When Hennepin County breaks ground later this year on a five-block reconstruction of Washington Avenue in downtown Minneapolis, the project will represent Minnesota’s fullest utilization of emerging techniques for helping pedestrians and cyclists coexist with motorists.
Cyclists will ride above the curb on 5-foot-wide tracks that will weave around to give bus riders room to wait. They’ll have special areas for left turns. Bikers and foot traffic will be separated by planters and rougher pavement. At corners, they’ll be allowed to start across intersections before the light turns green for motorists. Both will be shaded by tree-lined boulevards.
“You could definitely say that it’s the first of the new generation of protected bike facilities in Minneapolis,” said bike advocate Robin Garwood, a City Council aide.
It is also a leading indicator of a wave of bike projects that will hit the city in the next few years. St. Paul has a major new bike plan drafted, while one in Richfield is already drawing praise.
The new wave is boosted by greater acceptance of biking and walking as transportation, a more established bike lobby and greater attention to all these users when roads are redone. There is also greater flexibility among the engineers who must sign off on new ways of sharing roads.
But the new configurations also will demand greater cooperation and attentiveness from road users.
For example, bus stops along Washington are designed to help bikers steer clear by using a cycle track guiding them around people waiting for the bus. So cyclists and pedestrians will need a sharp eye.
The impact on traffic will also be scrutinized. A Hennepin County analysis found that downsizing Washington from six to four lanes to accommodate the new streetscape would impede motor vehicles only modestly. But there were more complaints about delays when the county’s Portland and Park avenues were converted from three lanes of motorized traffic to two for several miles through south Minneapolis.
So-called buffered bike lanes, which give several extra feet on either side of the 5-foot riding lane, were new to Minneapolis when installed in 2012. The intent was to give greater security to cyclists who might be unsure about biking in traffic. But Minneapolis Bicycle Coalition, the chief advocacy group for bikers in the city, would much rather have gotten a protected bike lane, which uses physical objects such as plastic tubes, parked cars, curbs or planters to separate bikes from cars.
Those protected bike lanes now are popping up in Minneapolis, and a plan for adding 30 miles of them by 2020 is under consideration at City Hall. There are protected lanes on the Plymouth Avenue Bridge and another set on W. 36th Street, east of Lake Calhoun. More are planned on NE. Broadway just west of the Ramsey County line. On the South Side, E. 26th and 28th streets may each get one-way protected bike lanes soon. The North Side’s 26th Avenue N. will get an off-street bikeway. On 1st Avenue N. downtown, parked cars buffer bike lanes. But Bob Byers, a county transportation engineer, said he heard complaints from both bikers and drivers at a North Loop meeting this week about conflicts.
Perhaps the most protected bike lane in Minneapolis to date will come with the pending reconstruction of the river bridge carrying Franklin Avenue. It will feature a 6-foot bike lane protected by a 32-inch-high barrier.
But Washington Avenue will get what some call a cycle track — with the riding surface raised above the street, while riders will be separated from pedestrians.
The biggest changes on Washington will come at intersections. Both bikers and walkers will get a four-second head start before drivers get a green. That’s intended to give cyclists and pedestrians greater visibility to drivers and to help them cross. This preference is already used at seven intersections in Dinkytown and Uptown for pedestrians, but it’s only the second use for bikers.
The county wants to create these bike and pedestrian features all the way to Interstate 35W on Washington, an idea supported by leaders of the downtown greening conservancy. That’s at least five years off, however. It plans to do interim bike lane striping until then. West of Hennepin, it plans a combination of new bike lanes and protected bikes lanes to Plymouth.
Meanwhile, St. Paul has put most of its bike investment into traditional lanes, and lacks protected lanes. But it has a draft plan to add 214 miles of bikeways over the next several decades. The centerpiece adds a 1.7-mile loop of protected lanes through downtown, if parking issues can be resolved.
“Boy, that is an extraordinary plan that if implemented will be ahead of where Minneapolis is,” said Nick Mason, chair of the Minneapolis Bicycle Advisory Committee.