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Lessons from America's surprising No. 1 bike town

How did snowy Minneapolis beat out Portland, Ore., for the title of best bike city in America? This year, Minneapolis is adding 57 new miles of bikeways to the 127 miles already built, and an additional 183 miles are planned over the next 20 years.

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Statistics show that as the number of riders rises, their safety increases. Shaun Murphy, Non-Motorized Transportation Program Coordinator for the city of Minneapolis, notes that, though bicycle ridership is much higher, your chances of being in a car vs. bike crash in the city are 75 percent less than in 1993.

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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.

The group from Columbus and Pittsburgh pedaled downtown along Minneapolis’s first cycle track – a bike lane separated from motorized traffic by parked cars. The configuration provides a better experience for people on bikes and in cars by creating a buffer between them. The Columbus delegation paid particularly close attention to this project, down to scrutinizing how the paint was applied to the pavement, because the street resembles one in their own downtown.

On the next block, shared-lane (“sharrow”) markers were painted on Hennepin Avenue within a continuous green stripe running down the street to send a clear message to both bicyclists and motorists that road space is used by everyone.

The group then pedaled out of downtown, crossing another bike-and-pedestrian bridge over a busy street before landing on Bryant Avenue, which has been transformed into a bicycle boulevard – a residential street where pedestrians and bicyclists are given priority over cars.

Another innovation now common throughout the Twin Cities is known as a road diet: By converting four-way streets into three-way configurations with alternating center turn lanes, bike lanes can be added or sidewalks widened 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.

Minneapolis is working hard to challenge the notion that only upper-middle-class white folks ride bikes. The Major Taylor Bicycle Club, named for the African-American racer who claimed world records in the 1890s, organizes rides and bike events in minority communities. A half-dozen bike rodeos to excite kids about biking took place in inner-city neighborhoods over the summer.

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 free bikes.

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 a new Bike Walk Center opens along with extensive network of new bikeways. 

Bike sharing: have a nice ride

Minneapolis is home to the nation’s first major bike-sharing program, which hit the streets in June 2010. It was quickly followed by Denver, Washington, D.C., Boston, and Toronto – with Seattle, Chicago, Portland, and other cities now readying plans.

Bill Dossett, executive director of NiceRide Minnesota – the non-profit organization that runs the bikeshare program – recounted the widespread skepticism that greeted the new system: Would bikesharing work outside Europe? Would it work in a city where a high percentage of people already own bikes? In a city that is low-density? Wouldn’t inexperienced riders hurt themselves? Won’t most of the bikes be stolen or vandalized?

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