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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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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. Nice Ride, with support from the McKnight Foundation, has extended service to lower-income areas of both Minneapolis and St. Paul this summer. Bill Dosset says the initiative aims to overcome cultural attitudes in some communities that bikes are only for kids or people who can't afford any other way to get around.

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.

A Proud Tradition of Civic Involvement

Dorian Grilley, Executive Director of the Bicycle Alliance of Minnesota, credited a "150-year tradition of civic involvement" as a major reason for Minneapolis's emergence as a bike capital. In the late 19th Century, city fathers wisely preserved land along lakes, creeks and the Mississippi for the public use. These became popular places to bike in the 1890s and again, eighty years later, when the second bike boom hit town. The Cedar Lake Trail and Midtown Greenway were initiated by grassroots groups, which convinced political leaders to take the bold step of developing abandoned rail lines as bike trails rather than as condos or industrial zones. That marked a major step for transforming transportation in the community.

Minneapolis Was Not Always a Good Place to Bike. What Changed?

It just so happens that I live and bike in Minneapolis, although I was on the tour in my capacity as a writer and editor for Bikes Belong not as a local expert. But I offered some background to out-of-town visitors on the first day of the tour.

I told them that local bicyclists would have howled at the idea of Minneapolis being named America's best city 30 years ago. 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 at that time. What changed in Minneapolis was that local bike riders patiently lobbied for better conditions, slowly winning over elected officials and city staff. Also, as the number of bike riders steadily rose, motorists became accustomed to sharing the streets with us.

Other factors that boosted Minneapolis as a bike town include:

  • A large number of students at the University of Minnesota and smaller local colleges.
  • Minneapolis was originally laid out for streetcars -- like most cities outside the Sun Belt -- which is a scale that works very well for bike riders.
  • The high number of recreational bike riders here eventually translates into bike commuters. Fifty one percent of all Minnesotans rode a bike last year, and the numbers for the Twin Cities are much higher than that. Even folks who will never ride their bikes anywhere except around a lake can still identify with a person on two wheels, which reminds them to drive more respectfully.
  • As a Mid-American city far from the glamour capitals of the coasts, biking has become part of our positive self-image. Even people who haven't rode a bike in years cheered when Minneapolis was named America's #1 biking city. It's become part of our "brand".

 

Jay Walljasper is editor of OnTheCommons.org, a news and culture website devoted to recognizing the importance of the commons -- those things that belong to all of us -- in modern life.

 
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