Many recent changes to streets and traffic regulations in Minneapolis have grown out of city government’s obsession with trying to convert drivers into bicyclists, pedestrians and mass-transit riders.
Many of these changes have angered drivers while causing congestion and confusion. The proliferation of bicycle lanes, and their placement (at the cost of fewer motorized lanes), is evidence that city traffic engineers and policymakers do not understand why people act as they do — or the effects various stimuli will have on their actions. This inadequate understanding of human behavior underlies the current bicycle lane controversy as well as other problems with traffic flow.
City officials seem to believe that social engineering is easy — that merely by changing where bikes and cars are supposed to be, people will automatically alter their behavior accordingly. Traffic engineers seem to believe that if instructions can be stated, people will automatically understand them and buy into them.
The result of this flawed thinking is our current mess. But by refocusing on three principles, the daily commutes of all who use city streets could be much enhanced:
1) Simplify communication
The Sept. 18 Star Tribune article “The Drive: Markings are baffling motorists in Mpls.” reported:
“The city recently put down markings on 26th and 28th streets between Hennepin Avenue and [Interstate] 35W that have baffled motorists trying to figure out where they can and can’t drive. Both streets have markings to designate parking lanes, bike lanes, buffer zones of varying widths and dedicated driving lanes, but motorists say they can’t make head nor tails out of them.”
Traversing the streets was not always so “baffling.” A solid line meant “Do not cross.” A broken line meant “Cross with care.” Now, with bicycle lanes, we have solid white lines and double white lines — as well as green lines at intersections — broken in a variety of ways. The reason for this additional complexity must be that traffic engineers believe motorists should know why they are allowed to, or prohibited from, crossing painted lines.
But motorists don’t need to know “why.” They need to know: “Do not cross” or “Cross with care.”
Keeping things simple allows drivers, riders and walkers to focus on their surroundings rather than becoming distracted by unnecessary, unclear information.
A poor alternative to giving too much information is giving no information at all — and expecting people somehow to know what to do. For example, there are several places in Minneapolis where odd-looking stakes have been placed in the middle of the road at intersections (e.g., the intersection of NE. 2nd Street and NE. 3rd Avenue). One could speculate that these indicate some type of “safety oasis” for bicyclists or pedestrians crossing the road. But no one I know really has a clue why they are there or what drivers are supposed to do differently in regard to them.
The purpose of traffic signs is to promote safety — not to undermine it. However, signs that indicate something that is not true are hazardous. For weeks, a sign on the eastbound Hennepin Avenue Bridge proclaimed “Right Lane Closed.” In fact, the right lane was open — it was the left lane that was closed at Lourdes Place ahead of the sign.
The result of this misinformation was that bicyclists took dangerous chances to leave their bike lane, only to have to take still more dangerous chances to get back into it once they realized the sign was wrong.
Another issue: If a sign is no longer in effect, a bag should be put over it, or it should be turned 90 degrees so it cannot be read by drivers. I’ve only recently learned that a special contractor is often hired to provide signs. I suspect this contractor drops off the signs and ignores them until it is time to pick them up. In such cases, traffic engineers should include clauses in their agreements with contractors requiring them to ensure that signs are accurate at all times.
2) Consider unintended consequences
Every traffic control change causes behavioral changes — sometimes undesired ones. For instance, the NE. 8th Avenue/Plymouth Avenue Bridge had been an excellent route to avoid morning rush hour traffic into downtown. But since the city added bicycle lanes with protective stakes, traffic backs up on the bridge’s single lane because there no longer is an easy way to go around the many vehicles waiting to turn left once they cross the bridge. Often, only three or four vehicles make it through a green light.
This congestion was created for the supposed benefit of the small handful of bicyclists who cross the bridge at that time.
As several letters to the editor have noted, it is also absurd to have bicycle lanes on 26th and 28th Streets south of downtown — given that the Midtown Greenway (devoted exclusively to bicycles and pedestrians) is only one to three blocks away. There is obviously no need for dedicated bicycle lanes on those two streets, and all they do is irritate hundreds of disadvantaged motorists.
Similarly, avenues such as Portland and Park served for many years as reliable routes into and out of central Minneapolis during rush hours. Now, bicycle lanes greatly reduce their effectiveness in moving motor vehicles. One might ask why bike lanes were not added, instead, to parallel streets a couple blocks over? That might have reduced automotive traffic on those particular streets but allowed things to keep moving — also accomplishing the bicycle safety objective more effectively.
Investigating why past traffic changes were made should inform current decisionmaking. Years ago, E. Hennepin and NE. 1st Avenues were two-way streets. Then the city decided to make them each one-way streets. Chances are, there was a reason for that decision. Yet the city and traffic engineers are now seriously considering making these streets two-way again.
Policymakers should ask why they were made one-way streets in the first place. It’s likely that by turning them back into two-way streets, the “old problem” that had been solved will become our new unintended consequence. And given that bicycle lanes are now on those two streets (and were not the last time they were two-way streets) the old problem is apt to be worse than before.
Decisionmakers and engineers must learn from the past — not ignore it.
3) Understand human behavior
A naiveté exists among some planners and engineers. They act as if they believe: “If a thing can be stated, everyone will understand it and behave accordingly.”
This is not how human behavior works. A spokesperson for Alatus recently indicated that the developer would increase the number of residents of a proposed high-rise who would bicycle, walk and use mass transit. How? By having an on-site “transportation coordinator” distribute materials and schedules touting these ways of getting around. This is either naive or deceitful. People do not make decisions based on marketing promotions, or even strict logic.
Years ago, I was part of a research team investigating why people didn’t ride-share to and from work according to the predicted percentages. Planners had assumed that if people who lived near you went to workplaces near yours, you would see the appeal of ride-sharing and sign up. Wrong!
We learned that even people who favored the “idea” of ride-sharing often had reasons why it did not work for them personally. These included child care drop-offs and pickups; needing to stop for groceries or run other errands on the way home; unpredictable work schedules because of which they might miss their ride and be stranded since buses didn’t run late enough; and so on. Hence, a much smaller use of ride-share occurred than had been predicted by transit planners who’d applied “logical” formulas.
The current desire of city officials to force increased use of bicycles and mass transportation by making automotive use painful will result mainly in anger and traffic slowdowns for the same sorts of reasons.
A year or so ago, in a noteworthy example of disappointed expectations, city traffic engineers put bicycle lanes next to parking lanes in the two blocks along N. 1st Avenue from N. 1st Street to Washington Avenue. Then, for the next four blocks, they moved the bicycle lane to the curb and put the parking spaces to its left — where a driving lane used to be — leaving only one lane for vehicles. The city also placed an overly detailed sign along the curb that purportedly “explained” this anomalous arrangement.
It took some time to digest the information on the sign in question. If drivers tried to decipher it while in motion, their attention would have been seriously distracted.
Confused drivers often pulled up behind a parked car and waited patiently for it to drive forward — not realizing it was parked. Frustrated, they would then pull out in dangerous ways to get around the parked car.
So even though all this may have made sense on paper, it didn’t work. Our goal must be to reduce confusion and enhance safety.
Most people using transportation systems do not think or act like engineers, in a mathematical-logical mode. Bicyclists, motorists and pedestrians behave according to how they’ve been conditioned over many years, obeying psychological laws as well as (we hope) society’s laws.
To bridge the disconnect between engineers (and those who direct them) and the average citizen, the city must better understand in advance how people actually will respond to traffic changes — not just how the city would like them to respond. Computer simulations, exposing drivers to what the changes would look like and monitoring their reactions, would be a good start.
Counting the actual use of various bicycle lanes would provide clearer rationale to keep or discontinue them.
And enlisting the support of psychologists and other social scientists who know how to predict behavior also might prove a strong step toward optimizing traffic flow, minimizing inconvenience and maximizing safety.
Doug R. Berdie, of Minneapolis, is a semiretired marketing executive and researcher.