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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.

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Both the Cedar Lake Trail and the Midtown Greenway 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.

The crown jewel of the Midtown Greenway is the Martin Olav Sabo Bridge, a striking modernist structure that loops bike and foot traffic high above a formidable seven-lane highway. It's named for a former Minneapolis Congressman who became an early champion of bike riders in the 1990s.

Another sight along the Midtown Greenway is less dazzling but bodes well for biking's acceptance as a legitimate form of transportation. City engineers recently reversed a stop sign to give bikes priority over cars where the trail meets 5th Avenue South. The reason: more bike riders move through the intersection on a typical day than motorists.

Women, Children & 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.

Takin' it to the Streets

Murphy led the Pittsburgh and Columbus visitors around through the streets of Minneapolis on Nice Ride bikes, showcasing efforts to foster bike riding in a city that until recently accommodated automobiles in every possible way. About half of local bikeways are on the streets, with many more to come soon. "We're known for being pretty innovative about bikes," he explained. "We like to explore creative solutions. We're seeing what new ideas work."

The group pedaled downtown along Minneapolis's first cycle track -- First Avenue North -- a bike lane separated from motorized traffic by parked cars. The configuration provides a better experience for both people on bikes and in cars by creating a buffer between them. Murphy noted that the project was quite controversial when it opened last year, but now everyone is getting used to it.

On the next block, everyone experienced another innovation designed to make bicycling on major streets more appealing. 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 preferential priority over cars. The city's first bicycle boulevard, the River Lake greenway, opened to great fanfare in June.

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