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The top 10 most dangerous bike intersections in Minneapolis

Daniel Corrigan

Jimmy Nisser just might have been the nicest person in all of St. Louis Park. He had a trimmed mustache and buoyant eyes, and always knew the score to the Twins games. He was the type of guy who cleaned the storm drains on his block, showed up an hour early to church to prepare coffee for groggy parishioners, and never forgot to send a birthday card.

He was also a lifelong cyclist. Born with cerebral palsy and unable to drive, he used his bicycle as his main mode of transportation. On sunny days, he'd wake up and pedal to work at 4 a.m. to prepare for his job at the Minikahda Club, the delicately combed golf course where he worked for 43 years. His daily path took him down Excelsior Boulevard, a four-lane roadway lined by American elm trees and Virginia creeper vines that separates the fairways like a deciduous canyon. Its green leaves and branches arch over passing traffic like solemn guards.

On September 11, Nisser strapped on his helmet, turned on his safety lights, and took his bike to work. But a block away from his turn off Excelsior, a tan Jeep Grand Cherokee slammed into his bike. The Jeep dragged Nisser across the pavement about 30 feet before he fell in a heap. The Jeep sped off.

Nisser's death echoed like a gunshot through the Twin Cities' close-knit cycling community. He was one of four riders killed as the result of collisions with cars within the last few months. The reaction has been an upsurge of concern for bicycle awareness, including black-clad memorial rides and ghost bikes at accident sites.

Yet despite these high-profile incidents, it is actually safer to ride on the street than at any other time in recent memory, according to city statistics. Minneapolis reports that accidents are down 20 percent from the 1990s.

To nervous cyclists, it sure doesn't feel that way, which is why we decided to assemble a list of the city's 10 most dangerous intersections for bike riders. We obtained crash reports from the city of Minneapolis that pinpoint intersections with the highest number of car/bicycle collisions over a recent three-year period. But raw numbers don't tell the whole story, as not every incident gets reported. So we also went out and polled the local cycling community, bicycle shop owners, race organizers, city planners, nonprofits that allocate federal funding for bicycle infrastructure improvement, and messengers who make their living crisscrossing the city's streets.

"It's really about safety and convenience," says Doug Shidell, publisher of the Twin Cities Bike Map. "It's the same reason why people lobby to change intersections for motorists. We want to get through them safely and quickly."

The Light Rail Trail (LRT) and 26th Street

In 2006, Emily Wergin was waiting at this intersection when a truck pulled up and blocked her view. As Wergin pedaled forward, an onrushing van slammed directly into her, striking her front tire and handlebars with enough force to send her cartwheeling across the pavement.

"I ended up contorted in a very strange way," she says. "And my handlebars got torqued."

Luckily, she walked away with only bruises and cuts.

Even before her accident, this intersection frustrated Wergin, who works on projects, some federally funded, to make neighborhoods more pedestrian- and bike-friendly.

She says the technical term for the LRT and 26th is a "double threat intersection," meaning that a cyclist has multiple dangers to look out for. "When you get to this intersection you never know where to look," says Wergin.

It's also one of the busiest intersections in the city, with 2,000 cyclists passing through it daily. And the only time cyclists really get the right of way is when the Light Rail train goes by, once every five minutes during rush hours.

Wergin's idea to solve the tricky intersection would be the installation of a larger median in the center of the road. Cyclists could then make their way through the trouble spot in two steps. "But I don't even know if there's enough room for that. There is no easy solution to this one," she says.

Hennepin/Lyndale and West 15th Street

If a cyclist makes it north and out of the Franklin and Lyndale gauntlet, they come upon a two-lane bike path off the street. It runs parallel down the length of the Walker Art Museum, in the shadow of the Hennepin Avenue United Methodist church, and is protected by raised pavement.

But all this safety comes to an abrupt end when the bike path suddenly vanishes at West 15th, spitting cyclists out into traffic.

Along this stretch there have been at least five car-bike accidents between 2003 and 2005. And about 900 cyclists a day ride this path.

 

"That one is a bad one," says Hurl Everstone, owner of CRC Cykel Garage. "I really think it has to do with the five stoplights. I avoid that one if possible."

The Minnehaha Roundabout

When Nick Mason biked into the Minnehaha roundabout, he was following the law to behave like a car. But someone should have told that to the drivers. As he veered around the lane on his Trek 5200 road bike, a vehicle shot out in front of him. Mason slammed into the side of the car, crushing the front end of his bike and sending his body skipping across the pavement.

An employee of Dero Bike Racks, a business that has a partnership with the Safe Routes to Schools program and sponsors the national bike summit, Mason had experienced an unintended consequence of the beautiful engineering solution that weaves together four unevenly sized streets.

While it allows cars to proceed without creating traffic and reduces the number of auto accidents, the same can't be said for bikes. When a cyclist enters the roundabout, it's as though they just entered Thunderdome.

In one quick moment, a rider must negotiate multiple intersections. While safe for a car, bicycles tend to disappear from view. And with the lack of roundabouts in the Twin Cities, cars aren't accustomed to driving them, either.

Even though there has only been one reported accident between 2003 and 2005, close calls are a regular occurrence. On a recent day, three cyclists were nearly hit in the span of 11 minutes.

Bob Witter learned to navigate this roundabout the hard way. When he pedaled into it, a car decided to overtake him before cutting him off as it exited. "I slammed on my brakes and the car nearly clipped my wheel," Witter says. "Now, I move way out into the roundabout and take up the whole lane. While it feels dangerous, it's the only way to stay safe."

Cedar and Riverside Avenues

Linkage continues to be the city's Achilles' heel for cyclists, who find themselves stymied when trying to get from one neighborhood to another. The intersection at Cedar and Riverside reflects this problem. About 820 cyclists cross through it a day; most of them are traveling between the U of M and the Light Rail stop near the Bedlam Theatre.

There are also plenty of attractions that draw cyclists. Within a couple of blocks, the street has two bicycle shops and numerous concert venues including the 400 Bar, Acadia, and the Triple Rock.

Yet the intersection and most of the Seven Corners area lack something as simple as a bicycle lane.

Since 2003, there's been only one reported crash. But Transit for Livable Communities, a Twin Cities-based nonprofit that allocates $21.5 million to improve infrastructure for bicycles and pedestrians, highlighted this corridor as a top priority. Jeff Frane, a local rider who organizes one of the largest alley-cat messenger races in Minneapolis, also points to Cedar and Riverside as one of the worst places to ride.

The problem is the odd angles of the streets, which creates a labyrinth of blind spots for drivers and riders.

Benjamin Tsai, from the Hub bicycle co-op, works a block away. "It's just a confusing intersection," says Tsai. "It's not just a four-way stop. The other thing is there is a lot of traffic and the pavement is also rough in sections."

Joan Paisuk, program director for Transit for Livable Communities, says that the city plans to change Riverside from four lanes to three and color-coat the bike lanes. "And there'll be bike lanes on both sides of the street," she adds.

University Avenue and I-35W ramps

On a normal day, the bicycle lane on University Avenue fills with about 1,400 cyclists: everybody from hipsters on fixed-gears to freshman on mountain bikes and professors on cruisers.

But the commute gets sketchy as the cyclists approach the university and make their way across a nasty section: the I-35W northbound ramps.

According to city statistics, this intersection is the fifth-worst in the city for bike/car collisions. A big reason is that it asks drivers to instantly start looking for bikes after being on the highway for miles.

Yet Don Pflaum, city bike coordinator, feels this problem might soon be resolved. "With the completion of the bridge, planners took into consideration sight lines of drivers on the northbound ramp," he says. "This should improve the intersection. But only time will tell if this actually makes an improvement."

26th Street and Lyndale Avenue South

 

With the CC Club, the Bulldog, and Common Roots anchoring the corners, Lyndale and 26th is an ideal destination for cyclists who like to socialize. As if the allure of cheap beer and fried cheese curds weren't enough, there's ample bike parking.

Still, Lyndale Avenue and 26th Street are horrid to ride. Both lack bike lanes and traffic moves at around 35 mph. Buses blast by, inches away from cyclists—the wind whipping off is enough to startle riders. The intersection has seen six crashes between 2003 and 2005, placing it in the top four worst intersections according to the city.

There are currently no plans to fix this intersection. Ideas being tossed around the cycling community include changing the street from four lanes to three, providing room for a bike lane, and offering a turn lane for cars in the center.

Another goal is to get cyclists to use the slower yet safer Bryant Avenue, a future bike boulevard.

"Honestly, you have so many other options I don't see why you'd ride down 26th or Lyndale at all," says Phil Werst, general manager of Common Roots Cafe, who rides this section of town every day and purposefully avoids the intersection. "You got Bryant and Aldrich avenues right there as way better alternatives."

Hennepin Avenue. All of it.

Throughout the city, if there's one man who can be considered a local cycling sage, it's Gene Oberpriller, co-owner of One on One bike shop downtown and a former bike messenger.

When approached with the question of the worst intersections in the city, he didn't hesitate to answer.

"Every intersection in the city is dangerous," he said, "but the Hennepin bike lane is especially bad. And by the library is the worst. I've had almost a dozen near-death experiences there."

The Hennepin bike lane is something unique and dangerous for the entire downtown. It's a doublewide bike lane in the middle of the street, used as a main drag for cyclists looking to get through the north side of downtown. Between Sixth and Seventh Streets, 1,500 cyclists ride the Hennepin bike lane every day.

Then, at Washington Avenue, the lane simply ends. Cyclists suddenly find themselves in the middle of a giant intersection complete with buses turning in on them, oncoming traffic approaching from all directions, and three additional lanes of traffic to cross just to get back over to the right side of the street.

From 2003 to 2005, there were 16 accidents on this stretch—approximately two crashes for every block. The major problem is cars making left turns—most drivers on Hennepin are concentrating on buses coming at them rather than cyclists coming up behind them on the left.

"I think the reality is that if there was no bus traffic there wouldn't be as many accidents," says Tom Becker, the former assistant system director of transportation.

The city has plans to make Hennepin a two-way street, but one idea on the board would place the bike lane in the center of the avenue, asking cyclists to make their way through two or three lanes of traffic every time they want to turn.

"If we don't voice our concerns," says Doug Shidell, "we'll be stuck with it for the next 20 years or more."

Lyndale and Franklin Avenues

Last spring, Chris Duerkop coasted down the hill on Franklin and came to a stop at a red light. A technical writer at Quality Bike Parts, one of the top bicycling distributors in the nation, Duerkop waited for the light to change, then proceeded into the intersection. But as he entered it, a car turned left, crossing into his lane.

"It forced me into the median," he recalls. "And the car just kept on cruising."

Between 2003 and 2005, there were six bike-car collisions at this intersection, tying it with three others for the highest number in Minneapolis. A major reason is that it serves as a link between Uptown and Downtown. But it's also a place where cars look to enter the I-94 eastbound ramp.

To mitigate the danger, the city built a bike bridge a block to the south that links Lyndale to Bryant Avenue. The goal was to get cyclists to avoid the dangerous intersection entirely.

But while it's a beautiful bridge, it's also a major inconvenience. In a study conducted last September, the city found that an overwhelming majority of cyclists preferred to take the short route rather than wind around on a bridge with a tight switchback and semi-steep incline.

28th Street and Portland Avenue

 

In the early 1990s, city planners made the decision to place bike lanes on the left side of the road. Their thinking was that it would dramatically lower the chance that a cyclist would get "doored," the term for when a driver opens a car door in front of a biker.

But that decision had an unintended consequence: It placed cyclists closer to faster-moving traffic unaccustomed to looking for bikes on the left.

Six collisions occurred at 28th and Portland between 2003 and 2005; at least two of them were the result of a car making a left turn, side-swiping the cyclist making his way south. These accidents are causing the city to rethink its position on left-hand bicycle lanes, and whether dooring is really that big of an issue.

"Dooring really just makes up a fraction of all bicycle collisions," says David Hiller, advocacy director of Cascade Bicycle Club, a nonprofit in Seattle, Washington. "Cities should really focus on people turning into intersections."

Hiller's group launched a plan to solve the problem in Seattle. They installed movable signposts next to areas where cars park for short periods of time, usually in front of coffee shops. The signs read, "Look for Bikes."

And that's it. Instead of relying on infrastructure to solve the problem, they educated Seattle residents, and it worked.

Central and Lowry Avenues

When the two main drags in northeast Minneapolis converge, they create some serious pain for cyclists. City data points to Central and Lowry as the worst intersection in the city. Buses whiz through, while cars treat the streets like mini-freeways. Absent is any sort of bike lane. And even though only 180 cyclists use this deathtrap on any given day, it has the highest collision rate in Minneapolis.

This intersection is the one, above all others, to avoid at all costs. For cyclists who do ride it, don't make the mistake of pedaling on the sidewalk. This makes riders invisible to cars. "What we know from traffic reports," says Steve Clark from Transit for Livable Communities, "is that riding on the sidewalks doubles your risk to get hit."

About six collisions have occurred in this area between 2003 and 2006. To put it in perspective, that's more than the total number seen at University and I-35W, which gets about 10 times the amount of daily bicycle traffic.

"It's really the worst when it comes down to numbers," says Shaun Murphy, bicycle project coordinator for the city. "Hopefully we can get some bike lanes or something other installed to prevent further collisions."


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