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Penn Avenue: Cycle Track or Sidepath?

The Minneapolis Bicycle Coalition posted some info today about the upcoming Penn Avenue reconstruction project. According to the MBC, the City of Minneapolis is considering the construction of a two-way “Cycle Track” along the west side of the roadway. Here’s the initial cross-section concept:

Cycle Track or Sidepath?

I didn’t attend the meeting where this concept was presented, so I only know what the MBC included in their post, but my guess is that the phrase “Cycle Track” is being used rather indiscriminately. Based on this cross section, it looks more like a standard sidepath design.

Regardless, we need to see some detailed designs for how intersections will be handled before we can make any kind of judgement (as intersection design is the only real notable difference between cycletracks and sidepaths). Adam, the author of the post at MBC, indicated in the comments that the city staffers were open to discussion of things like raised crosswalks that might make this more than a standard sidepath design.

I would prefer to see on-street bike lanes over either a cycletrack or sidepath, but my understanding is that the city has more-or-less ruled out the possibility of bike lanes in both directions because they don’t want to move the sidewalks further into people’s yards, and they don’t want to cut down the existing boulevard trees (this is fine because I like trees as much as I like bike lanes).

If design details at the intersections don’t include any special details to distinguish this from a standard sidepath design, I’d prefer to see the 5′ sidwalk and the 7′ bikeway combined into a single 12′ path. 5′ is too narrow for a comfortable sidewalk, and 7′ is too narrow for a comfortable sidepath. This 12′ space will function as one large path anyway, with users of one facility spilling over onto the other,  so I’d prefer to just build it that way on purpose. Providing a mixed-use facility instead of separated facilities shouldn’t increase any problems with bikes running over peds.

I like the design used along St. Anthony Parkway in NE Minneapolis for the Grand Rounds Trail. It’s a standard sidepath, except it’s concrete rather than asphalt (sawcutting the concrete joints is pretty effective at mitigating the jostling usually caused by joints). In my opinion, using concrete is more respectful aesthetically of the existing urban environment. Whether concrete or asphalt, the bike and ped spaces in this design should be combined.

What do you think of the proposed design? Are you planning to attend the meeting on March 6th to voice an opinion?

15 comments to Penn Avenue: Cycle Track or Sidepath?

  • Yes, I agree that this isn’t really a cycletrack. That would be more at the street level with a physical barrier between cars and bikes, but not a boulevard between the street and a path.

    Intersection design will certainly be critical here and city staff is well aware of that for safety. In the commercial areas–where there are more turning movements and intersections will be even more important–there will not be a boulevard between the street and the path, but rather parked cars. That will hopefully make it easier to see bikes in those spots, although attention to design still important.

    There is basically no other way to get a bike facility on this road (that is politically feasible), and it will help support riders who do not feel comfortable in a bike lane (most people). So, I hope that it is supported and staff can get rolling on good intersection design.

  • Dan B

    Isn’t one major rub the fact that “serious” cyclists refuse to use bike paths — instead opting to ride with car traffic? This appears to be the typical MPLS parkway model… and in my opinion, it really stinks getting stuck behind cyclists on West River Road, for example (right next to a bike path).

  • @Dan B – yes, you are exactly right.

    I think there is an implicit understanding that many of the existing “serious” cyclists will continue to ride in the street if an off-street facility is constructed. This would have to be one heck of an excellent Cycle Track design to convince existing “serious” cyclists to use it. This is why it’s always a little nonsensical to frame the issue as accommodating bikes on-street OR off-street. There will always be demand for cycling both on- and off-street.

    One of the reasons the MBC is pushing hard for an off-street facility here is because one of their objectives is to encourage NEW riders – the ones that currently don’t ride because they don’t feel safe in the roadway. And because the City has made it pretty clear that on-street bike lanes aren’t a realistic option.

    And yes, i agree it’s very frustrating to be behind a cyclist and not be able to pass. But this is just one of the things we all agree to put up with in the name of city life!

  • Just confirming that Reuben’s analysis of Minneapolis Bicycle Coalition support is correct. Currently, there are an average of 100 “serious” cyclists riding Penn a day because the typical Minneapolitan would see riding on Penn as way too scary. That is less than 1 percent of all the people using Penn. We can support a much higher rate, but the only way to have most people feel comfortable riding to the businesses on Penn is to have a well-designed bike path like the City is proposing.

    That certainly will not preclude cyclists from choosing the road over the trail.

    Hopefully the trail will bring new riders on Penn, which will lead to increased awareness from drivers and, therefore, safer riding for everyone–including the serious cyclists that choose the road. That’s our goal–increased riding and increased safety.

    If you haven’t seen it, we have more info on this over on our blog…

  • I disagree that off-street cycle facilities necessarily attract new riders. Look at any major street in newer burbs and you’ll see a big, generous “bike path” — yes, these also serve as sidewalks, but with no pedestrians to compete with, they’re every bit as attractive as this proposed “cycle track”. I have a few objections:

    1. This is a suburban shared-use path (granted, with some visual separation). It is being misleadingly called a “cycle track”, which is different from the commonly accepted definition of that term — and the City of Minneapolis’s own definition. That more common definition shows cycles still distinctly separate from pedestrians, but more separated from cars. It also shows two separate facilities for each direction.

    2. This is on only one side of the street. Contra-flow sidewalk cycling (which this basically is) is even more dangerous than riding in the direction of traffic. It also potentially educates new cyclists that riding against traffic is okay.

    3. It’s unclear how intersections will handle these. In Minneapolis, I see a driver stop behind the stop line (or crosswalk) maybe 10% of the time or less; looking for visibility and minimizing the time at the stop sign, they usually stop the farthest point out without brushing the side of traffic on the intersection street. I’m concerned drivers will be blocking this path — or worse, smacking right into a cyclist riding through the crosswalk. This issue is more severe in Minneapolis than in post-1970s suburbia, where sight lines are much more generous. Drivers are habituated to pull out farther than they’re legally supposed to, because high fences or tight buildings often obstruct their view.

    All the usual safety issues with sidewalk cycling still apply. Say, if I’m a driver turning right onto Penn, and a cyclist is going (as the engineer envisioned) against traffic, on this “cycle track”, I’m staring left, looking for a gap in traffic. In the somewhat unlikely that I’m not already sitting in the cyclist’s crosswalk, there’s a good possibility I’ll smack right into him as I turn right.

    I’m not opposed to moving beyond the traditional bike lane. More separation would make a lot more people comfortable. But this is a low-quality, suburban solution put into a context that can’t safely support it.

  • Shaun Murphy

    No matter the name, the idea being promoted with this project is greater separation between bikes and cars. A 4″ wide white line separating bikes from cars is simply not enough separation on a narrow street with 10,000 cars a day. The main lesson great cycling cities have learned over the decades is that most people (i.e. new cyclists) do not want to bike on a busy street with no protection from cars. Another way to put that is, they do not want to serve as a protective buffer for parked cars from moving vehicles.

    Proper design at intersections is key to a project like this. Many of us are aware of items like bike stoplights, colored conflict zones, and raised trail crossings which improve safety for thru cyclists from turning motorists. This project is at the “layout concept phase” however. Those elements are a future consideration only if the idea of a separated bike path gets forwarded.

    Great cycling cities do separation in a number of ways. Some do 1-way paths on each side of the street (Amsterdam, Copenhagen). Some do 2-way paths (Montreal). Some cities have distinct separation between cyclists and pedestrians (such as a curb or grass buffer) and some use color differentiation only (Munster, Germany).

    We get the opportunity to do these as we please of course, but I’d argue that Minneapolis is already full of one type of separation. Around our parkways (like West River Parkway) and along some of our busy streets (Hennepin/Lyndale commons, Stinson Parkway from E Hennepin to New Brighton) we have 2-way separated bike paths. We have not always done a 100% superb job with intersection treatments, or with separation between bikes and peds, but these are opportunities for learning and growth with a new project such as Penn Avenue.

    I am not convinced that on-street bike lanes will address the concern that cyclists will be more visible and thus more safe. A big piece of improving safety seems to be mere numbers … people’s perception that it is safe leads more people to bike, which then leads to drivers keeping their eyes open and yielding the right of way at intersections. There are a significant number crashes with bicyclists riding on sidewalks (in addition to a lot of crashes with cyclists riding on the streets!), but most sidewalk crashes in Minneapolis seem to be happening on streets with no bikeway at all (e.g. Lake Street).

    Also a couple of points of information related to the comments above:
    – In the Netherlands the standard 2-way bike path width is 8′ for low bike traffic volumes, such as Penn Avenue S has – so we’re not far from their standard.
    – The current % of cyclists riding on sidewalks is 43% on Penn Avenue at Hwy 62 and 58% on Penn Avenue at 54th Street. The “not serious” cyclists are already out there.

    The separated bike path has been endorsed on a (~)25 to 1 vote by the citizen led Minneapolis Bicycle Advisory Committee. A lot of the issues brought up in this thread were discussed there as well. I do believe this is a healthy debate to have online as we move forward with better bike design on street reconstruction projects. Reuben, thanks for posting on this topic.

  • Shaun:
    I appreciate the distinction between objective and subjective security, and am glad Minneapolis is addressing both. But I think this proposal harms the objective safety of cyclists — and I think that can be addressed without resorting to traditional painted lanes.

    Minneapolis’s current off-street path on the parkways has two major differences from the Penn proposal.

    The first is that those trails were put on roads (and on sides of those roads) that have minimal conflict: you could count on one hand the number of intersection conflicts on the several miles W River Parkway bike trail between Godfrey Rd and downtown Portland Ave. On the other hand, this road has, by my count, about 14 intersection conflicts, and several business driveways, in a mile and a half.

    The second distinction is the infamous 10 mph park speed limit on those trails. They are, by design, intended for recreational and not transportation use.

    An ideal design serves faster cyclists and slower, beginning, or recreational cyclists equally. Say I ride 20 mph — I can endanger myself on this path, or ride in the street, irritating every driver by not using a “perfectly good” bike path next to me. Riding at a high speed on an off-street path is also potentially damaging to a bicycle if curb ramps are used (rather than a raised crosswalk, so the bike path stays level).

    I’d far rather see Copenhagen-style lanes — curbed bike lanes, immediately adjacent to the roadway, one in each direction. I’m not sure if ROW makes it feasible, but this would serve both the off- and on-street folks.

  • Thanks everyone for the comments.

    There are a lot of issues here to consider, but we all seem to be grappling with similar questions about “separation”. For some, sharrows don’t provide enough separation, but bike lanes, do. For others, a curb or parking lanes are needed to separate those lanes from cars. For others, the facility should be entirely off-street. For even yet others, that off-street facility needs to also separate bikes/peds. And for even more others, the facility should be nowhere near Penn Avenue, and should be on a completely separate but parallel ROW.

    How much separation is enough separation? What level of separation will balance the needs of the majority?

    I don’t necessarily hang my hat on the “separation” hook, nor am I a fan of doing anything just because the Dutch did it. I think some separation between modes is a good idea, but I also think the goal of “separation” is part of what marginalized cyclists in the first place.

  • Severin

    “but I also think the goal of ‘separation’ is part of what marginalized cyclists in the first place.”

    I really don’t like this argument, to me the bottom line is that bicycling will never crack 10% of trips (and thus remain a marginalized activity) if we pursue merely striped bike lanes or sharrows or “education”. The goal isn’t separation but rather the goal is to make bicycling mainstream, and less of a fringe activity. Bicycling can only become less marginalized if it becomes more attractive and it will only become attractive if we design facilities that are safe to be used by anyone. Right?

    I never thought of bicyclists as marginalized when I lived in Malmo, Sweden, which incidentally has an extensive network of bike paths and cycle tracks. The bicycle infrastructure allowed bicyclists to avoid red lights at T-intersections, it allowed direct routes not available to motorized traffic and bicycle parking was always ample and accessible in much of the city center. Based on my firsthand experience I’d say bicyclists are much more marginalized in Los Angeles where there is virtually zero separation between motorists and bicyclists than in Berkeley, which has an impressive network of Bike Boulevards and greenways. And bicyclists are more marginalized in both those cities compared to Malmo.

    I have been harassed in LA and Berkeley simply because I ride a bicycle “get on the sidewalk” “haha riding a bike” or have people scream at me and honk simply to scare me. This wouldn’t happen if bicycling weren’t so marginalized. Nobody is impressed or surprised by the presence of cyclists in Malmo. Even on streets without bicycle specific infrastructure cyclists don’t mind cycling two abreast there.

    I’m sure you read David Hembrow’s blog, he notes that separation isn’t through cycle tracks isn’t always necessary, sometimes there is ‘separation without cycle tracks’

    Anyway, enough of my nonsense, thanks for letting me rant here.

  • @Severin – thanks for the comment.

    I certainly agree with your observations. European communities with high bicycle mode share and where cycling is a mainstream activity, also tend to have high-quality separated facilities.

  • Severin

    Yeah, sorry, I’m not even sure if my comment was relevant to anything, I just caught that last bit of what you said and got carried away.

    As far as your recommendation goes, I’d say that in practice it’ll be tough to separate peds from bikes and a wide path to be shared by both would likely make more sense and reduce tension between the two modes as that way nobody is invading the other’s space and if relatively few people walk then the sidewalk would be near useless to differentiate and let space go unused.

    I am curious though, as you are an engineer and transportation planner why you would prefer an on street bike lane. Is it because typically sidepaths/ cycle tracks in the US have poorly planned intersections? Or does this preference stem from a desire to not be contained to a substandard facility? If the sidepath is more likely to encourage bicycling, wouldn’t you want to support that option?

  • Severin

    Also, isn’t 7ft below required minimum for a bidirectional bicycle path? Isn’t at least 8ft required?