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Change comes to car country: Biking, walking on the rise in the suburbs

advisory bike lane
Courtesy of The Line
An "advisory bike lane" in Edina.

Josh Sprague grew up near the Cedar Lake Trail, where walking and biking were a natural part of life. In 2006, he moved to Edina. He loved his new neighborhood except for one thing: It was harrowing for him and his young children to cross 70th Street on the way to the local park.

The Line

“That’s what got me involved in the community,” Sprague explains, “and propelled me to the city council. Seventieth Street was like the wild, wild west before we did something about it.”

What Sprague and a group of neighbors did was convince the city of Edina to rein in speeders on the street. This was accomplished with a road diet — converting the four-lane street to three lanes with alternating left turn lanes to keep traffic moving smoothly. Bike lanes were also added, not only to provide better access for two-wheel travelers but to calm vehicle traffic, making it simpler and safer for Sprague, his four kids, and everyone else in the neighborhood to walk.

Changing routes

Edina is at the forefront of a trend throughout the metropolitan area to make suburbs — once seen as auto-only zones — better places to walk and bike. From Crystal to Roseville to Richfield, projects are popping up to give people options beyond driving to get around.

Steve Elkins, transportation chair of the Metropolitan Council and former Bloomington City Council member,  says “We’re to the point where the Met Council is going to study all the local bike plans to do a metro bike plan, where we help connect the bike lanes between cities.”

Elkins credits Bike Walk Twin Cities (BWTC) for boosting these trends through its financial and technical support for bicycle and pedestrian improvements in suburbs. A program of Transit for Livable Communities, BWTC administers a $25 million federal grant to find strategies for increasing bicycling and walking as a means of transportation to work or for other trips. A number of their recent projects and partnerships showcase the potential for biking and walking in the suburbs:

* New on-street bike lanes and separated pedestrian walkways along Fairview Avenue in Falcon Heights and Roseville connect the University of Minnesota-St. Paul campus to the Rosedale shopping center. On-street bike lanes have also been added to Larpenteur Avenue.

“It’s quite successful — I’ve seen a lot more people biking and walking,” says Falcon Heights mayor Peter Lindstrom, who took another step to promote a new vision for suburbs by leading his city to adopt Complete Streets legislation — a commitment to creating safe and accessible road conditions for pedestrians, transit riders, bicyclists and motorists.  (St. Louis Park, New Hope, North Saint Paul, Eagan and Bloomington as well as Hennepin County and the State of Minnesota have adopted similar measures.)  

* Transforming Fridley’s Main Street to a “Complete Street” by narrowing travel lanes, adding add bike lanes and filling a gap in the sidewalk network to provide safe and convenient access for people to walk and bike to the Northstar Line train station, which is planned to open this summer.

*A road diet with bike lanes and reduced speed limits running for more than 3 miles on Douglas Drive through Crystal and Golden Valley.

*Paying for a study that paved the way for a road diet on Portland Avenue in Richfield from 66th to 75th Street, leading to an existing cross-town bikeway on 75th and 76th streets. Richfield also hosted an Open Streets event last fall where Penn Avenue was shut to traffic for part of a day, bringing 7,000 people into the streets. David Gepner, who runs a car-leasing business and chaired the city’s bike force, points out that Richfield has a long history of bicycling. Two of the metro area’s biggest bike dealers, Penn Cycle and Erik’s, both started there.

Edina is the leader among Twin Cities suburbs in creating new opportunities for people to walk and bike for fun, exercise and transportation. With help from Josh Sprague and other city council members, Bike Walk Twin Cities helped create connecting bike facilities on Wooddale Avenue, Valley View Avenue and 54th Street, which might soon link to the bike lanes on 70th Street and Antrim Road. “It’s looking like a network now, not just disparate projects,” says Sprague.

Parking problems? Go 'advisory'

One stretch of these new bikeways, completed last fall, sparked community discussion.  Residents did not want to lose parking on Wooddale Avenue, so “advisory bike lanes,” (a relatively recent innovation from Europe where a dotted line marks space on the roadway shared by bicyclists and motorists) were installed. This confused some drivers, which Sprague sees as a sign that further education about advisory lanes is needed.  But, he notes, “there have been no incidents that would tell us we need to stop the experiment.”

“I know not everyone wants to bike,” Sprague acknowledges. But he believes bike lanes benefit them too. “It makes a calmer street when you walk and drive. People spend time in their front yards again.” Those are reasons Edina recently passed a franchise fee on utility bills to finance further bike and sidewalk improvements.  

At 41 Sprague is the youngest member of the Edina City Council and sees biking and walking as crucial to the city’s future. As a real estate agent, he is keenly aware of what today’s homebuyers are seeking in a community. “Young families want a place that’s walkable and bikeable. And it’s not just about transportation, its about health and wellness, a sense of community, the chance talk to your neighbors, the feeling of living in a town, not an anonymous existence.”

Steve Clark, bicycling and walking program manager for Bike Walk Twin Cities, foresees a transformation of suburban life throughout the region. “More and more, in the first ring suburbs and beyond, people want more choices. They don’t want to drive all the time.”

This article is reprinted in partnership with The Line, an online chronicle of Twin Cities creativity in entrepreneurship, culture, retail, placemaking, the arts, and other elements of the new creative economy. Jay Walljasper writes and speaks frequently about how to create better communities.

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Comments (5)

Now isn't the time

Sprague was quoted saying, "I know not everyone wants to bike, [but] it makes for a calmer street when you walk and drive.” I really don't understand that logic. I have rarely if ever seen the bike lanes be used and now were saying were spending millions to make the streets "calmer"...? I don't get the logic and don't think many of Edina does either. The author also goes on to say that Sprague thinks bike lanes are crucial to the city's future. This is an assumption but I think most of Edina disagrees with him, particularly at the monetary cost of these changes.. not to mention the inconvenience and potential decrease in driver safety (as we may see come out of Wooddale Ave).

To be clear, it's not that I'm against bike lanes in and of themselves. I just spent time in Washington DC a month ago and spent a day or two using the bike share program, and found it to be actually pretty awesome. My issue is multifold. First, Edina isn't Washington DC. Second, I think the support for bike lanes is grossly misjudged and don't think citizens have had fair input into the process. And don't say you could apply to get involved through the commissions, because I'm pretty sure you wouldn't be placed on the Transportation Commission if you came from this perspective. Third, and most importantly in my opinion, we don't have the money. If this were the mid-90s and we had a internet boosted surplus and were looking for way to spend money, I would think differently of it. Obviously the financial times for our gov't are very different. Just think how many teachers $250,000 could hire or the types after school programs we could support in Edina with that money instead of what happened to Wooddale Avenue. So just to make clear, this isn't an anti-bike lane rant I or many of us are taking. It's a position of practicality, in my opinion.

Edina

Tyler,

If people slow down due to narrow streets and bikers on the street, that naturally calms traffic.

Bike lanes are indeed crucial to the city and region's future. We need to make an effort to attract young people to our area and many of them don't want to bother with the expense of a car, yet they still need to get to work. True, there may not be a lot of people biking through your city at the moment, but that doesn't mean this will always be the case. As Minneapolis has demonstrated, there's pent up demand for bike amenities and if you build it, they will indeed come.

If you want input into the process, just go to a city council meeting. Or write your city council member an email, which would have taken less time to compose than the missive you posted here.

Advisory Bike Lane on Wooddale

The process of putting 'advisory' bike lanes lacked transparency. Only after complaints flooded city hall about the advisory lanes did city hall acknowledge the city of Edina would have to repay the cost of the advisory lanes if they were taken out, $250K back to the federal government.
I travel Wooddale daily and the advisory lanes are dangerous and because their has not been an accident is not an indication that the new street markings are safe. How do you educate all the people who use Wooddale including residents, MTC bus drivers, visitors and whoever else travels this road? I am a huge proponent of bike lanes that are safe not experiments that have questionable safety. The usage of bike lanes will increase when bike lanes are connected, Edina is building a network of unconnected bike lanes. What good is it to take children biking on a bike lane that ends on a busy road. There needs to be more planning on building suburban bike lanes.

Twenty five million dollars you must be joking

I am stunned.

As Mr. Armstrong said I want people to be safe whether they are on bike, foot or in a vehicle but it's time some objective reasoning went into the process.

Bike traffic should have to meet a threshold of traffic before specific lanes are developed. We don't build 320 foot wide freeways everywhere.

Right now it looks like supply is leading demand perhaps they should be more closely matched with supply a little more responsive to demonstrate demand not if we build it here we thing they will come.

A straight forward demand study should be pretty easy to come buy given the availability of data.

Supply/Demand Cycle

Pardon the pun.

Studies have shown that demand is clearly there. Just look at the additional people who are biking around Minneapolis once there's a halfway decent amount of infrastructure. You're not going to get people out of their cars and onto bikes though if you have a disconnected system that prevents people from getting safely to their destination. That would be like truncating 35W at the Minnesota River and telling drivers they have to figure out the rest from there.

Also given the small cost of striping a few streets here and there, you're not out a lot of money as you experiment with new methods. $25 million is a pittance considering it's metro-wide, especially compared to the amount spent for car infrastructure. What's the annual Department of Transportation budget these days? I'd bet that a few million dollars isn't even a rounding error when it comes to what is spent for freeways.