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.
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.
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.
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.
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.