It once was supposed to become the Avenue of the Arts.
But these days you could call 3rd Avenue in downtown Minneapolis the Boulevard of Broken Dreams.
This latest iteration of a street that connects the main post office and the Minneapolis Convention Center was supposed to transform into a green street with protected bike lanes. The green may eventually show up, but so far the protection has been sadly lacking from its new bike lanes.
Those lanes were supposed to fill a gaping hole in downtown’s cycling infrastructure — the lack of a north-south street that provided safe two-way cycling through downtown. Construction has forced bikes off the Nicollet Mall, the lanes on Marquette and 2nd avenues were lost to bus transit and Hennepin Avenue’s shared-use lanes don’t encourage cycling.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m perfectly comfortable riding in most traffic conditions. I once rode across Wisconsin on a highway shoulder that was as narrow as two feet. But that’s because I’ve been a serious cyclist for more than 20 years. Many more casual commuting and family cyclists won’t ride regularly unless they feel safe.
For many, that means buffered bike lanes, such as the wide-bodied lanes on Portland and Park avenues on the South Side or parts of Emerson and Fremont avenues up North. Or it means bike lanes protected with poles, curbs or parked cars. Examples can be found on Blaisdell Avenue South, West 36th Street and the Plymouth Avenue Bridge.
Can these be a pain for motorists?
One Park Board candidate who has been soliciting DFL delegates for endorsement support tells me the number-one complaint he gets is about bike lanes slowing motorists. Certainly, rush hour traffic backs up on Portland, especially in winter.
But if people are going to bike, don’t they have a right to be safe — just as we install crosswalks for the safety of pedestrians and lane markings for motorists? And if those hardy cyclists aren’t commuting to work on two wheels, many of them likely would choose four-wheeled vehicles, which also can clog a driver’s commute. Moreover, in a world where young people increasingly choose not to own cars, can we compete for them against bike-friendly cities such as Chicago, Austin, Tex., or New York City, with its dozens of protected lane projects?
Not with projects like the protected bike lane as executed so far on 3rd.
The main problem? Miniscule protection.
The white plastic pipes, which offer a protection more psychological than real, are sparse on the Third Avenue lanes, and it’s likely that almost a year will elapse from their installation last fall until corrective action is taken.
Look at Blaisdell Avenue. In a single block, you can count up to 17 of the plastic poles separating cyclists from motorists. But the first seven southbound blocks of 3rd contain just four poles. Those same blocks contain just one pole going northbound. How much protection is offered when the number of poles on a block is one or none?
The situation is intentional. City engineers decided to open the bike lanes with far less than the normal 30-foot pole spacing used elsewhere. That’s because the city is waiting to sealcoat the street until after the project is completed.
Sealcoating typically happens at the peak of summer, when conditions are most conducive for tarring the roadway and spreading a layer of protective chips. Workers will need to pry up the posts where they were epoxied to the pavement. That’s why they neither installed the normal number of posts late last construction season nor replaced those taken out since by errant drivers or snowplow drivers.
That’s also why the normal bike lane markings weren’t applied. This leaves motorists in the dark, such as the empty school buses I’ve seen parked in the bike lane in the 300 block of 3rd.
All this means the missing poles that would give more timid bikers a better sense of security along 3rd likely won’t appear until late summer. That timing affects ridership, especially since the urge to commute by bike normally surges when spring emerges.
Then there’s the safety factor. Would the Minnesota Department of Transportation open a bridge without installing guardrails? Would the Metropolitan Council operate light rail without crossing safeguards? Would the city reopen Nicollet Mall to pedestrians without completing the sidewalk?
The lack of protection for protected bike lanes is only the latest disappointment for a project that jumped the line for the normal city capital budget review. That may mean it’s done for the Super Bowl next winter, but that’s a dubious distinction when street work spreads over two seasons for those using 3rd.
The project had the potential to add substantial greening to the street. But it did so by erasing those oases of greenery on the medians that Council Member Lisa Goodman worked hard to get adjoining businesses to support.
It also erased the original Public Works proposal to give bikers real protection by shielding bike lanes from traffic with heavy planters that would have added more color to the street. That modification is a triumph for the street’s big cigars, who feared a switch from four lanes to three wouldn’t work for motorists.
The retention of four lanes was supported by Goodman, who represents the south end of the project, and opposed by Council Member Jacob Frey, who represents the north end and actually bikes 3rd between City Hall and the rest of his ward. It passed by one vote.
But it’s a loss for bikers, one that’s compounded by the lack of attention to their safety. Perhaps during the interim local bikers should borrow a tactic from their brethren in Wichita, Kan. Cyclists there invested in $50 of toilet plungers that they lined up along an unprotected bike lane to shame their city into installing posts.
That outcome is far better than sending a life down the drain.