Archive Hosted by the AFL-CIO

Policy Planning that Supports a Car-less Commute

April 21, 2011 By Kayla Nussbaum, Guest Commentary

This is the third of an eight-part series on environmental policy in conjunction with Macalester College's Environmental Studies Department.

When I was fifteen, a Fed Ex truck hit me. I was riding my bicycle home from work, enjoying the summer air and my afternoon freedom when the truck rolled a stop sign and launched me from my quiet commute. My knee swelled to the size of a softball, but I sustained no long-term injuries, and neither did my bicycle.

The Fed-Ex driver’s disarming composure rankled me most. “I didn’t see you,” he said, alarmingly unhurried. “Sorry.”

I dragged my bike off the road, called my mom, iced my knee and vowed never to send anything via Fed Ex. A week later, I started biking to work again.

Unfortunately, not everyone has the capacity to rebound from a biking accident in the span of seven days. Crashes with motorists often result in serious injuries and sometimes death.

Despite the inherent risks of cycling, more and more people in the Twin Cities are riding bikes. Recently, a national biking magazine rated Minneapolis America’s best bike city. Even with short days, frigid temperatures and seemingly endless snow, the Twin Cities are known for their year-round biking culture.

Minneapolis has made fantastic strides in the last 15 years to win this title and become a safer bike city in the process. While the number of cyclists commuting in the City of Lakes has reached more than 8,000, accidents as a percentage of bikers is down to three percent from a 12 percent mid-1990’s high. Still the 200 to 300 motorist/bicycle crashes annually is too many.

Sadly, 2009 brought 10 fatal bike accidents statewide, slightly higher than the 8.6 decade average, according to the Minnesota Office of Traffic Safety's latest numbers.

While many Minnesota cities strive to innovate ways for bicyclists to exist safely within traffic, motorists also need to be held accountable for consistently safe driving.

In an effort to do this, legislation introduced in January, would increase the penalty for careless driving resulting in death. This provision takes away the reason of “not seeing” a cyclist or pedestrian, and labels “careless driving resulting in death” a gross misdemeanor.

This legislation would add to already aggressive safety and bike advocacy policy efforts at the local and state levels. Minneapolis now has 46 miles of streets with dedicated bicycle lanes, and the 2010 Bicycle Master Plan promises 45 miles more to be built by the end of 2011. Minneapolis and other cities are committed to extending roadways to bicyclists in the same way they were originally dedicated to cars.

In addition, Minneapolis is one of four metro areas (the others being Marin County, CA; Sheboygan, WI; and Columbia, MO) to receive a $25 million federal grant over the next 10 years to go toward bicycle advocacy and planning.

These steps toward more complete streets, a program that works to integrate alternative means of transportation onto our motor-centric roads, are amazing. And while my mother, understandably, still worries about my commute to work on bike among multi-ton vehicles, she knows I’m safer biking here than in most other places across the country.

All of the great policy planning and declining safety hazards are good news to a young bicyclist who just wants to get to work on time and in one piece. In order to ensure this continues, we need to make sure the law holds motorists accountable for sharing the road and that we’re building roads compatible for non-motorized vehicles.

As a motorist, bicyclist, pedestrian, or all three, you can ensure the further greening and increased safety of our streets by remembering bicycles are everywhere, and that person on a bike ahead of you is someone's kid just trying to get home from work.

Kayla Nussbaum is a Macalester College Student.

Thanks for participating! Commenting on this conversation is now closed.


  • Barbara J Ronningen says:

    April 26, 2011 at 1:39 pm

    Good points, but what is missing is the responsibility of bicyclists to ride within the law. Bicyclists routinely ride 3 abreast on the county road near my house. It’s narrow road with no shoulders. Single file would solve most of the problems in this area, but instead, fingers point at drivers.

  • Steve says:

    April 26, 2011 at 3:20 pm

    The adults bike riders are a problem. These adult riders do not obey traffic rules. Apparently a stop sign or stop lights are not intended for bicycles, nor waiting for your turn at an intersection, nor staying on the shoulder (they ride as close to the white line as possible even if there is paved wide shoulder). These people are fearless (common sense must be a recessive gene for bicyclers).  Kids on bikes are far better than the adults. The problem is not the cars on the road, it’s the adults riding bicycles. The police should enforce the traffic laws on adult bike riders.

  • Lois says:

    April 28, 2011 at 1:32 pm

    I agree that bicyclists should obey the laws, but a little understanding is in order:

    1) Traffic lights with sensors often do not detect bicyclists, who are thus stuck at red lights for unreasonably long times.  Thus it is reasonable for them to proceed through a red light after stopping and determining that it is safe to do so.

    2) Although it is usually best to ride as far to the right as possible, this is also where much road debris accumulates, especially during the winter.  This debris can puncture tires and is potentially dangerous, forcing bicyclists further left.  If is less dangerous to claim the traffic lane than to duck in and out of it to avoid dangerous conditions on the shoulder.

    3)  Under some other conditions, such as if the shoulder is narrow and there are high wind gusts which compromise stability, it is better to ride in the middle of the traffic lane, where motorists are forced to see you, than to risk an accidental swerve when a car is near.  I try to avoid heavily trafficed roads under these conditions, but sometimes inadvertently find myself in these conditions anyway.