Rochester councilor wants new bike lanes converted to parking spaces

It’s been four years since Rochester went in the direction of expanding the city’s network of dedicated bike lanes downtown. The Post-Bulletin’s coverage at the time reflected considerable enthusiasm for the project, which was to be paid for by up to $1.6 million in state funds designated for the Destination Medical Center economic development initiative.

Work by infrastructure consultant Stantec will add bike lanes on Third and Fourth avenues, from Sixth Street Northwest to Seventh Street Southwest, with northbound bike traffic on Third Avenue and a southbound lane on Fourth Avenue. Both streets predominately offer one-way travel, with bicyclists currently sharing lanes with motorists.

Bike lanes are planned for each direction on Center Street, from Sixth Avenue Southwest to Sixth Avenue Southeast.

“We want to get folks into and out of downtown,” said Stantec principal Mike Rutkowski, noting the project is part of the larger transportation goals defined in Destination Medical Center plans.

The loss of valuable downtown parking places due to the installation of the new bike lanes was viewed as unavoidable collateral damage.

While doing so will reduce available on-street parking in some areas, Rutkowski said the goal is to maintain traffic lanes throughout most of the project, while also finding ways to make sure bikes, cars and pedestrians can safely co-exist.

“It’s going to be really important along this corridor to do some unique things,” he said, noting much of the existing street design is 40 to 50 years old and could be refreshed

Just four years later, a Rochester city councilor wants to reverse course. It turns out that the number of commuters who bicycle has failed to meet expectations and then some. A new survey of commuters shows the number of bike riders has actually decreased since the new bike lanes went in, according to the paper.

On Monday, council member Shaun Palmer said it was time to undo part of the work in an effort to provide added parking for Center Street businesses.

He pointed to a report provided to the Rochester-Olmsted Council of Governments last month that shows a decrease in bicycle use for commuter trips in the city between 2015 and 2021.

Charlie Reiter, a planner for the Olmsted County Planning Department, prepared the report to show how Rochester residents are commuting to work throughout the city. Depending on whether one-year or five-year census data is used, the decline in bike commuting ranges from 71 trips to 166 during an unspecified period, while driving and walking increased.

“We tried bike lanes, and it didn’t increase ridership,” he said.

The city engineer insists the overall number of bicyclists using the lanes increased some 25 percent in a separate city survey conducted after construction. Nevertheless, Palmer wants to convert the new bike lanes in six of the 12 blocks back to parking for visitors and customers of businesses downtown.

While Palmer’s proposal, which was supported by council member Mark Bransford, failed to gain traction, council members did agree to have continued discussion about other options for the Center Street downtown corridor.

“They can’t go away, but it’s not working the way it is,” council member Kelly Rae Kirkpatrick said, suggesting the city should search for a way to improve parking for businesses while improving bike routes downtown.

Palmer may have not prevailed this time, but the response of other councilors to his pragmatic approach indicates the conversation is far from over.