Bike lane backlash

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May 18, 2012 by Sarah M

// By Jeremy Zoss //

Minneapolis has racked up its share of accolades for its biking infrastructure and culture. It was named the best biking city in the country by “Bicycling” magazine in 2010 and was recently listed as the most “bikeable city” in the country by Bike Score.

However, some elements of Minneapolis’ biking infrastructure are drawing more scorn than praise. In particular, the bike lanes on 1st Avenue have been singled out. Many Warehouse District business leaders say 1st Avenue bike lanes do more harm that good, thanks to their unique configuration as the only “protected bike lanes” in the city.

The business owners say they aren’t anti-bike, but say they have been frustrated by the bike lanes since they were implanted in 2009.

City officials have heard their concerns and will be launching a pilot program this summer that will add new delineators from Washington Avenue to 4th Street to make it more obvious where to park and to create a physical and psychological barrier between bikers and parkers.

What makes the 1st Avenue bike lanes unique is that they run between the curb and vehicle parking. The lanes occupy the first 6 feet of road from the curb out to a 2-foot buffer, beyond which are parking spaces.

It is the only place in the city where drivers are instructed not to park next to the curb, and the only place where bikers ride between the curb and parked cars. To complicate matters further, on some blocks the configuration changes, such as in front of Target Center, where a parking drop-off moves the bike lane to the outside of parking.

The conversion of 1st and Hennepin avenues to two-way streets in 2009 has caused many other traffic complications, said Joanne Kaufman, executive director of the Warehouse District Business Association.

Prior to the conversion, parking was restricted late at night on 1st Avenue to allow five lanes of southbound traffic, helping downtown clear out after bar close. After the conversion, 1st Avenue has only one southbound lane.

Kaufman said that traffic hasn’t evened out between Hennepin and 1st avenues as the city predicted it would, and the Minneapolis Police Department routinely shuts down 1st Avenue on late weekend nights rather than try to direct traffic. The closures mean cab stands can’t be set up on 1st Avenue, something the Warehouse District businesses are pushing for.

With the bike lanes taking up roughly 16 feet of space on 1st Avenue, removing them would add a full lane of traffic back to the street and lessen some of the other traffic issues. Visitors who misunderstand how to park along 1st Avenue can end up with a parking ticket or a towed car, which Kaufman said has scared business away from the area.

While Kaufman supports biking in general — her husband commutes by bike every day — she says the 1st Avenue bike lanes are so underused that the space they occupy could be put to better use. According to the City of Minneapolis, bicycles account for only 2.9 percent of 1st Avenue’s total traffic.

“Minneapolis is striving to be this multi-modal city, as it should be,” said Kaufman. “And yet we’re devoting all the resources to one mode that isn’t really frequently used on this street, and that is at the expense of the other modes of transportation which are more frequently used.”

Even a different style of bike lane would be a big improvement, said several Warehouse District business owners.

“We would love to see the parking go back to the curb and the bike lanes next to the parking,” said Tim Mahoney, owner of The Loon Café. Mahoney, himself an avid cyclist, attributes several accidents that have occurred in front of his business to the bike lanes.

He has seen bikers hit pedestrians in front of his business, as the lanes make it difficult for a fast-moving biker to stop when someone walks into the lane. In 2010, a cyclist was killed in front of The Loon when a delivery truck failed to spot the rider as he emerged from behind a parked car.

“It’s a [disaster] because you’ve got city engineers, traffic engineers, who are not bike riders,” said Gene Oberpriller, co-owner of the One on One Bicycle Studio. “When you have those people making those kinds of decisions, that’s like me saying that I’m going to design the lanes for the highway department.”

Shaun Murphy, the city’s Bicycle and Pedestrian Coordinator, said he’s hopeful the new pilot project will improve the 1st Avenue experience for bikers and motorists.

“I don’t disagree that these bike lanes have been a challenge for the businesses on 1st Avenue,” Murphy said.

Not only did parking confusion scare some drivers away from the Warehouse District after the conversion, a lack of bicycle parking meant that cyclists didn’t replace lost business. But Murphy said parking compliance is up to 98 percent on 1st Avenue, and the delineators should make the situation better.

Murphy said 1st Avenue was selected for the unique bike lane configuration in an effort to meet all the demands placed on the street. Both the city and the business community wanted 1st and Hennepin avenues converted to two-way traffic.

The businesses wanted to keep parking on 1st Avenue, and bike lanes needed to be included on both streets to make up for the loss of Hennepin’s popular center bike lane.

“Putting all those together, we had some tough decisions to make and that’s what led to this,” said Murphy. “Because parking lanes on 1st would turn into travel lanes, we couldn’t put them into the traditional spot.”

While the majority of cyclists asked for this article said they rarely or never used the 1st Avenue bike lanes, Murphy said the protected bike lane is good for those who are new to bicycle commuting. The sheltered nature appeals to those who aren’t comfortable riding on the street. Seasoned riders may not like them, but the 1st Avenue bike lanes still average 580 daily bikers at the most recent count. Murphy and the Warehouse District businesses agree that they would like that number to be even higher.

“I understand they have a bad taste in their mouth from the bike lanes,” said Murphy. “At the same time I’m really encouraged that they’re willing to work with me on the delineator project.”

Reach Jeremy Zoss at jzoss@mnpubs.com.

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