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 there 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.

Summer’s Last Stand

The windows are open and a cool breeze wafts in as I write this morning.   Sunrise is still an hour or so away and so perhaps it will warm up later but maybe not so much that we’ll have to turn the air conditioner back on.  Fall is coming.   It won’t be long now.

It has been a summer of endless blooms along the Raccoon River Valley Trail.
Roundup time.

It has been an amazing summer.  I’ve ridden more miles than ever before and I’ve seen the most incredible things.  On the wildlife front, I’ve ridden with the bulls.  Okay, technically they were cows but you get the idea.  Most people never get to see cattle run.  It’s quite a sight…all that weight charging forward.  I’ve also seen copious deer, eagles, beaver, one curious gray fox and even a bobcat.

I’ve added Montana, Oregon and Washington to the list of states I’ve now cycled in.   I’d been to all of these places before, but seeing them on a bike is different and better and I have a new appreciation of just how special they all are.   Portland was everything I heard it was.  Billings and Missoula are completely different, but both delighted me in ways I didn’t expect.   If you ever find yourself heading to Billings and are looking for suggestions, let me know and I’ll share with you where to stay and where to eat.  It has blossomed from the gritty little oil town I remember into a nice smaller city.

Downtown Billings. I like it here.
I liked Missoula even more.
I crossed both the Mississippi and Columbia by bike for the first time this summer.

Closer to home, I crossed the Mississippi River in Davenport and rode the Hennepin Canal towpath in Illinois as well as the Three Rivers Trail in Hampton Iowa.   We also visited Cedar Falls for the first time.  If I was young and just starting out and looking for an affordable Midwestern “mountain” town, I  might consider moving there.  It reminds me of Boulder way back when.

The passing of summer doesn’t mean that cycling season is over.  Minnesota beckons.  The Root River Trail is one of America’s best and this month they’re having a Taste of the Trail.  That’s a good excuse to head north before the snow flies.

I’m also heading to Nebraska in a few weeks to ride the Omaha Jackrabbit, a 125 mile gravel grinder.   Like Seattle to Portland earlier this year, I have absolutely no idea what this entails.  It’ll be fun to find out.

The Loess Hills…another one of my “happy places.”

I plan to ride through the winter again this year.  I probably won’t go as many miles as last year, especially on those below zero days, but you never know.  I do plan to get out in it regardless.   I’ve even found myself looking wistfully at my Surly Wednesday fat bike these last few weeks.

That’s a good thing.

Ride on.