CYCLING CENTRAL // Biking advocates pushing for a safer ride on Northeast corridor

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September 12, 2011
By: Drew Kerr
Drew Kerr
On a recent weekday, Ethan Fawley stood at the corner of University and Central avenues and pointed out the dangerous interactions he saw taking place between drivers and bicyclists navigating the intersection amid the rush-hour traffic.    

Cars passed bicycles leaving only narrow separation between shoulder and side mirror. Bicyclists struggled to break through the stream of cars to make a left-hand turn. And several two-wheeled commuters abandoned the street altogether, finding it more convenient or comfortable to ride on the sidewalk.

“See her — if she hadn’t stopped as a bicyclist that would have been a crash right there,” Fawley said as a woman eased her bike into the crosswalk, just missing a right-hand turning car that was part of a wave of traffic moving through the intersection shortly after 5 p.m.

The president of the Minneapolis Bicycle Coalition, Fawley says such interactions are a common sight up and down Central Avenue — an artery that serves as a main connection between residents and businesses in Northeast and downtown Minneapolis.

Now, as state officials finalize their plans to repave and repaint the corridor, Fawley and other bicycle advocates are calling for a range of improvements they say could improve the state-owned highway for those who chose to bike on the road.     

Dedicated bicycle lanes, wider shoulders and sharrows — painted chevrons indicating bicycle traffic — are among the ideas bicycle advocates say could help improve safety along the corridor at relatively minimal cost.

Fawley and others also say that reducing the number of lanes from four to three in Central Avenue’s business district could also help ease congestion and make biking less precarious. The road could be changed to include a turning lane and wider shoulders — improvements they say would reduce congestion and create a more predictable stream of traffic.

While plans are still being finalized, state officials say it’s unlikely that all of the bicyclists’ requests will be met, however.

Bids for the $3.5 million project are expected to go out in December, and construction is scheduled to begin this spring. Making additional accommodations would take more time and money.

Sharrows and wider shoulders — created by reducing lane widths to 11-feet — are likely 
to be included as part of the final plans, though.

State officials said they prefer the sharrows because they are a simple fix that will allow the project’s original timeline to be kept and create consistent signage along the entire route. Adding bike lanes in wider areas, but not in more narrow sections could cause confusion for motorists, they say.

And although repaving efforts generally take place only once every decade, Scott Pedersen, an engineer with the Minnesota Department of Transportation who is working on the project, said officials will continue to work toward a safer street.

Changes could be made sooner rather than later if they are warranted, he said.

“This project doesn’t preclude us from going out and restriping the road at some point in between (the next reconstruction),” he said. “We’re willing to listen to any proposal.”

Bike advocates use the same logic to make the case that additional measures can and should be taken now, however.

“With paint, you have an opportunity to try something,” Fawley said. “If it doesn’t work out, you just paint it back.”

The state’s efforts come less than two years after the city finalized a $50,000 study that explored what kind of bicycle accommodations could be made on Central Avenue.

The study recommended several of the items Fawley and others are calling for, but city officials say they have little control over what is ultimately done because it is a state-owned highway.

“We’ve got a plan, but it’s [the state’s] road and it’s up to them to decide what to do with it,” said Shaun Murphy, the coordinator for the city’s Non-Motorized Transportation Pilot Program.

Still, Murphy said there is a growing expectation among the city’s bicyclists that they be taken into account anytime a road is redone — even if it is a more heavily driven road such as Central Avenue.  

As many as 20,000 cars a day pass through the area, but Murphy said the traffic in some ways is an incentive to do more.

“I think it’s fairly clear if you look at the whole bike system in Minneapolis, that we don’t shy away from busy streets,” he said. “As we get more and more bicyclists out there, we have to think about how to separate them from traffic.”

For neighborhood residents, improving the corridor isn’t just about safety, but community.

Improving Central Avenue, they say, could help bikers get to businesses that line the route and serve as an economic development tool in an area looking for revitalization.

“It’s such a great road because there’s so much on it,” said Hope Johnson, a member of the city’s bicycle advisory group who lives in Northeast. “There are all these great restaurants and the grocery stores that people should be able to get to by bike.”

Johnson said she commutes downtown three or four times a week, but often avoids riding on Central Avenue. Going around, she said, adds another 10 minutes to her trip.

Pedersen maintained this repaving effort is 
not the final chapter 
for Central Avenue, 
however.

With the possibility of streetcars coming — the city just started to study the idea of returning them to the street — the area is likely to get a lot more attention in the years to come, he said.

And as that conversation continues, he said, bicyclists will have a seat at the table.

“After this project is completed, we’ll have time to develop a vision,” Pedersen said. “That’s going to take some time. It just wasn’t something we could resolve within the time frame of this project.”