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

City of Richfield
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.

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.”

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.”

Comments (13)

  1. Submitted by David Markle on 04/24/2014 - 12:00 pm.

    But not necessarily a one size fits all solution

    On the West Bank in Minneapolis, a major commuter destination, we’ve seen a similar conversion of Riverside Avenue with bike lanes; it has considerably worsened rush hour traffic problems near Fairview hospital. It’s not unusual to have to queue for three or more cycles of one semaphore during peak hours.

    A planned three-lane reconfiguration of nearby Cedar Avenue (a county highway) between 3rd and 7th streets raises more serious concerns about rush hour traffic problems (although it does not include bike lanes.) It may also hinder emergency vehicle access to several of the large buildings in Riverside Plaza that make those blocks the most densely populated in the U.S. west of the Mississippi.

    • Submitted by Matthew Steele on 04/24/2014 - 02:11 pm.

      Why is rush hour traffic a “problem” that needs to be fixed? These streets are first and foremost a centerpiece of a neighborhood, a piece of public real estate that connects and builds value among adjoining properties (and captures that value back to public coffers if done right). Moving automobiles, especially peak volumes of automobiles, should be further down the list. Especially because automobiles are space-inefficient users of our public right of way.

      I have plenty of criticisms of the Richfield proposals… lanes are too wide, lack of on-street parking to use up some excess pavement, midblock center left turn lanes create too much excess pavement, etc. But in general this is a step in the right direction. It’s even more needed on neighborhood main streets like Cedar and Riverside Avenues in the eponymous neighborhood.

  2. Submitted by Matthew Steele on 04/24/2014 - 02:21 pm.

    Misleading rendering

    The 3d rendering of the street provided by the City of Richfield is out of scale or something. Take the biker on the right… six feet from pavement to the top of his helmet at the most, right? Well, at the same point of depth in the rendering, the street is less than five “bikers” wide from curb to curb including bike lanes. 30′ at the most, for three car lanes and two bike lanes.

    While I think the center left turn lanes are excessive (they reduce lateral friction and increase speeding), the actual plan is much wider: three 11′ lanes and two 6′ bike lanes (although the county engineers in Medina might know them as “curb reaction zones”)…. 45′ total, or 7.5 “bikers” wide.

  3. Submitted by Sara Bergen on 04/24/2014 - 03:03 pm.

    Mnkt Blvd

    I would love to see Mnkt Blvd between France and Hwy 100 go on a road diet. The pedestrian experience is scary at best and dangerous at worst. A dedicated lane east/west and a dedicated left hand turn lane would leave room to make the sidewalk wider, have a small boulevard, and maybe even a bike lane.

    • Submitted by Todd Hintz on 04/25/2014 - 07:06 am.

      Mtka Blvd

      Yeah, that stretch of Minnetonka Blvd is a challenge to walkers and bikers alike. As a county road, that would be something Hennepin County has to address though rather than St. Louis Park. Still, it wouldn’t hurt to contact your city council member and express your concerns as that’s a good place to get the ball rolling.

      In the meantime you can look at StLP’s biking and sidewalk plans here:

      http://www.stlouispark.org/connect-the-park-supporting-documents.html

  4. Submitted by Bill O'Reilly on 04/24/2014 - 03:26 pm.

    I am all in favor of converting four lane roads into three lanes and bike paths. It naturally calms traffic because the speed is set by the person actually doing the limit.

  5. Submitted by Ron Gotzman on 04/24/2014 - 03:37 pm.

    We need more lanes!

    On eastbound 694 between 35w and Lexington Ave, the State spent two years of construction and replaced a two lane highway with another two lane highway. Congestion is worse than before the construction. Many call this progress?

    • Submitted by Todd Hintz on 04/25/2014 - 07:08 am.

      Congestion

      Generally the highways are only congested during rush hour. The other 19 hours of the day they have excess capacity.

      This article addresses city and county roads, not freeways. I doubt you’re going to see bike paths or sidewalks along I694 anytime soon.

  6. Submitted by Wayne Coppock on 04/24/2014 - 06:27 pm.

    Where does the extra-stroadification of Killebrew and the world’s most inconvenient pedestrian bridge enter into this “road diet” plan you speak of? Oh right there’s no need to make the area around a major job center and transit hub safer for non motorized transportation because mall.

    Can I please just mention that crossing Killebrew from the mall transit station has gotten MORE DANGEROUS as a pedestrian and now takes an extra five minutes? The crossing between the blue hotel and the mall is ridiculously unsafe and you have more questionable and unprotected interactions and crossings with car traffic than the old Killebrew crosswalks.

  7. Submitted by David Markle on 04/24/2014 - 07:26 pm.

    Rush hour traffic

    I am a very dedicated pedestrian, but I can tell you that the number of automobiles won’t diminish at rush hour on the West Bank if Cedar Avenue becomes one lane in each direction. I’m afraid that commuters’ cars will only queue up for longer periods, consuming more fuel, wasting drivers’ time, and spewing exhaust fumes into the neighborhood. Our mediocre metropolitan transit system won’t satisfy those coming here from the suburbs or distant locations. (The new Green Line won’t help; it’s a train that can’t function well as either train or streetcar line; no faster than the ordinary no. 16 bus and with far fewer places to get on or off.) The reputation of the neighborhood will suffer, as will businesss, institutions and residents. A three-lane Cedar Avenue merely exemplifies an unrealistic application of the philosophy of neighborhood as boutique, promoted by entities who have no direct interests on Cedar.

    And then there’s the problem of emergency vehicle access to M and F buildings at Riverside Plaza. The county’s own traffic study predicts a rush hour queue of 450 feet eastbound on 4th street between 15th Avenue and Cedar: the drives leading to those buildings will be blocked. Someone may die because of unnecessarily slow response time.

  8. Submitted by Neal Gendler on 04/24/2014 - 08:40 pm.

    Unnatural yield

    Roundabouts don’t confound me, but one feature of them — at least on those in Edina near Southdale — is so unnatural it seems to be begging for collisions. Those roundabouts give the right of way to traffic turning left out of them across straight-through traffic; that is, the yield signs are for the people continuing to drive in the direction from which they came.

    Yielding to left-turners without a stoplight, in mid-block, is so unnatural that I’m always surprised by it, and I doubt that I’m alone. I suppose the only answer is for us all to become accustomed to this, but in the meantime, I’m surprised there aren’t frequent collisions.

    • Submitted by Curtis Griesel on 04/25/2014 - 10:39 am.

      There are no left turns in roundabouts

      Roundabouts are very simple. Anyone in the roundabout has the right-of-way. Nobody “continues to drive in the direction from which they came”. Everybody yields, enters the roundabout, and then continues on their way, no matter which direction they are going. And nobody turns left. Once you are in the roundabout, everything is a right-hand turn.

      The thing that is most confusing about the Edina roundabouts is that they are so small, some people try to treat them as perpendicular intersections with little flower beds in the middle, the way you are describing, rather than as roundabouts.

  9. Submitted by Baron Topor on 04/25/2014 - 01:06 pm.

    Roundabout

    Is this a solution to a non-existent problem? Richfield and Bloomington might have just enough four-lane streets, but they certainly don’t have too many! Having driven on newly-engineered, controlling streets like Lyndale Avenue, they are a poor solution and make driving more difficult. A simple four-lane street allows for turns, parking, passing, whatever a driver determines necessary. Improving driver education is the solution.
    The roundabouts are a disaster. They are not clearly marked, and it is totally unclear how to use them to simply proceed in a straight line. They have to be much larger, as Mr. Griesel pointed out, and even when so, they are scary and very hazardous with so many people needing to change lanes. Stop lights work perfectly well, they just need to be set to shorter durations, like 30 seconds.

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