Minnehaha Avenue is being reconstructed between Lake Street and 46th Street South. This provides a once-in-50-year opportunity to make big improvements to the street. The Minneapolis Bicycle Coalition and many other community partners continue to strongly favor a well-designed protected bike lane (or cycle track) on Minnehaha that allows more people to feel comfortable riding. The picture at right provides a general sense of what a cycle track could look like on Minnehaha.
Ahead of a yet-to-be-scheduled community meeting, Hennepin County recently posted updated drawings of a cycle track (protected bike lane) concept and an on-street bike lane concept on the Minnehaha Avenue project website. Unfortunately, the County’s website makes questionable claims about the impacts of the cycle track option. This post is about dissecting these proposals to counter some of the County’s assertions about cycle tracks.
We need the community to unite in support of a better cycle track proposal that works to minimize impacts rather than maximize them (as the current County proposal does). Without strong community support, the County will miss this opportunity to build Minnehaha right--for everyone.
Summary: County presents questionable claims on tree and parking loss
In comparing the cycle track option to bike lanes, the County claims that a key difference between the two concepts is that a cycle track would directly result in the loss of approximately 50 additional trees and 50 additional on-street parking spaces.
We strongly question the need to lose that many trees or that many parking spaces with a cycle track design.
We’d like to hope that the County hasn't chosen to exaggerate impacts on trees and parking in an attempt to sway neighborhood opinion against the cycle track. But there is little doubt that more can be done to add a cycle track while preserving more trees and parking than in the County proposal.
Additional street tree loss can be nearly eliminated with a cycle track design if some slight modifications are made to the design of bus stop unloading zones.
The cycle track option saves one foot of width on the roadway--increasing green space and the likelihood that existing trees will survive the construction.
Most of the additional parking loss in the cycle track proposal is apparently due to extremely conservative design decisions. These decisions the County is proposing seem well out of line with their standard design on other roads and with national standards.
We urge the County to produce designs that accurately reflect the community's desire for protected bike lanes while also preserving many more street trees and parking spots.
You can let the local elected officials know that you'd like to see a improved cycle track proposal that reduces impacts on trees and parking. A win-win-win solution is possible, but we obviously need leadership to overcome engineering opposition.
Full (admitedly wonky) details are below on the most questionable aspects of the County's cycle track design.
Tree loss details
The County's bike lane design proposal results in the loss of roughly 50 trees, most notably the loss of 13 trees along a short stretch of 46th Street near Minnehaha Avenue. The claim for an additional 50 lost trees in the cycle track design stems mostly from transit stop design that adds more buffer space than is necessary for the local bus, bicycle, and pedestrian traffic. One example is shown below.
The County's proposed design for bus stops features an approximately eight-foot boulevard/deboarding zone, a two-foot buffer between the deboarding zone and the cycle track, and a ten-foot wide cycle track. The total bike/deboarding zone, not including the sidewalk itself, is 20 feet wide. In an extremely high-traffic corridor this might be appropriate, but allocating so much space to buffer zones in this context is overkill. The #7 is the only bus that serves Minnhehaha with all day service only every 30 minutes.
The County's cycle track proposal at 40th Street. The wide bus unloading/bike area and intersection design unnecessarily eliminates four trees (just at this intersection). Note that yellow is driving lanes, pink is no parking areas (for bus pull off or driveway access), green is boulevard, blue is cycle track, and gray are sidewalk or curb ramp areas. Also note that most of the sidewalk is outside of the construction area in white.
A better, narrower design at the bus stops should eliminate the need to remove additional trees. There are two ways to do a narrower design:
1) narrow bus deboarding/cycle track area; or
2) use in-lane bus stops where the bus stops in the traffic lane rather than pulling to the right.
Option 1: narrowing bus deboarding/cycle track area
The cycle track could be narrowed to eight feet (leaving four-foot lanes in each direction), and the buffer between the cycle track and the curb could be widened from the typical three feet to four feet, to provide space for bus passengers to deboard.
The narrowing of the cycle track from ten feet to eight feet would signal to bicyclists that they should slow down and yield to pedestrians (as is always the case when bicyclists and pedestrians intersect). The best design guide for cycle tracks (NACTO) says that eight feet is ok for a two-way cycle track in constrained areas. Signage and lane markings can also be included to increase the awareness of upcoming bus stops and potential people crossing the cycle track. This design would reduce the bike/bus deboarding areas to 12 feet wide--preserving most, if not all, of the additional lost trees in the County's cycle track proposal.
Design showing how a narrowed bus unloading zone and narrowed intersection distances could preserve street trees eliminated in the County's cycle track proposal.
Downtown Vancouver has a great example (at right) of how to design a narrower bus unloading area with a cycle track. They add in a speed hump on the cycle track to create extra awareness. That could be done easily on Minnehaha if the cycle track is done at the street level. It's worth noting that this street in downtown Vancouver has many many more buses and people walking than Minnehaha Avenue. (Photo Credit: Beyond DC)
Option 2: using in-lane bus stops
Another option to preserve street trees would be to have the bus stop in the traffic lane rather than pulling off to the right (the County’s proposals include ten-foot pull off zones for every bus stop). Such an “in-lane bus stop” is definitely worth considering given the low frequency of bus service on Minnehaha and the generally low car traffic volumes. It's also worth noting that in-lane bus stops eliminate the need for buses to merge back into traffic, which is a benefit as well.
There are a variety of ways you could use extra space provided by in-lane bus stops while preserving the street trees with a cycle track. The picture below preserves the very wide deboarding area. You could also choose to preserve more on-street parking leading up to the bus stop since the bus doesn’t need to pull off and back in any longer.
Design showing one way how in-lane bus loading could preserve street trees with a cycle track design.
Another option would be a hybrid of an in-lane bus stop and the current County proposal. This would be a roughly six-foot wide pull off area rather than a ten-foot wide pull off area that would allow cars to still pass buses while preserving extra space that allows you to preserve street trees. This type of design would be similar to bus stop designs for most roads with on-street bike lanes--an example would include 15th Street SE in Dinkytown--except that you would not have the bike-bus conflicts that you have there.
Cycle track design offers more green
It's important to note that the cycle track design, if implemented correctly, should actually be better for trees, because the total construction area is slightly narrower, which allows for wider boulevards and thus more grass/landscaped area through which water can reach tree roots. The total width of the proposed cycle track design is 53 feet (10' cycle track, 3' buffer, 9' parking lane, 11' travel lane, 11' travel lane, 9' parking lane). The bike lane concept has all of the same dimensions for motorized lanes and parking, but the bike lanes take up an extra foot, resulting in a total street width of 54 feet. This means more total pavement in the bike lane concept, and construction impacts coming closer to the roots of existing trees. The bottom line is that the cycle track design gives all of the trees a better chance at survival, and should not require the additional elimination of trees if the bus stops are designed for the context.
The County says that the cycle track proposal “impacts approximately 50 additional parking stalls” from the bike lane proposal “to provide necessary intersection sight lines between bicyclists and motor vehicles.” Preserving site lines is certainly a very critical part of bicycle safety. But it is very highly questionable that site lines necessitate that much parking removal based on local practice and national standards.
The County does not identify the spots specifically in their layouts, although a comparison of the two proposals shows additional no parking zones in the cycle track proposal. Many of the new no parking areas seem to be taking well beyond the most conservative possible approach to site lines.
Let’s take a look at the area around 41st Street as an example. The picture below identifies the three pink no parking areas unique to the cycle track proposal.
1. This area is presumably to allow for visibility for north bound vehicles turning left across the cycle track. That is important, but this much is huge overkill. The NACTO bikeway design guide (the best engineering guide for cycle tracks) says that it is desirable to have 30 feet of no-parking zone on either side of a two-way cycle track at intersections. This area appears to be more than 100 feet to the edge of the sidewalk and more than 125 feet to the edge of the cycle track. The County may argue that they need more space to maintain site lines because Minnehaha runs on a skew, but certainly not almost 100 feet more clear space than national standard. Reducing this down could save up to four parking spaces just at this one location.
2. This no-parking zone has nothing to do with site lines to the cycle track, so is not reflected in the County's summary (which refers only to site lines to bicyclists). The best guess is that because they removed the bike lane on this side, the County feels they "need" extra site line to the intersection crossing for people walking. This standard seems way beyond anything anywhere else in the City where it is very common to have parking right up to the crosswalk on the far side of an intersection. On Lake Street (a nearby and recent County full reconstruction project), parking zones start right after the bump outs on the far side of intersections and there are no bike lanes there. It isn't clear why it would need to be different here. This seems to be about one parking spot.
3. This area again has nothing to do with site lines to the cycle track. It seems again that it must be about visibility to the pedestrian crossing point here, but there is no justification from the County and would it really require a no parking zone of apparently about 65 feet? This would be about enough space for three parking spaces.
These three extremely questionable large no-parking areas probably equal eight lost parking spaces. And that is just one intersection. The County needs to better justify these decisions or it just looks like they are trying to kill a cycle track by inflating impacts. We certainly hope that isn't their intent.
The County cites winter maintenance as a 'key difference' between the design options. It has been pointed out to County staff, on multiple occasions, that the existing bike lanes do not remain functional during winter months. This is a universal problem, not isolated to Minnehaha Avenue in particular. The issue is that snow builds up in the parking lanes, and the bike lanes turn into auxiliary space for parking. While it is clear that a cycle track will require snow clearance, it is disingenuous for the County to maintain that this is a "key difference" between the two design concepts. For the bike lanes to remain functional in the winter months, the current practices for snow clearance will need to be significantly improved. This is a similarity between the two concepts, not a difference.
It's worth noting that there are a few other decisions we have questions about, including:
Why are there two southbound lanes heading through the Lake Street intersection? They quickly merge together creating an unncessary conflict point.
Why does the cycletrack convert to two ways at 32nd Street rather than closer to Lake Street? Why aren't protected bike lanes maintained to Lake Street? We want to eventually see protected bike lanes continued to the Midtown Greenway and it is disappointing that they would go away at the busiest part of the whole route.
Why are curb radii so great at many intersections? This increases pedestrian crossing distances while also encouraging faster turns.
Why doesn't the County highlight the parking and tree loss impacts of the larger curb radii and new turn lanes? Why aren't those presented as design options?
By offering a comparison that seems anything but even-handed, the County staff have again exhibited a predisposition against cycle tracks. A growing body of research suggests that cycle tracks are significantly safer than on-street facilities, and are used by many more bicyclists. Our interactions with community members indicate that the vast majority of bicyclists and would-be bicyclists prefer the safety of a separated facility. The County seems to believe that a biased, one-sided comparison of the design options will sway public opinion against cycle tracks. An added irony is that Minnehaha was once discussed as a potential pilot project for the County's Complete Streets policy. From the lack of meaningful public input to designs that continue to favor driving, this project is sadly far from the ideals of a true "complete" street project.
We're confident that this cynical ploy will not work - people want a cycle track on Minnehaha, and understand that a cycle track can be designed better than the current Hennepin County layout. Please join us in asking hard questions about their assumptions and calling on our elected officials to get to real solutions.
I want to end with a note of thanks to the five other Coalition volunteers who helped with the details of this post in one way or another. A team effort!