Minneapolis bicycle facilities --
A brief evaluation
John S. Allen
Arrival and departure via St. Paul
I rode through St. Paul on my way to and from Minneapolis. Most of the
street design in St. Paul is conservative, in both the good and bad senses of that word as
it applies to bicyclists. The arterials (I rode mostly on Kellogg, and University Avenue)
had wide outside lanes, but with signal timing and actuation that could have worked
better; traditional residential neighborhood street design in a grid system, providing
good connectivity, but without measures to restrict the speed and volume of through motor
traffic. I saw little bicycle use on the streets in most of St. Paul.
About center-of-the-street bike lanes
In spite of the many bike lanes in downtown Minneapolis, I also saw little
bicycle use there, though I grant that I was there in mid-afternoon, not at a peak
commuting time. The weather was warm, though not uncomfortably hot, as I examined the
Minneapolis striped some of its bicycle lanes in a highly unusual location
-- down the middle of streets, between travel lanes that flow in opposite directions. I do
not know what the reasoning was for this location of the bike lanes. Bike lanes in this
location are not even considered in the AASHTO guide, the Manual on Uniform Traffic
Control Devices or other engineering references.
But I would also suggest that bike lanes in the middle of the street do
little to encourage bicycle use. They represent the most arbitrary and unusual lane
placement I have seen anywhere, allowing cyclists to operate according to neither standard
vehicular rules nor standard pedestrian rules.
Such lanes also conflict with Minnesota traffic law, to wit:
Minnesota Laws, 169.222 Operation of bicycle.
Subd. 4. Riding on roadway or shoulder. (a) Every person operating a bicycle
upon a roadway shall ride as close as practicable to the right-hand curb or edge of the
roadway except under any of the following situations:
(1) when overtaking and passing another vehicle proceeding in the same direction;
(2) when preparing for a left turn at an intersection or into a private road or
(3) when reasonably necessary to avoid conditions, including fixed or moving objects,
vehicles, pedestrians, animals, surface hazards, or narrow width lanes, that make it
unsafe to continue along the right-hand curb or edge.
Nonetheless, certain advantages are conceivable:
less conflict with parked vehicles and entering traffic -- center bike
lanes are about as far from the "door zone" as it is possible to get;
easier snow clearance than with bike lanes at the side of the roadway --
though on the other hand, if the street is narrowed by plowed snow, motor traffic will
likely intrude into the center bike lanes, making them useless -- and if the street is not
narrowed, the absence of motor vehicles in the center bike lanes will slow the melting of
snow there. The most workable location for cyclists after streets have been plowed is in
the normal travel lanes, which are further cleared of snow by the pounding of motor
If the bike lane is on the left of a same-direction bus lane and
buses do not turn left, then there are no unusual conflicts between cyclists and motor
traffic. (However, in Minneapolis, buses do turn left across the bike lanes.)
But I do not consider these advantages at all decisive. The center bike
lanes upset the normal pattern of traffic movement far more than bike lanes at the sides
of the street:
While conflicts with right-turning traffic are reduced, conflicts with
same-direction left-turning traffic are greatly increased -- and are more difficult to
avoid -- more details on the page about Hennepin Avenue;
Cyclists must merge or walk to/from the center of the roadway,
sometimes across multiple lanes, to get to/from the bike lanes lawfully, or to make a
Cyclists are in close proximity to opposite-direction motor traffic, and
have very little warning to avoid an oncoming vehicle that initiates a left turn.
Cyclists generally travel slower than motor traffic, and placing them in
the center of the street upsets the orderly pattern of vehicles' overtaking on the left.
Many cyclists were observed making nonstandard movements, supporting the
observation based on theory, that these bike lanes lead to confusion and encourage
Center bike lane/same-direction motor traffic:
This issue deserves a bit more examination.
It might be argued that the conflict between bicycle traffic in a center lane and
left-turning motor traffic is a mirror image of the well-known "right hook"
by a right-turning vehicle when the cyclist is on the right side of the roadway. The
conflict is similar, but there are some important differences:
As cyclists usually travel slower than motor traffic, riding near the
right edge of the roadway is consistent with the normal pattern of speed positioning
As left turns are much more frequently impeded by other traffic than
right turns, cyclists in a center bikeway will be overtaking motorists who are waiting to
turn even when traffic is not congested or stopped by traffic signals, increasing the
potential for conflicts.
Traffic can turn left or make a U-turn at any location. Traffic can only
turn right where there is a cross-street or driveway.
When traveling near the right edge of the roadway, the cyclist (or any
vehicle operator) may merge to the left into the stream of through traffic, in order to
overtake traffic waiting to turn right, and encourage right-turning motorists to slow and
follow or to overtake on the right. In order to avoid turning conflicts with vehicles
waiting to turn left when riding in a center bikeway, the cyclist would have to merge to
the right into the left-turning traffic and would have to wait along with that traffic, or
else merge into the next lane to the right to overtake.
When traveling near the right edge of the roadway, the cyclist may avoid
a collision by turning right along with the offending vehicle. When in a center bike lane,
the cyclist must turn across active lanes of traffic where there may be other vehicles.
The University district (and 11th St. S.)
On my page about the University district, I note that the bike lanes do
not solve the problem of poor cyclist behavior, and tend to exacerbate it at
intersections. a particular problem is the "right hook" conflict, which is
avoided by cyclists' overtaking on the left as described in the section from Minnesota law
cited above, and motorists' merging to the right as described in the section cited here:
169.19 Turning, starting, and signaling.
Subdivision 1 g) Whenever it is necessary for the driver of a motor vehicle to cross a
bicycle lane adjacent to the driver's lane of travel to make a turn, the driver shall
drive the motor vehicle into the bicycle lane prior to making the turn, and shall make the
turn, yielding the right-of-way to any vehicles approaching so close thereto as to
constitute an immediate hazard.
Avoiding leading bike lanes up to intersections at the curb, or using
"bicycle boulevards" to create bicycle-preferred routes and clearly delineate
correct vehicular paths for through travel, would help with this problem. Such measures
are practical in a grid network of streets.
The rate of helmet use among students in the University district also is
All in all, the students' anarchic behavior points to an opportunity I
have repeatedly stressed, that colleges and universities could be educating their students
about cycling, enforcing the law and providing incentives for helmet use -- a triple win
situation because it would avoid injuries and fatalities among students, more than pay for
itself in avoided medical expenses and lost alumni contributions, and educate the future
leaders of society about bicycling issues.
As noted on the first page of this series, there is a substantial number
of parking installations in downtown Minneapolis. These are a good development, and
suggest that a process other than the one which led to the center-of-the-street bike lanes
is at work.