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Behind the Bicycle Boom

Most of us in the Twin Cities are aware that we've become a great town for bicycling in recent years, but urbanist and author Jay Walljasper--an avid biker for decades--has been digging into the trend to find out the what and the why behind it. What follows is an adaptation of an article he wrote for Bikes Belong that fills in the story and gives us some impressive facts about the sheer scale and promise of our new two-wheel era.

The Bike Facts

People across the country were surprised last year when Bicycling magazine named Minneapolis America’s “#1 Bike City” over Portland, Oregon, which had claimed the honor for many years.  Shock that a place in the heartland could outperform cities on the coasts was matched by widespread disbelief that biking was even possible in a state famous for its ferocious winters.

But this skepticism fades with a close look at the facts:

--Fifty-one percent of all Minnesotans rode a bike last year, and the numbers for the Twin Cities are much higher than that.

--The high number of recreational bike riders here eventually translates into bike commuters. Close to four percent of Minneapolis residents bike to work, according to census data. That’s an increase of 33 percent since 2007, and 500 percent since 1980. 

--At least one-third of those commuters ride at least some days during the winter, according to federally funded research conducted by Bike Walk Twin Cities. Even on the coldest days about one-fifth are out on their bikes.

--This year the city is adding 57 new miles of bikeways to the 127 miles already built. An additional 183 miles are planned over the next twenty years.  By 2020, almost every city resident will live within a mile of an off-street bikeway and within a half-mile of a bike lane, vows city transportation planner Donald Pfaum.

--Minneapolis launched the first large-scale bikesharing system in U.S.—Nice Ride.

--And it boasts arguably the nation’s finest network of off-street bicycle trails. It was chosen as one of four pilot projects (along with Marin County, California; Columbia, Missouri; and Sheboygan County, Wisconsin) for the federal Nonmotorized Transportation Pilot Program, which aims to shift a share of commuters out of cars and onto bikes or foot.

--Bikes also figure prominently in the local economy with firms such as QPB (bike parts), Dero (bike racks), Park Tools (bike tools) and Surly (bikes, frames & trailers) located in the Twin Cities.

Bikes and the Big Economic Picture

Speaking to a delegation of transportation leaders from Pittsburgh and Columbus, Ohio, on a Minneapolis tour sponsored by the Bikes Belong Foundation in July, Mayor R.T. Rybak declared that in these lean economic times, cities across the country need to be creative about how they spend transportation dollars.  Big-ticket road engineering projects to move ever more cars must give way to more efficient projects that move people by a variety of means--including foot, bike, transit.  “We need to get more use from all the streets we already have,” Rybak told the Pittsburgh and Columbus visitors. “It really is the idea that bikes belong.”

In a city where bicyclists of all ages and backgrounds already ride recreational trails regularly, the goal is to make two-wheelers a central component of the transportation system by encouraging everyone to hop on their bikes for commuting or short trips around town. This is not a far-fetched dream, since nationally half of all automobile trips are three miles or less—a distance easily covered on bike in twenty minutes.

A Turned-Around Stop Sign

Minneapolis features two “ bike freeways,” that are the envy of bicyclists around the country. The Cedar Lake Trail, and the Midtown Greenway both connect to numerous other trails, creating an off-road network that reaches deep into St. Paul and surrounding suburbs. Intersections are infrequent along these routes, which boosts riders’ speed along with their sense of safety and comfort. In a good sign for the future of biking in the Twin Cities, Minneapolis engineers recently reversed a stop sign to give bikes priority over cars where the Midtown Greenway meets 5th Avenue South.  The reason:  more bike riders move through the intersection on a typical day than motorists.

Women, Children, and Seniors on Bikes

Minneapolis is committed to creating separate rights-of-way for bikes wherever feasible, which helps explain why the city defies trends of bicyclists as overwhelmingly male. While only a quarter of riders are women nationally, the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey reports 37 percent in Minneapolis.

Research shows that most people--including many women, families and older citizens--are wary of biking alongside motor vehicles on busy streets. Having the option to ride apart from heavy traffic encourages more people to try out biking as a form of transportation.

Since the 1970s Dutch planners have separated bicyclists from motor vehicles on most arterial streets, with impressive results.  The rate of biking has doubled throughout the country, now accounting for 27 percent of all trips. Women make up 55 percent of two-wheel traffic and citizens over 55 ride in numbers slightly higher than the national average. Nearly every Dutch schoolyard is filled with kids’ bikes parked at racks and lampposts.

The Dutch also that as the number of riders rises, their safety increases.  Statistics in Minneapolis show the same results. Shaun Murphy, Non-Motorized Transportation Program Coordinator in the Public Works Department, notes that your chances of being in a car/bike crash in the city are 75 percent less than in 1993.

Bike lanes improve safety for motorists too, by slowing the speed of traffic, and new bike facilities get bicyclist off the sidewalks, a major breakthrough for pedestrians’ safety and peace of mind.

The Road Diet

Bike projects in the Twin Cities are not limited to Minneapolis. St. Paul and many suburbs are also making it easier for people to travel on two wheels and two feet. Steve Elkins, Transportation Chair of the Metropolitan Council, highlighted his efforts as city council member in suburban Bloomington  to push the idea of Complete Streets--meaning that roadways should serve walkers and bikers as well as cars.  

He extols the virtue of road diets, conversion of four-way streets into three-way configurations with alternating center turn lanes--which create opportunities to add bike lanes or widen sidewalks without diminishing capacity for cars. “When done in the course of regular road repair projects, they cost nothing more than what it takes for a community outreach campaign,” he noted.

Road diets have become common throughout the Twin Cities. “The biggest obstacle to Complete Streets right now are traffic engineers who don’t want to reduce the width of traffic lanes, but we are beginning to wear them down,” Elkins laughed. “There’s nothing in the literature that suggests wider lanes are safer; indeed, if there’s any evidence, it’s that narrow streets are safer.”

Winter on Two Wheels

“We’re colder than Montreal or Moscow,” Steve Clark, Program Manager of Bike Walk Twin Cities, confessed to the Pittsburgh and Columbus visitors, “but that doesn’t stop people from riding their bikes in even the coldest, snowiest, darkest conditions.” Clark pointed to research his group conducted finding that one in three summertime bike commuters will also ride on warmer, sunny winter days.  One in four rides at least once a week November to March.  And one in five will be out on their bikes through snowstorms and temperatures below zero.

City workers clear snow from the off-road bikeways just the same as streets, sometimes doing them first. Studded snow tires and breakthroughs in cold-weather clothing makes year-round biking easier than it looks, Clark said.  And while Minnesotans are reluctant to dispel the notion they are hardier than anyone else, he revealed that even in the depths of winter many days here are above 20 degrees with streets free of snow and ice.  A few tips for would-be winter bikers: install fenders, ride slower, lower your seat so you can use your boots as an emergency brake and enjoy the Christmas-card scenery.

Clark emphasizes the importance of doing bike counts throughout the coldest months. “Actual data legitimizes winter biking as transportation, and debunks the idea that bike projects are frivolous because they are used only in the summer.”

Bikes for Everybody

The notion that only upper-middle-class white folks ride bikes is being challenged on all fronts across Minneapolis. The Major Taylor Bicycling Club, named for the African-American racer who claimed world records in the 1890s, organizes rides and bike events in minority communities.

In St. Paul, the Sibley Bike Depot offers a wide range of programs to introduce biking to immigrants and low-income families, including a shop that sells low-cost bikes and lets people work on their own bikes for free. They also run programs where kids can earn free bikes by taking bike repair classes and a "bike library" where low-income families are loaned a free bike.

At a time when gasoline prices are high and transit service is being cut across the country, bikes can help fill the transportation gaps in poor communities. Nice Ride, with support from the McKnight Foundation, has extended service to lower-income areas of both Minneapolis and St. Paul this summer. Bill Dosset, executive director of Nice Ride MN, says the initiative aims to overcome cultural attitudes ins some communities that bikes are only for kids or people who can’t afford any other way to get around.

Bike Walk Twin Cities launched a social marketing campaign to promote biking in the lower-income neighborhoods of Minneapolis’s North Side, where this year the new Venture North bike/walk center (and coffee shop) opened, along with extensive network of new bikeways.

A Look Back

Local bicyclists would have howled at the idea of Minneapolis being named America’s best city 30 years ago. It was a frustrating and dangerous place to bike, crisscrossed by freeways and arterial streets that felt like freeways. Drivers were openly hostile to bike riders, some of them going the extra step to scare the daylights out of us as they roared past. Bike lanes were practically non-existent at that time.

What changed in Minneapolis was that local bike riders patiently lobbied for better conditions, slowly winning over elected officials and city staff.  Also, as the number of bike riders steadily rose, motorists became accustomed to sharing the streets with us.

Actually, we have had biking in our civic DNA for a long time. Minneapolis was originally laid out for streetcars—like most cities outside the Sun Belt—which is a scale that works very well for bike riders. And in the late 19th century, city fathers wisely preserved land along lakes, creeks and the Mississippi for the public use. These became popular places to bike in the 1890s and again, eighty years later, when the second bike boom hit town.  The Cedar Lake Trail and Midtown Greenway were initiated by grassroots groups, which convinced political leaders to take the bold step of developing abandoned rail lines as bike trails rather than as condos or industrial zones. That marked a major step for transforming transportation in the community.

 Jay Walljasper is an author specializing in urban and transportation issues. He is a contributing editor at National Geographic Traveler, editor of OnTheCommons.org and a writer for Bikes Belong.

Photos, top to bottom:

A "bike boulevard" on Bryant Avenue South, near the Midtown Greenway

Nice Ride, nice and ready

The brand-new Venture North bike/walk center and cafe in North Minneapolis

Two-wheelers whiz by on Franklin Avenue.

All photos by Bill Kelley



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