Despite widespread community pride in being a bike-friendly city, Minneapolis is falling behind other big cities in one of the newest tools to encourage biking: protected bike lanes.
Mayor Betsy Hodges is trying to fix that by proposing $750,000 for protected lanes next year that better isolate cyclists from motorists.
“Our intent is to create a bike system not just for recreation and exercise, but for commuting as well,” the mayor said at her budget address last week, noting that she has gone from being only an occasional bike rider to a recreational cyclist.
Biking advocates say such lanes are vital if the city is to entice residents out of their cars and onto bikes.
Minneapolis already has one six-block lane buffered from traffic, plus a short lane on a bridge. But that is far less than other major cities: Chicago has 19 such lanes totaling more than 19 miles, while New York has 35 segments for almost 45 miles.
Protected bike lanes are part of the roadway, but separated from motorists, sometimes by a row of parked cars. That puts the cyclists between parked cars and the sidewalk, as on six blocks of 1st Avenue N. Plastic or metal poles also can separate cyclists and parked cars. The protected lanes also can be raised next to the street, as on a short segment of Washington Avenue to be installed next year in downtown.
The number of protected lanes has quadrupled nationally since 2010, according to the Green Lane Project, which has supplied technical help to a dozen cities nationally. Minneapolis applied twice, but was rejected both times because it had no money set aside for those kinds of lanes, according to project director Martha Roskowski.
Minneapolis now has a goal of building 30 miles of protected bikeways, which will include bike greenways and other off-street trails.
Some biking experts say the city’s lack of protected bike lanes is not driven by a lack of interest, but by the city’s plethora of existing off-street bikeways. City bikers can choose from the Midtown Greenway, Hiawatha LRT Trail, Cedar Lake Trail and a comprehensive network of park bike paths.
“We have a great urban trail system in Minneapolis and it doesn’t go everywhere, but it connects to a lot of great places,” said Simon Blenski, a city bike planner.
The city’s protected bike lane progress was also hurt by its own good fortune as a major recipient of money under a federal transportation pilot program, which added bike boulevards, lanes and other amenities.
Blenski said when those facilities were being designed, “there wasn’t a lot of discussion about protected bike lanes.”
Now the city is crunching biker feedback about possible protected lanes, and evaluating suggested routes so it can firm up a plan by the end of the year.
The push for protected bike lanes has had successes and setbacks. Washington Avenue will get a raised two-way protected lane, but Hennepin County rejected a similar proposal for Minnehaha Avenue south of Lake Street. The city is about to install a set of plastic pole-protected bike lanes on W. 36th Street, east of Lake Calhoun. City leaders are considering them when roadwork is done next year on 26th and 28th streets east of Interstate 35W. The rebuilt Franklin Avenue Bridge will also get protected lanes.
City planners are also evaluating protected lanes for 19 other corridors around the city. Some are paired streets that already have paint-only bike lanes, such as Portland and Park avenues, University Avenue SE. and 4th Street SE., or Fremont and Emerson avenues. Many others are downtown.
The protected lanes do have a cost. Even easy-to-install lanes marked by plastic pipes cost roughly $100,000 per mile to build, Roskowski said.
Protected lanes are aimed at those not comfortable even in the wide painted lanes with buffer strips that Portland and Park offer.
“The feeling of not being scared for your life is important,” Roskowski said.
The Minneapolis Bicycle Coalition advocated for protected lanes on Portland and Park when the county resurfaced them, but wound up getting wider painted lanes without barriers.
Minneapolis is among a growing number of cities locked in a race to appeal to health-conscious residents as well as appeal to would-be residents. Memphis plans to add 18 protected lanes, mostly this year and next, while Boston plans to add 10. The federal census counts Minneapolis as second in the percentage of commuters who bike to work, at 4.1 percent in 2012. It is also a “gold award” winner in the bike-friendly city rating by the League of American Bicyclists. Adding protected lanes is a natural next step, Minneapolis Bicycle Coalition executive director Ethan Fawley said.
“There was a little bit of lagging, but I think we’re going to be catching up quickly,” he said.