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Can bikes help solve the Twin Cities' persistent town/gown tensions?

MinnPost photo by Bill Lindeke
For both employees and students, colleges and universities can be big drivers of bicycling and transit.

Minneapolis is justifiably lauded as a mecca of American bicycling, with its greenways, bike lanes, and recreational trails grabbing national headlines. But the unsung hero of the bike renaissance is probably not the intrepid Uptown commuter atop a Surly, but the lowly college student on a Walmart Magna. With its tens of thousands of students and staff navigating a congested urban campus, all the top intersections for bicycling all revolve around “the U.”

And after decades of neglect, where bicyclists were often treated as an afterthought (and sometimes treated like criminals), the campus has recently begun placing bicycling front and center.

But compared to “the U,” other Twin Cities campuses have a long way to go. Some still wrangle with parking problems while neglecting bicycling. Maybe the sea change at “the U” offers a way forward for the region’s other higher-ed schools.

Washington Avenue revisited

A few years ago, there were 18,000 cars a day streaming through the University of Minnesota’s East Bank along Washington Avenue, cutting through the very heart of the campus.

Today’s daily car count? Zero.

“Good question,” Steve Sanders replied when I asked him what happened to all those cars. “We don’t really know. We configured some of interior streets to accommodate that traffic diverted off Washington.”

Sanders, who works as the alternative transportation manager for the school, figures most drivers have opted for the nearby interstate, which leaves big parts of campus blissfully free from car congestion. Instead of four lanes of high-speed traffic, today’s Washington Avenue features light-rail tracks (with room for buses), picnic tables, and wide dedicated bike lanes.

MinnPost photo by Bill Lindeke
Washington Ave.: before
Photo by Mike Hicks
Washington Ave.: after

“Washington really split the campus in half, and it was a not a pleasant place to be,” Sanders told me this week. “The [new design] has been a sea change that way. The Green Line has made a huge difference; the campus just feels different.”

Before the recent changes, the university’s infrastructure was highly uneven. And when given the opportunity to fix connectivity, planners often didn’t solve problems for bicycling. (For example, the design of the recently built Science Teaching and Student Services building failed to accommodate and connect the schools’ two busiest bike routes.) Even worse were the tickets handed out to bicyclists for biking on the sidewalk, especially in places with few alternatives.

But with the new infrastructure, police crackdowns are mostly a memory, and bike lanes even run through the historic Northrup mall. To solve safety problems, Sanders’ office used interns to watch eye-numbing amounts of video data, analyzing how to solve bicycle and pedestrian conflicts at places like the busy Washington Avenue bridge (the No. 1 spot for bicycling in the whole city).

Other campus biking tactics include new high-capacity bike racks, and a “ZAP program” that provides statistics and benefits to students and staff for riding their bicycles. Now one of the main challenges is too many bicycles, not too few.

“Space is a premium,” Sanders said. “We don’t want to pave over green space, so it requires us to be more creative in how we add capacity.”

Andrea’s Augsburg story

Online learning aside, university campuses are predicated on density. But density challenges for campus planners, especially given the notorious politics of university administrators, deans, and donors.

Andrea Dvorak works as the assistant director for study abroad at Augsburg College, located on Minneapolis' West Bank less than a mile from the University of Minnesota. But Augsburg is a much smaller school with different dynamics.

“I’m not specifically an avid biker,” Dvorak told me this week. “A big part of it was figuring out the really detailed logistics. How much time is this actually going to take me? What’s the right route to go? So having to take some time to figure that out, and not having any assistance in figuring that out, probably keeps a lot of people from biking.”

A few years ago, Dvorak began bicycling to work from her house in Robbinsdale, a little over 5 miles away. She says that biking to work has involved a learning curve.

“I don’t feel like Augsburg has done something specific to keep me or help me biking,” Dvorak told me. “[But] it is an easy place for me to bike to. It’s a pretty urban area, more urban than most other private colleges in Minneapolis.”

For both employees and students, colleges and universities can be big drivers of bicycling and transit. However key hurdles like professional appearance, or time constraints, keep many potential cyclists from trying it. For many staff, showing up to work sweaty or in athletic garb is a big problem; offering showers or other amenities like secure bike storage is an important way for schools to encourage bicycling.

“After I started doing it, [I started] getting exercise in and stress relief that comes with it,” Dvorak told me. “Bicycling wakes me up really well in the morning, and if I had a stressful day, I’m done with it when I get home. That’s not usually the case when I drive.”

Can Cleveland Avenue be a campus catalyst?

For universities, bicycling is more than therapy. Most institutions deal every day with tensions between campuses and surrounding neighborhoods over things like noise complaints, traffic and parking.

On the face of it, St. Paul’s Cleveland Avenue would seem to have a lot of promise for solving the persistent parking problems around University of St. Thomas. The street goes right alongside the main campus that boasts more than 6,000 students.

But at the recent St. Paul public hearing on whether to install bike lanes on Cleveland, St. Thomas spokespeople testified against the plan, stating that there was too much traffic and that the route would be unsafe.

“We are really big on bikes,” Doug Hennes, the vice president of university relations, told me. “We have encouraged students particularly over the last 10 years to use alternative ways to get to campus and not drive, and for many of them that ends up being bikes, bus passes, walking.”

Hennes pointed out that St. Thomas does try to encourage bicycling through student groups. And the school conducts counts of bikes on racks. Recently the school counted an average of 400 bikes locked up at racks during the day, and has installed bike share stations on the edge of campus.

MinnPost photo by Bill Lindeke
St. Thomas has installed bike share stations on the edge of campus.

After the public hearing, when faced with opposition from the school, St. Paul recommended delaying the bike lanes. Hennes would rather see bike lanes on nearby Prior, which he explained could have sharrows painted in the road.

“We feel more strongly about Prior [Avenue] being a better fit for two reasons,” Hennes said. “We think it’s significantly safer for bicyclists right now. Traffic counts on Cleveland run between 9,500 to 11K cars a day.”

Bikes as a solution to the town-gown parking problem

With thousands of young, financially limited students and lots of limitations on space, university campuses are the ideal place to promote bicycling, especially given persistent parking squeezes that force many nearby neighborhoods to adopt onerous “residential parking restrictions” on nearby streets.

“Parking gets to be really expensive,” Steve Sanders told me. “It’s difficult to locate and takes up valuable real estate that can be used for higher purposes. We’re really at a point where we’re trying to manage the demand and provide people alternatives so they don’t feel they have to drive a car to campus.”

Biking down Cleveland Avenue these days feels a lot like Washington Avenue did years ago. Given the recent sea change at the University of Minnesota, over the next few years it will be interesting to watch whether the U’s example trickles down to the smaller Twin Cities schools. After all, whether you plan for it or not, you can be sure that students will keep riding their beat-up mountain bikes to get around. 

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Comments (26)

Cleveland gets a reprieve

Those of us in the neighborhood all breathed a sigh of relief when we learned that the plans for a bike lane on Cleveland was put on hold. Those little merchants have a tough enough time making a living without losing the few parking spots their customers have. And the way the "planners" went about it, totally ignoring the valid concerns raised by the business owners was outrageous.

Prior is a better choice, not only because of traffic but because for the stretch they're talking about, it's primarily residential where homeowners have other parking options like garages. Bicyclists could actually ride down the middle of Prior (and many do) without fear of being hit by traffic, which is obviously not the case with Cleveland.

Bottom line, it would be nice if these decisions were being made by people who, you know, actually live here.

Where is the student voice?

I'm struck by how easily neighbors disregard students in these conversations. Should they get a voice? With St Kates and St Thomas, there are 10,000 students along Cleveland Avenue.

Students are regarded

as temporary residents and as such shouldn't have any sway with setting the conditions that permanent residents have to deal with for decades. It's bad enough that we allow them to decide our local elections for us.

residents are not superior to students

While a particular student may live near you for only a few years in that capacity, many stick around, but even if they didn't, the student body as a dynamic population is a constant given the longevity of the institutions we're talking about. The idea that students shouldn't be allowed to vote locally and that their local concerns ought to be trumped by you as a resident (for lack of a better term) is counter to the idea that a representative democracy should represent those governed.

To play out this philosophy, student and institutional needs ought to play an important part in decision making for neighborhood and city infrastructure decisions. I think efforts to decide who the victim is or who should have a greater voice is a trap.

When they pay the same property taxes I do

They can have the same degree of influence that I do. I realize that representation without taxation is now the accepted norm in this entitlement society, but it shouldn't be.

Try again

Given your homestead exemption and property tax rebates (the latter of which have higher limits for both income and amount rebated relative to renter property tax credits), renters typically pay more per household unit and person. This is especially true when you consider the fixed cost per unit of city infrastructure provided to apartments, triplexes, or other housing with more people per area. The linear feet of road, sidewalk, sewer pipe, alleyway, etc to serve an individual living in a single family detached home on a 1/8 acre lot is higher than per person with 10 people on the same lot. And make no mistake, an apartment's property taxes are absolutely passed right on to the renter via their monthly rent bill.

What are the property taxes

on a dorm room?

Well then

I guess we shouldn't take any of the churches or their parishioners' needs on parking into consideration since they pay nothing in property taxes. Or the local universities and their workers who drive on neighboring streets and park in the area. They don't pay property taxes, either.

"Permanent" residents like

"Permanent" residents like homeowners, who never ever move, right?

Also, in the 3 census tracts that border the area of Cleveland that was under discussion, 2,670 were renters (with 8,831 being residents in owner-occupied housing) according to 2013 ACS data. Of the 2,600+ residents, over 1,000 had moved in sometime between 2000-2009 (at least 4 years!), with about 150 more living there since before 2000. You disparage renters simply because their tenure is short (which isn't often true!), ignoring that the desires or needs of the next renter may very well match those of the ones leaving.

I say this as a homeowner in Minneapolis: your particular definition of what makes a place desirable to live or have high property values may differ from someone else and the things that make their lives better. It shouldn't be the city's job to cater to you or any other homeowner just because you decided to enter into a 30 year mortgage with a bank instead of a year-to-year contract with a landlord.

"we allow them to decide our local elections for us."

Newsflash for you Dennis. Their right to vote is just as relevant as yours, or are you suggesting that they shouldn't be allowed to vote?

Students

All residents are temporary--some just a little more so than others.

What is town-gown?

I have to admit that I read the entire article to try to understand what the title meant. I was disappointed.

That aside, I think we should be focusing on removing car traffic from local streets more. More pedestrian and bike malls. Those streets are already paved, so no green space would be removed, and maybe over time, green space would be increased. Parking would be at a premium, but if alternative transportation was more encouraged, convenient, and safe, maybe there would be fewer cars to park.

With regard to the changes on the U of M campus, I have to say that campus feels much more like a campus and not a freeway. I went to grad school there and HATED the fact that Washington cut right through the middle with lots and lots of traffic. It's pretty obnoxious to try to navigate campus by car, now, but that's ok. I was recently there for an event (Ingress First Saturday), and it felt great to be on campus. Night and day. It felt like students and their families belonged on campus, all over campus, and not just some areas of campus. It felt greener and more connected. I know, it isn't greener. It's still not terribly connected in some places. But the atmosphere was much more focused on people and not cars.

Mostly housing, traffic, noise tensions

Pretty much anywhere you have a campus with college students, nearby neighborhoods often get upset about those three issues and try to figure out ways to limit the "impacts" of the University. These fights can become very intense! Ask anyone in Minneapolis's Prospect Park or Marcy-Holmes or Saint Paul's Union Park or Mac-Groveland neighborhoods what they think of the nearby schools and the college students that come with them. These areas organize around things like limiting apartments or student housing options, or implementing parking restrictions, instituting historic preservation ordnances, etc.

The premise of the article is that promoting bicycling, which is often an afterthought for campus planners, can be a solution to some of these problems.

I know you were there Bill,

I know you were there Bill, and know this already,but I have to say that the comment from Mr Hennes at that city council hearing was astonishing. I know as a Macalester graduate I shouldn't be surprised at the retrograde opinions that spout from the institution down the road, but it stunned me all the same.

There stood an adult whose job confers upon him the responsibility of the health and safety of thousands of young people, and yet he instead chose to advocate for a policy that would continue to jeopardize both. There stood a representative from an institution of higher learning, arguing in favor of superstition and opposed to the conclusions of a vast body of rigorous research. It was galling to hear the University of St. Thomas oppose a policy so obviously and demonstrably in the best interests of their students.

Agree with St. Thomas

I think the idea mentioned by St. Thomas makes sense not just for Cleveland Ave but in general. I think keeping the main arteries for bike and car traffic on separate streets is the preferred option. Placing bikes on more residential streets with less traffic helps ensure speed differentials are lower and fewer cars means fewer distractions all around.

Our cities are very gridded and I have always found it much safer and more pleasant (often faster as well) to avoid main roads like Central Ave, Broadway or Cleveland in favor of nearby parallel residential streets. We could formalize this method with bike lanes, making a few residential streets one-ways and forcing automotive traffic to turn left or right with curb/bollards every few blocks. I know I would welcome my street getting a bike lane and having the other measures implemented.

"arteries" are more flexible than people think

The Washington Avenue example illustrates how much flexibility planners and neighborhoods actually have. Nobody would have thought that you could have taken 18K cars off the street and everything would be improved. Heck, the University didn't even want to do it. They wanted a LRT tunnel and to keep the cars at grade.

But the current design was the compromise, and look at what happened to the street now.

costs unknown, not nonexistent

Stopping 18k cars from using that corridor doesn't mean they went away, they were just shifted to other roads. The degree to which other areas have become more congested just isn't known. Possibly because there hasn't been much effort to find out or because they have dispersed so greatly that the effect is broad but not great in any one area so hard to measure.

Consult someone outside the U of MN on traffic numbers

Mr. Lindeke should know that a U of MN parking facilities or traffic manager is not the person to ask about where all the cars and trucks went when Washington Ave. SE was closed. He should ask people like the engineers who planned the light rail line that now bisects the East Bank campus. As I recall, there were projections that traffic would be diverted to nearby city streets, not an interstate like I94, and that motor vehicle congestion would just move away from Washington (to East River Road, to University Ave. and 4th St. SE, to 15th Ave. SE and 10th Ave. SE, etc.). That has happened. The cars didn't disappear, they just moved.

Also, one of the curious silences in his article is that Mr. Lindeke does not address the fact that most students who live in off-campus housing that is not a "luxurious" and expensive new apartment building (with very, very limited car parking) have cars. The Como neighborhood, for example, has tons of U of MN students who walk or bike to campus, but they park their cars--each of them seems to have their own car--on the street or in the yards [illegally] during the day. So the campus has fewer cars, but the students actually don't.

Distractions in the public

Distractions in the public realm and reduced speed differentials on main arteries are exactly what we need. We need more people on foot and bike on commercial corridors. We need cars and trucks to travel at 20 mph instead of 30 mph, the latter has a much higher chance of killing someone on impact. Bike lanes, better sidewalks, etc make this possible by bringing more people out in those modes (which has proven to make drivers slow down and become more aware).

What "we" need.

There is no universal understanding of what "we need" nor should there be. I assume you meant to say "what I would like".

Purposefully slowing down the majority of transportation because it would encourage marginal increases in the use of modes which you might prefer isn't a reasonable argument for building infrastructure. No matter how much we encourage cycling it will never come a significant part of the transportation network. It simply doesn't have the capabilities of the motorized methods regarding time, load capacity and weather capabilities. Reducing the capacity of the most functional system in order to support a one which is marginally useful isn't a good use of limited resources.

We have the ability to have different speed limits on different streets, some need to be 20 and others are fine at 30 or 40. At 20 a lot of the cyclists where I live would be breaking the limit. If there are other ways to reduce the potential for injuries and maintain an efficient transportation network why not take them? Forcing different modes with high weight and or potential speed differentials to use the same space is simply bad engineering. It is the same reason we separate bike and pedestrian paths in our parks and cycling on sidewalks is illegal in business districts. Same thing with rail. Light rail moves more slowly than a bike whenever it is dealing with cross streets block to block and only speeds up once it gets a mostly dedicated corridor. Should we also slow down rail by only placing it at the same grade and within the same space as cars, bikes and pedestrians? Obviously the speed and mass of the train has caused its share of fatalities as well.

You're right

When I say "need," it comes from a place of differing priorities and guiding principles. Fact is, our street designs are dangerous. Go ahead and tell the Minneapolis woman who was hit trying to cross a 40 mph road on foot in Brooklyn Center, or the doctor in Plymouth killed on Vicksburg Lane. Or the child on Rice Street hit and severely injured. These are examples off the top of my head of 30-40 mph road designs that are dangerous, particularly for people on foot or bike - people who absolutely have the right to be out and about for leisure or economic activity in urban environments. Since "traffic" is one of the most common cited reasons against new development, this type of investment is great for allowing more people to live in high-demand neighborhoods in St Paul (while also keeping housing costs from ballooning out of control). Toss in the unpriced long-term effects of climate change every time we hop in a vehicle. The delays (if any!) of motorists on certain corridors don't outweigh the benefits in my own personal view of the world.

I disagree entirely that safe bike infrastructure, prioritizing transit, and calming traffic will have only a marginal effect on mode share. Existing trips mostly fall under 3 miles (with over 50% of Minneapolis resident job commutes being under 5 miles), the majority of our metro has small households (and they're getting smaller), most trips don't end up buying anything requiring carrying capacity, travel per household has mostly peaked due to a variety of factors, self-driving cars are indeed a thing and will actually allow better use of our public right of way, and on and on. But that's far too complicated for a comment section post.

Boiled down: if slower speeds, higher bike/transit mode share, narrowed & fewer lanes, and ubiquitous bike infrastructure were unsafe and terrible for our economy, surely other places in the world with all those things would have higher transportation death rates and demonstrably worse economies, right?

Well...

I am not sure you read my post. I agree that the current system is dangerous and I advocate changing it to make it safer. My preferred method is to better separate incompatible modes, bikes off sidewalks, more dedicated bike paths/roads, and various road types which all have an appropriate speed limit. Your suggestion seems to be to blend all transportation types into the same space and then limit all of them to the speed of the slowest. So should bikes be limited to walking speed?
.
No place in the world that can afford motorized transportation uses bicycles at a significant rate. Sweden which has weather similar to ours and the 4th highest use of bikes in the world cycling only accounts for about 9% of all trips. The fact that many trips are short and we don't typically buy large items on trips fails to recognize that it is a combination of all of those factors added together that result in other modes being more useful. For cycling to be an option for any particular trip all of the items you mention (and more) must be true for that trip, no large items, no passengers, not a long trip, decent weather, don't need to be presentable when you arrive, etc. It isn's so common for all of those things to be true for any one trip. By the way, households are getting smaller in large part due to the aging population, not something that will increase bike use.

We should make all transportation safer and more efficient. I would happy to make those who use cars pay for the total cost of that choice including all of the car specific infrastructure. Same with all other modes. A big part of that would be to bake in to the price the impact each has on the environment. A carbon tax of some sort would be good as long as the money collected actually went to directly counter the impact of the taxed activity. Something such as sequestration. If everybody pays for the actual costs of their choices then we don't need to worry about forcing density or setting artificial (and most often politically driven) barriers to various lifestyle choices. The most efficient mode for any particular trip would most often be used.

Even Europe as a whole uses cars for over 80% of passenger miles which despite their much larger and more expensive infrastructure isn't that much different than the United States. Given the small differences between similar countries regarding transportation it would be hard to attribute any economic variations to that difference.

"We encourage alternative transportation options"

Says the St Thomas rep, as he opposes a plan to encourage alternate transportation options.

The point this article makes, which I think is a very perceptive one, is that when we talk about things like bike lanes or mass transit, we aren't just talking about "alternate transportation" - we're talking about the much broader concept of livability.

If all the City is trying to do is ram a bike lane down Cleveland, then the benefits are narrowly focused on the subset of the population that happens to ride bikes. If the City is trying to become a more livable place, then everyone wins. Think bigger.

I am not a fan of retro fitting for bike lanes

but there isn't much of an alternative. I do think that the idea of considering streets with less arterial traffic to be a good one as Mr. Tester suggested.

Yes bike traffic may have to slow down more to comply with traffic rules but as pointed out the traffic will be moving at a more sedate speed anyway. And the lower congestion should make visibility better.

Washington avenue should be considered an exception because of the bridge not the norm for locating bikes on roadways. Perhaps planners should consult traffic engineers more before they pick their routes - there is no significant cost savings for quicker shorter routes for bikes particularly for students.

That's right...

Who do these students think they are? Children of St. Paul residents who think they can come in and just spend loads of money on tuition and shop at local businesses and THEN think they can be treated like "real" residents? "Hey you kids, take your two-wheelers and get off my St. Paul yard!" ;-)

Some think so

I agree that Mr. Tester's position is ridiculous. However, I also think it's ridiculous to assume that the best option for biking is the busiest artery in the area.