DIY Bike Infrastucture: A User's Guide

Q: Hey. Do you live in a city that has crappy bike infrastructure?

A: Of course you do! That’s life in the USA! (Portland not included.) Don’t take it personally. It happens everywhere, even in Minneapolis, #1 bike city.

So. What can you do to get around with some semblance of dignity? How can you ride a bike with some semblance of efficiency? Where can you turn when your government, public works department, and DOT are making it all but impossible to get around the city on a bicycle without feeling like some guy in an Escalade on his phone is going to run you over in the Lyndale Avenue freeway onramp?

No, friend. If the city isn’t going to build it, do it yourself. Here are four ways that you can ride around the city to make common-sense bike infrastructure out of the auto-oriented muck that surround us like 14th century filth.

[A well-designed bike boulevard in Portland.]
#1 DIY Bike Boulevard

What is it? Bike boulevards are streets designed to encourage bicycling and to give bicyclists priority over cars. They’re almost always located in slow-speed residential neighborhoods with low traffic streets. They prioritize bikes over through-traffic cars. In theory (i.e not in St Paul), people on bikes can proceed without having to ‘get out of the way’ of automobiles. In theory, people on bikes can ride down quiet residential streets with a minimum of stops, while all but the local traffic is diverted onto more busy streets intended for cars. These streets calm traffic and raise property values in residential neighborhoods, improving quality of life for pedestrians, dog walkers, kids playing in the street, and people sitting on their porches, &c.

How to make one: On quiet residential streets, treat most stop signs as ‘yield: slow down and look for cars and pedestrians’ signs. Treat many stop lights as ‘stop, look both ways, and yield to any traffic' signs. Ride in the middle of the road on quiet residential streets. If a car comes up behind you, don’t immediately veer off to the side of the road. (If there’s plenty of room, you can do that, and give them space to pass.) Doing this is better because nobody should be driving on Bryant or Lincoln or Case or whatever to get where they’re going really fast anyway. Narrow residential streets aren't meant for speeding cars!

Caution! Always watch for cross traffic! Yield to car traffic on cross streets. If you piss someone off in a car behind you, pull over and stop and look at them with disapproval like a strict schoolmarm. It's not your fault that they're they’re not hip to the future. Go ahead and feel sorry for them, but do get out of their way.

#2 DIY Bike Lane
[A well-designed bike lane in Portland.]

What is it? Everyone knows what a bike lane is. In Portland, they have a default policy that streets being re-striped or resurfaced will include a bike lane. In most places (including the Twin Cities), getting a bike lane striped on a main commercial road more politically challenging. Many (2+2) four-lane roads in the Twin Cities don’t include bike lanes because it would remove a lane of traffic or some street parking. (For example, Lake Street, Lyndale Avenue, Franklin Avenue, Broadway Avenue, Central Avenue, Maryland Avenue, Hamline Avenue, West 7th Street… The list goes on and on.)

How to make one: You simply bike in the middle of the right hand lane, unless there are no cars parked along the right side. This means that cars coming up behind you are going to have to pass you like they would any slow moving vehicle. This works particularly well in the winter time, when snow, ice, or whatever that black crap is that’s built up after months of snow and ice make the lanes narrower than normal anyway. People can see you and you stay out of the door zone and the dangerous gutter-bits of roadway off to the side. Really, there should be a bike lane here anyway.

Caution! Some car drivers get pissed when you do this. Ignore them at your peril.

[A well-designed bike box in Portland.]
#3 DIY Bike Box

What is it? Bike boxes are little spaces at intersections along streets with bike lanes that put the bicycles waiting for the light to change out in front of the cars waiting for the light to change. They’re a good idea because intersections are where most accidents happen. Often they’re painted green. They allow cyclists to safely turn left at intersections, and be very visible for people coming from all different directions. In Minneapolis, there are only about two of them, and even those are usually ignored.

How to make one: It’s a sad fact that most intersections in the Twin Cities are devoid of pedestrians. I'd like to live in a world where that wasn’t true. But since it is, you might as well use that crosswalk space up in front of the cars as a de facto bike box. When you reach an intersection where traffic is stopped, carefully make your way out in front of the traffic, and park yourself in the crosswalk in front of the cars. Now it’s a bike box! It’s better because you’re out in front, visible, and can turn left without conflicting with automobiles in the intersection.

Caution! Always defer to pedestrians. They are the most vulnerable people on the streets, and you should always give them the right of way and make sure you’re not threatening them with your larger size and momentum potential.

#4 DIY Bicycle Signal

What is it? A bicycle (or scramble) signal is a special stoplight function in cities and areas that have a lot of bicycle and pedestrian traffic. It’s a separate phase of ‘green’ for pedestrians and/or bicycles, so that you can cross the street or make turns on your own without sharing the space with car traffic. It’s safer because (similar to the bike boxes) you’re very visible out in front of traffic, and making turns and proceeding through the intersection before the cars can come along and run you over. (Another very similar concept is the “leading pedestrian interval”, where people begin crossing the street before car traffic gets a green light.)

How to make one: When you get to an intersection, don’t wait for the light to turn green. Begin your way through the intersection just before it turns green, so that you’re in the middle of the intersection when the light changes. This way you get out ahead of the automobile traffic, and are very visible as you go through the intersection box.  It’s better because you’re visible. Everyone can see you.

Caution! Obviously, this could be very dangerous if you weren’t paying attention. Watch for cars speeding up to get through the yellow light. Don’t take any chances!

[A well-designed bicycle signal in Portland.]

Final Caveats

While these rules describe how many people actually ride in the Twin Cities, and in my opinion are safe ways to travel, in some cases you’re bending the rules.

In my book, the first rule of safe bicycle riding is to always be paying attention. If you’re out in traffic and riding on the street, don’t zone out. Don’t listen to your headphones. Don’t carry anything in your hands. Be attentive all the time!

The second rule is to always ride defensively. Basically, you have to assume that every person in every car around you is about to make a colossally stupid decision. You have to act as if all drivers are talking on a smartphone phones while messing with the radio. (Honestly, about half of them are!) Assume they haven’t seen you and be prepared to hit the brakes, especially at intersections.

If you do those things, you can ride all over town creating your own bike infrastructure. Someday, when our streets actually have bike lanes and bike boulevards and bike boxes and scramble signals, life will become a lot easier. Until then, do it yourself.


Unknown said...

Would this also work if I pretended I was in Amsterdam? I'm not a huge fan of Portland. ;)

Alex said...

Stuff like this proves that you're the best, Bill.

I credit DIY bike signal timing for the fact that I've survived 10 years of urban cycling.

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