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The Surprising Rise of Minneapolis as a Top Bike Town

Jay Walljasper / Oct 22 2011

For Release Saturday, October 22, 2011
Citiwire.net

Jay Walljasper


Minneapolis’s Midtown Greenway is popular with both commuters and recreational bikers.

People across the country were surprised last year when Bicycling magazine named Minneapolis America’s “#1 Bike City”, beating out 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. Close to four percent of Minneapolis residents bike to work, according to census data. That’s an increase of almost 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.

Minneapolis also launched the first large-scale bikesharing sytem in U.S. — called Nice Ride — and boasts arguably the nation’s finest network of off-street bicycle trails. It was chosen as one of four pilot projects for the federal Non-Motorized Transportation Program, which aims to shift a share of commuters out of cars and onto bikes or foot.

“Biking has become a huge part of what we are,” Mayor RT Rybak declared to a delegation of transportation leaders from Pittsburgh and Columbus, Ohio, on a Minneapolis tour sponsored by the Bikes Belong Foundation. “It’s an economical way to get around town, and many times it’s the fastest. I frequently take a bike from city hall across downtown to meetings.”

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.

In a city where bicyclists of all ages and backgrounds already ride recreational trails the goal is to encourage people to hop on their bikes for commuting or short trips. 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.

To make that happen, 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. Women now make up 55 percent of two-wheel traffic and citizens over 55 ride in numbers slightly higher than the national average.

The Dutch also found that as the number of riders rises, their safety increases. Shaun Murphy of the Minneapolis Public Works Department, notes the same phenomenon — your chances of being in a car/bike crash in the city are 75 percent less than in 1993.

Mayor Rybak stressed 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 said.

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, a government body that guides development throughout the region, highlighted his efforts as city council member in suburban Bloomington (home of the Mall of America) to push the idea of Complete Streets — meaning that roadways should serve walkers and bikers as well as cars. (Editor’s note: There’s also a Complete Streets national network and advocacy organization.)

Elkins also extolled 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.

One theme recurring through the entire tour was that better bike facilities benefit not just bicyclists, but everyone. Bike lanes improve safety for motorists too, by slowing the speed of traffic explained Mayor Rybak, noting “we’ve found they’re the best traffic calming device around.”

And 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 and among young people. The option to commute and do errands on bike make it easier for many families to get along with one car, with happy results for the household budget.

Minneapolis was not always a great biking town. I live here, and would have howled with laughter 25 years ago if you told me Minneapolis would one day be named America’s best bike city 30 years ago. It was a frustrating, uncomfortable and dangerous place to bike.

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.

Other factors that boosted Minneapolis as a bike town include:

  • 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.
  • The high number of recreational bike riders here eventually translates into bike commuters.
  • As a Mid-American city far from the glamour capitals of the coasts, biking has become part of our positive self-image. Even people who haven’t rode a bike in years cheered when Minneapolis was named America’s #1 biking city.

Jay Walljasper is an author specializing in urban and transportation issues. He is an editor of OnTheCommons.org and an associate of the Citistates Group. His website: www.JayWalljasper.com

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4 Comments

  1. rex burkholder
    Posted October 22, 2011 at 6:12 pm | Permalink

    Portland’s experience mirrors that of Minneapolis. Portland in 1980s was a car town, shrinking in population, polluted and struggling.
    It was citizen action that made Portland what it is today, beginning in the 70s but not effective until the formation of the Bicycle Transportation Alliance in November, 1990. It took years of patient pushing, a legal victory against the City (BTA vs City of Portland), and the clever promotion of cycling as part and parcel of a healthy, vibrant and exciting place to live. Cycling has a strong economic benefit, and not just for those who save money riding. Portland has been able to grow its downtown workforce without adding anymore car capacity because almost 30,000 commuters get there by bike. Its been estimated that Portland’s bicycle related businesses generate $100 million annually.
    Now the 5k member-strong BTA is just one of many groups that celebrate and promote cycling, with almost 3000 cycling related events taking place every year.
    In my 11 years on the Metro Council, we’ve re-written our Regional Transportation Plan to focus on outcomes rather than traffic (which leads naturally to much higher investments in active transportation), convened a “Green Ribbon” committee of community leaders that pushed beyond its charge to create more trails, making a strong business case for active transportation everywhere and directed most of our federal metropolitan transportation funds towards transit, walking and cycling projects.
    I say congratulations to Minneapolis and urge all mayors and citizens everywhere to do it in your town, too. It CAN be done and the benefits are enormous.

  2. Sheryl Gross-Glaser
    Posted October 23, 2011 at 6:32 am | Permalink

    Biking is a wonderful way to get around and along with improvements to the street network to increase safety and attractiveness for pedestrians, well worth the investment. However, as you acknowledge, even most biking commuters do not bike to work in the winter. Are they getting into their cars like the other 90+ percent commuters in most places? There are many people who do not want or are physically unable to rely soley on a single-occupancy vehicle and a country with one-car-per-adults households. Investing in transit systems that have reliable, frequent and otherwise user-friendly (including bike-friendly) service is incredibly important. Just like the car is not everyone’s choice, the same is true for the bike. As New York illustrates and places like Portland and Minneapolis are starting to show, street networks that are welcome to all users have a wonderfully symbiotic relationship with good transit. One does not compete well with the car without the other – for the majority of travelers.

  3. Posted October 23, 2011 at 9:47 pm | Permalink

    I live near Minneapolis, and while I think the city itself is great for bicycling, I know that the metro area is, unfortunately, pretty terrible for cycling. Last spring, I was biking up to Minneapolis about once a week (~40 miles each way). It was a ride that was comfortable and fun for the first twenty miles — basically on rural highways through corn fields — but miserable for miles 20-35. The southern suburbs are extremely bike-hostile: the only connective streets through a maze of culs de sac are 45-55 mph, with no bike lanes, and sometimes not even shoulders. All crossings of a major river (Minnesota River) are freeway bridges, and not all have separate walking/bike paths for cycles to legally cross. This means that going from a point in Burnsville (a suburb south of the river) to Bloomington (a suburb north of the river) is 4 miles by car, but 17 miles by bike.

    I’m glad the municipality of Minneapolis has done so well, but I really hope this success can be done on a larger scale by regional planning organizations.

  4. Darrell Marcy
    Posted October 31, 2011 at 10:42 am | Permalink

    Nice article Jay. We have some shared bike lanes here in Syracuse, NY but now that I hear you mention separate bike right-of-ways that sounds like it’s obviously the better answer.

    Syracuse bikers may have a harder time in the winter than Minneapolis, not from the cold but from the snow!