Why isn’t anyone talking about an Olson Memorial Bikeway?

Some people think that Minneapolis has more than enough off-street bikeways. I’m not one of those people. Though I’ve been cycling the mean, car-choked streets of this city for over ten years, I’m never more comfortable on two wheels than when I’m on one of our off-street trails. Streets are intrinsically pervasive, so there are only so many opportunities for off-street infrastructure, and I’m not holding out for the day when the entirety of all my trips are in the comfort of an off-street bikeway.

But where there is potential for development of an off-street bikeway, it should be snatched up. That’s why I’m puzzled that no one has mentioned the idea of building a bikeway along Olson Memorial Hwy. It should be a no-brainer – long segments of this road have wide open space buffers along them that are currently used for absolutely nothing (with the exception of one pigeon perch). Where the open space buffer (obviously intended as future interchange space) is missing, there’s a 30′ wide frontage road, which can easily give up 10′ for a two-way lane separated with candlestick bollards (the aerial google had up as of this writing shows exactly 8 parked cars on the 4500′ of frontage road on the south side of the highway west of I-94). So substantial segments of this bikeway (around half) would be separated enough to have the feel of an off-street bikeway.

morgan-knox olson bikeway

The I-94 overpass is a trouble spot, as MnDot built it with 105′ of roadway and only 15′ for sidewalks (7.5′ on each side). There is a significant amount of right-turning traffic onto the frontage roads on either side, though, so it seems like one of the through lanes could be converted into a second right turn lane, allowing the through lane on the overpass itself to become a two-way lane. The eastbound outside lane appears to be 14′ wide, which would allow a nice buffer.

i-94 overpass olson bikeway

East of I-94 it gets a bit tighter. The open space buffers are ample for the first block, but after that it’s hampered by a bank drive thru on the north and another road on the south. Still, there are options here. In the short term, one of the lanes from the horrible frontage road stump of Royalston can be used for a two-way cycle track. If some engineer demands two lanes at the intersection, the center line can be moved and one eastbound lane reallocated to westbound (or whatever direction you want to call it). Royalston, after all, gets by with one lane in each direction for the rest of its short length, so it should be fine here. In the long term, however, this area should be reconfigured so that the frontage road stump of Royalston no longer exists. Here’s my idea for how to do that, or here’s what the Southwest Transitway Station Area Planning process came up with.

olson royalston bikeway

A curb cut will need to be built to connect to and across 7th St, probably using the huge porkchop island to cross into the HERC block. At that point it’s within the boundaries of the Interchange project, another long stretch of government-owned land that seems to have been planned with no consideration of locating bike facilities there. It’s been hard to find a detailed or consistent site plan for this project, but this one is the latest I know of. There appears to be a good chunk of open space, probably underneath a future Bottineau viaduct, on which to site a 12′ trail approaching from the west. Depending on how the grades end up working, the trail could then share space with one of the redundant motor vehicle access points, leaving only a short gap of what is presumably open space to connect to another motor vehicle access point. There may be a few tight squeezes here, but brain power is cheaper and usually even easier than buying power, so overall this is an excellent opportunity.

Moving across 5th St, it would have been nice to reserve some space on the Shapco block for bikeway, but it seems that they needed to maximize the amount of grey and beige they could fit on that site. There should be enough space on 5th Ave N, though, as the existing roadway is about 50′ wide. That leaves room for 18-19′ thru + parking lanes (the existing parking lanes are 8-9′ wide) with 12′ for a two-way bikeway with a bollarded buffer. The tricky part here is the rough paving surface – it looks like it’s just asphalt that’s been laid on top of brick haphazardly throughout the years. Hopefully they could do another layer on top for a temporary fix, but if not, it’ll be a long wait before the street is reconstructed since it’s not on the CLIC report at all.


The next segment is most iffy part of the whole proposal. The bikeway would need to cross the huge chasm created by the I-394 stump and the Cut. There is, of course, an existing pedestrian bridge, but it’s only 6 or 7′ wide, so would either need to be a dismount zone (yeah right) or extensively modified. It may be possible to cantilever the existing ped bridge – I don’t have a solid grip on this process, but I believe it has been done on this type of bridge (concrete girder) before. If 5′ could be added, it would still be a bit narrow, but doable. Unfortunately no amount of cantilevering will fix the squeeze point at 2nd Ave N, where the ped space is shoehorned into 6′ between a building and a concrete wall. I’m hopeful that eventually the road space allocated to the viaduct here can be reduced, especially since much of it seems to be going to a merging lane that ends before long anyway, but that is certainly a long-term prospect.

After that we’re in the home stretch. 3rd & 4th Sts already comprise a bikeway known as the Hiawatha Trail extension. I can’t leave well enough alone, or rather, I think we deserve better, so I would advocate for protected facilities here to replace the existing paint stripe. Any type of protection will do, but I have a thing for the type of curb-separated two-way bikeway popularized in Montreal (and since spread to Seattle). These are generally better than protected one-way lanes because of their size (i.e. 14′ or so rather than 8′ or so). This makes them more visible, which makes them more legible to users, easier to understand and avoid for other roadway users, and it also makes it possible to plow with standard equipment.  When the alternative would be a one-way protected lane on each roadway of a one-way couplet, it also is more legible in that you can just assume the facility is on one street rather than have to keep track of which direction is on which street.

I’m not aware of any near-term plans to rebuild 3rd St, so it would have to be retrofitted to handle this facility. This can be done by reducing it to two traffic lanes, which should be done throughout Downtown to maximize the comparative advantage of transit, biking and walking (Minneapolis has an extremely high private car mode share for its job density). Then lanes can be slimmed to provide about 15′ for a two-way bikeway with a candlestick bollard buffer.


When the street is reconstructed, the sidewalks should be widened to at least 15′ to accommodate the streetlife that hopefully will someday exist here. Then a parking lane should be dropped, since terminal facility availability and cost are a big part of that crazy huge private car mode share. We still have room for an ample bikeway, with two through lanes and a parking lane to ensure the smooth flow of traffic. 3rd-st-rebuiltIf all the elements I’ve discussed here are carried out, Minneapolis could have a high-quality, low-stress, legible bikeway bisecting the city. Cyclists would have a comfortable, no-turn ride from Wirth Park to Minnehaha Park. Even if the connection over I-394 and the Cut are found to be unfeasible, a bikeway along Olson would still connect to the wide bike lanes on 7th St, providing an excellent route through Near North. But none of that will happen until the conversation starts, and maybe I’ve done that with this post.

9 comments on “Why isn’t anyone talking about an Olson Memorial Bikeway?

  1. John says:

    I discovered that you can change the direction of the snow with your mouse!

  2. All this can be yours for $50M. When it’s built, we’ll have to name it after Alex.

    • Alex says:

      I think the part west of 7th St would be pretty cheap actually. Asphalt isn’t expensive, land is. On the other hand, Minneapolis has set a goal to spend $250k per mile on the 26th-28th buffered lanes, so they could probably figure out how to spend way too much here too.

  3. I like the idea, although the Olson Highway is just a skip and a jump away from Glenwood Avenue, which just got bike lanes last year, has more street life, and has a less arduous crossing of 94. It has basically equally good connections to downtown, and much better connections into Golden Valley, including Wirth Park. Plymouth Ave to the north also has bike lanes, improved this year.

    If we were in a situation of rebuilding TH 55 Olson Highway, I think it would be logical to include a bikeway. But I’m not clear why it should be a priority

    • Alex says:

      Glenwood’s lanes are discontinuous, however, disappearing into sharrows for a couple significant stretches (eastbound between roughly Cedar Lake and Aldrich IIRC and in both directions west of Penn). And while it’s true that Glenwood extends into Golden Valley, you can’t access anything on it but half-million dollar ramblers. When I ride to GVR & Winnetka, I always take the Luce Line Ext, but what would be even better would be a MUT or (dare I dream) actual sidewalks and cycle track(s) along Hwy 55. Because Hwy 55 is where the stuff actually is in Golden Valley.

      Good point about Glenwood and the I-94 crossing though. I suspect that if the Van White trails could be de-suckified that could be the best route from the Northside to the CBD.

  4. Mathias Mortenson says:

    I biked this route often over the last four years and had similar thoughts. The Olson frontage road is worthless. Not only do cars rarely park there, they also rarely drive there. In my dozens of trips from GV to downtown I saw no more than five driving the road.

    My opinion–and this is grossly pie-in-the-sky–is that if you removed the median in Olson and dead-ended the few side streets that connect to the frontage road, you could reappropriate a width of 100+ feet not just to dedicated bike lane but to a substantial strip of greenscape. The greenscape could act as an extension of Theo Wirth, a new arm of the Grand Rounds. I know, never gonna happen.

    One more thing: the more natural connection to downtown for me has always been to go right on 7th. This allows easier access to Cedar Lake Tr and the river and avoids all the North Loop discombobulation. There would still need to be work getting back over to Target Field or through the Ramp (somehow).

    • I think the wide planted median is basically the only elegant feature of the Olson Highway. I’d much rather see the roadway go from 7 lanes to 5, and/or narrow frontage roads to get more space.

    • (And, of course, the Olson Highway is a divided highway from Rockford to Rosemount. In addition to Mn/DOT probably hating the idea of removing a median, it would also be really dangerous to crossing pedestrians on such a wide roadway. Imagine crossing 6 or 7 lanes of 40+ mph traffic in one go. That’s what pedestrians at Newton Ave and other uncontrolled intersections would have to do.)

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