This article was originally published in Catalyst, May 2022.
Photos and stories about people biking and walking on packed trails were common during the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic. Transportation researchers also reported surges in bicycling and walking during this time of social restrictions and widespread closures, but little was known about how those surges related to longer-term trends.
This article was originally published in Catalyst, November 2021.
As gyms and indoor health facilities closed during the beginning of the pandemic, people flocked to trails and parks, creating both opportunities and concerns for public health and land managers. The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommended a six-foot distance between people (even outdoors), but little was known about compliance with these recommendations.
Understanding pedestrian and bicyclist flows is vital to distributing a limited construction budget to new infrastructure for improved safety on specific roads. Unfortunately, statewide data collection for active transportation flows is challenging.
MnDOT and local agencies historically have lacked estimates of bicycle and pedestrian traffic on Trunk Highways and County State Aid Highways.
Since about 2016, MnDOT has begun monitoring bicycle and pedestrian flow at more than 25 locations across the state, but, given the small number of counters and the variability of flows in response to variations in weather across Minnesota, these monitoring data are insufficient for estimation of Annual Average Daily Bicyclists and Annual Average Daily Pedestrians.
One option for obtaining travel data without expensive infrastructure is relying on mobile data collection.
New research has started that will provide needed guidance for the design of separated bike lanes, which are rapidly growing in popularity. The two-year Minnesota Local Research Board-funded study, which is being performed by the University of Minnesota, will identify the safety, cost and accessibility attributes of different lane designs and produce a technical memorandum with design guidance for transportation planners.
Separated bicycle lanes (SBLs) are a bicycle facility that employs both a paint and vertical element as a buffer between vehicle traffic and bicycle traffic.
In 2016, the City of Minneapolis increased the total mileage of separated bike lanes in the city from 5.4 to 9.4 miles with plans to increase that to 30 miles by 2020. While many other cities around the U.S. are in the process of installing separated bike lanes as part of their non-motorized transportation networks, research about them has not kept pace.
The Federal Highway Administration’s Separated Bike Lane Planning and Design Guide identified several gaps in existing research, including the effects of SBLs on vehicle traffic, the preferred speed and volume thresholds to recommend SBLs, and the differences in safety between one- and two-way SBLs.
Despite safety being a major concern with SBLs, the guide states that “there are no existing studies that have satisfied best practices for analyzing the safety of SBLs.” The guide goes on to caution that even in cases where research on the safety or operational effects of SBLs does exist, “much of the highest quality research comes from outside the U.S.” The FHWA guide also lists cost as a gap in knowledge about SBLs, saying “few benchmarks exist for separated bike lane costs, which vary extensively due to the wide variety of treatments and materials used.”
This research project will provide a thorough synthesis of current research and guidelines and a comprehensive analysis of the impacts of different midblock bike lane designs to help Minnesota-based agencies make data-driven design and planning decisions. Design variables include delineator type and spacing, land and buffer widths, and one- vs two-way bike lanes. Impacts that would be evaluated include installation, maintenance, and user costs as well as safety and facility usage.
When considering installing SBLs, many aspects including impacts on both bicycle traffic and other types of traffic (pedestrians, passenger cars, delivery trucks, etc.) must all be considered. However, much of this information is unavailable. By providing a comprehensive repository for the relevant data on the numerous SBL design options, this project will allow engineers and policy-makers to make more informed decisions regarding bicycle infrastructure installations and improvements. Access to this sort of hard data will aid in the process of performing will aid in the prioritization of options for bike facilities thereby reducing the waste of funds on unneeded or unaffordable projects.
The tasks of the research project include:
Conduct a thorough literature review to identify any gaps in the current research. Examples of this might include the effects of SBLs on all road users, frequency of bicycle and vehicle violations for various SBL designs, recommended speed and volume thresholds for installation, the costs associated with SBLs, or the differences in safety between one- and two-way SBLs.
Conduct research such as observational field studies, crash record analysis, synthesis of the results of other studies, road user surveys, review of previous project budgets, bicycle facility repair record analysis, municipal records of complaints and violations, or some combination thereof.
Develop a list of options for the design of multi-modal facilities and the respective impacts of those options based on findings from the field studies. This could include maintenance costs, user costs and safety impacts.
By providing transportation planners, engineers, and other practitioners new information on the impacts likely to be associated with different designs, the practitioners will be in a better position to both choose among designs and mitigate potential adverse effects of those designs. The list of design options and associated impacts will be summarized in a technical memorandum with a more thorough presentation in the project final report.
Researchers evaluated bicycle and motor vehicle interactions at nine locations in Duluth, Mankato, Minneapolis and St. Paul,in a study sponsored by the Minnesota Local Road Research Board to better understand how bicycle facilities affect traffic. Results show that on shared roadways without clearly marked bicycle facilities, drivers are more inclined to pass bicyclists, encroach on other traffic lanes or line up behind bicyclists than on roadways with clearly striped or buffered facilities.
“This project gave us qualitative information and some quantitative information. The observations made provide something we can build on,” said James Rosenow, Design Flexibility Engineer, MnDOT Office of Project Management & Technical Support.
“The solid line makes the absolute difference in bicycle facilities— something that we haven’t seen in any other study. We found that the presence of a clearly marked or buffered bicycle lane makes a large difference in the way drivers behave around bicyclists,” said John Hourdos, Director, Minnesota Traffic Observatory, University of Minnesota.
What Was the Need?
The availability of multimodal traffic facilities encourages travelers to use a range of transportation methods, from driving to riding on public transit and bicycling. Although bicycle use is low compared to motor vehicle and public transit use, MnDOT’s Complete Streets program encourages cities and counties to dedicate roadway space to bicycle facilities to expand transportation options and “maximize the health of our people, economy and environment.”
Planners and engineers typically consider bicycle facilities from the bicyclist’s perspective. It is less common to design and plan for bicycle use from the driver’s perspective. However, effective multimodal planning requires an understanding of how bicycles affect traffic if congestion-causing interactions are to be avoided, particularly on high-volume roads. Bicycle facilities must invite use, ensure safety for all road users and at the same time not slow traffic.
What Was Our Goal?
This project aimed to investigate interactions between drivers and bicyclists on urban roadways that employ various bicycle facility designs, and to determine how different bicycle facilities affect traffic. Researchers sought to look at bicycle facilities from the driver’s point of view.
What Did We Do?
The investigation team reviewed 44 bicycle facility design manuals and guidance documents, 31 research papers on implementation or assessment of facility designs, and design manuals used by seven other Complete Streets programs from around the United States to identify facility designs that warranted further study.
With help from the MnDOT Technical Advisory Panel and local planners, the team selected nine sites in Duluth, Mankato, Minneapolis and St. Paul that offered a range of facilities—buffered bicycle lanes, striped bicycle lanes, sharrows (shared-use arrows), signed shared lanes and shoulders of various widths.
At each site, they set up one to three cameras and videotaped during daylight hours for five to 51 days. Researchers then trimmed the video data into relevant car-and-bicycle-interaction time frames. This yielded from 16 to 307 hours of video from each site for detailed analysis.
The research team then reviewed the video and analyzed how drivers behaved when encountering bicyclists on roads with and without bicycling facilities. Researchers grouped driver behavior into five categories: no change in trajectory, deviation within lane, encroachment on adjacent lane, completion of full passing maneuver and queuing behind bicyclists. Researchers confirmed their observations with statistical modeling. After analyzing the results of behavior as it correlated with facility type, researchers presented the traffic flow implications of different bicycle facility designs.
What Did We Learn?
Literature Review. Almost all design guidance drew heavily on directives from the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials or the National Association of City Transportation Officials. Of the 62 bicycle facility design elements identified in bicycle guidance documents, fewer than half have been studied in any way for efficacy, safety or traffic impact.
Video Analysis. On roadways with sharrows, signs for shared lanes or no bicycle facilities, drivers were more likely to encroach on adjacent lanes than were drivers on road-ways with buffered or striped bicycle lanes. Queuing, or lining up behind bicyclists, showed the greatest potential to impact traffic flows. The highest rates of lining up occurred on roads without bicycle facilities and roads with shared facilities but no marked lanes.
Implications. Sharrows may alert drivers to the presence of bicyclists, but in the impact they make on traffic, sharrows differ little from no bicycle facilities. Roadways with signs indicating shared lanes also show little difference in driver behavior from roadways with no facilities. Therefore, where space allows, buffered or striped bicycle lanes should be used instead of sharrows or signs to increase the predictability of driver behavior and reduce queuing impacts on traffic.
This study provides enough data to support the recommendation of dedicated, striped or buffered bicycle facilities where demand or interest exists. However, the detailed video analysis conducted for this project provides only part of a three-dimensional study of the efficacy and value of various bicycle facility designs. Further study will be needed to quantify facility and vehicle-bicycle interaction in terms of other traffic impacts like speed and traffic flow coefficients, and to quantify crash rates and other safety impacts. Research is also needed to investigate bicycle facility demand and bicycle use on road-ways that do not currently have bicycle facilities.
As part of an ongoing effort to institutionalize bicycle and pedestrian counting in Minnesota, MnDOT has published a new manual designed to help city, county, state, and other transportation practitioners in their counting efforts.
The Bicycle and Pedestrian Data Collection Manual, developed by University of Minnesota researchers and SRF Consulting Group, provides guidance and methods for collecting bicycle and pedestrian traffic data in Minnesota. The manual is an introductory guide to nonmotorized traffic monitoring designed to help local jurisdictions, nonprofit organizations, and consultants design their own programs.
Topics covered in the manual include general traffic-monitoring principles, bicycle and pedestrian data collection sensors, how to perform counts using several types of technologies, data management and analysis, and next steps for nonmotorized traffic monitoring in Minnesota. Several case studies illustrate how bicycle and pedestrian traffic data can be used to support transportation planning and engineering.
The manual was completed as part of the third in a series of MnDOT-funded projects related to the Minnesota Bicycle and Pedestrian Counting Initiative, a collaborative effort launched by MnDOT in 2011 to encourage nonmotorized traffic monitoring across the state. U of M researchers, led by professor Greg Lindsey at the Humphrey School of Public Affairs, have been key partners in the initiative since its inception.
In addition to the manual, U of M researchers have published a final report outlining their work with MnDOT on this project. Key accomplishments include:
A new statewide bicycle and pedestrian traffic-monitoring network with 25 permanent monitoring locations
A district-based portable counting equipment loan program to support MnDOT districts and local jurisdictions interested in nonmotorized traffic monitoring
Minnesota’s first Bicycle and Pedestrian Annual Traffic Monitoring Report
A MnDOT website for reporting annual and short-duration counts that allows local planners and engineers to download data for analysis
Provisions added to MnDOT equipment vendor agreements that enable local governments to purchase bicycle and monitoring equipment
Annual training programs for bicycle and pedestrian monitoring
Provisions in the Statewide Bicycle System Plan and Minnesota Walks that call for bicycle and pedestrian traffic monitoring and creation of performance measures based on counts
“This is an excellent resource that steps through all aspects of managing a count program, and I think it will be very helpful to other states and organizations that want to implement their own programs,” says Lisa Austin, MnDOT bicycle and pedestrian planning coordinator. “Since Minnesota is a leader in counting bicycle and pedestrian traffic, it also fulfills what I think is an obligation to share our story with others.”
The bicycling industry in Minnesota—including manufacturing, wholesaling, retail sales, and non-profits and advocacy groups—produced an estimated total of $780 million of economic activity in 2014. This includes 5,519 jobs and $209 million in annual labor income (wages, salaries, and benefits) paid to Minnesota workers.
These findings are an important component of a multifaceted report from U of M researchers. Their research, funded by MnDOT, provides a comprehensive understanding of the economic impact and health effects of bicycling in Minnesota.
“This kind of bicycling study is definitely new for Minnesota but also new nationally,” says Sara Dunlap, principal planner in MnDOT’s Office of Transit. “This is the first time a state has attempted to assess, in a single study, the multiple impacts that bicycling activities have on the state’s economy and health.”
Xinyi Qian, an Assistant Extension Professor in the U’s Tourism Center, was the project’s principal investigator. For the bicycling industry portion of the work, the co-investigators were Neil Linscheid, Extension Educator, and Brigid Tuck, senior economic impact analyst, both with U of M Extension.
“Information about the bicycling industry is scattered, so we filled the information gaps by creating a list of bicycle-related businesses in Minnesota, interviewing bicycle-related business leaders, surveying bicycle-related businesses, and gathering additional information from relevant sources,” Linscheid says. “Numerous industries and a diverse supply chain are involved.” The research team then used this information to enhance an economic model that shows the economic contribution of the bicycling industry in Minnesota.
“Minnesota has a strong bicycle-related manufacturing industry that drives the bicycle-related economy,” Tuck says. “Specialty bicycle retail stores, especially independent ones, are a critical component of the bicycle retail industry in Minnesota.” Additionally, she says, when asked about local suppliers, bicycling businesses often provided names of other Minnesota companies, many of which are also bicycle-related businesses.
Researchers also looked at the economic impact of bicycling events—races, non-race rides, fundraising events, mountain bicycling events, high school races, and bicycle tours. Qian led this portion of the study, working with Tuck.
Through surveys and analysis, they found that an average bicycle event visitor in 2015 spent a total of $121 per day. This spending translates into an estimated total of $14 million of annual economic activity, which includes $5 million in annual labor income and 150 jobs. Event participants also brought additional people with them— more than 19,000 visitors who were travel companions but did not ride in any event.
The findings can help bring together event organizers and officials of various organizations—economic development, transportation, public health, and tourism—to promote the event facilities, the host communities, and bicycle tourism as a whole.
“Bicycling event attendees and their travel companions are a valuable audience for shopping, recreation, and amusement activities,” Qian says. “Communities hosting events could explore opportunities to capture additional spending from these important visitors.”
Qian notes that the analysis focused on event visitors and was not a broad measure of bicycle tourism.
A previous post discussed the health impacts component of the study; in April, we’ll report on the magnitude of biking in the state.
According to the results of a new study, bicycle commuting in the Twin Cities metropolitan area reduces chronic illness and preventable deaths, saving millions of dollars annually in medical costs.
The findings are one component of a multifaceted project funded by MnDOT. In the final report, researchers in several U of M departments provide a comprehensive understanding of the economic impact and health effects of bicycling in Minnesota.
“MnDOT has long identified bicycling as an important part of the state’s multimodal transportation system,” says Tim Henkel, modal planning and program management assistant commissioner. “This first-ever study generated new information that will inform policy and program strategies on bicycling as we determine levels of future investment.”
Xinyi Qian, an Assistant Extension Professor in the U’s Tourism Center, was the project’s principal investigator. Dr. Mark Pereira of the School of Public Health, one of the co-investigators, led the health component of the project.
Pereira’s team began by measuring the amount of bicycle commuting among Twin Cities adults using data from the 2014 Minnesota State Survey. (The counties included were Anoka, Carver, Dakota, Hennepin, Ramsey, Scott, and Washington.) The team found that 13.4 percent of working-age metro-area residents (244,000 adults) bicycle to work at least occasionally, and the average bicycle commuter rides 366 miles per year.
The researchers next estimated the number of deaths prevented from that amount of bicycling using the Health Economic Assessment Tool developed by the World Health Organization (WHO). Their analysis found that bicycle commuting in the metro area prevents 12 to 61 deaths per year, saving $100 million to $500 million annually. “At current levels, roughly 1 death per year is prevented for every 10,000 cyclists,” he says.
The WHO tool estimates savings from prevented deaths but not from prevented disease. To estimate the effect of bicycling commuting on illness, researchers conducted an online survey of Twin Cities cyclists; participants also included three commuter groups and a bicycle parts manufacturer.
“We learned that bicycling is linked to lower risk of metabolic syndrome, obesity, and hypertension,” Pereira says. “For example, taking three additional bicycle trips per week is associated with 46 percent lower odds of metabolic syndrome, 32 percent lower odds of obesity, and 28 percent lower odds of hypertension.”
The illness assessment provides relative risk estimates that planners can use in cost-benefit analyses. “Current methods only consider risk reductions related to death rates, so the benefit of infrastructure projects is underestimated,” Pereira says. “By providing an estimate of the risk reductions for diabetes and heart disease related to cycling, we provide an input that will help project planners more accurately represent the benefits of these projects.”
While the research was conducted in the Twin Cities, the methods can be used in other locations and to compare changes over time. “The findings also provide a foundation for transportation and health care officials to take action,” Pereira says, citing several options:
Promote active transportation through policies and intervention programs, e.g., employer incentives.
Develop consistent safety education and encouragement messages statewide to increase bicycle commuting.
Continue to encourage and implement safe bicycling to school and access to bicycles for youth across the state.
Across Minnesota, local agencies need better information about where and how many people are biking and walking to make decisions about infrastructure investments, understand safety risks, and even plan active living initiatives.
To help provide agencies with bicycle and pedestrian traffic data, U of M researchers have been working with MnDOT on the Minnesota Bicycle and Pedestrian Counting Initiative since 2010. The initiative is a collaborative, statewide effort to support bike and pedestrian traffic monitoring by local, regional, and state organizations.
Recently, the project team completed an implementation study—the second of three MnDOT-funded projects related to the initiative—specifically designed to engage local agencies. The goal was to demonstrate the feasibility of using both permanent and portable sensors to collect bicycle and pedestrian traffic data in several Minnesota cities, suburbs, and small towns.
“If we want to institutionalize counting and monitoring across the state, local agencies need to know it’s not something that’s only important for large cities like Minneapolis,” says principal investigator Greg Lindsey, professor at the Humphrey School of Public Affairs and current MnDOT scholar-in-residence. “We have to be on the ground in these places, illustrating that it’s relevant to the decisions they’re making.”
To that end, the team installed commercially available sensors—including inductive loops, passive infrared, pneumatic tubes, and radio beams—to collect traffic counts in several Minnesota cities. Overall findings indicate that all of the sensors produced reasonably accurate measurements—and that participating agencies found value in the collected data.
Findings and case studies from the study have already been incorporated into the draft Bicycle and Pedestrian Data Collection Manual, a new MnDOT guidance document being used in statewide training workshops. Also as a result of the study, MnDOT plans to include commitments to bike and pedestrian traffic monitoring in its forthcoming statewide bicycle and pedestrian plans. In addition, MnDOT is investing in a network of permanent traffic monitoring sites around the state as well as in portable equipment that will be available to local agencies.