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A Surprising Town Is Now America's Top Bike City

Despite its cold weather and spread-out development patterns, here's how a Midwestern city beat Portland, San Francisco and Boulder for the title of #1 Bike City.

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 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 (along with Marin County, California; Columbia, Missouri; and Sheboygan County, Wisconsin) for the federal Non-Motorized Transportation 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.

"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 Is What a Bike Town Looks Like

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.

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.

"Places famous for biking like Copenhagen and even Portland feel very far away," remarked Jeff Stephens, Executive 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."

A World-Class Network of Bike Trails Separated from Traffic

Over three days in mid-July, the visiting group of city officials, planners and citizen advocates pedaled all over Minneapolis in conditions more typical of Copenhagen or Portland -- a constant threat of rain -- than Minnesota's usual warm, sunny summers.

They inspected America's "first bike freeway," Cedar Lake Trail running 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 cutting through the city's south side that carries as many 3,500 bicyclists a day.

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