From plastic to concrete

Public Works is eyeing upgrades to the protected bikeway network in 2018

A rendering of what the curb-protected bicycle lanes Public Works is planning for 2018 could look like. Submitted image

Concrete curbs and vegetated medians could replace plastic bollards along portions of the city’s protected bicycle lane network in 2018.

Minneapolis will have about 20 miles of protected bicycle lanes by the end of the 2017 construction season but just a few blocks of curb-protected bike lane, found on Oak Street near the University of Minnesota campus. The Public Works Department aims to extend that curb next year, one of six similar projects transportation planner Elizabeth Heyman said were in early development for 2018.

Heyman said the retrofit projects were planned for streets that already have bicycle lanes, many of them separated from motor-vehicle traffic by the now-familiar white plastic bollards. Curbs and medians offer “greater physical separation” from motor-vehicle traffic, she noted, and could be even more effective at encouraging people to ride.

“There’s new, up-and-coming research every day that shows people feel more comfortable with these types of designs,” Heyman said.

Concrete curbs and medians are also tougher than the plastic bollards used to delineate on-street bikeways, which are often flattened or knocked out of position by wayward motorists, she added. While not yet common in Minneapolis, they can be found on the streets of Chicago, New York, San Francisco and other U.S. cities.

Safety and comfort

Ethan Fawley, executive director of Our Streets Minneapolis, said the plastic bollards have their advantages.

“We can get a lot more miles at lower cost with bollards,” Fawley said, noting they are also easier to move and adjust as the city responds to the needs of road users. But the nonprofit has been pushing the city to add routes with the “high-quality, comfortable feel” that more robust barriers provide, he said.

“We definitely are excited,” Fawley said.

A 2014 Portland State University study surveyed people in five U.S. cities that have added protected bicycle lanes and found they increased ridership and were preferred by both bicyclists and nearby residents. Canadian researchers in 2012 published a study of 690 cyclists injured while biking on the streets of Vancouver and Toronto, and their findings suggested cyclists were safer riding in bike lanes physically separated from motor vehicle traffic.

In Minneapolis, protected bicycle lanes play a key role in Council-approved strategies to add bike facilities that feel safe and comfortable to a broader range of cyclists and to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by making it easier for more residents to use bicycles on local trips.

Although they aren’t in the city’s plans for 2018, Fawley said planters were “absolutely the preferred form of protection.” They are not just strong but tall, sending a strong message to drivers to stay away. And they can be used to beautify urban streets, he added.

Six projects

Funding for the six projects would come from the city’s protected bikeways program. Mayor Betsy Hodges’s 2018 budget includes $1 million for that program, but budget talks are ongoing and Heyman said Public Works was still evaluating how much it could accomplish with that level of funding.

In addition to the Oak Street project, there are plans to upgrade existing bike lanes to curb protection on Plymouth Avenue between Penn and University avenues; on 11th Avenue between South 6th Street and West River Parkway; and on 12th Street between 2nd and 3rd avenues. Various options, including a curb, are being considered for 3rd Avenue South between 12th and 16th streets, and Public Works is looking to test a planted median on a block or two of Blaisdell Avenue somewhere between 32nd and 42nd streets.

While a segment of curb-protected bike lane on Oak Street was built with parking lot bumpers lined up end-to-end, a second block-length curb added in November reflects the city’s preferred design: roughly two feet wide and 6–7 inches tall. They’ll be used in combination with plastic bollards, Heyman said.

While the curbs are more expensive up front, they may prove cheaper in the long run if they reduce the maintenance costs associated with the plastic bollards, which must be replaced when they are lost or broken, she said. Public Works also plans to monitor how the curbs and median perform in terms of storm water drainage, snow clearance and street sweeping.

No stopping

Nick Mason, who serves on the Bicycle Advisory Committee, suggested a solid curb could prove more effective than widely spaced bollards at discouraging motorists from illegally driving or parking in bicycle lanes, a common annoyance for cyclists.

Mason, who also serves as deputy director of BicycleMN, a nonprofit that advocates for bike safety statewide, said it’s understandable bicyclists would seek out protected lanes, especially with the rise of distracted driving. Districted drivers aren’t typically a problem on the city’s network of off-street trails, which Mason described as “second to none,” but opportunities to expand that network are now few and far between.

“There aren’t opportunity to build trails anymore,” he said. “We’ve taken all we could.”

Although the retrofit projects planned in 2018 will be upgrading streets with existing bicycle lanes, Mason noted the expansion of the protected bicycle lane network has “a real safety effect” for all road users. The projects often involve narrowing or reducing the number of motor vehicle lanes, which has the effect of reducing speeds and the risk of serious injury in a crash.