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City finds pathways to cycling: Minneapolis warming up to winter riding

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Think it's futile to build up a massive cycling network because of frosty winter temperatures?

One of Winnipeg's U.S. neighbours has proven a bit of snow and sub-zero winds don't mean a city can't be a top cycling spot.

Minneapolis is at the forefront of urban cycling and is among a handful of North American cities considered leaders in building a network of paths that encourage recreational and commuter travel. About 3.5 per cent of Minneapolis residents bike to work, and the city is on track to increase that to seven per cent in the next two years.

The midwestern city now has twice as many bikeways as it did just a few years ago, with a total of 257 kilometres of pathways -- a distance that would stretch from Winnipeg to Riding Mountain National Park.

Shaun Murphy, the city's bicycle and pedestrian co-ordinator, attributes the success to a combination of factors: an influx of federal grants, active citizen advocates, and local politicians and government workers who want to take cues from European cities with a culture that encourages cycling as a mode of transportation.

Murphy said the reason countries such as the Netherlands have such a large number of cyclists is because cities have made it a safe and convenient way to get around. They have blue bike lanes so motorists can easily see cyclists, bike lights to direct them, separate lanes, and great signage to help cyclists get from point A to point B.

If streets aren't safe or if cycling is a hassle, Murphy said, the odds are residents aren't interested.

"If you haven't engineered your streets right, people aren't going to do it," he said.

A century ago, cycling was popular along Minneapolis' many parks, which loop around the city. Murphy said the paths were later torn out to make room for vehicles, then reinstalled in the park system in the 1960s. The city started to install on-street bike lanes in the 1970s and plan a commuter network between the university and downtown.

The movement led to a push to convert abandoned railway lines into paths to connect across the city. The result was the Midtown Greenway, a nine-kilometre path that acts as a freeway for pedestrians and bikes, since it is completely separate from vehicle traffic.

Murphy said the greenway is now used by about 4,000 cyclists daily, and it fully connects with other cycling paths.

Murphy is the city's point man for tracking road projects through the bureaucracy and spotting opportunities for increasing cycling lanes, including during construction projects. If he catches wind of a road project, lanes can be painted for "virtually no cost," since the painting trucks have to go out and paint new road lines anyway.

The city is also taking pointers from European cities, which have figured out how to get motorists and cyclists to share the road. Murphy said the city has started to experiment with taking out lanes for cars to give cyclists more room. Signs then direct cars to share the road with cyclists.

While about half of all city cyclists do not ride their bikes during winter months, Murphy said cyclists have told him they're starting to see more people braving the cold. Minneapolis works to have all bicycle trails plowed within 24 hours of a snowfall, he said.

"We're seeing that change in our numbers and hearing anecdotal stories from people who say, 'Oh, maybe I should ride my bike. It's not that far,' " he said. "It's definitely making an impact."


Successful cycling cities

Places in North America where policies have led to a big jump in urban cycling:


What they've got: The most bike parking per capita in North America and a cost-sharing fund to encourage businesses to erect bike racks. An extensive network of off-street paths act as a backbone for the city's cycling network.

What helped boost ridership: $25 million in federal funds helped Minneapolis build upon its existing cycling facilities.


What they've got: Access to bike facilities within three to six blocks anywhere in the city, an extensive network of bike boulevards and priority lanes for cyclists

What helped boost ridership: Regulations stipulate new or reconstructed roads must include bike facilities.

San Francisco

What they've got: More bike stations than anywhere else in North America, robust bike training and education programs, and an extensive road-based bike network.

What helped boost ridership: Strong cycling advocacy. San Fran was the birthplace of Critical Mass rides.


What they've got: North America's largest network of cycle tracks and one of the most extensive off-street path networks.

What helped boost ridership: Montreal's BIXI bike-sharing system is the largest of its kind on the continent, with more than 5,000 bikes that people can rent at depots.


What they've got: The most extensive bike boulevard network in North America, and the city is considered a leader in traffic-calming initiatives to reduce conflict between motorists and cyclists at intersections.

What helped boost ridership: The city has extensive bike-training programs for all ages.

-- source: Bicycling Renaissance in North America: John Pucher, Rutgers University

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition September 10, 2012 B1

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