When State Fair memories fade and summer turns to fall, like clockwork the orange cones and cement mixers of public works departments buzz with activity.
All around the city, “Road Work” signs appear, streets are closed, and repairs commence. So, too, does road rage intensify into a fathomless, bottomless wrath, raining down upon internet comment sections like unintelligible screams from a party bus pulling into Uptown.
Thus it is with some resignation that I assume my task: responding to the latest barbaric yawp belching from the tailpipes of the gridlocked.
The situation this time? The coincidence of south Minneapolis’ annual road construction with the gradual improvement of its bike lanes.
2017’s guilty parties are the bike lanes on 26th Street and 28th Street, multi-lane one-way streets that run west and east, respectively. To me, they represent a safety improvement a half-century overdue, finally connecting the freeway-laden middle grounds of Central, Whittier, Phillips, and Powderhorn with the lakes and river.
To others, these lanes are the latest sign of the car-pocalpyse. It began with a thunderclap from the pen of Jon Tevlin, columnist for the Star Tribune, the local newspaper of record (which also owns City Pages). From there, the congestion kvetching spread through Twitter, Facebook, Nextdoor -- presumably, for I will not check it myself -- and Reddit, growing into a wail of bike-lash thicker than hamburger. (More on that in a moment.)
Yet having studied the matters at hand, allow me to offer a few counterpoints.
1. Lazy columnists love bike-lash!
Blaming bicyclists for the ills of the urban world is a classic 20th-century trope, and Tevlin’s column last week was an excellent throwback to the heyday of the bike-lash era. What it lacked in originality -- dwelling in the mined-out ruts of planning conspiracy -- the column made up for in effort. Finding two men like Larry Ludeman and Rand Retterath to gnash on about “bike bullies,” “prescribed congestion,” and “behavior modification programs” is like finding a cash-only dive bar with free popcorn.
Yet compared to the truly great bikelash rants, say Dorothy Rabinowitz’ infamous “begrimed” commentary attacking New York’s wildly popular bike share system , or esteemed chum artists like DC’s Courtland Malloy or Boston’s Jeff Jacoby, Tevlin pales.
(Where are the stereotypes, Jon? Calls for bike bans? Concern trolling?)
Still, I appreciate a good metaphor, and “traffic will flow smoothly as trying to push hamburger through a straw” is a vivid image. Well done!
Still, the meat-aphor is off. If anything, the proper image for congestion on 26th is an unquenchable fat man sitting on a couch sucking on an impossibly large plastic cup of soda. Picture one of the spaceship people from Wall-E, for example, or the armchair/toilet guy in Idiocracy. The bigger the straw, the worse it gets for everyone.
2. 26th and 28th are a dangerous relic from 1960s pre-freeway Minneapolis
I once asked the late Judith Martin, noted Minneapolis urban historian and planning expert, about south Minneapolis’ one-way streets. She explained that these were legacies of the 1960s freeway construction era. While 35W and I-94 were being built, the city was in huge disarray, and they converted some streets into one-ways during the construction period.
But once the interstates were completed, the one-ways just stuck around. It's hard to put an egg back into its shell, and for the last half-century, as any Minneapolis driver worth their salt well knows, 26th and 28th were great for speeding at 40+ miles per hour through dense urban neighborhoods between Lake Street and Franklin Avenue.
That mix of speeding cars and lots of people is the Number 1 reason why they’ve long been two of most dangerous streets in the city. 28th Street, in particular, jumps off the 2000-2010 bicycle crash charts, and both streets have been the site of multiple bicycle and pedestrian injuries and fatalities over the years.
In short, these old-school streets might have been great for people speeding from end to end, but they were often literally deadly for people walking or biking through their own south Minneapolis neighborhoods.
3. Bike lanes don’t affect one-way streets that much
Generally speaking, one-way streets have advantages and disadvantages. They can handle a lot more traffic than two-way streets, and intersections are simpler, allowing for better traffic signal timing. The downside is that you sometimes have to drive out of your way to negotiate them, and their deceptive simplicity often inspires drivers to hit dangerous speeds in urban areas.
In some cities around the country, planners are converting one-way streets back into two-ways to improve access and safety. (Cedar Rapids, Iowa is a good example; Whittier neighborhood’s own 1st Avenue in south Minneapolis is another.) But for the most part, planners in Minneapolis are taking another tack, trying to deliberately calm and slow traffic by adding protected bike lanes or other safety measures.
If done correctly, adding bike lanes doesn’t have to affect traffic volumes that much, but it will certainly reduce speed. On Park and Portland Avenues, Hennepin County traded one entire travel lane (!) from each street for buffered bike lanes. Volumes dropped a lot in some places, and stayed fairly flat in others. To me, the streets seem vastly improved.
4. Angry dudes stuck in traffic are angry
Disney made a movie about this way back in 1950, where Goofy, the otherwise friendly cartoon dog, transforms into a maniac when he gets behind the wheel of a car.
The point is that people stuck in traffic get angry. Really angry! Psychological studies show that drivers routinely construct narratives to attempt to explain the often-random traffic patterns swirling around them, what sociologist Jack Katz calls the “endless Rorscahch test” of traffic. We concoct heroes and villains, stories of good and bad drivers, or tricks and escape routes that we might use to help turn drudgery into a meaningful experience. But really it’s all a monotonous hell.
All I know is, if Elon Musk could figure out a way to harness road rage into an energy source, comment sections and traffic jams could solve the world’s energy problems overnight.
5. Protected bike lanes are a clear solution to boosting bicycling
As “esayer” asked on a surprisingly sensible Reddit thread, why do we need the poles that mark off a bike lane from a car lane? Are they not wasted space?
And it’s true, the plastic poles can be confusing. (Protip: they are called "bollards.") What are they doing there?
To which I reply, check out the bollards over in St. Paul at the new Starbucks drive-thru at Snelling and Marshall (aka, by St. Paul’s embarrasing naming convention, “Snarshall”). Just a week or two after being installed, they have been run over again and again. The area is such a war zone that a St. Paul clique of snarky hipsters has emerged to name and dress the individual bollards, which die at rates rivaled only by Kenny from South Park.
This is to say that there may be a point to having those little plastic poles “protecting” the bike lane. Watching yet another car sneak past the 26th Street bollards to cruise to the corner -- or better yet, seeing people simply park there -- it makes ya think. If anything, the new lanes need more plastic poles, not fewer.
6. This was planned for years
“Protected bike lanes” are the cutting edge of bike planning, and all over the country, they’ve boosted bicycling in cities where they’re installed. The simple reason is that they pass the “would you let your loved one / teenager / aging mother ride in them?” test.
Two years ago, Minneapolis passed a special addendum to the bike plan that specifically stated that the city would build 40 new protected bike lanes.
If there was a huge pot of money sitting around, well-designed curb-protected or concrete-protected bike lanes would be great. But they’re really expensive and take years to construct. Meanwhile, plastic poles are really cheap, and (as the Snarshall #carbucks shows) can be installed or uninstalled willy-nilly.
7. But traffic!
They used to say “death and taxes” were inevitable, but as Donald Trump’s tax returns show, paying taxes is no longer a given. Road construction, on the other hand, is as inevitable as the gruesome beheading of a talented young gymnast in a Final Destination film.
Road construction stems from the basic laws of physics, entropy, and the repetitive freeze-thaw cycles of Minnesota’s extreme seasons. Every 10-15 years, streets must be repaved. Every 30 years, they must be reconstructed, typically at great expense. Every 50 years, a freeway bridge must be rebuilt. This all costs money, only half of which comes from gas taxes and driver fees. And once they fix it, it lasts for a while… until it again needs maintenance, repair, and replacement, again at great expense and inconvenience. What can be done?
Nothing can be done. Sorry, folks.
In conclusion: People Actually Living in south Minneapolis Finally Get Treated Like Human Beings
I once dated a woman who lived right on 26th Street, and the endless stream of cars flying past gave the apartment an unquiet feeling. Walking the sidewalk was like holding your breath. Anyone who’s spent much time in Whittier or Powderhorn has seen a crash, or its aftermath.
Just like with Park and Portland Avenues, the new road diet for St. Paul’s Maryland Avenue, or dozens of other projects I could name, the main benefit of the 26th and 28th Street lanes is not really about bicycling. It’s about basic safety. People should not be driving down a narrow street through a densely populated city at over 40 miles per hour.
The old design was always going to end in tragedy, just as surely as a hopeful Vikings season will always end in fumbles, interceptions, and humiliating injury.
The truth is, almost everyone near these two streets was made worse off by their dangerous designs. It had been that way for generations. People living, walking, or biking around south Minneapolis paid the price for others driving as fast as possible to reach the freeway. The unfair trade-off devalued the otherwise walkable, diverse, and historic neighborhoods of south Minneapolis, all in exchange for a few dozen seconds of convenience for the people driving away.
Personally, I’d like to fix the other high-speed one-way death traps of Minneapolis. Having 4th Avenue and University Avenue run through the heart of Dinkytown is a recipe for disaster, and if anywhere needs protected bike lanes, it’s a university campus full of students on Magnas.
These kinds of bike lanes are common sense. Sure, you can always find an angry man in traffic to rant for a reporter. But seeing Minneapolis finally correcting the deadly mistakes of the past? That’s new. And it’s going to save lives.