New Bike Infrastructure Means that Hennepin County, Univeristy of Minnesota Deserve Praise

[The Smiley Face Bike makes its first appearance on this blog.]
Some time ago, I was mingling at a well-known urbanism conference and talking with a kindred spirit. He was a similarly positioned, quasi-professional transportation gadfly in a similarly positioned, mid-tier American city, and we were arguing about the proper ratio of praise to criticism in the almost meaningless small world of non-motorized transportation agitation.

"You should say four positive things for every one negative things," my new friend declared. "Politicians, the public and most importantly, city workers need constructive positive feedback. If you become too negative, they will quickly ignore you."

"I've thought of that before," I chirped. "I agree with you!" In the fine art of mingling, you can't go wrong by being agreeable.

But another part of me, my negative voice inside my head, quickly thought better of it. "But," I continued, "do we really need a four-to-one ratio? That's soooo hard! Almost impossible!"

I pleaded with him. "What about three positive things for every negative thing? Why not three-to-one? Can't we have a three-to-one critical society?" I was picturing a terrible future filled with civic boosterism, gold stars, and smiley faces. I imagined myself stockpiling complements, banking them each week simply in order to vent my spleen. It didn't sound very healthy.

"No," he insisted. "It has to be four. Only four will do."

Disgusted, I ripped my name tag from my chest, crumpled it into a ball, and threw it in his face, shouting, "No! I am a negative nag. I must speak the truth. So what if I'm only able to find ruin and pain in the world around me? I welcome my depressing hell. I will live inside layers of infrastructural animosity protecting me like an oyster's shell. I will polish my critique of everyday life until it is radiant as a pearl. Someday, the world will discover its beauty and weep for a lost city that might have been."

I spun around on my heel and marched from the room, stopping only to grab one more toothpick'd mini hot dog on my way out the door.

OK, I didn't say or do that. But when I started this blog one of my goals was to be positive about the city that surrounds me, to remind myself about the rich and subtle pleasures of the streetcorner, the sidewalk, and life in the cities of the Middle West.

That's hard. It's too easy to simply write another screed about how we need to change this street or have a more progressive tax code. More difficult is to tip one's hat and give credit where credit is due.

Here's an attempt...

[This is a creative triumph by Hennepin County.]

The Power of Positive Feedback 

I found myself riding the length of Portland Avenue this weekend, on my way to a holiday party at a friend's house. Though I'd seen the new design before, this time I was truly amazed at what a difference it made in my trip.

Before, a ride down Portland had been terrifying, clinging for dear life to a wrong-side bike lane, surrounded on all sides by parked cars with doors about to be opened or waves of 45 mph cars filled with drivers talking on their phones. 

This time, despite the darkness and the wintertime, a trip down Portland was relaxing and down right pleasurable. Except for one car trying to park, one can travel at one's leisure, unimpeded and far from the maddening bumpers.

The other thing to remember is that this kind of bike lane isn't just about bicycles. The new re-design also calms traffic and improves the street for anyone walking along the street. Families crossing Park Avenue today will find it far easier and safer. Anyone living in any of these houses is far more likely to relax in their yard, and enjoys an improved quality of life.

I often criticize Hennepin County, but here they did an amazing job. Following through on this unorthodox redesign took a lot of courage and it's an unequivocal success, improving the daily lives and safety of thousands of people who live near, and use this street every day. Good job, Hennepin County!

[The U just installed one of these at SE 15th & University.]
The second complement is for the University of Minnesota, and their new bike signal at University and 15th. For me, criticizing the U's bike infrastructure is a weekly ritual like going to church or flossing my cat.  And one of the biggest danger spots has long been the 15th Avenue SE bike lane, the #1 spot for bicycles in the whole city.

That's why its refreshing to see this corner is the location for the city's first (real) bicycle traffic signal, something I'd only seen before in the Europe's bike havens. (Don't get me wrong, the Broadway and 5th one is OK, but not a real intersection.) The light changes slightly earlier than the regular light for cars, giving bicycles added visibility and making it much safer for them at this busy corner.

Not only does adding a signal for bicycles gives them legitimacy, but it begins to recognize the fact that bicycles are NOT cars. They operate according to a vastly different physics, and have a different set of demands and expectations for safety and operation. If you begin to create a set of traffic laws and signals that make sense for the bicycle, people riding bicycles will follow the rules. 

Continuing to extend this system through the rest of Pleasant Street, and farther along the East and West Banks will be a big step forward for bicycling at the University of Minnesota. Compared to the criminalization and harassment of bicyclists at the University of Minnesota a few years ago (and its mockably condescending safety campaign), its nice to see the University using good design as its primary means of communication.

Congratulations to the Department of Too Much Parking and Transportation Services, and to bicycle coordinator Steve Sanders for thinking creatively about how to, not just accommodate, but actively encourage bicycling on campus. (I can't wait until the transitway extension is complete.)


Anonymous said...

Pardon my ignorance, maybe I am just having trouble distinguishing sarcasm but is there really a transit way extension in the works? Where is it going and do you have any other info on it?

Bill Lindeke said...

i wish my positive thinking made it so. i had thought this was in the works, but apparently its not.

Bill Lindeke said...

I found this in the notes for the Mpls BAC from 2010, but apparently it never happened:

Other bike news at the U of M:
• The University owns part of the River Road at the east end of Bridge #9, and the trail on
this section will be rebuilt this year. The U will also stripe bike lanes on Oak Street.
• 6,000 cyclists stop at or pass through the campus each weekday. Out of these about 125
bikes are stolen per year.
The extension of the Intercampus Transitway along the rail line, under Dinkytown and
ending at Bridge #9 is expected to begin construction this year.

Anyone know why not?

Alex said...

The railroad was spazzing about the City's proposal to use the space that the railroad is currently using for oxidizing old cars for a way for people to not get killed on the streets of Dinkytown, so the City was going to use one of the insanely wide roadways built by the U instead. My guess is that someone at the U complained about the loss of parking for their pickup. What was the ratio in that comment?

Unknown said...

The Portland redesign is really an incredible thing, and Hennepin County absolutely deserves praise for their work (and flexibility).

I was unaware of the bike signal at 15th and University. I'll have to check it out.

Steve Sanders said...

The Transitway extension is underway - some clearing and other preliminary work was started this fall - and construction will be complete sometime next summer. The project consists of an off-street facility from Oak St. to Bridge #9. The RR wouldn't deal, so the entire facility is on University property, which necessitated removing parking from Donhowe and the 4th St substation.