Sidewalk Mailbox #6: High-speed One-ways are like Watering Your Garden with a Firehose

Here's a very lovely letter I just received:

Hi Bill,

I'm hoping you wouldn't mind helping me understand some City of Minneapolis street layouts/designs. The questions I have are regarding the bike lanes on 26th and 28th streets in Minneapolis. More info is here:

First and foremost, I want to say I support bike lanes. However, I think they're a tricky subject because most bikers do as they please on the roads and give a bad rap to all bikers. That being said, unfortunately, it only takes a few bad apples to ruin for everyone and create a stigma that bikers are a huge PITA. I fully support bike lanes but I'm fairly confident they can be implemented a lot better and make things more efficient for both bikers and vehicles.
I frequently use 26th and 28th streets because they're one ways and quick to get across town for my work - I work for a charitable gambling organization in Minneapolis whose main revenue source is pulltab sales at different bars so going from bar to bar is a big part of my time.

A few days ago, I was on one of the streets mentioned above and noticed that it is now 2 lanes instead of 3 - one full lane of traffic being devoted to a bike lane. This was during rush hour and traffic was backed up and it was backed up for at least a half mile (Hiawatha to ~Chicago). I noticed that once the road went back to 3 lanes (the original configuration), traffic suddenly flowed at a greater pace.

I'm having a hard time understanding why the city/planners/public works department takes a lane of automobile traffic away and dedicates it to bikes only. I was under the impression that streets were intended for cars. The amount of cars on a road vastly outnumbers bikes, so why are bikes taking lanes away from cars?

Consider this analogy: You have a container of water that holds 100 liters. It drains at a rate of 10 liters/minute but filling with water at a rate of 15 liters/minute. What's going to happen to in 20 minutes? The water will overflow. This is what's happening on those streets. You have streets that were meant to handle so much traffic and now there's even less room for that traffic so it backs up. Why would anyone consider this something viable?

We know the planet is warming because of CO2. Does anyone pay attention to that fact? It certainly doesn't seem that way to me. Why do bikes need to travel on 26th and 28th streets when 1 block North or South will accomplish the same thing? Are bike lanes put on busy streets so bikers don't have to stop for stop signs or cross busy streets as frequently? The amount of energy required to move a vehicle is much greater than a bike.

Adding bike lanes is complicated, but it seems that planners just put them wherever without considering all factors. Another good example is Portland and Park Avenues running from Minnehaha Creek to Downtown. Portland used to be 3 or 4 lanes and now it's only 2. And the speed limit was reduced from 35 to 30! A double whammy there!
I'm hoping you can provide a little insight into why bike lanes are added to somewhat busy streets. I really do not understand why bikes need to be on the same roads as vehicles. When bikes and vehicles collide, there's usually damage to the bike and sometimes the rider. If bike lanes were on less busy streets, would that eliminate a majority of accidents? Granted, you can't force bikers to ride on certain streets but vehicles will almost always follow the quickest route (I.E. using 26th or 28th instead of 27th or 29th).

Impressionable Pulltab

Dear Impressionable,

Thanks for your thoughtful letter, particularly since it contains an analogy which I like a great deal. And first off, let me say that I'm a big fan of the actual physical pulltab industry, the ones where you pull a tab with your thumb and then stack the expired tabs into strange configurations. (It's these electronic pulltabs which are giving bars a bad name, and don't get me started on the gas station lottery.)

[My well-watered garden plot on the West Side.]
And fluid dynamics are interesting indeed! I was biking home last night with a friend and she wanted to stop by her community garden, which was on the way. At one point she asked me, "Can you go over to the hose and turn the water on?"

It took me a while to find it in the dark, but I did. and (lefty-loosey) uncranked the spigot.

"Woah, can you turn it down a bit?" She shouted back to me. So I turned the knob a bit to the right. She was holding the other end of the hose, and trying to water her flowers and beans.

"A bit more," she shouted, and I dialed it back just a bit.

"Is that OK?" I asked?

"Perfect," she said, and for the next five minutes she watered her three raised garden beds. She loves gardening, and later she said, "I feel so much better when I can come water the plants. They've perked up. Now they're all set for some great growing tomorrow."

[Stills from Arteries of New York City, 1941.]
You are certainly right about your "container of water" metaphor, as far as it goes. If our big goal as a city was to keep the most water flowing, then designing streets to maximize volume would be the obvious solution.

And in fact, that's how traffic engineers have traditionally thought of traffic, as cars circulating like blood through corporeal arteries. Just like cholesterol clogging arteries, congestion was seen as inherent vice. A lot of money, public space, and social resources were spent on unclogging our streets to maximizing the "flow" of cars.

But the problem is that cities aren't the hoses, they're the gardens. Just like you don't want to water your tomatoes with a firehose, you don't want to maximize traffic flow in a neighborhood. We need to stop focusing on the water, and start focusing on the plants. How much water do they need to grow? At what rate? Are we flooding them?

In the analogy, the garden is the city. Neighborhoods, sidewalks, streets, and even dive bars with pulltabs require more than just a stream of cars passing by their doorstep. The require public spaces for socializing. They require people to be able to easily stop, park, and cross the street. They require access to ways of getting around that aren't cars, so that after a you win at pulltabs and blow all your money on rounds of drinks for the house, you don't have to drive home drunk because you can catch the bus. And cities thrive when the flowing traffic is at a safe level, both for people in cars and for those on foot.

As I've written before, 26th and 28th have long been some of the most dangerous streets in Minneapolis. Their design dates back to the pre-freeway era, and worked well for the problem they were trying to solve. But the speedy convenience for South Minneapolis drivers comes at a high cost. For example, after a bicyclist named Jessica Hanson was killed on 28th Street, I pointed out how it was the #1 most dangerous street for bike crashes in the city. This isn't to mention the fact that the current high-speed one-way configuration is also dangerous for car drivers. (Here's a 2009 video showing the aftermath of one such accident.)

[From the 2013 Minneapolis Bike Crash Report.]
A while back, I dated a woman who lived in a first-floor apartment whose windows looked out directly onto 26th Street. Even when we were in her apartment, you could still hear (and feel) the traffic rushing by at 40 miles per hour. 26th and 28th are unpleasant places to spend time, and the feeling of danger permeates the neighborhoods on both sides of these roads.

In the big picture, the protected bike lanes are a dramatic positive change for both 26th and 28th, for people in and out of cars. In exchange for a decrease in speeds and a bit longer stacking times (noticeable mostly at rush hour), there is a much safer street with fewer accidents. As a bonus, the new design also creates a good bike route on Minneapolis' most dangerous street for bicyclists. And as one-way streets, they remain the best east-west routes through South Minneapolis, regardless of how many lanes there are.

The simple fact is that high-speed roads destroy walkable cities. It's like watering your garden with a firehose. Fixing these streets is long overdue, and I'm confident that South Minneapolis will flower.


PS. I'm interested in how the pulltab business works. Maybe we can chat about that sometime!

[Today's 26th Street: a much safer design for cars and people, slightly diminished capacity.]


Ryno said...

You fail to mention the the Greenway, a bicycle superhighway, is located ONE BLOCK off of 28th, has no motorized traffic, and is easily accessible to bicyclists wishing to avoid the danger of 28th.

Anonymous said...

The greenway is a great option most of the time, but I and others I know often choose to NOT take it after dusk when it doesn't feel like a safe place to bike, for reasons other than traffic.

Anonymous said...

"I was under the impression that streets were intended for cars."

I'm sure the author meant "streets were intended for people and have been around since long before cars became popular".

Alex Newby said...

The Greenway is completely beside the point that I'm making here, which is that slowing traffic and narrowing the one-way streets is a good idea *even if nobody ever rides a bike there.*

Of course, people will ride bikes there, so it's an even better idea.