September 23, 2017

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On a roll

Transforming Minneapolis into a bike-friendly city has been a bumpy but satisfying ride

MINNEAPOLIS, Minn. — Close to the midpoint of the Stone Arch Bridge, Robin Garwood crooks his arm to signal a stop and pulls his bike to a halt near the railing. From that vantage point, nearly eight metres above the Mississippi River, the larger of the Twin Cities seems to garland the water like an old necklace, burnished by glassy new construction.

It’s a hot Sunday afternoon, and the bridge is bustling. The span was once a railway for the Manitoba Line, which ferried grain from the Red River Valley to flour mills that lined the river’s south side. Today, the brick mill facades contain a museum and top-dollar loft condos; the bridge was repurposed in 1994 to carry only bicycles and people.

Twenty-two years after it opened, the Stone Arch Bridge is a jewel of the active transportation culture in Minneapolis. It links the city’s downtown with the tree-shaded old neighbourhoods on the other side of the river; with its pleasant view of the churning Saint Anthony Falls, it is a popular destination for weekend biking pleasure.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 3/9/2016 (385 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

MINNEAPOLIS, Minn. — Close to the midpoint of the Stone Arch Bridge, Robin Garwood crooks his arm to signal a stop and pulls his bike to a halt near the railing. From that vantage point, nearly eight metres above the Mississippi River, the larger of the Twin Cities seems to garland the water like an old necklace, burnished by glassy new construction.

It’s a hot Sunday afternoon, and the bridge is bustling. The span was once a railway for the Manitoba Line, which ferried grain from the Red River Valley to flour mills that lined the river’s south side. Today, the brick mill facades contain a museum and top-dollar loft condos; the bridge was repurposed in 1994 to carry only bicycles and people.

Twenty-two years after it opened, the Stone Arch Bridge is a jewel of the active transportation culture in Minneapolis. It links the city’s downtown with the tree-shaded old neighbourhoods on the other side of the river; with its pleasant view of the churning Saint Anthony Falls, it is a popular destination for weekend biking pleasure.

A view of the Stone Arch Bridge from atop the North Star Woolen Mill in Minneapolis.

DAVID JOLES/ STAR TRIBUNE

A view of the Stone Arch Bridge from atop the North Star Woolen Mill in Minneapolis.

As Garwood pulls over to chat, strings of cyclists roll by: families, couples, solo athletes in taut Spandex. As they pass, they perform the city’s new song, a gentle arrangement of bike bells and "on your left" sung in chorus. Garwood, an aide to city councillor Cam Gordon, has long raised hell in the city to make cycling better; this is the payoff.

It wasn’t quite like this in 2000, when he moved to the city from rural Minnesota. "I see a lot more people on bikes, and I see a lot more types of people on bikes," Garwood says. "It’s no longer just 25-year-old guys. It’s grandmothers, it’s little kids. There’s much more racial diversity, it’s not only white folks. It has really increased over that period of time."

By way of example, he points at people who periodically cruise by on identical lime-green bikes they’ve rented from the city’s six-year-old bike-share program, which goes by the Midwestern-friendly moniker of Nice Ride.

They aren’t the sexiest wheels. The Nice Rides, which can be borrowed from any of 190 automated stations, are built for durability and comfort, not speed. Still, the non-profit endeavour has been a hit since it was launched in 2010; it now boasts a fleet of more than 1,700 bikes, and in 2015 they took users on a record 483,233 rides.

For those who rent one, whether resident or tourist, there is a new world to explore in Minneapolis. Since 2000, the city has diligently connected a system of active transportation routes, sewing a network of bikeways over the city like lace. Today, it outranks even bohemian Portland, Ore., on Bike Score’s list of the pedal-friendliest hubs in the United States.

(Perhaps there is a good-natured rivalry blooming. In 2014, the editor of a Portland bike blog took issue with the comparison, and vented his displeasure in a critique entitled "Minneapolis may be a nice city for biking, but it is definitely no Portland.")

To demonstrate some of this growth, Garwood chooses a route that hugs the curve of the Mississippi River, then climbs up through downtown on bike-only paths. Finally, it plunges below Target Field, following a light rail line under the baseball stadium’s shoulder. The Minnesota Twins are playing, and the bikeway hums with the cheers of the crowd.

 cyclist used the two-way bike lane alongside Hennepin Ave. in Minneapolis.

JEFF WHEELER/ STAR TRIBUNE

cyclist used the two-way bike lane alongside Hennepin Ave. in Minneapolis.

If a cyclist continues south from that point, they can navigate a bike-friendly route until they reach the Midtown Greenway, a nine-kilometre bike highway that bisects the city’s south side. Like the bridge, the greenway was once a languishing rail trench; since it was completed in 2006, more than 1,200 new housing units have sprouted along its length.

Even Portlanders admit to envying that stretch. "There was a big moment, a big change when the entire greenway was completed," says Garwood, who commutes on it daily. "It was kind of a catalyst for more people getting on bikes. Since then we’ve done a lot to try to build out not only more miles of bike lanes, but more protected bike lanes, too."

To a Winnipegger, this all seems somewhat surprising. There is a kinship between Manitobans and Minnesotans, born of ice and of life marooned in what coastal dwellers consider flyover country. Our Januaries are colder, but the chilly fronts that storm over us continue their march south, blasting Minneapolis with the frigid breath of Winnipeg’s wintry mouth.

So at heart, we are connected. Yet when it comes to active transportation, Minneapolis seems to be light years ahead. Today, the city boasts 363 kilometres of bikeways, including 10 km of protected urban routes and a vast span of historic trails. (The basic numbers actually compare fairly well. Winnipeg has about 400 km of cycling infrastructure, according to city officials. However, Winnipeg’s land area is about three times that of Minneapolis proper.)

Last year alone, Minneapolis’ bikeway network grew by 20 km, and the city’s master plan aims to reach 640 km by 2020.

Those new efforts are coming, and quickly. In North Minneapolis, neighbourhood groups are working on a city-backed plan to convert almost six km of residential streets into a bike and pedestrian greenway. Downtown, a new US$3-million protected route cutting north down 3rd Avenue and terminating near the Stone Arch Bridge is set to be finished within a year.

To be clear, these projects do not always come about easily. The 3rd Avenue project disappointed many advocates, who had supported a proposed three-lane configuration with a bike path bordered by planters. Under pressure from businesses, city council scrapped that vision and narrowly voted in favour of a four-lane plan that uses plastic bollards.

Still, in the great transportation tug-of-war that is playing out in cities across North America, Minneapolis is one place where cycling is winning. About 4.5 per cent of Minneapolitans now bike as their main mode of transportation. That’s a far cry from the 30 per cent marks seen in Europe, but in the upper echelon for the United States and double the Winnipeg rate.

It may not even be due to a more amenable culture. Consider one oft-cited barrier in Winnipeg, which is the lack of widespread public support for cycling investments. In July, a Probe research poll found 39 per cent of Winnipeggers consider downtown bike lanes to be low- or no-priority for the city; fewer than one in five thought they were a major one.

Ethan Fawley, executive director of Minneapolis Bicycle Coalition.

LEILA NAVIDI / STAR TRIBUNE

Ethan Fawley, executive director of Minneapolis Bicycle Coalition.

The thing is, Minneapolis is little different. The city’s titular twin, St. Paul, has been slower to make similar investments; like Manitoba, the Midwest embraces car traffic and sprawl more readily than density and active transportation. Several advocates describe facing vocal, occasionally even openly hostile, critics.

"If you read the comments section in the newspaper on anything about bikes, it just brings the trolls out in droves still," says Steve Sanders, the cycling co-ordinator at the University of Minnesota. "That doesn’t change, I think."

What has helped Minneapolis is strength in numbers. Over the last two decades, cycling has united supporters from across sectors. The city’s health department is on board, and the citizen Minneapolis Bicycle Coalition; but so is health insurer Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Minnesota, which pumped funds into the North Minneapolis Greenway planning.

These relationships are the mark of a maturing cycling advocacy, if not a universal one. "In the last 10 years, we’ve passed a tipping point where the city feels like it has strong support for making investments," says Ethan Fawley, executive director of the Minneapolis Bicycle Coalition. "In terms of societal change more broadly, I think we’re still working towards that.

It helps to look back on how far they’ve come. Two years ago, Garwood drove up to Winnipeg for the second annual Winter Cycling Congress, which launched in Finland in 2013. He brought his bike with him, winter-ready with studded tires, and thrilled to ride the frozen Assiniboine River. That was an "incredible experience," he says, as comfy as pavement.

Even in the deep-freeze of February, the spirit of Winnipeg’s cycling community impressed him. "I had a strong, very immediate recognition reaction," he says. "It felt just exactly like where Minneapolis was in 2001-02. It felt like our old Critical Mass rides, where it was very much about like, ‘We’re here! Don’t ignore us!’ We had that phase here."

That sense peaked one night, when about 40 attendees went for a ride around Winnipeg’s downtown. A portable stereo pumped beats as they rolled through the streets; Garwood felt a twinge of nostalgia. "Finally the cops showed up and made us shut the music off," he says. "It felt very much like, ‘In your face!’ I was like, ‘Man, I’m a kid again. This is great.’"

But when Garwood tried to take a closer look at Winnipeg’s actual cycling infrastructure, he saw little.

A bicyclist cruises along Midtown Greenway, beneath the Dupont Avenue bridge, near dawn as the sun paints the nearby bridges and vegetation on a warm summer night.

DAVID JOLES / STAR TRIBUNE

A bicyclist cruises along Midtown Greenway, beneath the Dupont Avenue bridge, near dawn as the sun paints the nearby bridges and vegetation on a warm summer night.

"There were some very nice facilities that we were talking about, but they were gone," he says. "The snow fell, and they didn’t exist anymore. I was a bit flabbergasted by how little snow clearance was done, just generally. It seemed like a lot of the residential streets just weren’t cleared at all, and the sidewalks didn’t seem to be cleared at all."

That observation could point to a big part of what is working in Minneapolis: it’s not necessarily weather that dents cycling rates in cold climates. It’s the safety of routes, and the maintenance. Winter cycling in Minneapolis is growing at a faster rate than warm-weather riding; advocates think protected lanes, diligently maintained, hold the key as to why.

"That’s a thing that cities have to take seriously," Garwood says. "It becomes this catch-22, this self-reinforcing loop where they say, ‘Nobody bikes in the wintertime anyway. We’ll just go ahead and not maintain this.’ But nobody bikes in the wintertime because the facility isn’t maintained."

In February, two years after Garwood’s visit to Winnipeg, the Winter Cycling Congress landed in Minneapolis. At that gathering, Mike Kennedy stood up to share what he’s learned. As the city’s director of transportation maintenance, Kennedy oversees a lofty goal: to give bike paths the same service level as vehicular roads.

So far, it’s working. On the first day of the congress, during the last gasp of a notably forgiving winter, a snowstorm blanketed the city. The next day, Kennedy says with pride, the bike trails were clear. "Our people just rose up and made it happen," he says. "It did show that we’re not too far off on that standard. It gave our folks an opportunity to shine."

Mike Kennedy is Director of Transportation, Maintenance and Repair for the City of Minneapolis.

RICHARD SENNOTT / STAR TRIBUNE

Mike Kennedy is Director of Transportation, Maintenance and Repair for the City of Minneapolis.

Together with Minneapolis’s bicycle and pedestrian co-ordinator Matthew Dyrdahl, Kennedy was tapped to deliver a presentation entitled A Year In The Life of a Protected Bike Lane. It traced the growth of an Oak Street route, from inception through to the banalities of maintenance; Kennedy has since been invited to share it at other conventions.

Curiously, Kennedy never imagined he’d become an in-demand spokesman for cycling’s growth. For most of his two decades in public works, he nurtured a frustration with cycling infrastructure. It’s not uncommon in his field: too often, the responsibility for decisions brokered between politicians and the public is shouldered by already-burdened city departments.

"A lot of my peers are facing the same thing across the country, and in Canada as well," Kennedy says, chatting in his bright corner office on a Monday afternoon. "Everybody’s going, ‘We hate these bicycle lanes, we hate them, you can’t maintain them, they’re a pain in the butt. We hate bicyclers.’ And we were all sort of in that same mindset."

About five years ago, Kennedy’s perspective started to shift. There was no big cathartic moment, he says, just a series of small changes. Policy-makers in Minneapolis began being more diligent about including ongoing maintenance costs into capital spending plans; as they did, Kennedy started to see the growth of bikeways as an opportunity.

"Our policy-makers began to understand that if you build it, you have to maintain it," he says. "It won’t be successful if you don’t... there was a learning curve for them as well. A lot of them would ask us, ‘Why is it such a big deal? Why, by putting a protected bike lane, does it cost so much more?’ Well, it takes extra trips. It takes different equipment and personnel."

A blustery day on the Midtown Greenway Bridge over Hiawatha Ave. in Minneapolis.

JEFF WHEELER / STAR TRIBUNE

A blustery day on the Midtown Greenway Bridge over Hiawatha Ave. in Minneapolis.

The lesson, perhaps, is that it takes a village to get bike lanes up and keep them running. But where does the original inspiration come from? In Minneapolis, many of that village’s roads lead back to the University of Minnesota.

Today, the campus is the hive of bike activity in Minneapolis, with the highest volume of cyclists of anywhere in the city. Many of today’s advocates found their spark there; coalition director Fawley had his cycling epiphany when he was a U of M student and his car broke down. "That was one of the best things that ever happened to me," he says.

It wasn’t always like that. In the 1980s, bike infrastructure at the university was almost non-existent. Sometimes, students hung bikes from trees like Christmas lights, for want of somewhere to park them. Eventually, the city put a bike lane across the Washington Street bridge connecting to the campus; that was nearly the sum of early improvements.

In 1995, university vice-president Paul Tschida — an active cyclist — decided to try something different. He tapped Steve Sanders, then a U of M project manager, to lead a new cycling effort. "I was already here, so they were like, ‘Hey, we’ll get that guy... he rides his bike to work in blizzards, he’ll do it,’" Sanders says with a laugh.

Under Sanders’ guidance, U of M now pumps out not just academic grads but confident cyclists. Today, more than 7,000 people bike the Washington Bridge to the campus and there are 20 Nice Ride stations on its grounds. In 2011, the university opened a bike centre that offers a repair shop, a digital route-planning kiosk and classes on bike safety.

"We’re in the excuse-reduction business," Sanders says. "There’s always that long list of excuses that people have for not riding their bike... our job is to kind of chip away at that list, until we get down to the terrain. I can’t help you if it’s too hilly, you’ll have to move somewhere... but we really try to get the point across that it doesn’t require superhuman effort."

The Midtown Greenway in a former railroad trench sparked $200 million in private development in just a few years.

STAR TRIBUNE

The Midtown Greenway in a former railroad trench sparked $200 million in private development in just a few years.

Now, it’s getting innovative. A federal grant in 2009 helped fund the university’s Zap! incentive program, which rewards students and staff who cycle to campus with gift cards or discounted health premiums. Participants attach a radio-frequency tag to their bikes that can be automatically detected by any of the 20 RFID sensors dotted around the campus.

When the program debuted in 2013, Sanders thought 500 participants would be a roaring success. But 1,700 people signed up that year, and since then it has grown annually by about 50 per cent. Now, U of M researchers are cobbling together funding to study how an incentive-based program affects bike use by staff and students.

Though the university maintains its own infrastructure independently of the city, make no mistake: the enthusiasm has travelled outside the campus borders. "We’ve done stuff here first, that the city has followed up on," Sanders says. "We had the first good example of a protected bike lane in the city... people would come from all over the city and look at it."

Together, these efforts tell a story about the rise of cycling in Minneapolis, and that story has become a sensation. Media from across the United States and the world have visited the city, hoping to gain an understanding of the successful revolution to take home with them.

One part of the story is often missed. Though Minneapolis doesn’t have the same reputation for inequality as Chicago or southern American cities, it is one of the United States’ most segregated places. Once a beacon of egalitarian policy, the city is now marred by chasmic employment and income gaps between white and non-white residents.

Meanwhile, cycling advocacy in Minneapolis is thronged by middle class and white activists, with little experience of the barriers to cycling posed by poverty or racial discrimination. If nothing else, advocates are keenly aware of the problem; in conversation, several Minneapolitan cyclists raise the topic without prompting.

In July, the Minneapolis Bicycling Coalition adopted a new equity statement that pledges to include people of colour, low-income residents and others. In March, it hosted a panel that featured activists from racialized communities. And there are grassroots groups, such as Cycles for Change, promoting culturally-targeted education and advocacy.

So the ongoing challenge for cycling in Minneapolis — and in most cities — is to bring more voices to the table. The old rabble-rousing cycling jams that Garwood remembers have given way to unhurried community rides led by politicians. But the city still sees lower rates of cycling among people of colour and women. That will have to change, to grow.

"There’s a thing that the bike community does, which is to make itself a club, and if you’re not in the club then the club doesn’t like you," Garwood says. "We have got to stop doing that. It’s fine to have a bike club, but if you’re an advocacy organization, you’ve got to win. And to be able to win, you’ve got to have the people who aren’t one type of person.

"We’ve got to say, ‘This is open to people of colour, this is open to women, it’s open to older folks, to little kids, and to people who live in the suburbs.’ We need to have people engaged who maybe aren’t comfortable riding in mixed traffic, who aren’t comfortable riding for transportation purposes, but who want to get to the point where they are."

melissa.martin@freepress.mb.ca

Read more by Melissa Martin.

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Updated on Friday, September 2, 2016 at 1:38 PM CDT: Adds sidebar

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