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The much-debated Minneapolis bike lanes and related improvements appear to be paying off in lower crash and injury rates.

The city led nine other bike-friendly peers nationally in cutting its crash and injury rate over 2000-2015, according to an editorial published in the most recent issue of the American Journal of Public Health. The crash rate per 100,000 trips in Minneapolis plunged 75 percent during that period and the rate of severe injuries and fatalities fell 79 percent.

Researchers who wrote the editorial said protected bike lanes are the safest for cyclists. Minneapolis offers more than 100 miles of protected bikeways — many off-road in the park system or in dedicated spaces such as the Midtown Greenway. Now it's adding them to streets.

Amy Brugh, a Northrop neighborhood resident and Minneapolis Bicycle Coalition board member, feels the protective difference when she's sharing a tandem bicycle with her 10-year-old son.

"He's scared to ride on many streets," she said. "My feeling is that a physical separation from the traffic is far more comfortable."

The city already leads the nation's biggest cities in bike lanes per square mile, according to data compiled by one national bike advocacy group. And Minneapolis is adding an ever-increasing number of bike lanes to its streets, with a goal of 30 miles of protected on-street lanes by 2020. It added 6 miles last year.

That's exactly the type of bike facility that minimizes risk for cyclists, according to the editorial by researchers John Pucher of Rutgers University and Ralph Buehlerof Virginia Tech.

"It is crucial to provide physical separation from fast-moving, high-volume motor vehicle traffic and better intersection design to avoid conflicts," they wrote.

They cite Canadian research covering two major cities that found the injury rate was 89 percent lower on streets that impose raised curbs, posts or other barriers between cars and cyclists, compared with streets without any bike markings. The protected lanes also are much safer than unprotected lanes, that research found.

Pucher said in an e-mail that the data mean that Minneapolis is five times safer per mile to cycle in than it was in 2000. "Minneapolis can be very, very proud," he wrote.

Separating cars and bikes

Minneapolis mostly has relied on flexible plastic posts to keep cars out of bike lanes. Despite that, cars and even school buses, still park occasionally in those lanes. That bothers Brugh, who would like to see more curb-type barriers to keep cars out of bike lanes.

"That doesn't make my kid feel any better when we have to go out and weave around traffic," she said.

The city also is beginning to use other means of separation. An Oak Street SE. bike lane installed last year uses parked cars, curbs and posts to separate car and bicycle traffic. Hennepin County's rebuilt Franklin Avenue bridge uses concrete dividers topped by a metal rail. As the city reconstructs five blocks of Washington Avenue downtown, it is building a bicycle path atop the curb.

The city also is seeking federal funding to help install a median with trees and grass between bikes and other traffic on W. 36th Street near Lake Calhoun.

City Council Member Jacob Frey said he can tell the difference when he uses the new protected lanes completed this year on 3rd Avenue S. in downtown.

"Before I was fighting my way just to get two or three feet in the gutter, often hitting my handlebars on a side-view mirror," he said. "Now we've got designated space, and it feels quite cozy. It's a dramatic difference, it really is."

Steve Brandt • 612-673-4438

Twitter: @brandtmpls