A banner year for bike lanes

Bicyclists pedal a larger, more diverse system of on-street routes

By the end of the 2011 construction season, Minneapolis will have expanded its network of on-street bicycle lanes by more than 40 percent.

It was a banner year for the system, which grew to nearly 80 miles of on-street bicycle lanes from just 45 miles this spring. Inspired by other bicycle-friendly cities in the U.S. and Europe, Minneapolis also started testing new designs for on-street lanes never before seen here.

The developments show the city “is at the forefront of bicycle design in this country,” said Shaun Murphy, manager of the federal Non-motorized Transportation Pilot (NTP) Program for Minneapolis.

The historic expansion involved the openings of several major bicycle routes — including the Bryant Avenue Bicycle Boulevard — after years of planning. But the network also grew through smaller “opportunity projects” — instances when public works crews took advantage of planned street maintenance to stripe new bike lanes, Murphy said.

He said federal NTP funds contributed about $1.6 million to the improvements, with the city spending an additional $100,000, mostly on the smaller opportunity projects. That’s a total of $1.7 million, not including money the county or other entities spent to stripe bike lanes.

By comparison, the city’s total budget for pavement striping and signage in 2011 was $2.5 million.

“The magnitude of it is pretty substantial,” said Jon Wentjes, director of traffic and parking services.

The rate of expansion has been thrilling for some bicyclists. But new lanes — and particularly lane designs new to city streets — can confuse both cyclists and drivers.

New designs go through a two-year evaluation process. At the end of that period, the city will submit reports to the Federal Highway Administration that includes findings on safety and public perception of the designs.

In late October, Murphy gave a reporter and photographer a tour of the on-street lane network’s newest links.

Buffered bike lanes

The tour began on the north side of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Park in Kingfield, where a northbound bike lane running between the park and Downtown recently opened on 1st Avenue South. From West 40th Street to a few blocks south of Lake Street a painted, yard-wide buffer zone separates the bicycle lane from vehicle traffic.

“The buffered bike lane is unique in that we really don’t need to experiment with anything,” Murphy said, explaining the buffer design was commonly used on highways to separate high-occupancy vehicle lanes from regular traffic.

It still felt unfamiliar to some motorists, apparently. That day, two vehicles idled illegally in the bike lane as two other motorists drove right on top of buffer zone.

“This is pretty new for a city street, so maybe it’s because it’s a local street and that’s why people aren’t quite understanding it,” Murphy suggested.

On the pedal into Downtown, Murphy pointed out the green paint and dotted lines used to indicate “conflict zones” near intersections, where turning drivers must cross over bike lanes.

It may take time for some motorists to catch on. As Murphy passed through one conflict zone, a right-turning driver nearly sideswiped him and another biker.

Advisory bike lanes

City planners couldn’t find room for new bicycle lanes on narrow, car-lined East 14th Street in Elliot Park, so they imported a solution from Europe: advisory bike lanes.

The new lanes run down each side of the street, next to the parking area. But instead of a solid line, they’re painted with a dotted line.

The city removed a dotted line from the center of the road, encouraging motorists to use the middle of the street whenever possible. Motorists can move into the bike lanes to get around oncoming traffic, but must yield to bicyclists.

Sven Behrens, a visitor to Minneapolis pedaling a green Nice Ride bicycle, seemed to have no trouble negotiating the advisory bike lane, which is making its first appearance in North America.

“I’m European, and I’m used to getting around by bike,” Behrens, who grew up in Germany, said. “But I live in Atlanta now, which is not a bike-friendly city at all.”

If not as easy to bike as some European cities, Minneapolis was at least “way, way better than Atlanta,” he said.

Enhanced sharrows

A bike-friendly European city probably would not choose to paint an “enhanced sharrow” on a busy street, as Minneapolis has done on LaSalle Avenue between East 15th Street and Franklin Avenue. The symbols — the typical bicycle-topped-by-two chevrons sharrow with the addition of a dotted outline — are unique in Minneapolis.

They connect Downtown to a Blaisdell Avenue bicycle lane, but on a busy street many bicyclists would find intimidating. In Europe, planners might have routed bicyclists onto the sidewalk, instead, Murphy said.

Routing the bike lane through a densely populated neighborhood — where removing street parking wasn’t an option — required compromise, he said.

Green lanes

Green is the new color of bicycling in Minneapolis, as anyone who has biked or driven down Bryant Avenue South recently knows. South of Lake Street, green strips punctuated with sharrows run down middle of each lane of the city’s longest bicycle boulevard.

“We designed these to be out of the door zone,” Murphy said, referring to the area near parked cars where bicyclists face the threat of opening car doors.

The green stripe actually runs closer to the center of the northbound lane than the southbound lane, a difference meant to test whether bicyclists are safer and more visible in the center of the lane. The experiment should also provide some feedback on where bicyclists feel most comfortable riding — in the center of a vehicle lane, or closer to the right.

Bike commuter Lauren Ernt, of ECCO, was riding straight down the green stripe on her way home.

Said Ernt: “From the perspective of a biker, when someone is driving in that lane they can see, O.K., this is designated for bikers as well.”