drivers opening their doors. But the city also reasoned that putting the green lane in the middle of the through driving lane would preserve the green paint better than if it were constantly under car wheels.

State law requires bikers to ride as close to the right side of a lane as practicable, with several exceptions, most notably that they can stay wide of the curb to avoid certain conditions, including a bad surface. Passing motorists are required to give at least three feet of clearance.

Council Member Meg Tuthill, who will take the political heat if there's a backlash against cars being forced to yield their traditional hegemony on the streets, said her constituents so far are very happy with the change. Will that change when the southbound green lane is striped and space tightens?

I rode square down the northbound green lane late in one rush hour to see how drivers would react. The one driver who came up behind me seemed patient, and a fellow commuter who rides the green paint more frequently said that's his experience as well.

The Bryant bike boulevard is one of four that have been installed around the city, with three more coming next year. They're intended to draw the two-thirds of the public that eschews cycling out of traffic safety concerns.

Generally, these bike boulevards are on streets with less traffic than this section of Bryant. Some sections are little more than white paint on paving declaring them to be bike boulevards. Others offer more. For example, north of Lake and south of 50th Street, where Bryant is a more typical residential street, the bike boulevard is being advanced with different techniques, including curb bumpouts, removal of some stop signs and adding speed humps to slow traffic slightly.

Recently I joined the Minneapolis Bike Coalition for a tour of city bike improvements. It's a bike lobby focused on Minneapolis. Last summer, it arranged to shut Lyndale Avenue S. to all traffic but bikes on one Sunday. It claims to have generated 300 calls to City Hall in support of filling the city's new bike-pedestrian coordinator post after a Star Tribune article noted the job was being filled while firefighters were being laid off. It is lobbying the state and area council members for bike lanes on Central Avenue NE.

The group's tour wound through the city's North Side and East Side neighborhoods. Maybe the most impressive bike boulevard is one on 5th Street NE and SE between Dinkytown and 26th Avenue NE. One improvement that's part of the boulevard is that the city removed three stop signs that forced bikers obeying traffic laws to stop and start again, something that's much more aggravating on two wheels than four. To keep cars from speeding along these stretches, traffic humps and traffic circles were installed, and existing traffic diverters were breached to let bikes pass through.

At Broadway Avenue NE., a bike stop sign is installed. At Hennepin and Central avenues, a traffic signal to be installed will automatically be triggered by bike frames.

Another innovation was born of tragedy in Dinkytown. After a right-turning truck struck and killed bicyclist Audrey Hull in the heart of Dinkytown, a city engineer named Steve Mosing came up with the idea of installing a broad green tape-like product across key intersections. The tape is far longer-lasting than paint if it's recessed into the paving to escape plow blades.

The tour also highlighted long-overdue bike lanes in north Minneapolis along Fremont and Emerson avenues, the first north-south routes on the North Side between Interstate 94 and the west city limits. But it also revealed some missed opportunities. For example, the bike lanes along some sections of 26th Avenue N. are as bone-jarring as driving a corduroyed gravel road. Or in northeast Minneapolis, there's no curb cut to accommodate bikers who want to connect between St. Anthony Boulevard, a parkway, and the commuter bike trail that passes under it.

• • •

This week's column finishes with a thank you for allowing my colleagues and me into your homes since Dateline Minneapolis debuted three years ago. Starting next week, Dateline Minneapolis will feature the best of city-focused material originating on our MPLS blog, found at www.startribune.com/blogs/MPLS.html.

Steve Brandt • 612-673-4438

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