OPINION | Improving bike-safety along Franklin Avenue

The Twin Cities feature hundreds of miles of bike lanes, boulevards, and paths, and Minneapolis is often lauded as one of the most bike-friendly cities in the U.S. But the city faces a number of challenges when it comes to creating and maintaining bike-safety on its streets – especially because many of those streets fall under the jurisdiction of multiple agencies. Coordinating much needed initiatives to improve conditions for cyclists and pedestrians therefore requires cooperation at the municipal, county, and state level.

To this end, Hennepin County recently hired its first Bicycle and Pedestrian Coordinator. Kelly Yemen, a Minnesota native previously employed at the New York City Department of Transportation, started in the position last month. Minneapolis created a Bicycle and Pedestrian Coordinator position in 2011, which is currently open after Shaun Murphy left the post for a farming venture in Wisconsin. He notes that Yemen will be a key partner with his former department in working on county roads in Minneapolis.

One such road, Franklin Avenue, is known for being particularly dangerous for bikers. It was on this street that Marcus Nalls, a 26-year-old commuter cyclist on his way home from work, was struck and killed in February. Media accounts of the incident stress the fact that Nalls was wearing a helmet and had lights on his bike, thereby absolving him of the blame that is so often heaped upon cyclists in car-bike collisions. Also emphasized is the driver’s alleged intoxication, for in the absence of drunkenness, drivers who kill cyclists often go unpunished. In this case, driver John Iverson has been charged with criminal vehicular homicide.

A dedicated bike lane might not have prevented Nalls’ death – police say the van driver that hit him had a blood alcohol level of 0.27 (more than three times the legal limit), and no amount of urban planning can insulate bikers from unpredictable and reckless behavior on the part of motorists. Yet Shaun Murphy echoed the words of Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman, who argued that a fatality like this hurts our bike-friendly reputation. It also draws attention to the vulnerability of cyclists on Franklin Avenue, though it is unfortunate it takes such a tragic accident to do so.

Franklin Avenue is a central corridor for cyclists: it provides the only bridge access to St. Paul between Washington Avenue and Lake Street, and is a direct route between Uptown and the University of Minnesota. Traffic of all types is induced to travel along Franklin because the adjacent freeways serve as barriers which limit connectivity. Minneapolis is second only to Portland in the percentage of individuals who commute to work by bicycle (4.5 to Portland’s 6.1). This all adds up to lots of bikes on Franklin: on any given day, over 700 cyclists use the 3.3 mile long east/west corridor.

Yet with the exception of East Franklin Ave. in Seward, the street has no bicycle facilities. What it does have is the second highest number of bicyclist-motorist crashes in the city. In a recent feasibility analysis of Franklin Avenue entitled “Moving Towards a Complete Street,” the dangers of this stretch of road are attributed to a variety of factors, including wide gutters which reduce lane width for bicycling, steep grades that slow cyclists down and increase their speed differential with motorists, high traffic volume, and a lack of dedicated bicycle operating space. These problems often prompt cyclists to ride on the sidewalk, which can increase the likeliness of a crash. Unlike in other areas of the city, where bike safety is increasing, crashes on Franklin are on the rise.

Addressing these issues isn’t easy; the street is a long one, and what might work in one stretch won’t be possible in another. As such, the feasibility analysis considers a variety of possible solutions to improve bicycle and pedestrian safety, including changes to parking regulations, the addition of bike lanes, modifications to signal timing, and/or changes to lane width. The report favors different combinations of lane diet (the narrowing of existing lanes of traffic to make room for bikers and pedestrians), parking removal or restrictions, and the designation of bike priority lanes for different parts of the street.

Many people don’t know that a large portion of Franklin Avenue is – like several of the bigger streets in Minneapolis – a county road. This means that it is maintained by the City of Minneapolis between Hennepin and Lyndale Avenues, and by Hennepin County east of Lyndale. It therefore falls to both of these jurisdictions to work with MnDOT to address Franklin’s “substandard safety record for motorists, bicyclists and pedestrians.”

Though the death of Marcus Nalls may not have been averted by more comprehensive bike and pedestrian planning, there are dozens of dangerous bike-car interactions that occur regularly on Franklin that can be.

  • A few years ago I heard the announcement that the city was considering making Franklin a dedicated bike route. Why? Because bicycles use it. But placing bicycle lanes on the busiest of our streets continues to be the recipe of death and disaster for cyclists. The best solution for making bicycling safer is to get bicycles on routes where there is LESS traffic. For a bicyclist, every encounter with a motor vehicle is another chance for injury or death - the more traffic, the higher your chances. There's another reason the city chases bike lanes on county road routes. They can get somebody else to help pay for these roads. Is it the safest approach? No. Is it cheaper for the city? Absolutely. When will the city realize that all the county roads are the worst places for bikes? Why place bike lanes on Park and Portland when bikes really want to be on Oakland Avenue that runs right between them? For the city, it was free money for the county. But it's not working. The cars that use Park and Portland don't want bikes there, and they let bikers know that with aggressive and threatening driving. I ride my bike every day because I don't own a car. Park and Portland should be my main route downtown every day, but I don't ride on Park and Portland - not ever. The side streets are just safer and more enjoyable. The city and county are going to throw millions of dollars to renovate Franklin, all these articles are just propaganda to soften everyone up to the idea. But when it's finished, I won't ride Franklin Avenue either. Not ever. No matter how much you pretty it up, every encounter with traffic is another lottery ticket for death and disaster for bicyclists. Placing bikes lanes on Franklin Avenue will just get bicycles winning the death and disaster lottery faster. - by Wilbur Ince on Mon, 03/17/2014 - 9:33pm

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Nicole Simms's picture
Nicole Simms

Nicole Simms is a fellow at Minnesota 2020.