The two streets that parallel the off-road Midtown Greenway are among the most dangerous in Minneapolis for bicyclists, raising questions about why some bikers continue to prefer them over the bike trail.
Lake Street, generally one block south of the greenway, has notched the highest number of bike-motor vehicle crashes on any corridor in the city, according to a city study. And 28th Street, also a block off the greenway, has racked up the highest rate of crashes per miles biked of any corridor in the city, the same study found.
With safety for pedestrians and bicyclists becoming a priority as their numbers grow, bike advocates are pushing for change for 28th Street, and debating whether it’s feasible for Lake.
They’re hoping that protected bike lanes will be added in the city project when 28th is repaved next year, according to Ethan Fawley of the Minneapolis Bicycle Coalition, but the city hasn’t reached the design stage yet.
But the issue remains: Why are bikers using the busy streets when the 5.5-mile greenway is designed for them? Members of the biking community say the main reason is the greenway doesn’t lead directly to destinations on Lake and 28th, with access only available at intermittent ramps.
Fawley said it’s similar to why Interstate 94 isn’t the best choice for all motorists: “We wouldn’t assume that everyone in Seward would jump on Interstate 94 every time they go to the grocery. They can use Franklin Avenue.”
The issue of bike safety returned to headlines recently when Marcus Nalls, 26, a dedicated biking commuter, was struck and killed as he rode his bike on Franklin Avenue in south Minneapolis. Franklin ranks just behind Lake Street for total crashes.
Bikers on Lake were involved in 226 accidents over an 11-year period starting in 2000, the year the greenway opened. Its highest crash year during that period was 2010, with 32. That came a year after Hennepin County completed the reconstruction of Lake Street, rejecting on-road lanes for bikers, and a year after the county adopted a complete streets policy to accommodate bikers, pedestrians and bus riders in its road designs.
Although public officials were primarily concerned with tax-base revitalization when they funded the $36 million greenway stretching across the South Side, the man who came up with the idea for the greenway had biker safety in mind.
“Fast, safe and pleasant was our mantra,” George Puzak recalled about those early days.
That gives the crash record of adjacent streets all the more irony. Hennepin County, which controls Lake Street, has no improvements on Lake scheduled in its bike master plan. Fawley, the bike coalition’s executive director, said that group hasn’t made Lake a priority for bike improvements because “right now there isn’t the public will to do that.”
When the county rebuilt Lake, some cyclists advocated for a three-lane street, with a lane in each direction, and the center lane for turns, creating room for bike lanes while preserving parking. But county traffic engineers were skeptical that such a design could handle the more than 20,000 motor vehicles a day that use Lake for much of its length.
Moreover, said county Transportation Director Jim Grube, putting in bike lanes wasn’t favored at community meetings, given that the greenway was a block away.
Fawley argued that the three-lane design proposed for Lake is more feasible for Franklin, which had 205 bike-motorist crashes. That’s where Nalls was killed, allegedly by a drunken driver, John Iverson, who has been charged with criminal vehicular homicide. The three-lane design is better for pedestrians and drivers as well, Fawley said.
Absent such improvements, bikers continue to use Lake and Franklin, despite their crash tolls. Some are making the local trips that Fawley describes, some are finishing trips begun on the greenway.
Fawley said many bikers ride sidewalks on Lake, which is illegal where businesses dominate. Lake has a city-estimated average of 500 bikers a day in some spots, while 28th Street averages 170 riders between Hennepin and Hiawatha avenues. Yet 28th also recorded a city-high rate of bike-motor vehicle accidents, according to city estimates. That’s despite a general drop citywide in the number of crashes per commuter as the number of cyclists has grown.
The city lacks bike stats for Lake Street from before the greenway opened, so it’s not clear whether bike traffic on that street changed.
Yet it’s not as if most bikers ignore the greenway. Daily ridership was estimated last September at more than 4,100 daily riders just west of where the greenway crosses the Sabo bridge, extrapolated from riders recorded by observers. While it was still working, one automated counter near Hennepin Avenue measured just over 5,500 riders on one July Sunday in 2008, although it may have been overcounting.
Some riders may also be avoiding riding the greenway after dark because of a handful of muggings, Puzak said, despite lighting, emergency call stations and seasonal bike patrols.
“I personally think the greenway is relatively safe, but you have to be careful anywhere in the city,” said Puzak, a board member of the greenway’s advocacy group.