What’s Different About Minneapolis

I wish I could say that my first cycling adventure in Minneapolis was one of those picture postcard Chamber of Commerce late summer weather days they are often blessed with up there,  but it wasn’t.  It was gray and rainy and blustery and kind of cold.  Cold’s okay.  They do cold here.  The gray and rain, not so much.  I didn’t see even a sliver of blue sky all day long.  Truth be told, it was kind of miserable weather-wise.

But somewhere along in my three hour, forty-plus mile journey around the City of Lakes, I found myself thinking that this was still a lot of fun in spite of the weather.  I was smiling because it was just so doggone easy to cycle here.  OK, maybe it wasn’t as easy as Missoula or Jackson Hole, but those are places of a different scale.  For a major city, this was a breeze.  I felt safe on the bike whether on trails or city streets (and I rode my share of both) in a way I almost never do.  I didn’t feel like I constantly needed to be on edge and looking at my rear view mirror.

Let me give you an example.  I  was on the Heritage Trail downtown and wanted to cross the Mississippi River.  I missed the Central Avenue bridge.  No big deal…all of the bridges here are designed to accommodate cyclists.  I could continue on and cross a few blocks  up on Hennepin, but first I needed to get across West River Parkway.  I pulled up to the crossing and traffic stopped for me, even though they were no signs directing them to.  Those of us who cycle a lot know that this doesn’t happen very often. Here it happened all day long.

I came across a lot of these scattered around town.

Everywhere I went, it seemed, motorists were not only aware of those of us on two wheels but also willing to share their space with us.  How utterly refreshing.  Part of it is the law but a bigger part of it is cultural.  People respect others here in a way they just don’t seem to elsewhere.  I think it’s in their DNA.

On the infrastructure front, Minneapolis is a cut above most other big cities I’ve cycled in.  There’s old recreation-focused infrastructure like the Grand Rounds and Stone Arch Bridge and then there’s the new stuff like the Martin Olaf Sabo bridge.  Bike lanes are everywhere.  So are bike boulevards.  Few are protected but they don’t really need to be.   It’s very easy to cycle on the street here in a way that it just isn’t most other places.

Heading into downtown on the Stone Arch Bridge. Note the separate lanes for cyclists and pedestrians.
Martin Olaf Sabo bridge over Hiawatha. Even here they keep cyclists and pedestrians separate.
High traffic areas are typically one way with posted speed limits. The pedestrian trail is to the right.
For me, the true measure of a bicycle friendly city is how it feels to ride on the streets. In Minneapolis, it generally feels good.
On the Grand Rounds along the Mississippi River.  
The Cedar Lake Trail actually burrows under Target Field, home of the Minnesota Twins. Note the lights.
Bike share is city wide here as opposed to just downtown like so many other places.

Then there’s the Midtown Greenway.   Holy moly.   If you haven’t heard of the Midtown Greenway, let me try to describe it for you.  Think of a freeway.  That’s  really what this is…a crosstown bicycle and pedestrian freeway that was placed in a trench that used to hold an abandoned rail line.  Because it’s below grade,there are exit ramps up to the streets that pass overhead just like any other freeway.  Cyclists zip along pretty much unimpeded.  It’s possible to cover the five miles or so from Bde Maka Ska (Lake Calhoun) to the Mississippi River in less than 15 minutes without breaking a sweat.  This is the polar opposite of, say, the Indianapolis Cultural Trail where you’re forced to stop every block and wait for traffic signals to change.  If this was that, it would easily take an hour to get to Uptown from the river.

It gets better.   On the rare occasion where the Midtown Greenway does intersect with a cross street, cyclists are often given priority.  Cars crossing the trail are required to stop. They get the stop signs.  We get clear passage.   This is the exact opposite of how they do it just about everywhere else, and it changes everything.  It’s worth a trip to Minneapolis to ride the Greenway if you do absolutely nothing else.  It will blow your mind.

Along the Midtown Greenway east of Interstate 35W in the Phillips neighborhood.
At some road crossings on the Midtown Greenway bicycles have priority over motorists.  The truck to the left has a stop sign.  I don’t.   This is the first time I’ve ever seen this treatment and it just makes so much sense.

With the possible exception of Portland, Minneapolis is fundamentally different than every other city I’ve cycled in.  Most  just pretend.  They see bicycle friendly as something that is trendy.  They’re not really committed to it.  They hope it works to attract Millennials and some transit oriented development but they’re skeptical.  Here it’s so much deeper than that.  It’s more like Amsterdam and Copenhagen, in a sense.  It’s about changing the city dramatically instead of incrementally.  They are true believers.

It’s obvious in the smaller things they do here that I’ve never seen elsewhere.  There were the color coded street signs that made it easy to identify the best streets for cycling at a glance.  They closed other streets to motor vehicles  but kept them open for people on bikes.  All those trails I mentioned earlier?   In addition to separate spaces for cyclists and pedestrians, most are lighted and they plow them when the snow flies.

Road closed for them. Road open for us. 🙂
This sort of thing is brilliant and invaluable.

Taken together, all of this suggests a mindset that says “let’s think this through” instead of just pouring green paint and hoping it all works out.  In terms of making cycling easy, safe and fun, it makes all the difference in the world.   Back when we lived here, I never cycled.  Some of this was already in place, but I just wasn’t interested.  I didn’t think this city was especially conducive to cycling, especially coming from Denver.  It was too cold and wet.  It was too Midwestern.

But I was wrong.  Minneapolis is head and shoulders above Denver and every other big city I’ve cycled in since.  I think it’s maybe even a little better than Portland, but maybe not.  It’s close.  As of now, Minneapolis remains the only American city ever to be listed by Copenhagenize.EU as one of the world’s best.  The reasons why are apparent once you get on a bike and ride here.  It’s this city’s willingness to embrace and figure out the details that planners elsewhere just don’t bother with.

Rotary Presentation

I was invited to speak to the Rotary Club in my adopted hometown of Jefferson Iowa yesterday. I gave a brief presentation on why bicycle friendliness is so important to the overall health (both physical and economic) and vitality of small towns like ours.  The purpose of this post is to share the slide deck as well as my thoughts about the presentation.  Feel free to use the slides and images.  If you do, attribution is greatly appreciated.

As I’ve talked to people about cycling over the years, I’ve come to realize that in the minds of many this is an “all or nothing” proposition.  To choose a bicycle is to reject the automobile and everything that goes along with it.  I  think that’s part of the reason so many folks stubbornly resist cycling even when it makes more sense than driving.   It doesn’t have to be that way.

So my presentation stressed that pro- cycling is not anti-car.   Nobody has to give up their cars.  You can get all the societal benefits of being bike friendly…things like civic vitality, a higher quality of life, economic prosperity…even if you never get on a bike.   All you have to do is be willing to share your space with people who do.

I talked about the correlation between bicycle friendliness and the world’s best places.  I provided examples from Pittsburgh (large), Boise (medium) and Park City (small) that illustrated shared spaces.  There wasn’t a single slide of a bicycle-only place.

Pittsburgh has done better than any other Rust Belt city in terms of reinventing itself. Shared spaces are a big part of that success.

 

Boise’s North End is one of America’s best neighborhoods.

 

Park City Utah. Sandals, latte, a bicycle helmet and not a care in the world, even though cars are everywhere.

Even though I was hesitant to do so, I talked about our stubbornly high traffic mortality rate and our implicit willingness to accept carnage as unavoidable.  I compared us to the Dutch and explained how they made changes that saved lives.  I showed a picture of Dutch children riding without helmets to challenge the irrational assumption that cycling is somehow more dangerous than driving.

Don’t tell the Dutch there’s nothing we can do.

 

Amsterdam. Helmets optional.

Finally, I explained that the best way to make a place bike friendly is to just get on your bike and go.  The more cyclists on the street, the more naturally bike friendly the community will be.  I understand that people who haven’t been on a bike in awhile may be concerned about safety, so I pitched the crowd on the League of American Bicyclist’s Smart Cycling course that is taught by League certified instructors like me.

I think it went really well.  Will anything come of it?  I don’t know.  Jefferson is already pretty bike friendly but my wish is for it to become more so.  I think it’s critical to our future, as well as the future of just about every other small town and big city in America.

If you feel that your community would benefit, feel free to use the slide deck as the basis for your own presentation.  If you’re located between the Appalachians and the Rockies and would like me to present to someone in your community, please let me know.  I would be happy to do so.   We could do it online or I could come.  Either way is fine.