07/18/12

Cutting-edge bicycle projects in suburbs-happening here!Cutting-edge bicycle projects in suburbs-happening here!

By Joan Pasiuk, Director, Bike Walk Twin Cities

 

On May 15, 2012, the Edina city council unanimously approved a bicycle project on 54thStreet/Wooddale Avenue/Valley View Lane (henceforth in this piece called the "54th Street" project) that provides key north-south connections within the city and an east-west connection into Minneapolis. The project will be implemented with Edina's first bicycle boulevard segment, first colored bike lanes, first use of federal funds for a bicycle project, first neighborhood traffic circles, and advanced technology (bicycle detectors at signals), as well as the state's second advisory bike lanes (or maybe third if a Richfield project opens ahead of Edina's). Any way you size it up, this is an accomplishment for a first-ring suburb that continues to exemplify a commitment to serving all road users.

 

The new 54th Street project in Edina creates defined routes for cyclists & pedestrians

that serve local parks, businesses, existing routes, and to Minneapolis. View larger map.

 

How did the city reach community agreement to put this project on the map? This is the question Bike Walk Twin Cities asks as part of our "lessons learned" review of the non-motorized transportation pilot program.

 

Even though Mayor Jim Hovland laments, "Nothing is easy in a fully developed town," this suburb on the southwestern border of Minneapolis is making good progress. By the end of this year the city will triple the number of streets with bicycle facilities --from four to twelve.

 

I spoke with numerous key stakeholders to the 54th Street project-elected officials, community leaders, bicycle advocates, and a consulting engineer. Each was articulate and insightful about the process of this project and the direction of the city overall. I gleaned a number of lessons learned, combining their vantage point with mine.

 

See the big picture; stress the big picture

Councilmember Josh Sprague, who campaigned on a platform of sustainable transportation and healthy living, emphasized the long view when talking with constituents: "This may look like the street to nowhere today, but by the end of the year you will be able to see the comprehensive street and trail network we are building." Elected officials and advocates continued to convey that this project is a piece of a larger whole.

 

This context was possible in part because of the bicycle master plan that the city adopted in 2007. As I learned from key stakeholders, the plan was a necessary but not fully sufficient grounding for this and other Edina projects; street and trail projects can face stiff public reaction.  For example, the nine-mile trail project, despite being in the city's Comprehensive Bicycle Transportation plan, survived only after an embattled public process. (Completing the bicycle master plan may seem like an endpoint but is really just the beginning; every master plan needs an owner and an established process to implement the plan.

 

Overcome likely objections

This project was three years in-the-making and had numerous twists and turns. Some significant points of conflict were not unique, but Edina dealt with them effectively.

 

1)      Objection: This is not a good use of public dollars

There can be sticker shock on public works projects of any kind. But for bike/ ped projects, the objection is not just how much, but in seeing the value at all. Councilmember Josh Sprague uses the nonmotorized pilot program's report to Congress to demonstrate the excellent return-on-investment (ROI) of these projects. (Go, Josh!). Indeed, the Minneapolis pilot estimated an increase of bicycling and walking mileage, and associated reduction of driving mileage, of 7.3 million miles in 2010, resulting in concomitant savings in health costs, energy costs, and emitted pollutants.

 

One curious twist, as Edina experienced, is resistance not only from non-bicyclists but also the most assured cyclists (who will bike anywhere and don't need special facilities). The real value of projects like 54th Street is for everyone in the middle, for whom a dedicated space on the road makes a bike trip possible.

 

Peter Kelley, chair of the Bike Edina Task Force, knows that we will never satisfy all the objections about the importance of projects like 54th Street, but as more residents recognize a legitimate transportation purpose in new bike/ped facilities and experience no adverse conditions, these investments in infrastructure will be more accepted.

 

2)      Objection: Do not remove street parking

The 54th Street project hit the biggest bump in the road with concerns about motor vehicle parking. Consulting engineer Mike Anderson is no novice to street projects and understands that street width, parking, and lane configuration are recurring issues. "It is very rare that everything fits," he said. So even after figuring out how to have all users travelling safely on the street, the challenge is to determine where to put large vehicles when not in use. Homeowners, business owners, and in this case, church members, love and expect easy access to on-street parking.

 

In Edina, a resolution to remove parking on one side of the street to allow bike lanes failed a city council vote. A compromise solution succeeded: installing advisory bike lanes on the contentious section of the project (advisory lanes remove the center line on low-traffic volume streets to create more flexible use of the right-of-way (ROW).  This compromise was facilitated by the church pastor, who endorsed the project despite the threat of parking loss and created a positive tone for public input.

 

Align stakeholders

Early on, the city proposed a "share-the-road" design for this project-essentially using signage to remind motorists of the expected presence of bicyclists. This would not meet the requirements of the BWTC award, however, and advocates (Bike Edina Task Force), community leaders (Transportation Committee), and elected officials subsequently realigned around a design incorporating dedicated space for bicyclists. MnDOT was an agency champion, supporting advisory lanes as a design exception and a workable element in this project. Despite a period of project languish, Transit for Livable Communities/Bike Walk Twin Cities not only continued to keep the project open but also helped to facilitate a good outcome; Steve Clark provided on-ground technical support to help keep the project on a path toward success. The stars aligned on this project not because of a cosmic force but because many key players explored creative options together.

 

What about federal funds?

Are federal resources the best source of funds for smaller local projects? This is a tough question for an organization administering federal funds to put on the table, but it is certainly a consideration in Edina and other communities in the BWTC pilot area. By no means is this a question of whether smaller scale bike/ped improvements are critical links in an expanded, safer network. They are proven so. But the complexity of the process is easily underestimated. Edina, encountering some of these requirements for the first time, may have misgauged the cost and time required. One major design adjustment switching the project configuration on Valley View Road helped to keep the project viable.

 

The pilot, with dedicated funds on tap, expedited implementation and encouraged innovation with local projects-by making project design an eligible cost and by providing some best practice design assistance. These are lessons learned are relevant as the Metropolitan Council, Transportation Advisory Board, and MnDOT begin to plan solicitations under MAP-21 the newly enacted federal transportation law.

 

Cities may turn increasingly to local sources of funds, creating more local and regional self-reliance in order to build and retrofit their cities more expeditiously. Mayor Hovland is championing a plan for a local fund, and Transit for Livable Communities will be working with partners to plan a transit/bike/walk funding campaign for the next legislative session.

 

A word about suburbs and the work of BWTC

Many thanks to folks in Edina who shared their very articulate thoughts; I have not done justice to their insights. These conversations sparked ideas for BWTC to consider as greater support for jurisdictions in our continuing work:

  • A resource document that outlines typical objections to bike/walk projects and provides evidence to support these investments
  • Good support for bike/walk projects, especially educational resources to help educate residents on new design elements
  • A model parking policy that communities could put in place to help address the needs of competing road users and evaluate the highest and best use of ROW
  • A tool box of low-cost improvements suburbs can make

And thanks to Jennifer Janovy of the Edina Transportation Commission and Bike Edina Task Force for a great discussion about walkability in suburbs. There is much food for thought on how to support walking where grid or sidewalks don't exist.

 

Congratulations to Edina on the 54th Street project.  Although a force for the future in their own right, city leaders acknowledge that being in proximity to Minneapolis as a national bicycling top-of-the-heap city is an asset. Together in the region, communities are setting best practice standards, building sustainable transportation momentum, and creating the cities where all can prosper and thrive. There are more lessons learned and accomplishments in Richfield, Roseville, and Golden Valley. Stay tuned!