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Minneapolis is breaking bicycling ground with new protected lanes: Here’s what’s working

Now that they’re hitting their stride, planners are learning lessons about what works and what might be improved.

“What are those white things? Do they take them away in the wintertime?”

My mom asked me that the other day, and she’s not alone. All across Minneapolis, a new kind of bike lane has been popping up, marked by the telltale sign of those white plastic thingies.

So what are they? The short answer is that they’re the quickest, most affordable kind of protected bike lane. (And yes, they leave them up in the wintertime.)

They’re also a sign of things to come. Since Minneapolis began building protected bike lanes years ago, the city has refined its designs. Now that they’re hitting their stride, planners are learning lessons about what works and what might be improved.

The case for protected lanes

“Why are protected bike lanes important? There’s a physical barrier between you and moving cars,” Jessica Treat told me. Treat is the director of St. Paul Smart Trips, a non-motorized advocacy group. For years, she has been trying to get St. Paul to build protected lanes like those she sees in Minneapolis.

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“It’s as simple as that. People feel intimated by cars moving past them, and to have that physical barrier provides a lot of comfort,” Treat said.

If you listen to bike advocates for very long, you’ll uncover a meaningful shift taking place. For decades, most bike advocacy organizations focused on the problems faced by existing bicyclists, that 5-10 percent of people brave, broke, or committed enough to ride through harrowing urban traffic. The vast majority of the time, advocates focused on people who were white, male, and well off, and used to asserting themselves in often-dangerous situations.

These days, though, bike advocates like Treat are thinking about the people who aren’t yet riding bicycles, but might like to try it some day.

“These lanes provide comfortable space for a lot of those reticent riders, the interested-but-concerned, which is a big slice of the population,” Treat explained. “Especially if you want to ride with families and kids, and you don’t feel safe. Protected lanes would enable more of that riding for transportation, with parents taking their kids to school or going out for dinner or things like that. Having a connected network of protected facilities would provide that.”

Thanks to a strong bike coalition and forward-thinking city government, Minneapolis is leading the way in shifting the dialogue around bicycle planning. And the biggest leap forward was the adoption this year of a plan to build 30 new miles of “protected bike lanes” throughout the city.

After this years’ construction season, the first wave of new protected bike lanes hit the city, on 36th, 26th, 28th and Oak Streets.

What are those white things?

According to the city’s Public Works department, the white plastic bollards, called “flexible delineators” by city planners, are easiest and cheapest way to construct a protected bike lane.

MinnPost photo by Bill Lindeke
Flexible delineators mark the new protected bike lane on 26th Street, in South Minneapolis.

“The standard design for projected lanes implemented on street corridors in the near term include flexible delineators, the white posts,” Simon Blenski told me. Blenski is a bicycle planner for the city’s Public Works department.

“That’s simply the lowest cost option and is the easiest to implement in the near term, until the opportunity for a street reconstruction comes along, where we can look at more robust separation,” Blenski said.

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As Blenski explained, the plastic delineators are working well. The city has learned that bolting directly into the roadway is a better technique than gluing them on (which they’d been doing in the past).

Today the biggest problem hasn’t been cars hitting them, but the difficulties around street sweeping and snow removal during the wintertime.

“Posts have some maintenance issues as they go through various seasons,” Blenski told me. “If they get hit or scraped by a plow, it’s the maintenance around the posts. Instead of having a nice straight hard curb to plow or sweep against, it requires crews to go in and out. [There’s] interest in establishing something that would reassemble more of a standard curb that would be easier to plow and sweep against.”

The new two-way protected lanes

The bollards are one thing, but two-way bike traffic is another. Because of their two-way design, where bikes closely pass each other, some of the latest bike lanes have been met with a few quizzical looks from Minneapolis bicyclists.

Suzanne Zaayer has been riding along the brand new Oak Street protected two-way “cycletrack” lane since it opened earlier this summer. So far, she’s not a fan.

“I just confirmed my dislike of cycletracks,” Zaayer wrote recently. “I was riding north in the protected cycletrack, and I had the green so I continued at a good clip. The car turning left failed to yield. Today’s lady was on her smart phone, as were about half the other drivers out there today. Hang up the phone and yield to those who have the right of way.”

Minneapolis’ other new two-way lane, on West 36th Street, has had similar problems, with cars turning into bike traffic at intersections. Because the lane is a two-way design, it forces some awkward accommodations at the two ends of the new route, which the city has tried to improve with the liberal use of green paint.

Photo by Tyler Schow
The 36th Street bike facility has its critics.

“36th is the second-worst bike facility I’ve ever experienced,” Sean Hayford O’Leary, a Richfield resident who regularly bikes around South Minneapolis, told me. “36th is awkward with any pedestrians. I feel like I’m about to hit posts or curbs, and connections at either end are awkward.”

Granted, many others like the design, and it’s certainly big improvement over what was there before. But Zaayer’s and O’Leary’s experiences point to a common problem with protected bike lanes. At intersections, the devil is in the details.

Visibility versus safety

Protected bike lanes face a recurring problem: There’s a trade-off between visibility at corners and protection along the block. For example, the city’s most controversial protected bike lane is also its oldest: the parking-protected lane along 1st Avenue North, running through the heart of downtown’s busy Warehouse District.

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The appeal of parking protected lanes is pretty simple. Compared to the white plastic dividers, parked cars offer real solid protection for bicyclists who want to be safe from speeding cars. By simply swapping the locations of the bike lane with the row of parked cars, planners can easily create a well-protected bike lane along busy city streets.

“As far as different varieties of protected bike lane goes, the bigger the barrier the better,” Jessica Treat, the director of St. Paul Smart trips, told me. “Flexible bollards [those white things] are probably the least attractive. A parked car or a curb or a planter type of lane is a bit more substantial. The amount of the barrier equates to how much you’re actually protected.”

That’s the theory anyway. But with the way that the 1st Avenue lane is actually used on a  day-to-day basis, with crowds of young people exploring the downtown clubs and distracted drivers emerging from the driveways that cross the lane, visibility is often a problem.

MinnPost photo by Bill Lindeke
Many drivers continue to park against the curb, so that cyclists will find SUVs parked in the middle of the right-of-way.

“Nobody’s looking for you,” Andy Janus, a long-time cyclist who works at the downtown One on One Bike shop, told me. “On the 1st Avenue lane, when people are pulling out of the Hilton, they aren’t looking for you in the bike lane. They pull out of there and just about smack you every time. I see this every day riding into work. There’s a certain point where I say, I’m not going to use this bike lane any more.”

Over the years, the city has tweaked the 1st Avenue lane by widening the buffer and trying to move the lane out of the curb gutter. But problems remain, and many more experienced bicyclists simply avoid it.

Why Big Buffers work

If you talk to Minneapolis bicyclists, the most successful of the new style of bike lanes has to be the buffered lanes on Park and Portland Avenues, wide one-way streets that run from downtown through South Minneapolis. While not officially “protected” by dividers, they offer wide painted buffers that give bicyclists a lot of breathing room.

“I like Park and Portland because of the extra width,” Adam Miller, another long-time Minneapolis bicyclist, told me. “I took a Nice Ride to Abbott during rush hour yesterday, and I appreciated having enough room to let the faster-moving bike commuters safely by while still avoiding door zone. My future bike commuting plans currently center on making use of these two lanes.”

While the Park and Portland buffered lanes seem to be working well, and are certainly far better than the dangerous wrong-side lanes that existed before, compromises by county planners at intersections like Lake Street and the freeway on ramps leave something to be desired. The buffers around the bicyclist disappear right at the most congested spots, the exact places where safety is most needed.

MinnPost photo by Bill Lindeke
The Park and Portland buffered lanes seem to be working well.


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Interim solutions

For the diverse designs of Minneapolis’ new protected bike lanes, the lesson is that they’re work in progress. Many of the existing design flaws are the result of compromises around limited budgets and the lack of bike-specific intersection infrastructure. As the city learns what works, staff are slowly improving the network by adding green paint, widening certain dimensions, or shifting traffic patterns.

The second key lesson of the new bike lanes is that a network takes time. The end goal for advocates is to see these temporary plastic bollards made permanent, with more secure  (and expensive) concrete or curb separation. The current bike lanes remain interim solutions, temporary experiments meant to improve the bicycling experience before better designs can be built.

Courtesy of Minneapolis Bicycle Coalition
While the wide painted Park and Portland bike lanes are successful so far, the real goal for advocates at the Minneapolis Bicycle Coalition was to encourage the County to build real concrete buffers, that would provide meaningful separation between the bicycle and car traffic on the busy street.

As the city refines and expands its network, hopefully some of the kinks can be worked out, and the interested but concerned riders will start to find a convenient network of concrete protection waiting for them on city streets.