The Rules of the Road

DSC03341It can be hard to figure out what the hell you should be doing out there in the vast wilderness of traffic. People get angry about pretty much every behavior. Someone will get mad at you for following the law precisely, while someone else gets mad that you harmlessly break the law. Car-driving commenters love to rail about how bikers break the law and use that as an argument for why we shouldn’t invest in bike infrastructure or encourage cycling. Bike-riding commenters complain about drivers parking in the bike lane or pedestrians walking on bike paths. It’s all a hot mess. To help bring some clarity to the conversation, here are critical rules and behaviors for navigating urban streets no matter what mode you’re using. Some of these rules are not actually legal, so follow them at your own risk.

Bikers

  • Idaho stop: The Idaho stop is a law which allows bikers to treat stop signs as yield signs and red lights as stop signs. I advocate for this approach, since it helps people biking establish themselves in the road. The authors of one study stated “stopping discourages bicycling, substantially increasing time, energy expenditure, discomfort, risk of collisions and risk for strain and overuse injuries.” They went on to write that, “Bicyclists enjoy vastly superior abilities to perceive and execute a safe yield at a stop than other modes, and great incentive to do so safely.” The study found that bicycle injuries decreased by 14.5% the year after the law was implemented. Whether or not the Idaho stop is officially canonized into law, we shouldn’t ticket bicyclists for running red lights or failing to stop at stop signs when this behavior can improve their safety and comfort. This is not a full license to blow through a red light. But if you come to a stop (or significantly slow down even if you don’t put your foot on the ground), look both ways, and make sure it’s safe to proceed, then go ahead.
  • Don’t bike fast like a jerk: If it’s a Saturday afternoon and you wanna cruise 25mph down the Greenway unimpeded, just stop. That’s not going to happen. If you try to zip down the Greenway and get frustrated every time someone is in your way, it’s your own fault for having unrealistic expectations. If you want to bike fast and unimpeded, bike in the street with the cars. You do not own the path any more than anyone else. This means that if you yell, “On your left,” from two blocks away and people don’t hear you, you’ll have to slow down, repeat yourself, and pass once they move over.
  • Biking on the sidewalk: Biking on the sidewalk is dangerous. A study in Minneapolis by Bike Walk Twin Cities found that 39% of motorist-bicyclist crashes occurred when bikers were entering traffic from a sidewalk. Sidewalk biking may feel safer to you, but it’s actually one of the most dangerous things to do on a bike. If you’re afraid of biking in heavy traffic, find quiet side streets to bike on. For example, in my neighborhood many people bike on sidewalks along Lyndale Avenue to avoid heavy car traffic. If they biked just one or two blocks off Lyndale in either direction, they’d find quiet side streets where there’s less traffic and slower moving vehicles. This is a better option than sidewalk biking. If you insist on sidewalk biking, realize that it’s your responsibility to yield to pedestrians, to take extra caution at all intersections, and to be aware of your surroundings.
  • Don’t pass on the right: There is no need to pass on the right. Other bikers aren’t expecting you there and if they’re about to turn right, they’re going to turn right into you causing both of you to crash. If you’re trying to pass on the right because it’s not clear to pass on the left, that means it’s not clear to pass at all. Just wait a second already!

Drivers

  • Slow down: Speed is dangerous. Driving faster increases the likelihood that you will kill a person walking or biking if you hit them. If you’re driving at 20mph and hit someone, the chance that they’ll die from their injuries is 5%. If you’re driving 40mph and hit someone, the chance that they’ll die from their injuries sky rockets to 85%. If you’re in a crowded pedestrian area or on a residential street, 25mph is plenty. Driving slower means you’ll have more time to respond to someone in the street and will be less likely to seriously injure or kill someone if you do hit them.
  • Stop for pedestrians and bikers: Did you know that in Minnesota, walkers have the right of way at every corner? Every corner where two roads come together is an unmarked crosswalk, which means you should be stopping when you see someone waiting or starting to cross. It’s a law that most drivers ignore and most pedestrians are too afraid to take advantage of, so the norm is that drivers don’t stop at unmarked crosswalks and barely stop at marked ones. You can and should change this norm by respecting walkers and bikers who are trying to cross the road.
  • Move over: If you are passing someone on a bike, you must give at least three feet when overtaking them. This is to avoid sideswiping them or hitting them if they swerve to avoid debris in the road. This is not a simple courtesy, it is a matter of life and death. You will probably have to cross the center line to pass a cyclist safely, and that is okay. If you can’t change lanes or there’s oncoming traffic that prevents you from crossing the center line, then just wait. It’s common sense. Don’t put someone else’s life at risk just because you’re impatient.
  • Don’t honk, seriously: It’s loud. Honking is illegal unless you’re in imminent danger. Honking is scary for people outside of a vehicle. If you’re honking at a person on a bike, you might cause them to lose their balance and fall over right in front of you. Just don’t do it.
  • Don’t give up your right-of-way: I know you’re trying to be nice when you give up your right-of-way and wave a biker through a stop sign, but you’re making things worse. Imagine being at an intersection where another vehicle has clearly gotten there first, as often happens to me when I’m on my bike. I sit and wait for them to go. They sit and wait for me to go because I’m on a bike, and they’re confused or trying to be courteous. Sometimes they’re waving me through, but often I can’t see the driver due to windshield glare. Then after we’ve been stuck in a stalemate for far too long, I eventually go. If drivers would just go in the correct order, we’d avoid a stalemate and I might not even have to put down my foot because I’d be able to time my approach to the intersection to arrive after the car has proceeded through.
  • Right turn on red: Right turn on red is dangerous, many pedestrians are hit, injured, and killed this way because drivers only look to the left to ensure they are safe to move into traffic and do not look to the right to avoid hitting pedestrians in the crosswalk. If you’re going to turn right on red, do not move into a crosswalk until you’re pretty certain you can move out of it quickly. Before turning right into traffic make sure you look right to ensure you’re not going to run over a pedestrian. If you don’t have a clear sight line to oncoming traffic, or would have to block a crosswalk for a significant period of time to get one, just wait. Red lights don’t last that long.
  • Don’t park in the bike lane: The bike lane is not there for you to park in. There is no excuse for parking in a bike lane ever. Figure out some other place to stop or park your car that is not endangering the safety of bikers.

Pedestrians

  • Don’t walk on bike paths: If there’s a bike path and a walking path and you’d prefer to walk on the bike path, just stop. The reason there’s a bike path is so people can ride their bikes on it; the reason there’s a walking path is so people can walk on it. These are two different groups that move at different speeds, it makes sense to keep them separated. In the winter when walking paths aren’t plowed, the bike paths essentially become shared use paths, so see below.
  • When you’re walking on shared use paths, stay right and stay alert: It’s great that you’re out walking your dog, but other people want to use the path too. Don’t take up the whole thing because your dog’s leash is way too long and he’s curious about those smells over there. Pay attention to your surroundings. If you’re on a shared use path, stay to the right and stay alert. Be ready to move over when people jogging, rollerblading, or biking want to pass you. It’s only polite.
  • When someone says “On your left” trust that they’re passing on your left: This means you need to know left from right and be ready to move over if someone’s coming. Please pay attention.

Everyone

  • Don’t use your phone while you’re moving: Even if you’re walking. Pay attention to where you’re going. If you must use your phone, pull over to the side of the road or walk over to an unused part of the sidewalk. Don’t block traffic, watch where you’re going, and avoid hurting or killing people.
  • Be courteous and patient: No matter how many people behave well, there will always be a contingent of people who are gonna act like assholes. Accept this. Don’t go fuming into a rage anytime someone on a bike blows through a red light. They’re one person, they’re not an ambassador for everyone who rides bikes. If a walker on the bike path is taking up all the space and not paying attention, realize that it’s not a personal affront against you or a reason to treat other walkers like enemies. If a driver cuts you off, try to let it go without escalating the situation or cutting off the next driver you see. There are lots of careless mistakes that happen in moments of confusion, they’ve happened to me and they’ve happened to you. The best we can do for ourselves and for others in our community is to assume that other people are just trying to get somewhere doing the best job they can.
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Acme Comedy Club threatens to leave Minneapolis over parking

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When people drive to the iconic comedy venue, Acme Comedy Co., in the North Loop they have the option to park in one of two surface parking lots across the street. This may look like one giant block-wide surface lot, but it’s actually two. One 156-stall lot is owned by Acme’s landlord, Schafer Richardson, and the other 120-stall lot is owned by developer Curt Gunsbury and is dedicated to be used for tenants of his Itasca V building across the street and nearby office workers. Gunsbury is planning to develop his portion of the lot, located at 721 N 1st Street, into an apartment complex, and now Acme is threatening to relocate to the suburbs.

Acme has been located in the North Loop for 25 years. When the warehouse district was mostly warehouses, there was no shortage of parking. But now the North Loop is one of the trendiest neighborhoods in the city which means there’s more vitality and interest–but less parking. There are plenty of theaters and venues in downtown Minneapolis that manage to thrive despite the difficulty finding cheap parking nearby. Acme’s hyperbolic response to this minor change in the status quo may reflect more on proprietor Louis Lee’s existing feelings about parking rather the specific impacts of this new development project.

The Lot and Development

Gunsbury’s lot–the lot that’s being developed–includes fewer than half of all the parking spaces that currently exist across the street from Acme. This lot is leased on a contract basis to tenants and nearby office workers, including one overnight legal business that may have up to 200 contract workers at a time. While Acme customers can use this lot for hourly event parking in the evening, there is no guarantee of regular access to these spaces. It is unclear how much actual parking Acme customers would be losing under this plan. The adjacent parking lot, owned by Acme’s landlord, is not being developed.

The new apartments being built at 721 N 1st Street would have dedicated parking. Gunsbury asked for a variance for this new building to exceed the city’s parking maximum. Due to the fact that Bassett Creek runs underneath this area of the North Loop, parking cannot be built underground. The complex at 721 would have 222 parking spaces on the first level. Of these, 152 spaces would be for residents of the 124-unit apartment building and their guests, and 70 spaces would be available for the current office tenant contracts. As the developer’s representative stated at the City Planning Commission, the fact that there may be extra spaces available in the evening would be a “great opportunity” for Acme customers to access the lot. An agreement like this would be similar to Acme’s existing informal arrangement with Gunsbury’s parking lot, though with fewer spaces available.

Some of the argument against this development from Lee states that his landlord, Schafer Richardson, has not “set aside” any parking spaces in the lot that’s not being developed for Acme to use during the duration of construction. This makes sense to me. Why should that lot set aside spots for Acme’s use only, when there are other reasons people in the area would want access to a surface lot? That lot is still going to be there, but Acme patrons will access it on a first-come first-served basis, just like everyone else.

City Planning Commission

Acme created an event to encourage supporters to turn up at the Minneapolis City Planning Commission (CPC) on June 27th. The room was packed with comedians and lovers of comedy. There wasn’t, however, a representative from Acme itself to give background or data or to be held responsible for some of the claims they’re disseminating to loyal supporters through high-profile comedians on social media. It was also clear that the folks in the room did not understand the full scope of the project, the role of the CPC, or what a parking variance is. That’s okay, I didn’t know many of those things when I showed up.

It was strange to hear impassioned pleas from comedy-lovers about the lack of parking, only to have them ask the commission to deny a variance to add more parking. Their strategy was to ask the CPC to deny all variances in the hope that this would prevent the development project from moving forward. The CPC could not legally do what the speakers wanted. As Commissioner Luepke-Pier stated, the variances being asked for were fairly minor and even if the commission opposed them, the development project could still move forward with minor variations. The CPC does not have the power to stop a development project for the reasons brought up at the CPC meeting without risking being sued by the developer.

Parking vs. Density

When I showed up at the CPC meeting, I spoke to a few people milling around outside the room. I asked them why they were there and we started chatting about Acme. They accused me of supporting a ‘rich developer’ over a local comedy club. I said that I was there to support density and building housing in a city with a housing shortage. Both online and in person, people have asked how the building of luxury apartments will address the housing shortage. Today’s luxury apartments are 2040’s middle-class housing. We need to have housing stock for people to live in, and as this housing stock ages it will become less luxurious and therefore more affordable. Additionally, when higher end apartments are available, this prevents rich people from renting, buying, and renovating cheaper housing which keeps those units available for the people who need them.

At the CPC meeting, speakers said that parking needs to be prioritized otherwise businesses will die. Speakers talked about how people from the suburbs will stop coming to the city if there isn’t abundant parking, and without these patrons businesses will close. They said that without parking, eventually the city will be full of apartments for people to live and nowhere for them to eat or be entertained. This is just wrong. As more people live in Minneapolis, there becomes more demand for restaurants, entertainment, and stores. We don’t have the speculate, these things are already happening. The people who live here support the businesses they need. Mixed density areas, like the North Loop, are particularly healthy and good for residents and business owners alike. We should build neighborhoods for the people who live in them, and not just to prioritize easy access for people who don’t live there. If the resulting vitality of the neighborhood attracts people from other neighborhoods and suburbs, that is a benefit and not the primary purpose.

It is true that the North Loop is dense and parking can be hard to find sometimes. I believe that the additional people and activity that come with being located in a dense and lively environment more than make up for the downside. There are more places to eat and better access to public transit at this location than others. It’s easily walkable for folks who live nearby and it’s ideally located for arriving by bike, being central in the city and near the river trail and Cedar Lake Trail. There are other options for arriving at this location besides driving.

It’s clear many people care deeply about Acme. The outpouring of support through the petition, on social media, and at the CPC meeting showed how much this venue means to the neighborhood and the city. The actual impact of the 721 N 1st Street development project is likely to have a minor, if any, impact on parking availability at Acme. If Acme wants easy and abundant parking, they can choose to move to the suburbs or make an arrangement with another parking provider.

No one is forcing Acme to leave Minneapolis. They have a choice to make. They can choose to stay in their historic venue in an urban, evolving, North Loop and risk losing certain customers who are swayed by the parking argument. Or they can uproot themselves at high cost, move to a more parking-friendly area, and risk losing folks who live and work in Minneapolis, and those who enjoy visiting the city for its culture and vitality. Acme has been framing this argument as if the developer and city government are forcing them to leave. This is not true. It’s Acme’s right to make whatever choice they make, but they need to take responsibility for the fact that this is their choice, and their choice alone.

 

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Bikers come in all ages: An interview

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The 8-80 Cities project promotes healthy communities where people ages eight through eighty can feel safe and comfortable navigating by whatever mode they choose. My interviews thus far have explored how adults in their twenties through forties get around by bike, but I’m looking to expand the conversation. Reed Nicholls is nine years old and just finished 3rd grade at Northrop School. I sat down with him and his mom, Amy Brugh, to hear his perspective on riding a bike in Minneapolis.

Biking in Mpls: Tell me a little about how you ride your bike, do you ride with friends or with family?

Reed: Mostly with my family.

Biking in Mpls: When you’re going places or just for fun?

Reed: Sometimes we just go on bike rides because we don’t have anything to do. Sometimes because we are going to a place.

Biking in Mpls: I heard you have two bikes, a tandem and your own bike, which one do you like best?

Reed: I definitely like my own bike because the tandem, whenever we have to go up a hill and down a hill, on the last gear it always gets me off on biking. It moves the pedals. It’s just weird.

Biking in Mpls: Do you ever do any tricks on your bike?

Reed: I remember my brother and I we used to want to know how to do a wheelie. Sometimes when I’m riding I’ll try and pop up into a wheelie.

Biking in Mpls: Has that ever worked?

Reed: No

Biking in Mpls: What are your favorite places to ride?

Reed: I like riding down at [Minnehaha] parkway and other times I ride around on the square that the streets have made with 46th, Bloomington and Cedar, and 42nd.

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Amy: Could you tell Lindsey about what your school does on bike day?

Reed: We have a bike-a-thon. A whole bunch of kids bring their bikes to school. For the smaller kids you only bike two miles, I think. But for third grade and up, that means me, we bike over eight miles.

Biking in Mpls: Where do you go on the bike ride?

Reed: We go way down by the Mississippi by Fort Snelling State Park.

Biking in Mpls: Do they do that throughout the year or just once?

Reed: Once a year.

Amy: What would you think if they did that more often?

Reed: It would be fun.

Amy: Could you tell Lindsey about what you’re doing this summer?

Reed: I have the STEM program, which is a summer school but it’s not a summer school. I’m pretty sure there’s some biking involved in that.

Amy: It’s at Pillsbury which has the bike fleet. I think they ride their bikes every day. It’s a MPS school program. You get to ride a bike with your class and you get to learn about how to maintain your bike and fix bikes.

Reed: That sounds good. That’s happened where the chain comes off. I was trying to fix it and when I finally got it back there was stuff all over my hands.

Biking in Mpls: Do you ride to school?

Reed: Sometimes.

Amy: Why don’t you bike to school more often?

Reed: Because of Cedar. I have to wait there a whole long time because some cars just don’t mind to stop. Sometimes when I’m biking, like at stop signs or red lights, I can see people looking down at their phones.

Biking in Mpls: That drives me crazy. How do you feel about that?

Reed: I feel mad. When the light turns green for me, I still don’t go because they’re texting. Sometimes the car is on the crosswalk, because I go on the crosswalk with my bike to get across instead of in the middle of the street. When I go on the crosswalk, all the time the cars inch forwards until they’re blocking the crosswalk so I have to go around them. That means I still have to go in the middle of the street.

Biking in Mpls: What would make you feel better about biking to school?

Reed: A bike lane!

Biking in Mpls: Do you feel like biking is important?

Reed: It’s definitely better for the environment. For driving, it gives off the exhaust. For biking, there’s no exhaust except your air coming out of you.

Biking in Mpls: Are there any other reasons you think biking is important?

Reed: Well it’s important that you get your exercise.

Biking in Mpls: What’s your favorite thing about riding a bike?

Reed: It’s fun. It’s just fun to ride your bike.

Reed Nicholls is a cyclist and future 4th grader living in Minneapolis.

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ARTCRANK 2016

Artcrank is a poster party for bike people. It started as an in-person event, but they now have posters for sale at all times on their website. Artcrank is one of my favorite volunteering events of the year. This year I worked at the merch booth, selling shirts, including tiny shirts and onesies for tiny humans. Here are some photos I snapped from the event. If you didn’t come this year, I hope to see you next year!

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Getting folks to bike commute doesn’t have to be so hard

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This is the post where I tell you about new consulting services I’m offering to promote bike commuting. If you wanna skip to the goods, check out my new site.

It’s time to ask the hard questions of ourselves, our employers, and our colleagues. Why are bike commuting rates so low? I think it comes down to people being so entrenched in the status quo that they cannot see another way. Just under half of employees live within 10 miles of their office and yet bike commuting rates are dismal. Even in Minneapolis, where we have the second most bike commuters of any major city, only 4.6% of folks commute by bike. There’s a huge opportunity to promote health by changing the way people get to and from work.

Most major employers have a wellness division. Usually housed under human resources, this is the department that will plan walking challenges, send out flyers on healthy behavior, organize health fairs and screenings, and give you resources for health promotion courses. In my experience as an employee, these challenges are merely lip service to the idea of wellness. Some people get into them, yes. Some employees will buy hand weights and new shoes, taking the lunch hour to walk around the parking lot. Some employees will take more walks at home with their friends and families to make sure they’re getting their steps in for the day. Some employees will park farther from the store entrance or decide to walk to a coworker’s desk instead of emailing as a way to walk a bit more. All of these are great outcomes. These challenges can be fun, but it’s very unlikely that most of them are impacting health beyond the duration of the challenge.

I worked at a pharmacy after I finished my undergraduate degree. It was my first big-kid job and I still remember it fondly. At the time, I’d never been regularly physically active. I was 22 and slender; I’d always associated working out with losing weight. While I worked at the pharmacy, the wellness division coordinated walking challenges. I participated, for the cheap plastic rewards, but I still remember taking pride in telling my coworkers who exercised that I “didn’t need to.” Eventually hearing them talk about time at the gym wore me down and I joined one myself. I exercised religiously until I thought to bike commute. That was the beginning of the end of my gym life. And thank god for it, because spending hours upon hours, day after day, staring out the same gym window while swinging my arms on the same elliptical remains my idea of hell.

Bike commuting made sense for me then and makes sense for me now. It’s a way to be physically active without having to try too hard to be physically active. Commuting by bike is associated with better mental health and reduces cardiovascular risk. Bike commuters live an average of two years longer, breathe in less pollution, take fewer sick days, and are just plain happier with their commutes. Folks who commute by car are more likely to gain weight over time than those who commute by bike, even when they are physically active in their free time. Promoting active commuting is cost effective. Getting people to incorporate physical activity into their everyday routines is much cheaper than enrolling folks in targeted physical activity classes.

So then, how do we do it? How do we encourage people to take the leap and figure out the bike commuting thing? Well, it’s clear that bike commuting isn’t an option for everyone. Folks who live long distances away from work may struggle to bike commute, although e-bikes may extend commute range. Parents may find it hard to coordinate daycare drop-off and pick-up on a bicycle, although it’s very doable if you have the right set-up. And employees with disabilities or chronic disease may not be able to bike commute due to physical limitations. All of those things are okay, those are not the people I’m talking about.

I’m talking about people like my old coworker B. He lives nine miles from work and his route is almost a straight-shot to the office along the greenway. He didn’t have a bike and hadn’t biked in ages. He said that seeing my bike parked in the office every day made him realize that he had no reason for driving every day. He bought a bike and started riding it to work. Over the ensuing months he lost around thirty pounds. While B is a great guy, I don’t think he’s particularly special in his relationship to commuting. He drove to work because driving to work is how he’d always conceived of commuting. Eventually, he saw that biking to work was a feasible option, a better option.

There are ways to promote bike commuting that work. Doing this in the work environment makes perfect sense, because everyone has to get to work. Instead of giving out gift cards when employees see the dentist (or hell, in addition to gift cards for employees seeing the dentist), why not use strategies that have been shown to increase bike commuting rates? Achieving lasting health means building healthy habits and bike commuting is a powerful habit. We can improve bike commuting rates through the creation of bike-to-work events, leading bike trains so people don’t have to first-time commute on their own, writing targeted guides and information about how to bike commute, conducting surveys to understand barriers, and changing company policies and amenities to be more friendly to bike commuters. I’m now offering all of these as consulting services. Promoting bike commuting should be a public health priority. It has the potential to be very powerful. If your company is interested, drop me a line.

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