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.

Eric Miller/Reuters/File
A bicyclist near Lake Calhoun in Minneapolis stops to cool off last July. Bicycling magazine named Minneapolis the No. 1 city for biking in the US.

It came as a surprise to many when Bicycling magazine last year named Minneapolis, Minnesota as America’s “#1 Bike City,” (unseating Portland, Oregon, which had claimed the honor for many years). Shock that 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 Minneapolitans weren’t surprised.

“Biking has become a huge part of what we are,” Mayor R.T. Rybak recently told a delegation of transportation leaders from other cities who had come to learn from Minneapolis’ example. According to census data, close to four percent of Minneapolis residents bike to work (that’s far fewer than in, say, Japan, where some 15 percent bike to work, but well above the U.S. national average, which is barely over half a percent). In Minneapolis, the percentage of bike commuters has increased by 33 percent since 2007, and 500 percent since 1980.

A biking transformation

Thirty years ago, local bicyclists would have howled with laughter at the idea of Minneapolis being named America’s best bike city. 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.

But Minneapolis also had the makings of a great bike town – in part, as Dorian Grilley of the Bicycle Alliance of Minnesota noted, due to a “150-year tradition of civic involvement” that preserved the land bikers use today. In the late 19th century, city fathers wisely preserved land along lakes, creeks, and the Mississippi River for public use. These became popular places to bike in the 1890s and again, eighty years later, when the second bike boom hit town.

Grass-roots activists convinced political leaders to take the bold step of developing abandoned rail lines as bike trails rather than as condos or industrial zones.

The combination of cyclist pressure and good civic sense has led the city to make supporting safe biking a priority in its transportation planning.

In these lean economic times, Mayor Rybak stressed, cities need to be creative about how they spend transportation dollars. Big-ticket 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. “It really is the idea that bikes belong.”

What a bike town looks like

So what does it take to become a great bike city?

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 by bike in 20 minutes.

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 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.

Having the option to ride apart from heavy traffic encourages more people to try out biking as a form of transportation.

The visiting planners and city officials – from Columbus, Ohio, and Pittsburgh – inspected America’s “first bike freeway,” Cedar Lake Trail, which runs along an uninterrupted rail corridor from the western suburbs through downtown Minneapolis to the Mississippi River. They also rode the Midtown Greenway, another converted rail line, which cuts through the city’s south side and carries as many as 3,500 bicyclists a day.

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.

Minneapolis also launched the first large-scale bikesharing system in U.S. – called Nice Ride – and boasts arguably the nation’s finest network of off-street bicycle trails.

Minneapolis bikers face the added challenge of cold, snowy winters.

“We’re colder than Montreal or Moscow,” Steve Clark, program manager of Bike Walk Twin Cities, told the visitors, “but that doesn’t stop people from riding their bikes in even the coldest, snowiest, darkest conditions.”

Clark’s group found that one in three summertime bike commuters will also ride regularly on warmer, sunny winter days; 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 as they do the streets. Studded snow tires and breakthroughs in cold-weather clothing make year-round biking easier than it looks, Clark said. 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.”

Making biking safer and more accessible

Minneapolis is committed to creating separate rights-of-way for bikes (i.e. keeping them a safe distance from cars) wherever feasible. 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. Nationally, only a quarter of riders are women; in Minneapolis, 37 percent are.

Since the 1970s, Dutch city 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.

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.

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?

But when the lime-green bikes were put away for the winter in November 2010, those questions had all been answered. Only one bike was stolen, only one accident reported, no major injuries suffered, and less than $5,000 in damage from vandalism, far lower than the organization’s projections.

More than 100,000 rides were taken from June to November last year, and Nice Ride operated in the black. This year the system added 500 more bikes and 51 more stations, expanding outward from the center of Minneapolis and moving into St. Paul. From April to September, Nice Ride had logged 172,000 rides.

Amy Duncan had not been on a bike since the 1970s but joined Nice Ride to do errands downtown. “I learned to ride a bike again, and 100 percent of my success belongs to Ride,” she said.

The bikes themselves feature adjustable seats, lights, and a rack for carrying a briefcase or shopping bag. The system is particularly popular with out-of-town tourists, downtown office workers, university students, and residents of apartment buildings and condos.

Many local users may actually own bikes, but find Nice Ride easy to use in certain circumstances, such as when they take transit downtown or to the university. Every Nice Ride bike you see likely represents one less car on the road.

Learning from Minneapolis

Even people who haven’t ridden a bike in years cheered when Minneapolis was named America’s  No. 1 biking city – biking has now become part of our positive self-image.

It’s a model other cities are excited to emulate – starting with Pittsburgh and Columbus, whose leaders and planners were inspired by their tour of Minneapolis’ biking innovations.

“You see right away how bikes are accepted as a mode of transportation,” said Alan McKnight, the director of recreation and parks for Columbus, Ohio, as the tour came to a close. Yarone Zober, chief of staff to the mayor of Pittsburgh, was excited to find that “the bike facilities here are not all big, expensive infrastructure.”

“Places famous for biking, like Copenhagen and even Portland, feel very far away,” remarked Jeff Stephens, director of the Columbus advocacy organization Consider Biking, who came to Minneapolis looking for ideas he could apply back home. “It was exciting to see what they’ve accomplished in Minneapolis, which is a city that seems a lot like Columbus.

“Our mayor has said that he wants Columbus to become a ‘bike town’,” Stephens added, “and seeing what’s been done here gives us a clearer sense of what that means.”

• Jay Walljasper is author of the forthcoming book All That We Share, is a contributing editor to National Geographic Traveler, editor of OnTheCommons.org, a senior fellow of the Project for Public Spaces, and a contributor to Shareable.net, where this article originally appeared.

This article appeared online at yesmagazine.org, the website of Yes! Magazine.

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