Predictable Bicycle Tragedy Points to Need for New Street Priorities at University of Minnesota

[The dead cyclist and her bicycle at the corner of 15th and 4th in Dinkytown. Img. StarTribune.]

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.

[The incredible disappearing gutter bike lane along 4th Avenue SE, near where the cyclist was killed. This is only one of many places where bike lanes disappear dangerously on or near campus.]

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.

[The accident corner is arguably one of the "safer" corners for cyclists on the North edge of campus.]

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.)

[Q: Does this street say to you "drive slowly and carefully and watch out for pedestrians and cyclists?" A: No, it does not.]

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?

[A buffered 'cycle track' bike lane at the University of Wisconsin. Img James Baum.]

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.

[In a very close decision, this junction of University and 35W gets my vote for "University Bike Lane Most Likely to Cause Another Cycling Death in the Future."]


Dave said...

I bike to campus most of the time. I agree that it is absolutely awful. I knew as soon as I heard about this accident that it was likely due to the notorious "disappearing" bike lane you mentioned. I think that not only should the grade separation be made, but University/4th Street should be converted to two way streets.

However, bike boxes and lane colouration DO NOT work in Minnesota. I ride every morning across Franklin Ave Bridge, and it is a testament to the failure of these markings. The bike box and lane paint is totally gone after the winter, and they lines were painted this Fall. Same can be said for Hennepin/1st Ave in Downtown.

Bill Lindeke said...

i just feel that there must be a way to use 'science and technology' to develop paint or markings that can survive a winter. think of all the R&D money being thrown at inventing electric cars and cars that drive themselves and crap like that, and how little it would take to figure out a way to make a bike box in a snowy environment.

i mean, c'mon future science. give me an answer!

but you're right. whatever paint they used on Riverside Ave bike lane is the equivalent to a 6 year-old with hopscotch chalk.

Anonymous said...

This is the most thorough analysis on today's tragic accident. The U of M's official announcement takes no accountability of the poor roads and lack of safe bike paths. Of course it wouldn't they're the 9th best bike campus!! The Dailys report went for shock value, and the Star Tribines article babbles on about the police needing to crack down on jaywalkers and cyclists who break rules. We've totally lost the plot, now we've got a campus with half of washington bridge functioning. What a complete disaster, more pressure for vehicles, congestion and pollution.

Anonymous said...

I stopped riding on university and 4th. Crossing 35W on 4th is ridiculous, you are in a lane that suddenly becomes two left turn entrances to 35W.
Now, when traveling between NE and the U, I just use 5th St.

Anonymous said...

You are spot on about the intersection of 35W and University. I was hit last year when a car turned right without a turning signal.

Unknown said...

I agree completely about the state of the bike lanes through Dinkytown, although, the blame lies equally with the City and County. If I recall correctly, the BWTC bike counts regularly identify the 15th Ave corridor as the heaviest bike corridor in the City - likely in the entire State of MN. The bike lanes along 15th were extraordinarily poorly executed.

Edina has been using DuraTherm pavement markings and has reported that they are much more durable than the paint or epoxy they've used.

Can anyone link me to a reliable source that states whether the woman was in the bike lane or on the sidewalk? My impression from the stories saying that she "entered the sidewalk" imply that she was on the sidewalk.

Anonymous said...

It's such a sad story. I also bike down 15th Ave SE and across 4th and University, down to the traffic circle outside Jones/Eddy Hall every day. There's no separation between cars and bicycles, cars poke right out into the bike lanes when they're trying to come out onto 15th, and the lanes themselves are a minefield of potholes, concrete/blacktop "seams", and skateboarders. Those concrete gutters are a particular "fuck you" - they run a third of the way into the bike lane and create a small step that runs all the way along it. It's particularly problematic for narrow road tires. They're deal-able with, but things like this do erode your attention to the cars around you.

Alex B said...

Hennepin County is responsible for the mini-freeways of Uni-4th. Note their similarities to Portland & Park, also residential neighborhoods where children play next to 40mph average speeds. That's what you get when your public works department is in Medina, I guess.

Bill Lindeke said...

@alexB Univ. and 4th, Portland and Park are probably my #1 TC pet peeve. really really terrible, not just for cyclists, for for the whole neighborhoods they go through. and its no coincidence that they're also the site of many of the bike fatalities we've had.

basically, even though its hennepin co's plan originally, the U of MN has a lot of clout and should be able to make something happen if they really want to.

@Reuben durtherm. that's the kind of science and technology i really like.

@anonymous I also use 5th, but sometimes its really inconvenient.

Anonymous said...

They're using latex paint on our streets which sucks! I'm sure Highway Technologies is happy with the multi-million dollar contract to repaint every year. Which, in my opinion they do a terrible job doing. They use giant trucks that spray squiggly lines and skip spots. This is how a bike lane should be done: http://bit.ly/f2828j although here it would take 6 city employees. Three to paint and three to smoke cigarettes.

Why can't we have the bike lanes painted double wide to bold them? Milwaukee, Chicago, and a multitude of other cities do that.

None of the crosswalks or bike lanes in this city are painted bright enough. They did repaint the little bike symbols in this "bike box" 2 weeks ago so they'd look good in the photo for the survey. http://twincitian.com/bikesurvey/form.php

More and more I feel like MPLS does the least they can for cycling without doing it all the way to 100% completion. It really pisses me off how much they us "the #1 cycling city" just for political points.

Amber Sausen said...

I was at Beautiful U day on Northrup Plaza on Wednesday. Outgoing President Bob Bruininks spoke about the lack of effective bicycle connection across the UMN campus; he fully admitted that campus is the hole in the Mpls bicycle infrastructure network.

A pledge to improve this situation followed (not sure how that pledge works when you're outbound).

President Bruininks was also given a great-looking maroon and gold bicycle and helmet. Here's hoping he actually starts riding it.

Prescott said...

About University administrators who bike: Lance Neckar, the head of the Department of Landscape Architecture rides his bike from St. Anthony Park (St. Paul) to Rapson Hall (University and Church St.) all year 'round.

In my biased opinion, this is not surprising how L.Arch is a profession that has been concerned with sustainability for well over a century.

(I don't have a photo on-hand, but I would still be stoked to chat about bike/ped issues over lunch; these issues are what I'm basing my graduate thesis on.)

comprar un yate said...

A lot of effective data for myself!

Phoenix Accident said...

Cyclists are usually at risk of getting ran over because of bike lanes. I hope cities would consider improving bike lanes to make it safer for everyone on the road.

Prescott said...

Pheonix Accident: can you explain your comment about how bike lanes put bikers at risk? I agree that the transitions at intersections get dicey, I just want your take.

Anonymous said...

As a biker in Minneapolis and the U area for over 20 years I can truthfully state the only thing wrong with the bike lanes in the U area are the idiot bikers. Very much like this girl who ignores a trucks turn signal and then tries to outrun him at the intersection. Knowing you were in his blind spot and paying any attention at all would prevented this accident accept for the most rude and self absorbed bike rider.

Prescott said...

Really? You're gonna go ahead and blame the dead girl? Hm...good point.

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