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Richfield and Bloomington ‘road diets’ are a stroke of ingenuity

By converting four-lane streets to three-lane streets, city planners have found a nifty, low-cost way to accommodate bicyclists and enhance pedestrian safety.

Richfield is among those suburbs aiming to make the city more bikeable, with "road diets" or other forms of bikeways built or planned for Portland Avenue and other city routes.
City of Richfield

You might not think of Bloomington and Richfield as places to discover new ways that encourage more people to bike or walk.

Developed primarily in the 1950s and ’60s when automobiles were heralded as the only way to go, they lack the residential sidewalk network of pre-World War II towns or the recreational trails popular in newer suburbs. The communities are characterized by many wide four-lane streets with speeding traffic that make trips on foot or bike feel unsafe, unpleasant or inconvenient. 

Yet in a stroke of ingenuity, Bloomington, Richfield and a number of other Twin Cities communities have reconfigured streets to encourage bicycling and walking. The secret is using roadways more efficiently by converting excess capacity to bike lanes and side paths – an innovation called road diets. 

Here’s how it works: Typically a four-lane street with moderate traffic volume is converted to three lanes with left-turn lanes in the middle of the street. This causes fewer motorists to speed, while traffic flow remains smooth thanks to the left-turn lanes. Research by the Federal Highway Administration suggests that a road diet can reduce crashes of all kinds by up to 29 percent, which is why the agency promotes it as a “Proven Safety Countermeasure.”

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Bloomington has created road diets on 20 segments of streets over the past five years says City Engineer Shelly Pederson – including a bike lane that crosses town on 86th and 90th streets all the way from the Mall of America to Hyland Lake Park Reserve. The city now sports 25 miles of on-street bike lanes.

Affordable and effective

Steve Elkins, a member of the Metropolitan Council’s Transportation Committee, championed road diets as a Bloomington City Council member because it was a low-cost way to make streets safer. “It’s just painting new stripes when you re-surface the road. It doesn’t cost any more to do it.”

An added benefit, he notes, turned out to be better conditions for biking and walking.  “Road diets create an opportunity for bike lanes and push the traffic away from the sidewalks to make the street more pleasant and comfortable for pedestrians.”

Because many streets around the metro area were designed for more cars than they now carry, Elkins sees opportunities aplenty for road diets. Even some fast-growing areas where the road network is still being expanded are adopting road diets instead of the usual four-lane streets, he notes, such as Bushaway Road in Wayzata.

Richfield is equally ambitious in its efforts to make the city more bikeable, with road diets or other forms of bikeways built or planned for Cedar Avenue, Bloomington Avenue, Portland Avenue, segments of 66th Street, and a route on 75th and 76th streets, according to City Engineer Kristin Asher. Improved transit service is also planned for Portland and Nicollet avenues and 66th Street.

Planners see an opening

The bike route on 75th and 76th showcases a creative example of finding space for new infrastructure. The Met Council planned to tear up the streets to improve the regional sewer system, and citizens, local officials and the Three Rivers Park District saw an opening for extending the regional trail network. A 4-2 road diet made space for both bike lanes and a separated trail for pedestrians and less experienced bicyclists. This stretch of trail will eventually meet up with the planned Nine Mile Creek Trail in Edina and connect to the Grand Rounds trail in Minneapolis with the completion of a bike route on Cedar Avenue.

The transportation improvements in Bloomington and Richfield illustrate the principles and possibilities of Complete Streets, a 21st century transportation approach that has been state policy since Gov. Tim Pawlenty signed it into law in 2010.  The Minnesota Department of Transportation describes Complete Streets as “an integrated transportation approach that: includes all modes of transportation (transit, freight, automobile, bicycle and pedestrian)” and “serves everyone, all ages and abilities.”

Jay Walljasper writes, speaks and consults about urban and community issues. He is the author of the” Great Neighborhood Book” and “All That We Share: A Field Guide to the Commons.”