After reviewing some of the preliminary plans for the upcoming Hennepin-Lyndale Reconstruction Project, it seems like this is going to be primarily a road paving project. I was hoping that more improvements would be made for those of us who walk, bike, and use mass transit in this corridor. I’m honestly a bit skeptical about what can be done to lessen the bellyaches of everyone who travels through this area, regardless of vehicle choice. (Personally, I’m in favor of something inspired by the Walker – maybe something avant-garde like removing all the stripes on the road and replacing road signage with Kandinsky paintings)
However, a few rather simple changes could make some intersections much more safe and friendly for cyclists and pedestrians. I live in the Whittier neighborhood, but I have stayed away from biking north or south along Hennepin due to safety concerns, and it’s one of the only stretches of “protected” cycletracks that I tell novice cyclists to avoid. Let’s look at some problems and (more importantly) some solutions…
Hennepin & Oak Grove:
As a cyclist, there are a few dangerous circumstances here that can be mitigated through smarter street design. The first is west-facing traffic on Oak Grove attempting to turn north. While there is both a “No Turn on Red” sign as well as a bright swath of day-glo paint, cars still meander into the bike lane, even if they don’t intend to break the law by turning on red. This can cause accidents as well as prevent cyclists from entering or exiting Loring Park safely due to the placement and necessity of a curb ramp.
This problem is easier to solve than you’d think, and we can use how drivers interact with the road to our advantage. One way to do this is to supplement the signal marked at (1) with an additional signal marked at (2). Cars tend not to move past where they can see all traffic signals which apply to them, so by moving a light closer to where traffic should actually stop (and maybe complementing it with a “Stop Here On Red” sign), it gives an indication that they should not proceed past that point. One example of this behavior occurs further south, at this intersection where traffic from 94 can get to Lyndale or Hennepin:
While this intersection isn’t perfect either, cars tend to not stray into sidewalks or bike lanes largely due to signal placement and signage. (Of course, these cars are exiting off a freeway and into an urban setting, which may lead to more malleable behavior, but I digress)
Looking back at the picture of Hennepin and Oak Grove, another major problem is the combined cyclist/pedestrian lane. It’s inconvenient and dangerous for a number of reasons, partially due to the fact that it’s on a hill. As northbound cyclists gain speed on the hill, they must pass groups of pedestrians (whose behavior can be erratic) while monitoring any southbound cyclists who may be also avoiding pedestrians or overtaking one another as they climb the hill. In addition, before you get to Oak Grove, try to figure out which northbound right-turning cars will yield to you and which ones will cut right in front of you; something that can only be ascertained by observing whether a driver is looking at their mirrors. (plus there are always the drivers who turn without signaling, which is always a fun surprise) That’s a lot of things to pay attention to!
But we can improve safety by limiting the things a cyclist needs to be aware of. Removing the area where pedestrians and cyclists share a single lane and extending the sidewalk between Groveland to Oak Grove would accomplish this. Yes, it means asking St. Marks to give up some space, and that might be an unpleasant conversation, but it’s one that needs to be had if this city is serious about improving alternative transportation infrastructure. The problem of northbound traffic turning onto Oak Grove is a challenge that I don’t have a better solution for (though I’m open to suggestions).
Hennepin & Groveland:
For cyclists, this intersection sometimes feels more safe than Hennepin & Oak Grove, due to fewer moving parts. But the near-misses I witnessed here were the ones that caused me to rethink using this stretch altogether. Each instance played out exactly the same – a southbound cyclist in front of me would approach the intersection and a driver would pull into the intersection completely oblivious of all activity on their right side. The driver was so intent on figuring out how to turn right into those 4 lanes of oncoming traffic that they completely ignored the green paint and the cyclists they nearly ran over.
The best fix for this is to forbid right turns on red and to implement the same types of traffic signals that I mentioned earlier which discourage turning. Add a signal prior to the bike path and make a clear “Stop Here on Red” sign to keep the prospect of turning out of the driver’s mind. As long as I’m making demands, why not push westbound-facing drivers back 5-10 feet, both here and on Oak Grove?
Even if moving the west-facing drivers back isn’t an option, can we at least move the median at Groveland back or make it more friendly to pedestrians? Pedestrians don’t want to climb over that thing, and instead they walk in the green painted area, and when the light changes it’s hard to find enough room for pedestrians and cyclists going both ways. Again, this is also a problem that could be solved by extending that sidewalk down the hill to Loring Park.
Franklin & Lyndale:
And while it’s outside the scope of this project, it would be really nice to address that stretch from where the bike lane ends at the 94 ramp to Franklin Avenue. I know in an ideal world we’d all ride on that cool bridge to our single-family homes in LHENA, but some bike-loving folks live in Whittier too. To stay law-abiding, these cyclists are encouraged to go out of their way by taking the bridge and then biking down a giant hill on Franklin Ave, through the intersection with Lyndale (an intersection of two county roads – what could possibly go wrong?), then back up a giant hill.
As someone who has lived near this intersection for years, this is encouraging unsafe behavior. The safe alternative is to illegally ride on the sidewalk past Rudolph’s – so why not come up with a way to make safe cycling legal? One possibility would be to remove the street-level parking between 94 and Franklin and add a short protected cycle track.
Anyway, those are a few thoughts on how to improve bike and pedestrian experiences with a minimal investment in infrastructure. Once this repaving project is completed, it may be the last time we have an opportunity to address these issues for awhile.