Despite their recent accolades as the #9 best campus in the US for bicycling, I'm no fan of the cycling infrastructure at the University of Minnesota.
As you most certainly know by now, the University of Minnesota was the scene of a terrible “accident” this morning as a woman riding her bicycle to class was killed by turning truck as she progressed (quite legally, it seems) through the dangerous corner at 15th and 4th in the heart of Dinkytown.
If history is any guide, the reaction to this fatality will probably not be very helpful. It'll probably make people afraid to ride bikes. The police and University authorities will probably emphasize the need for cyclists to “behave better” and “wear helmets.” For example, see this quote by Minneapolis PD Sergeant William Palmer in today's Star Tribune article on the death:
In response, said Sgt. William Palmer, Minneapolis police are intensifying enforcement of "drivers not yielding to pedestrians, pedestrians jaywalking in congested areas and cyclists not obeying the rules of the road."
Even though the law is on the side of pedestrians, Palmer added, "police are asking pedestrians and cyclists to watch out for themselves."
In my opinion, the we should draw a far different lesson from this tragedy. The conversation should not be about enforcement of jaywalking, but about the much larger crime of having inadequate and unsafe bicycling streets right in the middle of a college campus where tens of thousands of students, mostly from rural and suburban environments, bike and walk constantly every day.
To put it bluntly, much of the the street design at University of Minnesota makes it almost inevitable that pedestrians and cyclists will be killed.
A few months ago I put together a litany of complaints about how the bicycling routes and treatments are badly designed on the Twin Cities' campus. Here's what I wrote about the North side of campus, which is probably the most dangerous place for cyclists in the whole school (especially right near 35W):
The main bike paths East-West through campus (Washington Avenue, University Ave or 4th Street SE) are designed almost exclusively for cars: all have their problems, 3 or 4 lane roads that encourage cars to speed as much as possible. These streets are both terribly uncomfortable and unsafe places for bicycles, and frequently used by bicyclists.
I certainly could have added 15th Ave SE to this list.
Though the street layout on 15th Avenue is a little bit safer -- a 2-lane, 2-way street with bike lanes striped on either side -- it's still a terribly unsafe situation for cyclists. Anyone riding their bicycle to class is forced to navigate a series of claustrophobic intersections filled with buses and traffic along a way-too-narrow bike lane without adequate protection from cars or trucks. (Well marked bike boxes and colored bike lanes along 15th would be one obvious and inexpensive way to make 15th Avenue far safer for the many cyclists to bike from the SE Como and Dinkytown area into the main campus entrance at 15th and University.)
The fact is that the University of Minnesota has long prioritized auto transportation over alternative modes of transportation, despite the fact that many many students at the school don't use cars to get to and from class, despite the fact that the University is one of the best-served schools by transit anywhere in the country. (See for example the University's recent light rail lawsuit.)
Bicycle infrastructure everywhere on campus seems like an afterthought. Even the name for the University's office that deals with street design – The Office of Parking and Transportation Services – points to the administration's love of parking garages and large roads, and helps explain why the school seems to neglect and policing cyclists to the point where it often seems like a battle just to get across campus.
(In fact, email me a photo of a mid- to high-level University administrator on a bicycle, and I will personally buy you lunch in Stadium Village. That's a promise! I've never seen this happen, and I'd bet, neither have you.)
Whose bright idea was it to create 3-lane one-way streets where cars are encouraged to drive 40+ miles per hour right through Dinkytown, just feet from fraternity row, right in the middle of the most highly-trafficked pedestrian environment in the whole city where you have thousands of college kids wandering around wearing iPods and flirting and playing frisbee and drinking beer and generally having a nice time going to college? Why would you put these high-speed streets right in the very spot where hundreds of cyclists are riding at all times of the day and night? Why do the bike lanes along University and 4th start and stop without warning?
If the University really cared about encouraging cycling and keeping cyclists safe, it seems to me that the University and 4th corridors would be the perfect spots for a buffered cycle track, like they have over at the University of Wisconsin in Madison. Cycle tracks are the 'gold standard' of bike infrastructure: bike lanes buffered with concrete barriers and traffic lights timed to bicycle speeds that would calm traffic along this busy and pedestrian-heavy stretch of the city. That would do worlds of good for cyclists and pedestrians on campus, and it's just one obvious idea.
This “accident” was highly predictable, and will inevitably happen again until we do more to protect students and to discourage cars and trucks from driving through campus at high speeds. Hopefully this accident doesn't end up discouraging students from riding their bikes. The University needs to do more to make sure that we can all get around the school on a bicycle without being run over and killed by trucks.