Hennepin and First Bike Lanes
There's been a lot of complaining both in the cycling community and from drivers in the local media about the changes to Hennepin and First Avenues. Those changes include allowing two-way traffic on both streets (which had been one-ways since the '80s), removing the middle-of-the-street bike lanes on Hennepin, installing new bus/bike/right turn lanes on Hennepin, and implementing an exciting, innovative new form of bikeway on First. This bikeway consists of a bike-only lane that hugs the curb. During peak hours, it's next to two lanes of moving traffic. During non-peak hours, parking is to the left of the bike lane.
I am basically supportive of this project, especially the lanes on First. I think some of the concerns we've heard have to do with the incomplete roll-out of the project (for instance, it was opened to traffic before the bike stencils were painted), and some of them are just folks reacting negatively to change. However, some of the concerns are more specific, and I'll go through them and respond.
The bike lanes on Hennepin don't work for most riders. I absolutely agree. Hennepin is now a good facility for experienced bicyclists who are comfortable traffic, and no one else. However, First is now much better than the old Hennepin lanes ever were. This is why my office pushed so hard, when this project was being designed, for good routes connecting Hennepin to First at the north and south ends. I'm proud to say those connections have been built, and they include some innovative best management practices (bike boxes at left turns, for instance).
The lanes on First are confusing. This is a fair point. Anything new and innovative is going to be somewhat confusing to all road users at first. This is the first time in history that drivers have had to park five feet away from the curb anywhere in Minneapolis. This is the first time that cyclists have had parked cars to the left of a bike lane. I believe that this confusion will subside as all road users get used to the new lanes, and we shouldn't be afraid to try new and innovative things.
Drivers are parking in the bike lane on First. This was especially true at first. However, as I noted above, as people get used to the new layout, drivers are getting better about parking in the proper place. Once the majority of people who regularly park on First figure out how it works, they will help establish a sort of 'peer pressure' on newcomers, by showing where cars should be parked. This is also an issue that the Police Department will need to watch carefully, especially over the next year or so; people who park in the bike lanes on First should be ticketed.
The bikeway on First is risky at intersections. This is a longstanding criticism of 'cycle track' type bikeways. The reasoning is that the most dangerous places for bikes are intersections, where they have to contend with left- and right-turning cars (creating accidents such as 'left hooks' and 'right hooks'). If parked cars are between them and moving traffic, they are less visible. And if they are less visible, the argument goes, drivers are more likely to turn into them. This is a valid argument. Cyclists using the First Ave bikeway during off-peak hours need to know that drivers may be less aware of them. However, there are some compelling reasons to believe this facility will be safer than most bike lanes in town. First, parking is prohibited within 30 feet of intersections, giving drivers a chance to see that cyclists are there before making a turn. Second, Public Works staff have followed national best practices by dashing the bike lane as it approaches intersections, indicating to drivers that they need to merge into the bike lane in order to turn right (rather than simply turning across it). Third, there are accidents that occur along streets, not at intersections. The most important of these is 'dooring,' an accident type that I believe will be much less common on the First bike lanes than most other bike lanes in the city, because most cars are still single-occupant vehicles and therefore the passenger doors are not as risky. Lastly, it's important to know that our staff tracks accidents - if it becomes clear that this facility is more dangerous than others, we will reevaluate it.
I commend Public Works staff for their courage in bringing forward this innovative project. Like any major change, it was always destined to be controversial, and to be criticised by basically everyone. I strongly believe that, as all road users get accustomed to it, it will become easier to use and more popular. I suspect that in a few years' time, the bikeway on First will be one of the most successful on-street facilities in town, and will be a model for how to safely and conveniently accomodate bicyclists on busy city streets.