‘Share the road’: Higgins Avenue Bridge construction poses safety concerns for cyclists
New traffic control measures put in place amid construction on the Higgins Avenue Bridge have eliminated bike lanes and pushed cyclists to share the road with cars, deterring some from using the heavily trafficked route to downtown.
But Britt Arnesen hasn’t let that stop her from biking back and forth on the bridge every day for the past week in an effort to spur changes and create safer conditions for cyclists and pedestrians.
“It’s terrifying every time I go across, but it does feel important,” Arensen said Wednesday. “I feel like I’ve got to do it every day, and I’m talking to people when I do it because I think people need to know that if we stop using the bridge, then this is a precedent that tells them they can just cut off the people to their transportation any time they want.”
Arnesen, a member of the city’s Bicycle and Pedestrian Advisory Board, said she thinks the current traffic control measures by the Montana Department of Transportation that require cyclists to share the road with cars pose dangers to her and many other bikers and pedestrians who use the bridge.
Currently, the west, or south-bound, half of the bridge is blocked off for construction, including the western bike lane and pedestrian shoulder. In order to make room for two lanes of north- and south-bound vehicle traffic during construction, MDT had to eliminate the bike lane on the east side of the bridge, said John Schmidt, Missoula District construction engineer for MDT.
In the meantime, cars are supposed to share the road with cyclists, who are instructed to ride in the middle.
“You have every right to be in the road, and then cars just have to follow you across the bridge,” Schmidt said.
However, not all drivers understand that, Schmidt acknowledged.
Arensen said that in biking back and forth on the bridge, people have honked and flipped her off while tailing her.
“You’re trying to go as fast as you can,” she said, and she described one crossing. ” When I got to the other side, I was so terrified that I actually went through the cones just to get away because I was so scared that the person behind me was going to kill me,” she said.
About 400 cyclists are estimated to use Higgins Avenue Bridge every day, according to a 2019 count by the city, making it one of the most cycled bridges in the city, said Ben Weiss, the city’s bicycle and pedestrian program coordinator.
On Wednesday, Weiss had a similar experience with a driver who flipped him off and honked while he rode his bike to meet Arensen and MDT staff to discuss how they could improve traffic control measures and increase safety.
Arensen said she felt like the meeting went pretty well and that her concerns were listened to in regards to signage, though she said she still fees at odds with the city and MDT about the need to reduce the speed limit. Arensen said she feels they should reduce the speed as soon as possible and called it an “immediate safety concern.”
However, Schmidt said that may be difficult and said there are some statutory challenges with changing the speed limit that he is looking into. He also said that he welcomes public input.
“We appreciate the public’s patience while we work through this,” he said. “We realize that it is a little difficult right now, but what we’re going to end up with is going to be greatly better.”
On Wednesday, MDT also painted markers on the road for sharrows, or symbols that indicate that bikes can use the full lane, or “share” it. Weiss said the city and MDT are working to make the current protocols as clear as possible, and said they haven’t reached a final decision on how they can improve safety for cyclists and pedestrians, but he said he feels good about the communication.
Weiss also said his experience with a driver honking and flipping him off on Wednesday was not “the norm” for the other times he has biked across the bridge, and also noted that bike riders can use a detour by going down Fourth Street and into Toole Park to get on the Milwaukee Trail, which they can take to cross under the Madison Street bridge.
He also noted that there are going to be some “pinch points” throughout construction, but said that once the west side of the bridge is completed next June, a 13-foot wide combined bike lane and sidewalk will provide pedestrians and cyclists with more space than on both sides that the previous bridge had combined.
In the meantime, Weiss said “we all have to do our part to share the road.”