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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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How Bike Projects Save Money & Make Life Better for Everyone

Mayor R.T. 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. "It really is the idea that bikes belong."

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.

He 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.

Road diets have become common throughout the Twin Cities. "The biggest obstacle to Complete Streets right now are traffic engineers who don't want to reduce the width of traffic lanes, but we are beginning to wear them down," Elkins laughed. "There's nothing in the literature that suggests wider lanes are safer; indeed, if there's any evidence, it's that narrow streets are safer."

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." Joan Pasiuk, Program Director for Bike Walk Twin Cities, distributed materials documenting how new bike facilities get bicyclist off the sidewalks, a major breakthrough for pedestrians' safety and peace of mind.

Have a Nice Ride

The nation's first major bikesharing program hit the streets in Minneapolis in June 2010, 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 signature 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 vandalism, which was 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. (Capital costs were covered by a combination of funding from the Non-Motorized Pilot Program and BlueCross/BlueShield, with smaller grants from beneficiaries like the Minneapolis Convention Center.)

This year the system added 500 more bikes and 51 more stations this summer, expanding outward from the center of Minneapolis and moving into St. Paul. From April to late-September, Nice Ride had logged 172,000 rides, with more than a month to go.

 
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