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What’s Next for Minneapolis Biking

August 01, 2013 By Conrad deFiebre, Transportation Fellow

USA TODAY recently listed the best urban bicycle paths in the United States, and Minneapolis' Midtown Greenway came in No. 1.

The national newspaper praised the 5½-mile "bicycle highway through the center of town" for its year-round operation ("That's right: It's plowed in winter"), night lighting, emergency call boxes and police bike patrols. It beat out cycle tracks in cities better known for non-motorized transportation such as Boulder, Seattle and Portland, Ore.

The article also makes a strong case for this kind of separate infrastructure: "While bike lanes [usually painted on regular streets] are nice ... nothing quite puts cycling on a par with driving like a dedicated bike path." The best ones, the paper added, "stand out for truly elevating the quality of life" and they "ought to be celebrated and emulated, and even built upon and improved."

As the Newspaper from Nowhere, so dubbed by my old Minneapolis Tribune boss, Chuck Bailey, USA TODAY seldom strays far from mainstream American thought about anything. Its endorsement of cycle tracks signals a big change in national attitudes about the proper place of bicycling in transportation.

Even some right-wingers are finding value in this. Restless Urbanist blogger and self-described conservative Edward W. Erfurt IV, in a defense of bike sharing programs (another early-adoption feather in Minneapolis' cap), wrote: "In urban areas, the bicycle is more mobile, and actually faster then driving. I have found that any trip that is under 5 miles, I can get there faster by bike then by car. This saves time, which is increased efficiency, bikes cost less to operate than cars, which saves money, and are peopled-powered, which has endless health benefits."

Erfurt hails from my winter hometown of Stuart, Fla., which has little bicycling culture or infrastructure and sparse, but free, transit service designed largely for the area's many retirees. It's the small seat of mostly rural Martin County, where driving rules and traffic can be god-awful on six-lane U.S. 1 (AKA Useless 1).

Luckily, I spend much more time in Minneapolis, which isn't resting on its bicycling laurels and continues to be a model -- in many respects except probably rail transit -- for urban mobility in an emerging post-autocentric age. Two new bicycle boulevards, city streets revamped for two-wheel preference over slowed-down motor vehicles, are set to open in the fall. The city also launched a bicycle safety campaign last spring that pins responsibility on both bikers and motorists.

The new bikeways will be in northeast Minneapolis and the South Side. The construction cost for signage, pavement markings, landscaping, medians, curb extensions, speed bumps and small traffic circles along a combined 9 miles of bikeways comes in under $1 million (a great bargain compared with, say, up to $1.82 billion for 16 miles of Southwest LRT), covered by federal funding through Bike Walk Twin Cities.

"Bicycling is prioritized on these streets," Shaun Murphy, bicycle and pedestrian coordinator for Minneapolis, told Karen Boros in MinnPost. "Motorists are still welcome, but the traffic calming is in place to keep motorists going slow."

These bikeways are routed mostly along Tyler, Polk and Fillmore Streets Northeast and 17th Avenue South, strictly local residential stretches where cars should go slowly anyway. If drivers feel constrained, they can always jog a block over or to a nearby arterial for a faster trip. Construction is expected to begin in September and be completed by late October.

Meanwhile, Hennepin County, which owns and maintains dozens of arterial routes in Minneapolis, is studying cycling improvements along two of them, Washington and Minnehaha Avenues South. According to Steve Brandt in the Star Tribune, Washington is likely to get physically separated cycle tracks as part of an $8.9 million reconstruction of just six blocks (about a half-mile, to compare with the city bike boulevards' costs) scheduled for next year. The cycling infrastructure would represent "an insignificant portion" of that cost, county design engineer Jennifer Lowry told Brandt.

There's more controversy surrounding the Minnehaha Av. project, a $12.3 million reconstruction planned for 2015-16. Bicycling advocates are pushing for physically separated paths to replace the avenue's existing painted bike lanes, but county officials voice concerns that the diagonal boulevard's acute-angle intersections would be more dangerous for riders on cycle tracks.

Minneapolis City Council Member Cam Gordon disagrees. "Washington, D.C., has put cycle tracks on Pennsylvania Avenue and 15th Street, both of which have angled intersections," he told local blogger Rebekah Peterson. "... It is absolutely possible to build a safe, high-quality bicycle track on Minnehaha Avenue, using national best practices."

Maybe so. Cycle tracks certainly embolden more people, especially women, to try bicycling for everyday transportation. But if they result in more collisions, where bicyclists invariably lose to cars, it would have the opposite effect.

It's a tough call, and I'll leave it to the traffic experts. Either way, though, let's celebrate the fact that in Minnesota's biggest city, and plenty of other places around here, too, it's become business as usual to accommodate bicyclists on public right-of-way.

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