Rules of the Road: Understanging our shared responsibility to make biking safer in Minnesota

Bike Biking Rules47

Photo by Daniel Murphy

The alleycat bike race sounded easy enough: pedal to as many beaches in the Twin Cities as you can in a set time, and take a photo of yourself at each lake as proof. A scavenger hunt with a lakeside theme—the perfect Saturday in July.

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Shaina Briscoe // Photo by Kevin Kramer

The morning of the race, Shaina Briscoe showed up ready to plot her route to victory. But the 28-year-old bicyclist never made it to a single beach. Just a few blocks into the race, Shaina collided with the side of a SUV in downtown Minneapolis. Within moments she went from upright to unconscious, suffering a traumatic brain injury and broken jaw.

Three years after the accident, Shaina maneuvers her motorized wheelchair around the tight corner of the doorway into her bedroom. She punches one letter at a time into a keyboard that sits on her lap. After a couple minutes of concentrated work, an automated voice reads out the sentence.

“IT’S NOT THAT SERIOUS,” typed Shaina, in all caps. While she may have lost her ability to walk and talk, her sense of humor didn’t suffer. “I’m really fortunate that I have this view, because it means I’m still alive,” she continues.

The day of the crash remains fuzzy in Shaina’s mind. Witnesses say she ran a red light before the collision, but her dad says that seems out of character for his daughter, who was known in her circle of friends as being a stickler for the rules. What is apparent from Shaina’s experience is that one second is all it takes for a life to be changed forever.

As Minneapolis makes strides to become more bike friendly in coming years, there’s only one way to keep the streets safe as more people begin to share the same lanes. The responsibility falls on individual drivers and riders to know and honor the rules of the road.

A new look for Minnesota’s roadways

Bike Biking Rules45

Photo by Daniel Murphy

Drive your car west down Broadway Avenue from Highway 280 in Minneapolis, and you’ll notice fresh paint. The former four-lane, car-friendly road is now a two-lane, bike-friendly road, complete with a middle turn lane and a bike lane. Bright white posts, called bollards, shoot up from the ground like a row of sentries, protecting the line where the bike lane meets the road.

“It’s about adding an interest to roads and changing the character from being the same all the time,” says Kelley Yemen, Hennepin County’s first bicycle and pedestrian coordinator, of the changes. “There are plenty of places where you feel like you can shut off your brain to what’s happening around you.”

G34_Road RulesIn 2015, Minnesota reported more than 898 bicycle crashes (a 16-percent increase from 2014) and 10 fatalities—twice as many as in 2014. Of those, inattention was the second leading cause, and Yemen hopes visual design changes like bollards and green paint designating areas of potential conflict on city roads will remind drivers and bicyclists to stay alert.

Crash data shows that road safety is a shared responsibility. In fact, the numbers show that bicyclists and drivers are equally responsible for causing crashes, and both struggle with inattention and failure to yield. The main difference is that where drivers often report having obscured vision, bicyclists are more commonly cited for failing to observe traffic signals or signs.

Road updates like the four- to three-lane conversions work to combat these issues and increase safety for everyone. The changes are designed to create defined spaces for different modes of transportation, and make it clear when cars are turning to avoid confusion. This type of design targets potential danger zones like intersections, where 84 percent of crashes occurred in 2014.

Take the swath of concrete where Franklin Avenue, Cedar Avenue South, and Minnehaha Avenue converge in Minneapolis. The intersection lacks bike lanes, has misaligned turn lanes and back-to-back traffic signals. To address this problem spot, in 2017 Hennepin County hopes to lay down new bike lanes that connect with nearby trails, realign the left turn lanes, and completely remove an intersection.

MnDOT and Hennepin County found that most bicyclists would opt to bike on separated lines, like those now on Broadway Avenue, versus sharing a lane with a car. “When [the lanes] go in, you often see a large increase in bicycle ridership,” says Melissa Barnes, the statewide bicycle and pedestrian safety engineer at MnDOT. “They’re something communities want to use to increase the presence of bicyclists on their roadways.”

While it might seem counterintuitive, more bicyclists on the roads actually lead to safer roads, because increasing bicycle safety is also about making it more attractive to ride. “There’s this thing called safety in numbers,” says Nick Mason, the deputy director at the Bicycle Alliance of Minnesota. “As more people are out there biking in communities around the state, people are more aware bikes are on the road and look for them. [Drivers] get used to driving around them and that causes less crashes.”

Next page: Training the next generation

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