Lileks: Less is more, except at the intersection of cars and bikes

  • Article by: JAMES LILEKS , Star Tribune
  • Updated: September 13, 2012 - 11:20 PM

No, seriously, this is an important issue that should be of interest to everyone, because this is the road I use to get downtown, and thus my inconvenience can be blown up into a larger social issue that affects us all, obscuring my own personal, selfish motives.

What? Sorry; I was just talking to myself. Anyway, I wanted to talk about the road work in progress on Portland and Park. This is not an everyday example of paving a street. That happens all the time, in three phases:

1) Everyone complains that the road is so rutted you feel like you're driving a vibrating bed from a cheap motel; 2) the crews block off a lane to start repairing the street tomorrow, and people complain that the barrels went up and nothing was fixed overnight, I mean what do we pay them for? 3) The final phase, when you drive over a smooth new road, notice it's nice, discard the thought after 1.5 seconds and never think about it again.

In the instance of Park and Portland, though, they're removing a lane. No, they're not picking it up and outsourcing it to China. Through the magic of paint, three lanes become two. As far as I can tell, the reason is pretty straightforward: People were using the street for driving.

Rather, too many people, too fast. The old school of thought: One-way streets efficiently move traffic through the city with minimal delays. The new school: One-way streets unfortunately move traffic through the city with minimal delays.

The shift of one single adverb shows how attitudes change; once upon a time, the planners, who knew exactly what they were doing, lauded the one-ways as a solution to gridlocked streets; now the planners, who know exactly what they are doing, are appalled that people use these streets in the manner for which they were designed.

Well, we can't have that. If they had their druthers, I suspect there would be speed bumps that knock your head on the sunroof if you were doing anything over 20 and perhaps a machine that randomly shoots a child's inflated ball into traffic so you hit the brakes and crack your head on the steering wheel and maybe even stop talking on the cellphone. Anything to keep people from treating the road like a wide boulevard.

But people do speed on these streets, and three lanes of hurry-up traffic hollow out the neighborhood, somehow. One-way streets disengaged drivers from their surroundings; when there aren't heavy vehicles coming at you from the opposite direction, you tend not to be as observant. You're just part of the river of plastic and metal gushing on to the dam, hoping the sluice gates are green.

This may sound like a contradiction of my complaint, but hear me out. I'd rather they turned both streets into two-ways, installed a median and turn lanes, and just said: There. It's pretty, and it's slow. Live with it. That's what they did with Lyndale south of Lake. I fumed for a month or two, but like every other petty obstacle, you move on with your life. (At 23 mph.) Same with roundabouts: Didn't like 'em, no sir. Now the ones I know I love, and the strange ones with two lanes bring a zesty note of terror to an otherwise banal excursion.

Ah, but what of the bikers? The revision of the roads makes more room for cyclists. Number seen on a midafternoon drive 30 blocks on either street: two. They had the same regard for stop signs as the drivers did for the speed limit.

You'd think everyone would be happier if they created bike boulevards on parallel streets, but you know what will happen? Even though they'd have the right of way, every day a car would roll through the stop sign and cream one.

The other solution: Put the bike lane on the inside of the parking lane. But that just looks wrong. Like the sidewalk has receding gums, or the tide went out. Ever parallel-parked on a street without an adjacent curb? It's like walking through a dark room expecting to bark a shin on an end table that isn't there.

So this is the compromise, perhaps. It's possible there's an element to this we don't know yet. Once all the zippy streets have been calmed, and drivers get the idea that cars aren't exactly loved around here, then they reveal the big surprise subway system they've been working on for years.

Oh, that light rail? Total head fake.

jlileks@startribune.com • 612-673-7858

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