Bike Curious Master Class – Protected Bikeway Oak / River Rd
Today’s Master Class will start a series that will be traveling along an entire stretch of what is commonly called a “Protected Bikeway” in Minneapolis.
I won’t trudge through the political mud between the various camps of bike advocates and safety instructors and the wide range of opinions on these types of bike lanes. We’ll simply agree that some cities are putting them in place and it’s not always obvious how the heck they are supposed to work for cyclists and drivers.
So let’s do some traveling and unraveling on SE Oak St near the University of Minnesota campus.
The Mississippi River has bike and pedestrian trails alongside River Parkway on both river banks with crossings on virtually all the bridges so the river forms a backbone of the transportation network for everyone – cyclists, pedestrians, drivers, light rail, and buses. SE Oak St skirts the edge of campus and crosses University St which is filled with restaurants, shops and apartments before reaching the TCF Stadium and connections to other bikeways (including the route to the Surley Brewery.)
This short stretch has four different intersections, each with their own issues and learning opportunities so we’ll approach them one by one in separate posts.
Here, the two-way cycletrack (also called a protected bike lane) ends at a stop sign while the cross traffic is free flowing with well-marked crosswalks. Most cyclists at the stop sign will want to get across the street and onto the trail. (Some will choose to stay on the road.) Some cyclists on the trail will be exiting the trail and crossing onto the cycletrack.
This street view is really interesting if you spend some time rotating the view (the arrows in the lower right) and clicking on the various markers on the map. If you twist around and click to the left, the street view is older so you can spin back around to see the Oak St intersection before the bike lane was added.
Be sure to notice where the ADA curb cuts are on the trail side since that is where the cyclists will be entering and exiting the intersection. Remember from last week, it is state law to stop for crosswalk users. Some drivers do, some don’t. But – a cyclist is not a pedestrian using the crosswalk in this situation. This can be confusing for everyone.
What to Consider as a Cyclist
Drivers use E River Parkway heavily during commute hours and this intersection is at least half a mile from traffic signals in both directions. That can mean a steady flow of cars, again, in both directions.
Sight lines are an issue here. Parked cars and shrubbery block the drivers’ view of anyone stopped at the stop sign on Oak St – not just the cyclists but as drivers come up a hill they can’t see the cars at the stop sign until they are very close to the intersection.
The bike traffic along the river trail can be quite heavy during commute times. There is not dedicated space for stopping at the curb cuts so entering cyclists need to have a gap in the trail traffic long enough to make the turn onto the trail and get up to speed.
It is ambiguous the exact way that cyclists will move through the space. Neither curb cut align directly with the two way bike lane so the option exists on which one to use. Cyclists typically make a diagonal crossing the intersection. Drivers turning from Oak St won’t necessarily expect a cyclist to turn left in front of them if the cyclist wants to enter the trail to the left (which makes sense if they are turning to the left.)
Drivers don’t actually “see” the intersection or the people wanting to exit the trail. Their focus is farther down the road and there is no indication here that this would be a highly used crossing by cyclists.
Similar crossings have all-way stops so cyclists could be under the false expectation that the drivers on River Road will be stopping for them.
The curb cut mismatch with the bike lane and heavy trail traffic can leave a cyclist in the intersection longer than a straight crossing.
Cars turning from Oak St onto River Pkwy may not see cyclists next to them waiting to cross or may not see cyclists exiting the trial.
Getting off your bike and becoming a pedestrian. Walking your bike across the intersection takes the riding mechanics out of the equation. Your focus can be on navigating safely using the crosswalks.
Slowing down to a near stop or a complete stop before entering the roadway when exiting the trail. This gives an additional few seconds of time to make sure the intersection is clear. Erring on the conservative side will require some extra energy on the cyclist’s part but it’s a much better option than being faced with a vehicle that you missed on first glance.
The stop sign on the cycletrack requires a full stop to ensure cars are not coming up the hill from the right. The decorative signage, shrubs, and parked cars block the cyclists view as well.
Negotiate with any drivers next to you at the stop sign. Make it clear which direction you are turning and determine who will be yielding. I would tend to let a single car go first so I don’t have to worry about them. That also means I would indicate clearly to a second car that I will be going next. (Remember this is a negotiation and if they don’t “agree”, let them go.)
Skills You Can Work On
The ability to look over your shoulder and keep riding in a straight line. Exiting cyclists will need to look for cars coming from both directions. If this is difficult, then plan to slow down and potentially stop altogether before exiting the trail.
Judging the relative speed of the cars on the roadways. This is a skill that will come over time especially as you learn your own ability to accelerate. Notice in this view that the cyclist has slowed to wait for the car. If you step through the arrows as if you are backing up, you can see how both people are turning onto Oak St. Keep backing up and you can also see that we lose sight of the cyclist quickly thanks to the parked cars and the decorative signage at the corner.
Assessing which traffic controls are in place – meaning, can you see that River Road traffic does not have stop signs? Traffic coming from Oak St has a stop sign.
Why So Funky?
I do want to add some discussion on why these intersections that I’ll be blogging about can end up so funky. Just like remodeling a kitchen, choices have to be made based on what already exists, the budget, legal and safety codes at the time of the project, and what the long term plans are for the entire neighborhood. Design compromises have to be made – you might not put the sink under the window with a view if the budget doesn’t allow for moving all the plumbing to the other side of the kitchen. My speculations on design compromises are partially based on my years serving on the City of Austin’s Urban Transportation Commission and its Bicycle Advisory Council.
Two-way bike lanes are typically installed on streets to save space for parking on at least one side. Newer designs are looking to put buffer space between cyclists and moving car traffic. On Oak St there is demand for street parking to serve short term visitors to the businesses and campus offices. Where the street is wider, parking is allowed on both sides of the street (we’ll see more of this in a later post.)
At today’s intersection we see the result of different government agencies coming together just like neighbors that share a fence. The City of Minneapolis wants to build out the cycling network that has proven successful at reducing car traffic so they reworked Oak St when it came up on their list of funded projects. Their ‘neighbor’, the Parks Board, owns River Parkway and the trail network along the Mississippi here. The Parks Board doesn’t necessarily have the funds or want to rework the trail curb cuts to make a more direct line of access for cyclists. The legal responsibility and priority here is to provide ADA access to the trail system that minimizes the time pedestrians are in the street.
Traffic codes set guidelines for adding stop signs to intersections. It can take many years for traffic codes to catch up with the desires of cities as priorities change. Even if the all agencies wanted to add stop signs on River Pkwy, it may not qualify according to current traffic codes.
Funding for infrastructure comes in very discrete pieces so in this case the project probably only extended to River Pkwy with possibly some money set aside to ensure that the crosswalks and curb cuts would be done regardless of Parks project funding. Its possible further changes are slated for the intersection here but they are most likely low on the priority list compared to other intersections with a track record of crashes.
Back to our kitchen comparison, within a budget most people would fix a leaking gas line over upgrading the tile for the back splash and they might wait to replace the fridge until it reaches the end of its functional life.
The traffic engineers and the City installed the bike lanes even with the funky intersection believing that the compromised design is safe enough for users and will contribute to the overall goal of a connected network of on-street bicycle ‘facilities’.
This intersection is pretty easy to manage once you know what to look for and have a little patience before jumping in. It makes for a great connection to the University campus amenities and avoids a major hill climb along the East River Road Trail – perfect for the bike curious rider.
Watch for next week’s Bike Curious post when we’ll explore another intersection and check out last week’s Trail Crossing.