Editor’s note: Star Tribune reporter Matt McKinney is standing in today for columnist Tony Brown, who is on vacation.
Not. One. More. Flake.
And we’re not even halfway through March. The record-setting snowfalls of February put everyone from street-clearing crews to bike commuters to the test, and whether cyclists made it to work depended as much on their route as their fitness. If the bike path or lane was plowed and cleared early, that was half the battle. From St. Paul’s Marshall Avenue to the Midtown Greenway to city parks, it turns out, bike routes change dramatically in the winter. Some get cleared, a few don’t, and some this year have been so overwhelmed with snow that they just sort of faded away.
First, give credit to the plow drivers who were out there for back-to-back snow emergencies since the start of the year. “I and most of my staff had not had many days off in the past five, six weeks,” said St. Paul street maintenance engineer Matt Morreim. “There’s certainly fatigue and some of our people sick of basically being at work.”
Since it’s been so cold, none of that snow has really melted off yet. Morreim said street crews have had to borrow the giant snowblowers used by bridge clearing crews to move snow off some city streets — in most years they can just push it aside and move on, but not this year. That’s been the case along stretches of Summit, Marshall, and Cleveland avenues, he said.
For cyclists, the record snow brings challenges as well, the most difficult one being how to navigate a bike lane. Those painted-on-the-street bikeways allow bicyclists, in theory, to share the road with car drivers. In the best of times, they sometimes work to delineate the available street space. But not in a winter like this.
“Even in winters where we have less snow, the bike lanes go away pretty quickly,” said Maria Wardoku, board president at Our Streets Minneapolis. Encroaching snowbanks narrow the roadway, and soon cars are parking on the bike lane.
Andy Singer, co-chairman of the St. Paul Bicycle Coalition, said cities should consider a public-private partnership like the ubiquitous Adopt-a-Highway programs, but with a focus on bike lanes. His first target would likely be Marshall Avenue, the poster child for snowbound bike lanes.
It’s a narrow street to begin with, and medians installed to slow traffic mean there’s even less room for cars and cyclists to navigate. Throw in a ton of snow and, well, “it’s a disaster,” said Singer. His solution calls not for more snowplows or longer hours for their beleaguered drivers, but for better design.
“I think it highlights the issue of, ‘OK, we’re going about snow removal wrong,’ ” he said.
Some bike paths simply don’t get plowed. The St. Paul Parks and Recreation department maintains about 75 miles of trails, and plows about 60 miles of those in the winter, said spokesperson Clare Cloyd. Commuter routes and links to other trail systems get the most attention; a path like the one that winds through the interior of the Indian Mounds Regional Park falls off the plowing list.
Meanwhile, the protected bike lanes in St. Paul and Minneapolis both often get more effective snow removal than the streetside bike lanes because they don’t have to deal with the problem of a narrowing street.
While that’s good for cyclists, it can cost more to maintain a road with a protected bike lane on it, said Mike Kennedy of Minneapolis’ Public Works Department. There’s the need for smaller equipment, since a regular plow truck may not fit on a protected bike lane, and sometimes it takes more than one pass to clear it off.
“There isn’t any kind of magic bullet; just like street plowing you have to get out there and work it,” he said. The city aims to clear the protected bike lanes within 24 hours of a big snowfall, he added.
When it comes to keeping score of snowplowing this year, “It’s helpful to point out that this year is especially challenging,” said Luke Hanson, a transportation planner for the city of St. Paul. And someone with a fondness for understatement.
The Bike Guy column appears two times per month. Send ideas and feedback to Tony Brown at email@example.com. Find archived columns online at startribune.com/bikeguy.