Minneapolis city officials are committed to a vision of inducing residents and visitors to use public transportation or bicycles (or scooters) instead of automobiles. They believe in the “Field of Dreams” philosophy — “If you build it, they will come.” And inspired by that strategy, the city rolls on with its bicycle lanes and associated engineering changes.
Officials have boasted they are confident they can increase current bicycle use — from 5 percent of commuting (according to census data) to 15 percent in the years ahead. But what do we really know about the use of bicycles in Minneapolis?
The city does traffic studies periodically for a variety of purposes. And, yet, we residents have seen no proof that the 5 percent claim (small as it is) is even accurate. Because of this, I decided to undertake limited pilot research, in search of some actual facts about usage of the Minneapolis bicycle lanes that are, increasingly, inconveniencing those who choose not to, or are unable to, use a bicycle as their main mode of transportation.
Many ways exist to measure traffic, and each should be used to best fit the research objective. The objective here has been to determine whether the proportion of bicycles relative to other roadway vehicles justifies the proportion of roadway space allocated to bicycles.
Hence, the best measuring method is short, 10-minute counts of the number of bicycles and other vehicles that pass a given spot on the road. This method avoids “double counting” that could occur with longer time periods.
Over five months earlier this year, I took 10-minute counts of bicycles and motorized vehicles traveling along roads with bicycle lanes so I could see 1) what the actual counts are of vehicles using these road and bicycle lanes; 2) what proportion of total traffic is traveling by each mode of transportation; and 3) what proportion of available traffic lane space is used by each transportation mode.
These measurements were taken at 19 locations, at different times of day, throughout the city of Minneapolis. Locations included: 1) just south of downtown (Park and Portland avenues); 2) northeast Minneapolis; 3) southeast Minneapolis and near Dinkytown; 4) north Minneapolis; 5) south Minneapolis; and 6) east Minneapolis. All measurements were taken on days and times when it was not raining — so as to not unfairly minimize the use of bicycles.
(A count on Marshall Avenue in St. Paul produced consistent findings — which should not be surprising.)
The findings are revealing, and suggest the city is not being forthright with its residents:
• Of 1,843 vehicles counted — motorized vehicles and bicycles — only 46 were bicycles. That is just 2.5 percent, not the 5 percent touted by the city.
• The estimated width of the motorized vehicle and bicycle lanes was obtained by hurriedly measuring those lanes with a tape measure in moments where there was a brief lull in traffic. (The inches measured are good estimates but could be off by a couple of inches either way.)
The overall width of all the motorized lanes added together is an estimated 3,865 inches. The overall width of the bicycle lanes added together is an estimated 1,897 inches.
This means that 33 percent of the available roadway has been allocated to bicycles, which make up 2.5 percent of traffic on those roads.
• Realizing that use of bicycle lanes varies from street to street, it’s instructive to note that in no case did the proportion of bicycles using a road come close to the proportion of roadway designated for bicycles. The closest thing to a “fair share” was observed in Dinkytown, where bicycle traffic constituted 13 percent of traffic and 29 percent of roadway was allocated to bicycles.
• These numbers understate the extent to which bicycles are given a disproportionate share of available roadway because they reflect only the number of vehicles (including bicycles) and not the number of travelers involved. When one considers the fact that motorized vehicles often carry multiple people, and buses carry many, whereas bicycles almost always carry only one person, the proportion of roadway used by bicyclists becomes even more disproportionate.
• Wider bicycle lanes do not appear to improve the balance between bicycle usage and amount of roadway dedicated to bicycles. In fact, the widest bicycle lanes (each estimated at 176 inches, or 39 percent of the available roadway) carried 13 bicycles during three measurements compared to 607 motorized vehicles — meaning that bicycles in those situations constituted 2 percent of traffic while commandeering almost 40 percent of the roadway.
Several questions arise from this research:
What evidence does the city have that bicycle usage will, indeed, increase?
Years ago, the Metropolitan Council surveyed Twin Cities citizens to learn why they were not jumping aboard the RideShare and public transit options. They learned that residents have many reasons to rely on automobiles — the need to drop off and pick up children at day care, odd and unpredictable work hours, errands that need running (such as grocery shopping) during drives to or from work, limited transit schedules, etc. In past Star Tribune stories, residents have cited similar reasons for why they must use automobiles.
Is the city’s claim that bicycle ridership will increase anything more than a pie in the sky hope? If not, why does the city not share the data supporting that claim?
Is the city doing anything to cut down on distracted drivers?
Undoubtedly, this is a key factor limiting use of bicycle lanes. During my counting sessions, I noted several bicycle riders using sidewalks instead of bicycle lanes in the streets. When I spoke with some of them, they said fear of being hit by distracted drivers made them want to avoid bicycle lanes. And as I watched automobiles buzzing by, the number of heads lowered, using mobile devices, substantiated those fears.
Until the city makes the streets safe to ride bicycles on, ridership will remain low. And just adding more bicycle lanes and more raised blacktop and white cones does little to allay the fears of those concerned about distracted drivers.
What is the financial cost of maintaining this disproportionate use of bicycle lanes?
It’s obvious just seeing the myriad bicycle lane configurations that building and maintaining them is expensive. Some bicycle lanes are merely separated from vehicle lanes by a painted stripe, whereas others have entrenched cones sticking up, and others have raised pavement between them and vehicle lanes. There are even blinking lights (e.g., along Washington Avenue near 3rd Avenue S.) which apparently have some meaning, though no bicyclist or motorist I’ve spoken with can say what they signal. In an Oct. 8 Drive column in the Star Tribune, a city public works official indicated a recent expenditure of about $200,000 for a special piece of equipment to clean the bicycle lanes, citing the need for something nimbler than regular street sweeping equipment “to get in narrow lanes separated from traffic with curbs, medians or flexible white posts.”
The city needs to share the total cost of constructing and maintaining its bicycle infrastructure, which may well reinforce the conclusion that good money is chasing bad.
What is the psychological cost of maintaining this disproportionate use of bicycle lanes?
One wonders how many accidents are caused by irritated drivers who sit in gridlock glaring at empty bicycle lanes — and who then impetuously veer out into those lanes to get to an approaching corner so they can turn onto another street. (I saw this happen numerous times on both Park and Portland avenues during rush hour.)
One wonders how many accidents occur when automobile drivers who can’t decipher the bicycle lane markings turn inappropriately and hit bicyclists.
The city’s engineers and public relations department have done a poor job telling residents what the rules of the road are regarding bicycles, and this uncertainty leads to frustration and, assuredly, to bad driving decisions. We now have myriad electric scooters in the city, and it’s obvious from watching those who drive them that they have no idea whether they are allowed on the street, in bicycle lanes or on sidewalks. And there seems to be a complete lack of information from the city in that regard.
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The city’s attempt to use social engineering to change transportation behavior seems to be failing. Continuing to spend more and more money building and maintaining bicycle lanes is unlikely to boost ridership much and is certainly likely to irritate more and more motorists needlessly.
Doug R. Berdie, of Minneapolis, is a semiretired marketing executive and researcher.