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Stuck in traffic next to empty bike lanes

Jon Tevlin writes in a StarTribune column about some of the new bike infrastructure being created throughout Minneapolis. He wrties:

It’s hard to argue against creating safer biking paths in the cities, or against the fact that biking is good for you and the environment. I bought a new bike last year and like to ride it around town. I like the new lanes when I’m riding my bike.

But last week I kept track of the number of bikes I saw in the new bike lanes on my way to work. I counted three. All week.

He quotes an unnamed STrib commenter:

Sitting there in traffic, looking at a wide open empty lane next to me is frustrating. I think bike commuting is great, but the engineering of these new bike paths is ridiculous. It’s just not working. Traffic flow is in a dead stop.

And he recounts a story from City of Minneapolis employee Shaun Murphy:

One woman called to say she was stuck in a jam on Riverside, and there were no bikes in the bike lanes. “I drive and I don’t like to be stuck in traffic either,” said Murphy. “It’s part of the trade-offs. In some of these places, there have also been huge safety improvements for both cars and bikes. It’s a balancing act, and we have to compromise.”

He raises a valid question. The if-you-build-it-they-will-come argument isn’t very convincing when motorists stuck in traffic witness empty bike lanes on a daily basis. Obviously, tipping the scales on the chicken-and-egg problem with bike infrastructure doesn’t happen overnight, especially in cases where the bike lanes we’re building are still part of an incomplete network.

The long-term hope is that some of those motorists stuck in traffic will eventually choose to ride a bike instead, relieving congestion until travel times become equal across modes. In the mean time, how can an engineer or planner demonstrate (quantitatively) that constructing bike infrastructure by removing existing roadway space from use by motorists is a good idea? What tools/methods are available? How do we explain to those motorists stuck in traffic that their sacrifice is for the greater good of society (or should we even attempt such arguments)?

The Multi-Modal Level of Service idea recently enhanced in the 2010 Highway Capacity Manual is one option helps quantify needs for cyclists, but it isn’t particularly helpful at balancing needs across modes.

What are your ideas?


10 comments to Stuck in traffic next to empty bike lanes

  • Brendon

    Were any of the bike lanes referenced in this article built after removing a car lane? I’m trying hard to think of a project in Minneapolis that has eliminated car lanes (there must be at least one).

  • @Brendon – well, the bike lanes on Riverside were the result of a 4-3 conversion, the 1st Ave buffered bike lane replaced a travel lane. The bike lanes across the Franklin Ave bridge replaced a couple of travel lanes. I don’t get over to 10th ave SE very often, but it used to be a 4-lane undivided, so if there are bike lanes now it was probably a 4-3 or 4-2 conversion…

  • I’ve been looking into this lately, and so far have counted 23 bike projects in Mpls since 2009. Only 10 of them removed through lanes, and the vast majority started with more lanes than the amount of traffic warranted. 1st Ave, for example, had a AADT of 700-2400 in the area the lane was removed. The part of Fremont with a through lane removed had an AADT of 4300. Riverside was the most debatable conversion, since its count was around 20,000/day, but the high amount of turning traffic made it a sensible candidate for a center turn lane. Franklin and 10th have higher than normal traffic right now because of all the construction – they will be back to normal in a couple years.

    Good questions by the way. I can’t think of a good answer except to use the proportional standard Tevlin mentions to argue that there isn’t yet enough bike infrastructure. For example, 4% of Minneapolitans bike to work, but only 1% of city streets have bike facilities (debatably less, depending on whether you count park board paths in the bike facility total).

  • @Alex – that’s an interesting idea (4% biking vs. 1% of streets with facilities). I would need to think about that one for a while.

  • I should clarify that the idea comes from Tevlin:

    “They raise some logical questions about how much of our roads, and money, we should devote to the 4 percent of people who commute by bike.”

    He brings up the 4% stat to back up his assertion that these changes are only helping a very small group, but I think that can be countered by saying that we’re only talking about 1% of streets that are even affected. There are a number of reasons why those two percentages really shouldn’t be compared.

  • @Alex – it seems like you would need to account for the fact that the vast majority of roadway lane miles are small residential local roads where it is not necessary or desirable to have dedicated bike facilities. Removing those roadways, what % of roadways have dedicated bike facilities?

  • Good call. The bike facilities total also includes bike blvds – so those would have to be removed if small local roads were removed from total roadways.

  • Is anyone writing a response to Tevlin for This seems like a perfect use for the new site. I’m on the calendar for tomorrow, but don’t know if I have the research time to make a good, comprehensive response.

  • @Brendon – I’m not planning on it. Alex?

  • That’s a good idea – I thought about a letter to the editor but it’s not like it’s Soucheray or something. I don’t disagree with his tone or even his arguments, really, I just disagree with his conclusion, since it’s based on flawed data and assumptions.

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