Neighbors and buses sideswipe 36th Street Bikeway project

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For bikers and motorists merging on to the new and improved West 36th Street in Minneapolis the view may be a Tale of Two Cities. For bikers, the best of times and excitement over a separate, partitioned 10 foot wide expressway; for motorists relegated to the other half of the roadway, “Wow, the new repainted traffic lanes look awfully narrow?” Minneapolis recently completed construction of the model 36th Street West Bikeway Project, which converted half of the street into a protected bikeway and pedestrian corridor.

This is a Community Voices submission and is moderated but not edited. The opinions expressed by Community Voices contributors are their own and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the TC Daily Planet.

The protected lane is comprised of a 3 foot buffer and railing separating vehicle traffic from a 10 foot wide bicycle and 7 foot wide pedestrian path. Running from Lake Calhoun to Dupont Avenue South, the $180K project was cooperatively funded by the city of Minneapolis, Hennepin County and two East Calhoun neighborhood groups. It is significant that over the next six years, the City plans to add 30 miles of new protected bikeways to its system.

We conducted a number of measurements which displayed 10 foot 9 inch wide lanes left for vehicles on 36th Street running from Lake Calhoun to Dupont Avenue South. As we paced the roadway on a pristine Vikings Sunday, neighbors on nearby decks beckoned us to join them for tailgating and discussion of the project. Pointing at the new 20 foot wide protected bike and pedestrian lanes, the host proclaimed: “This is horse#$&XX. It’s terrible! It’s now unsafe for cars to drive there.”

Florida Bus Study

The neighbors’ feedback led us to wonder if the trimmed 10 and 3/4 foot lanes represent a safety issue for motor vehicles? We scanned industry research about lane width and a June 2010 study by the Florida Department of Transportation stood out. The first ominous sign was that the standard allocation for buses is 10.5 feet wide from mirror to mirror. We did a double take as that is so close to the width of the new 36th Street and yes, Metro Transit (MTC) buses (Route 6) operate in both directions. In fact, the newer MTC buses running this route span 11 feet wide from mirror to mirror.

A deeper dive found more warning signals. Run by the University of North Florida, the study examined one year of Florida DOT accident statistics. The researchers found that while only 3.9 percent of Florida bus routes are 10 feet wide they generate a hefty 24.6 percent of all bus accidents. The predominant type of accident reported was a sideswipe collision. Moreover, on a statewide basis, seven in ten Florida bus accidents occur on roads that are 10 feet or narrower. This industry background begs the question whether the new width was planned and if Metro Transit was aware of this design?

Were 36th Street neighbors really blindsided by this project on their own street? Will the 36th Street layout be typical or is the City still finding its balance on training wheels with this protected bikeway design?

A recent survey of more than 200 Minneapolis bikers and motorists delivers valuable background on these projects.1 54 percent of respondents find the current Minneapolis painted ‘bike boulevards’ carrying no separation from vehicles as ‘Unsatisfactory’. Further, when asked what the most prevalent risk factors are for cyclists, 77 percent indicated inattentive motorists—not a surprise. At the same time, a significant 19 percent specified the painted bike boulevards as a risk to their safety.

Ethan Fawley, executive director of the Minneapolis Bike Coalition reinforced this sentiment earlier this year, stating that people favor physical barriers to bike lanes, citing the recent Washington Avenue construction. Clearly, there are many residents supportive of protected bikeways and the Minneapolis plan to expand them.

A Collaborative Project

A review of the City’s plan for the 36th Street Bikeway reveals a lengthy and collaborative project. The plan was planted in the Minneapolis Bicycle Master plan as early as 2011. The project was shared with the Calhoun Area Residents Action Group and the East Calhoun Community Organization by September of 2012. Then public hearings were held to discuss and provide input to the City in January 2013 and May 6, 2014. Finally a separate meeting was held with business owners May 28th at Gigi’s restaurant.

It was at that meeting that business owners voiced their strong opposition to the planned eastward extension of the protected bicycle lane beyond Dupont Avenue because of the loss of parking spots on the south side of the street. That expansion is now on hold until next year while sewer work is done in the area. Matt Perry, President of the Nicollet/East Harriet Business Association, stated that business owners: “feel very strongly that because of the nature of the businesses, that cars are part of the customer traffic that they get and if they lost that, then they would face a loss of revenue and critical loss of revenue.”

It will be interesting to see if the City bends to the will of the Bryant Avenue business community and truncates the protected lane where it ends now at Dupont. The City’s own analysis of the project indicates the strength of the bicycling lobby. Prior to the project, it recorded 12,100 vehicles per month using this section of 36th Street in contrast to only 150 bikers. That is an 80:1 ratio of vehicles to bikers.

National Friction

Other cities have seen significant increases in bicycle usage after installing the protected lanes and it is reasonable to assume there will be growth on 36th Street. Of course, bicycle-friendly cities point to supplementary objectives to reduce greenhouse gasses as well as ‘traffic calming’ by boosting the share of biking commuters. But that hasn’t made the course any less bumpy.

Chicago launched protected lanes in its River North neighborhood several years ago which created confusion and a series of near miss accidents. Drivers complained: “Whose turn is it anyway?” In New York City, there have been a number of protests held about protected bike lanes. A hearing for business owners similar to the Bryant Avenue meeting drew vocal dissent about lanes on Columbus Avenue in Manhattan. In fact, New York has bowed to public opposition in the past and removed 2.35 miles of painted cycle lanes on Staten Island. Even biking mecca Portland is not immune to public pressure. In June, the city was forced to cancel plans to implement protected bike lanes on 28th Avenue. The reason? The plan would have claimed too many parking spots used by local businesses.

Time will tell if the 36th Street Bikeway operates safely and efficiently. With winter conditions upon us and much more challenging than Florida, will modifications be necessary for buses? Will Bryant Avenue business leaders maintain their treasured parking spots? “It’s easy to focus on the conflict and friction. But that is always going to happen when you’re changing the geometry of something as dear as the asphalt, commented Paul Steely White, executive director of New York-based Transportation Alternatives.2 He counseled a measured approach, flexible to adjustments along the way.

And that is exactly the tact that the City seems to be taking. Project manager Simon Blenski stated: “As the project was developed, we worked closely with Metro Transit operations staff and they reviewed the plans. Since the project was installed, we have had follow up conversations with them about the operations of 36th Street West (bikeway). We did modify the bus stop just east of Hennepin Ave to better accommodate Route 23 buses turning off of southbound Hennepin Ave.” He pledged that the City would be vigilant, conducting regular observations of operations and maintenance to guide success over the first year.

For their part, Metro Transit confirmed that they were consulted on the design of the new lanes. They have experienced one mirror sideswipe accident turning from Hennepin onto West 36th Street and have worked with the City to make modifications in the lane design there.

The Minneapolis master biking plan charts aggressive goals. In addition to building 30 miles of protected bike lanes, the mission entails doubling the Minneapolis biking system and increasing bicycling’s share of transportation to 15 percent. After reviewing the City’s full court press to inform and engage all stakeholders in the 36th Street Bikeway project since 2011, it’s hard to sympathize with tailgating residents who somehow missed 3 years of meetings and opportunities to participate? It’s been 3 years since Bicycle Magazine named Minneapolis the number one biking city in America. The road back to the top is likely dotted with potholes and continuing asphalt politics waged by bikers and motorists.

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