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Missoula’s 10 most frightening bike intersections


Nothing seems to rally residents quite like advocating for safe, accessible and efficient bike routes throughout Missoula. It’s been a common cry in creating the Downtown Master Plan and discussing the Urban Fringe Development Area project, a point of emphasis in the city’s Long Range Transportation Plan and zoning re-writes. It even popped up with the city’s recent enthusiastic support of a currently nonexistent federal grant program that may, eventually, provide $50 million to improve the local trail system. More importantly, bicycle commuting has practically become regular water cooler conversation across town—and not just at the Missoula in Motion offices. Even now, as colder weather starts to settle in over the valley, more Missoulians use bikes to travel throughout city streets than ever before. 

“I see more bikes on trails, on the roads, on the bike racks—and all of it further into the season—than when I started,” says Phil Smith, the city’s bicycle-pedestrian program manager for 12 years. “We don’t keep statistics, but observationally…there’s no question more people ride bikes today, and the numbers aren’t even close. The thing is, that’s both good and bad.”

Increased traffic has put more pressure on the city and local biking advocates to educate riders and drivers on the rules of the road, and to improve the biking infrastructure in the political arenas mentioned above. Smith’s program has fully embraced the education part. While he says it’s great to see so many people supporting alternative modes of transportation, it also means less experienced riders are flooding local bike lanes.

“And I don’t believe we have crashes because the facility is wrong,” he says. “The facilities don’t seem to be the problem. In almost every case, it’s the behavior that we find to be the cause.”

But even Smith admits the second part of the equation—improving the infrastructure—remains necessary. Local riders go even further, making the fact the city hasn’t significantly funded bike infrastructure since the 1990s a point of contention. 

“Missoula has a great biking community, but I believe there’s a bit of a disconnect,” says local bike maven Bob Giordano, who also serves as executive director of the Missoula Institute of Sustainable Transportation. “The current infrastructure is either incomplete or broken—I’m not sure which is the right word to use…This is something Phil Smith and I have discussed at length and I’m still not sure which is more accurate. But the point is, it’s far from perfect.”

Imperfect indeed. The Independent created a list of the top 10 most precarious bike intersections, based on our own experiences and an informal survey of city officials, bike shop owners and avid cyclists. We hope as various discussions continue about Missoula’s long-term planning—in projects like the Russell Street corridor—that these hot spots become part of the conversation. 

Malfunction Junction
The problem: One of Missoula’s busiest and most clogged intersections—the confluence of Russell, Brooks and South—doesn’t include bike lanes.
Our advice: Act like a car or avoid it. There are plenty of work-arounds, depending on which direction you’re heading.

It’s called Malfunction Junction for a reason. The intersection of Russell, Brooks and South has long been a source of frustration for motorists and bicyclists alike. Although a restructured 2005 traffic pattern allegedly fixed some of the issues—South no longer feeds into the intersection—it remains a difficult stretch for bicycles. 

“There’s just so much traffic,” says Andy Frank of the Bike Doctor. “That’s just an intersection that will never be bike friendly.”

The lack of bike lanes deserves the bulk of the blame. Bicyclists traveling north on Russell have the benefit of a bike lane—right up until things get funky at the intersection. Bicyclists north of the intersection on Russell—going either direction—and those on Brooks get squat.

We’ve experienced the most trouble heading north on Russell.  Getting through the large intersection proves stressful, but when cars unknowingly pinch bicyclists against the curb on the other side, the route turns dangerous. More than once the loading area for Trempers Shopping Center businesses has provided a necessary escape from cars infringing on our bike’s narrow right-hand lane space. We’ve also found that cars turning right on red from Russell onto South or Brooks hardly ever think to watch for bicyclists.

At least avoiding Malfunction Junction proves easy. When traveling north and south on Russell, turn on South and continue through a side street for a quick detour. Likewise, turn off of Brooks before the intersection and use side streets to reach your destination. If you must go through, just make sure to hold your ground, act like a car and obey traffic laws, including, most importantly, the fact that left turns are prohibited from every direction within Malfunction Junction.

Van Buren and E. Broadway streets
The problem: Relatively heavy intersection doesn’t really consider left-turning cyclists.
Our advice: Cross over early and clearly signal to the car in front of the through/left-turn lane that you intend to turn left.

You can usually spot a Rattlesnake cyclist by their crazy-powerful lights. To supplement its rustic charm, the pseudo-urban valley is poorly lit and, for reasons less known, its shoulders are filled with small rocks. If you plan to move to the Rattlesnake, get a good set of lights—we recommend the Blackburn X4.

Another local cycling problem isn’t quite so easy to deal with—Van Buren and Broadway, neighborhood entry point for most Rattlesnakers. If you’re coming from either the trail system or Hellgate Canyon, then it’s really not so bad. The problem lies in an approach from downtown where, after laterally crossing one busy lane of traffic and joining another, the left-turn lane that meets the bike lane on Van Buren is also a through lane for cars. It’s a confusing and dangerous entanglement.

“Clearly signal your intention and forcefully move over—that’s what I do,” advises Jason Wiener, a Rattlesnake alderman and avid bicyclist.

Swooping up and taking the designated left turn lane comes with the additional hazard of a left-turning car t-boning you as you cross over. (Please look astonished when you read the following: Not all motorists properly signal). So merge early, take the through/left-turn lane when you can and, at the red light, make it crystal clear to the car behind you that you intend to head up the Rattlesnake. Finally, watch your flank at the eastbound onramp.

S. Madison Street, Arthur Avenue and S. Fifth Street E.
The problem: Southbound bicyclists on the Madison Street bridge are squeezed merging onto Fifth or kept from heading south on Arthur by two lanes heading West.
Our advice: Move to the bridge’s far left lane early and clearly signal your turn onto Arthur. If you’re squeezed merging onto Fifth and feel unsafe, get onto the sidewalk. To avoid it entirely, use the Madison footbridge.

The confluence of Madison, Arthur and Fifth seems to baffle cars as much as bicycles. When campus traffic picks up—the 8:45 a.m. rush for parking spots, the mass 4:45 p.m. exodus, or any special event—this intersection becomes a mess. A bicyclist’s biggest problem involves navigating two lanes of traffic off the Madison Street bridge, where both can merge west onto Fifth or the left lane can break off toward campus on Arthur. No matter which direction you want to go, high speeds and odd traffic patterns make bicycling difficult.

The intersection particularly bugs Bob Giordano of the Missoula Institute for Sustainable Transportation. About seven years ago, Giordano merged from Madison onto Fifth when he heard a tractor-trailer barreling down behind him. As a safety precaution, Giordano jumped up onto the sidewalk to create more room.

“About a second later I heard the truck’s tires rub up against the curb,” recalls Giordano. “If I hadn’t moved, that would have been me.”

Aside from using the sidewalk, one solution involves riding around the intersection by using the Madison footbridge, located directly below Madison Street and accessible via the Finn & Porter parking lot. Once across, a quick left will take you directly toward campus. Take a right and you will find yourself just a hop away from Fourth Street. The footbridge may avoid the immediate problem, but fails to address any long-term answers for a dangerous intersection

S. Orange and Sixth streets
The problem: A dangerous curve as Orange becomes Stephens Avenue.
Our advice: As is your right, take the full lane. Or, turn west on Fifth Street and find your way to Stephens from there.

Northbound cyclists have little problem in this area, but if you’re heading south on Orange, a hazardous situation occurs as the road turns diagonally into Stephens Avenue. As the turn approaches, your lane evaporates, probably because the street wasn’t built wide enough to accommodate two car lanes and a bike lane. Cyclists are left in a pinch, with cars often cutting into the turn and speeding up, Indy 500-style.

The best defense is to be proactive: Well before the bike lane disappears, make sure the lane’s clear, stick your left arm out to signal your intent and move into the center of that inside lane. Occupy the lane through the curve, until the return of a bike lane, about 50 meters down Stephens.

Alternately, you can avoid the stress by turning west onto Fifth Street from Orange, then heading south on Cottonwood or any of the area’s other tree-named streets.

Widening the road is an obvious—though costly and politically tricky—solution, but Open Road Cycles’ Matt McGrath favors a more “separate but equal” approach.

“Instead of rebuilding and repainting existing roads to squeeze in a bike lane, [the city] needs to put more effort into connecting the bike paths, “ he said, “To get from the Kim Williams path to the mall, for instance, you need to cut through half of town.”

S. Reserve and S. Seventh streets
The problem: A kamikaze dash across five fast-moving lanes.
Our advice: Be patient and wait for a real opening. When crossing, always keep an eye peeled to the blind side.

Let’s begin with a preface: There’s no safe way across Reserve at Seventh, which has been hammered home to most Orchard Homes cyclists since construction began on Third. With cars moving in excess of 50 mph, a blinding hill to the south and an English Channel-like corridor of constant traffic to cross, this intersection will probably claim a life one day. Hopefully, you played “Frogger” as a lad and it won’t be you.

Okay, fine—you’re going to do it anyway, so here’s how:

If you can track stand, do it, because kicking off only wastes precious microseconds. Look both ways, but look more attentively to the blind south. Waiting for an ample opening can take more than a minute. Try to suppress the frustration; being hasty will only result in trouble. If you’re lucky enough to see a full opening, sprint without hesitation. For mountain bikers, the notion should prove fairly domestic—hesitation kills.

A partial opening results when one direction opens up but one or two cars are coming the opposite way. Dashing to a halt in the center turn lane will wig out Missoula drivers who aren’t used to dealing with urban cyclists. They’ll either honk at you for scaring them or stop completely. Either way, you get across Reserve.

S. Higgins Avenue, Hill Street and Beckwith Avenue
The problem: This “intersection” is more of a multi-faceted spillway onto Higgins, which means bicyclists must watch for drivers from at least four different streets trying to finagle their way onto the same small stretch of road.
Our advice: Avoid left-hand turns at this clusterglut by choosing one of the many side streets to reach your destination.

In October 2006, a motorist in a Chevrolet Avalanche turned left from Higgins onto Beckwith and killed 14-year-old bicyclist Colin Heffernan. The accident occurred at night and an investigation showed the driver was not at fault. Heffernan reportedly had no lights and was not visible to the driver. A tribute to Heffernan still stands at the intersection in the form of a mounted white bicycle.

This unfortunate incident may have occurred at night, but the intersection can be just as perilous during the day. Bicyclists on Higgins compete with an array of variables: vehicles exiting the Grizzly Grocery/El Diablo parking lot, sometimes eating their recent purchase; Hill feeding into Higgins just a few feet away from that parking lot; and cars veering diagonally across Higgins since W. Beckwith, E. Beckwith and Hill don’t align. All of it adds up to one bad problem: Puzzled drivers making it from point A to catawampus point B pay little attention to bicyclists. It’s all a little too Wild West for its own good.

In lieu of the city’s long-held plans for a roundabout at the intersection, our best advice is to enter Higgins from a nearby side street or cross at McLeod to the north or Hastings to the south.

Reserve Street and Mullan Road
The problem: Pure volume makes this major, multi-laned intersection treacherous.   
Our advice: With no alternate routes to N. Reserve Street or the neighborhoods to the west on Mullan, bicyclists are forced to fight heavy traffic—or get off and walk.

Some of the details remain unclear, but the end result was tragic: Roy Smith, 64, died in February 2007 after he was separated from his bike and pinned underneath a semitrailer at the intersection of Mullan and Reserve. It was the first of two bicycle-related deaths that year.

Smith’s death underscores just how difficult this intersection can be for bicyclists. Once the bike lanes disappear, the only option is to act like a car and stake your claim to a lane. The problem is that aggressive drivers are often too preoccupied with getting through the clogged intersection that bicyclists are considered nothing but a nuisance—or not considered at all.

As plans to improve the intersection continue, bike activists need to continue to make their case heard. The Montana Department of Transportation made a proposal in March to add a second left-hand turn lane from northbound Reserve onto Mullan, which would have eliminated the existing bike lane over the Reserve Street bridge. Enough complaining from Bike/Walk Alliance of Missoula and other advocates squashed the plan.

Brooks Street and S. Higgins Avenue

The problem: Bicyclists heading south on Higgins and wishing to continue straight get caught by the right lane merge onto Brooks.
Our advice: Stake your ground early and safely merge into the left Higgins lane. If you find yourself panicked, follow the flow onto Brooks and take a left on one of the slant streets to reconnect with Higgins.

Phil Smith, bicycle-pedestrian program manager for the city of Missoula, has heard plenty about this heavily trafficked intersection.

“I’m not aware of any fatalities there, but that’s one of those places where we get a lot of complaints,” he says. “It’s also a perfect case of how responsible behavior from both motorists and bicyclists can go a long way toward avoiding danger.” 

For instance, bicyclists should be decisive about signaling properly and moving into the left Higgins lane early to proceed south. Problems arise when bicyclists either don’t understand the traffic pattern or react too late and begin behaving erratically, like swerving quickly into traffic to avoid turning onto Brooks.

Don’t do that.

Instead, if you miss an opportunity to move left, stay in the right lane and break off to Brooks Street. The wacky slant-street neighborhood provides plenty of chances to turn left and reconnect with Higgins.

If all else fails, get off your bike and use the pedestrian crossing at Brooks and Higgins. It’s not an ideal solution, but it’s at least safe.

W. Broadway Street and Toole Avenue
The problem: Mystifying traffic control and a vanishing bike lane
Our advice: Avoid this one if you can. Use alleys, quasi-legal skirting measures or utilize the bike detour up Hawthorne Street to westbound Toole.

While cyclists approaching from the west and north can expect a relatively sane and safe experience, the other two directions run the gamut from irritating, such as being ignored by traffic lights, to dangerous, as when you’re suddenly meant to ride between two lanes of motor vehicles.

As you leave the California Street pedestrian bridge and head north toward Broadway, you’ll invariably come to a red light at the intersection. Your choice is to wait there for the pity of the traffic gods, or else get off your bike and use the pedestrian call button. As if the honking hostility of some drivers, who consider this “cheating,” wasn’t enough, forcing cyclists to get off their bikes and walk part of their commute is just plain wrong. If you’re a cyclist, you know what we mean.

“There are traffic lights that recognize bicyclists and they’re being used in other cities,” says Jim Sayer, executive director of Adventure Cycling. “That’s something I’d like to see used here in the future.”

From the east, this intersection features another infamous “disappearing bike lane,” which compels cyclists to share the left lane with cars. Once you’re through the intersection, the merging traffic from Toole Street creates a situation in which you’re suddenly sandwiched between cars. This is not a happy place to be.

The city recognizes the problem and created a well-marked detour up Hawthorne, but that’s hardly the best long-term solution for this intersection. 

Higgins Avenue bridge
The problem: Bicyclists are pinched onto the bridge northbound.
Our advice: Keep an eye for motorists and get across the bridge as fast—and safe—as possible.

Missoula’s street grid runs on different compass points north of the Clark Fork River than it does on the southside, and the Higgins Avenue bridge resolves this minor change in direction. But while this is nearly imperceptible behind the wheel, the turn specifically endangers northbound cyclists.

The Indy pointed out this dangerous pinch point years ago, and since then the city has widened and repainted the bicycle lane here. While commendable, the fix remains inadequate.

The bike lane’s added width came from a reduction in the motor vehicle lane. This is normally a reasonable solution, but in this case it happens directly at the road’s bend, and even reasonable drivers end up cutting the corner, as illustrated by the spot’s prematurely worn paint.

To make matters worse, a high, two-tier curb towers to the cyclist’s right, leaving no options for a rider if or when a driver pinches the corner.

Until major construction fixes the problem, watch carefully over your shoulder as you approach the pinch, although noting a vehicle’s location is made more difficult by the curving road.

Honorable Mention
Brooks and S. Reserve streets: This mammoth intersection on the south side of town sucks for bicyclists and motorists alike. Our advice is to act like a car, stake your space and signal appropriately—and, by any means necessary, avoid at “rush” hour, when accidents seem to happen at least once a week. 

Anything on Russell: Two intersections get particularly bad marks—the major light at Third, where bike lanes frustratingly disappear, and the major mess at Broadway. But crossing Russell anywhere can be an exercise in patience—or just plain exercise, as you often have to book it across to beat the steady flow of traffic.

Scott Street and Toole Avenue: Without a light, cars usually turn this intersection into a guessing game of who’s going which direction. Any time that’s the case, bicyclists are left dodging grills. “We watch that intersection all day and it gets pretty wild,” says Andy Frank of the Bike Doctor.

Van Buren Street and Missoula Avenue: Cyclists heading north on Van Buren and looking to veer left onto Missoula face a tough turn, mostly because southbound Van Buren cars appear relatively fast over a blind hill.

W. Spruce and N. Orange streets: When bicyclists cross Orange heading west, traffic pinches the road and the bike lane disappears. “That’s one where we’ve identified a problem,” says Smith. 

Orange and Front streets: Unsuspecting bicyclists can get thrown for a loop—literally—by a dip in the road on the northwest side of this intersection. With no bike lane, any erratic movement or fall puts bicyclists straight into traffic. “I know it’s there and it still causes me to swerve every time,” says Curtis Johnson, owner of Mountain Goat Package Delivery.

Cautionary videos
by Erika Fredrickson

Dangerous bike riding can happen at any time, not just at difficult intersections. And cars aren’t always the enemy.
To provide you with some painful reminders of the importance of bike safety—and, in an “America’s Funniest Home Videos” way, maybe a little entertainment—here are seven online videos that show just how bad it can get when things go wrong.

“Revolution 2 Crash”
Bicycle races are just asking to be turned into a gruesome game of dominoes. In this 2007 Australian indoor race, competitors circle what looks to be a hardwood track. You can sort of predict the chaos before it even happens: one cyclist tries to pull ahead of two others and, seeing no opening to move forward, swerves to the side to get around them, knocking against another cyclist in the process. The result looks almost choreographed—graceful even—in the way their tight colored uniforms blur together as they topple over each other.

“Guy on a Bike Gets Hit by a Bus”
This is a true intersection accident, the result due mostly to an overconfident cyclist. Despite the grainy footage, you can see a city bus barreling down the street and the shadowy figure of the cyclist riding out in front of it, pedaling wildly, just a few seconds too late. The bus swerves and then begins a pretty amazing 180-degree skid across the whole four-lane road. The cyclist is swiped under the back wheel and pulled along with the bus, which almost hits a bystander in the foreground. When the bus stops, the cyclist miraculously crawls from the dark underbelly of the bus, apparently, as the narrator states, with only “minor injuries.”

“Yet Another Bicycle Accident...Ouch!”
Everyone knows what happens if you let your pant leg get sucked into the spokes of your bike. Best-case scenario: Your bike rocks out a little bit but you’re able to save yourself from falling. Worst-case: Your bicycle and you end up in a wrestling match, and your bike wins. In this video, you see the bike win.

“Bicycle Montage”
If you’re into watching bicycle wrecks—sicko!—maybe you should just watch this accident montage. A series of blooper-type wrecks and mishaps are alternately funny and cringe-worthy.

“Kid Hit By Bike”
A man is fiercely cycling down the street in the camera’s direction. Everything seems in order—the guy is slowing down, there’s no traffic, no indications of danger. Then, out of the corner of the camera, a teenager comes running out into the road and broadsides the cyclist. The youthful pedestrian is so on-target it actually looks like an assault.

“WCP Greatest Mountain Bike Crashes”
Mountain bike crashes are a little different in regards to this story, but still amazing to watch. World Cycling Production’s “Greatest Mountain Bike Crashes” is another montage of painful, sometimes bloody, dirt-filled spills.

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