The surprising rise of Minneapolis as a top bike town

By Jay Walljasper, photos by Zach Vanderkooy

People across the country were surprised last year when Bicycling Magazine named Minneapolis America’s “#1 Bike City,” beating out Portland, Oregon, which had claimed the honor for many years. Shock that a place in the heartland could outperform cities on the coasts was matched by widespread disbelief that cycling was even possible in a state famous for its ferocious winters.

But this skepticism fades with a closer look at the facts. Nearly four percent of Minneapolis residents bike to work according to census data. That’s an increase of 33 percent since 2007, and 500 percent since 1980.

At least one-third of those commuters ride some days during the winter, according to federally funded research conducted by Bike Walk Twin Cities. Even on the coldest days about one-fifth of them are out on their bikes.

In 2010, Minneapolis also launched the first large-scale bikesharing system in U.S.—called Nice Ride—and boasts arguably the nation’s finest network of off-street bicycle trails. The city was chosen as one of four pilot projects (along with Marin County, California; Columbia, Missouri; and Sheboygan County, Wisconsin) for the federal Non-Motorized Transportation Program, which aims to shift a share of commuters out of cars and onto bikes or foot.

Bikes also figure prominently in the local economy with firms such as Quality Bicycle Products (bikes and parts wholesaler), Dero (bike racks), and Park Tools (bike tools), based out of the Twin Cities.

A delegation of transportation leaders from Pittsburgh and Columbus, Ohio, came to Minneapolis for a tour sponsored by the Bikes Belong Foundation.

“Biking has become a huge part of what we are,” Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak declared to the delegation. “It’s an economical way to get around town, and many times it’s the fastest. I frequently take a bike from city hall across downtown to meetings.”

This is what a bike town looks like

In a city where bicyclists of all ages and backgrounds already ride recreational trails regularly, the goal is to make two-wheelers a central component of the transportation system by encouraging everyone to hop on their bikes for commuting or short trips around town. This is not a far-fetched dream, since nationally half of all automobile trips are three miles or less—a distance easily covered on a bike.

This year Minneapolis is adding 57 new miles of bikeways to the 127 miles already built. An additional 183 miles are planned over the next twenty years. By 2020, almost every city resident will live within a mile of an off-street bikeway and within a half-mile of a bike lane, vows city transportation planner Donald Pflaum.

“Places famous for biking, like Copenhagen and even Portland, feel very far away,” remarked Jeff Stephens, executive director of the Columbus advocacy organization Consider Biking. Stephens came to Minneapolis looking for ideas he could apply back home. “It was exciting to see what they’ve accomplished in Minneapolis, which is a city that seems a lot like Columbus.

“Our mayor has said that he wants Columbus to become a ‘bike town’,” Stephens added, “and seeing what’s been done here gives us a clearer sense of what that means.”

A world-class network of bike trails

Over three days in mid-July, the visiting group of city officials, planners, and citizen advocates pedaled all over Minneapolis in conditions more typical of Copenhagen or Portland—a constant threat of rain—than Minnesota’s usual warm, sunny summers.

They inspected America’s “first bike freeway,” Cedar Lake Trail, running along an uninterrupted rail corridor from the western suburbs through downtown Minneapolis to the Mississippi River. They also rode the Midtown Greenway, another converted rail line cutting through the city’s south side that carries as many as 3,500 bicyclists a day.

Both the Cedar Lake Trail and the Midtown Greenway connect to numerous other trails, creating an off-road network that reaches deep into St. Paul and surrounding suburbs. Intersections are infrequent along these routes, which boosts riders’ speed along with their sense of safety and comfort.

The crown jewel of the Midtown Greenway is the Martin Olav Sabo Bridge, a striking modernist structure that loops bike and foot traffic high above a formidable seven-lane highway. It’s named for a former Minneapolis congressman who became an early champion of bike riders in the 1990s.

Another sight along the Midtown Greenway is less dazzling but bodes well for cycling’s acceptance as a legitimate form of transportation. City engineers recently reversed a stop sign to give bikes priority over cars where the trail meets 5th Avenue South. The reason: more bike riders move through the intersection on a typical day than motorists.

Women, children, and seniors on bikes

Minneapolis is committed to creating separate rights-of-way for bikes wherever feasible, which helps explain why the city defies trends of bicyclists as overwhelmingly male. While only a quarter of riders nationally are women, the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey reports the number as high as 37 percent in Minneapolis. Research shows that most people—including many women, families and older citizens—are wary of riding alongside motor vehicles on busy streets.

Having the option to ride apart from heavy traffic encourages more people to try out cycling as a form of transportation. Since the 1970s, Dutch planners have separated bicyclists from motor vehicles on most arterial streets, with impressive results. The rate of cycling has doubled throughout the country, now accounting for 27 percent of all trips. Women make up 55 percent of two-wheel traffic and citizens over 55 ride in numbers slightly higher than the national average. (These stats are from CROW, a Dutch organization that conducts research on traffic, transportation, and infrastructure.)

Nearly every Dutch schoolyard is filled with kids’ bikes parked at racks and lampposts. The Dutch also know that as the number of riders rises, their safety increases. Statistics in Minneapolis show the same results. Shaun Murphy, Non-Motorized Transportation Program Coordinator in the Public Works Department, notes that your chances of being in a car/bike crash in the city are 75 percent less than in 1993.

Taking it to the streets

Murphy led the Pittsburgh and Columbus visitors through the streets of Minneapolis on Nice Ride bikes, showcasing efforts to foster bike riding in a city that until recently accommodated automobiles in every possible way. About half of local bikeways are on the streets, with many more to come soon.

“We’re known for being pretty innovative about bikes,” he explained. “We like to explore creative solutions. We’re seeing what new ideas work.” The group pedaled downtown along Minneapolis’s first “cycle track,” First Avenue North—a bike lane separated from motorized traffic by parked cars. The configuration provides a better experience for both people on bikes and in cars by creating a buffer between them.

Murphy noted that the project was quite controversial when it opened last year, but now everyone is getting used to it. The Columbus delegation paid particularly close attention to this project, tapping one another on the arm and scrutinizing how the paint was applied to the pavement, because the street resembles one in their own downtown.

On the next block, everyone experienced another innovation designed to make bicycling on major streets more appealing. Shared-lane (“sharrow”) markers were painted on Hennepin Avenue within a continuous green stripe running down the street to send a clear message to both bicyclists and motorists that road space is used by everyone.

The group then pedaled out of downtown, crossing another bike- and-pedestrian bridge over a busy street before landing on Bryant Avenue, which has been transformed into a “bicycle boulevard”—a residential street where pedestrians and bicyclists are given preferential priority over cars. The city’s first bicycle boulevard, the River Lake greenway, had also opened to great fanfare in June.

How bike projects save money

Mayor R.T. Rybak stressed that in these lean economic times, cities across the country need to be creative about how they spend transportation dollars. Big-ticket road engineering projects to move ever more cars must give way to more efficient projects that move people by a variety of means—including foot, bike, and public transit.

“We need to get more use from all the streets we already have,” Rybak said. “It really is the idea that bikes belong.”

Bike projects in the Twin Cities are not limited to Minneapolis. St. Paul and many nearby suburbs are also making it easier for people to travel on two wheels and two feet. Steve Elkins, Transportation Chair of the Metropolitan Council, a government body that guides development throughout the region, highlighted his efforts as city council member in suburban Bloomington (home of the Mall of America) to push the idea of Complete Streets—meaning that roadways should serve walkers and bikers as well as cars.

He extolled the virtue of “road diets,” conversion of four-lane streets into three-lane configurations with alternating center turn lanes—which create opportunities to add bike lanes or widen side- walks without diminishing capacity for cars.

“When done in the course of regular road repair projects, they cost nothing more than what it takes for a community outreach campaign,” he noted.

Road diets have become common throughout the Twin Cities.

“The biggest obstacle to Complete Streets right now are traffic engineers who don’t want to reduce the width of traffic lanes, but we are beginning to wear them down,” Elkins laughed. “There’s nothing in the literature that suggests wider lanes are safer; indeed, if there’s any evidence, it’s that narrow streets are safer.”

One theme recurring through the entire tour was that better bike facilities benefit not just bicyclists, but everyone. Bike lanes improve safety for motorists too, by slowing the speed of traffic, explained Mayor Rybak: “We’ve found they’re the best traffic calming device around.”

Joan Pasiuk, Program Director for Bike Walk Twin Cities, distributed materials documenting how new bike facilities get bicyclists off the sidewalks, a major breakthrough for pedestrians’ safety and peace of mind.

Have a nice ride

The nation’s first major bikesharing program hit the streets in Minneapolis in June 2010, quickly followed by Denver, Washington, D.C., Boston, and Toronto—with Seattle, Chicago, Portland and other cities now readying plans.

Bill Dossett, executive director of Nice Ride Minnesota—the non-profit organization that runs the bikeshare program—recounted the widespread skepticism that greeted the new system. Would bikesharing work outside Europe? Would it work in a city where a high percentage of people already own bikes? In a city that is low-density? Wouldn’t inexperienced riders hurt themselves? Won’t most of the bikes be stolen or vandalized?

But when the signature lime-green bikes were put away for the winter in November 2010, those questions had all been answered. Only one bike was stolen, only one accident was reported, no major injuries were suffered, and less than $5,000 in vandalism occurred, which was far lower than the organization’s projections.

More than 100,000 rides were taken from June to November last year, and Nice Ride operated in the black. Capital costs were covered by a combination of funding from the Non-Motorized Pilot Program and the health insurance company Blue Cross Blue Shield, with smaller grants from beneficiaries like the Minneapolis Convention Center.

In summer 2011 the system added 500 more bikes and 51 more stations, expanding outward from the center of Minneapolis and moving into St. Paul. From April to late September 2011, Nice Ride had logged 172,000 rides, with still more than a month to go.

Dossett believes the project’s greatest accomplishment is not the numbers, but the success in getting people to ride. Amy Duncan had not been on a bike since the 1970s but joined Nice Ride to do errands around downtown.

“I learned to ride a bike again and one hundred percent of my success belongs to Nice Ride,” she said.

The system is free for the first half-hour, $1.50 for the next, and rises steeply after that. The idea is to encourage short trips that might otherwise be made by car. You can get access to a bike for a yearly ($60), monthly ($30), or daily ($5) pass. Passes can be purchased with the swipe of a credit or debit card at any Nice Ride station.

The bikes themselves—elegant in design with an eye-popping lime green color— feature adjustable seats, lights, and a rack for carrying a briefcase or shopping bag. The system is particularly popular with out- of-town tourists, downtown office workers, university students, and residents of apartment buildings and condos. Many local users may actually own bikes, but find Nice Ride easy to use in certain circum- stances, such as when they take transit downtown or to the university. Every Nice Ride bike you see likely represents one less car on the road.

Winter wonderland on two wheels

“We’re colder than Montreal or Moscow,” Steve Clark, Program Manager of Bike Walk Twin Cities, confessed to the Pittsburgh and Columbus visitors, “but that doesn’t stop people from riding their bikes in even the coldest, snowiest, darkest conditions.”

Former bicycle/pedestrian coordinator of Boulder, Colorado, Clark pointed to research his group conducted finding that one in three summer-time bike commuters will also ride on warmer, sunny winter days. One in four rides at least once a week from November to March, and one in five will be out on their bikes through snowstorms and temperatures below zero.

City workers clear snow from the off-road bikeways just the same as streets, sometimes doing them first. Studded snow tires and cold-weather clothing make year-round riding easier than it looks, Clark said. And while Minnesotans are reluctant to dispel the notion they are hardier than anyone else, he revealed that even in the depths of winter, many days are above 20 degrees with streets free of snow and ice. A few tips for would-be winter bikers: install fenders, ride slower, lower your seat so you can use your boots as an emergency brake, and enjoy the Christmas-card scenery.

He emphasizes the importance of doing bike counts throughout the coldest months.

“Actual data legitimizes winter biking as transportation, and debunks the idea that bike projects are frivolous be- cause they are used only in the summer.”

Gary Sjoquist, Bike Belong’s Government Affairs Director who lives in suburban Minneapolis, added that gathering data is essential to promote bicycling. “We now understand that if there aren’t stats to show how many people actually bike, then nothing happens.”

Bike Walk Twin Cities pioneered new methodology for bike counts in its role as the local administrator for the Non-Motorized Transportation Pilot Project.

A continuing concern for social justice

The notion that only upper-middle class white folks ride bikes is being challenged on all fronts across Minneapolis. The Major Taylor Bicycle Club, named for the African-American racer who claimed world records in the 1890s, organizes rides and bike events in minority communities.

Jon Wertjes, the city’s Director of Traffic and Parking Services, mentioned that a half- dozen bike rodeos to excite kids about cycling would take place in inner-city neighborhoods over the summer of 2011. In St. Paul, the Sibley Bike Depot offers a wide range of programs to introduce cycling to immigrants and low-income families, including a shop that sells low-cost bikes and lets people work on their own bikes for free. They also run pro- grams where kids can earn free bikes by taking bike repair classes and a bike library where low-income families can borrow bikes.

At a time when gasoline prices are high and transit service is being cut across the country, bikes can help fill the transportation gaps in poor communities. Nice Ride, with support from the McKnight Foundation, has extended service to lower-income areas of both Minneapolis and St. Paul this summer. Dosset says the initiative aims to overcome cultural attitudes in some communities that bikes are only for kids or people who can’t afford any other way to get around.

Bike Walk Twin Cities launched a social marketing campaign to promote cycling in the lower-income neighborhoods of Minneapolis’s north side, where this year a new Bike Walk Center opens along with an extensive network of new bikeways.

A tradition of civic involvement

Dorian Grilley, Executive Director of the Bicycle Alliance of Minnesota, credited a “150-year tradition of civic involvement” as a major reason for Minneapolis’ emergence as a bike capital. In the late 19th century, city fathers wisely preserved land along lakes, creeks and the Mississippi for the public use. These became popular places to bike in the 1890s and again, 80 years later, when the second bike boom hit town. The Cedar Lake Trail and Midtown Greenway were initiated by grassroots groups, which convinced political leaders to take the bold step of developing abandoned rail lines as bike trails rather than as condos or industrial zones. That marked a major step for trans- forming transportation in the community.

Minneapolis was not always a good place to ride. What changed?

It just so happens that I live and bike in Minneapolis, although I was on the tour in my capacity as a writer and editor for Bikes Belong, not as a local expert. But I offered some background to out-of-town visitors on the first day of the tour.

I told them that local bicyclists would have howled at the idea of Minneapolis being named America’s best city 30 years ago. It was a frustrating and dangerous place to bike, crisscrossed by freeways and arterial streets that felt like freeways. Drivers were openly hostile to bike riders, some of them going the extra step to scare the daylights out of us as they roared past. Bike lanes were practically non-existent at that time. What changed in Minneapolis was that local bike riders patiently lobbied for better conditions, slowly winning over elected officials and city staff. Also, as the number of bike riders steadily rose, motorists became accustomed to sharing the streets with us.

Other factors that boosted Minneapolis as a bike town include:

  • A large number of students at the University of Minnesota and smaller local colleges.
  • Minneapolis was originally laid out for streetcars—like most cities outside the Sun Belt—which is a scale that works very well for bike riders.
  • The high number of recreational bike riders here eventually translates into bike commuters. Fifty one percent of all Minnesotans rode a bike last year, and the numbers for the Twin Cities are much higher than that. Even folks who will never ride their bikes anywhere except around a lake can still identify with a person on two wheels, which reminds them to drive more respectfully.
  • As a mid-American city far from the glamour capitals of the coasts, cycling has become part of our positive self-image. Even people who haven’t ridden a bike in years cheered when Minneapolis was named America’s #1 cycling city. It’s become part of our “brand.”

What Other Cities Can Learn from Minneapolis

At the end of the tour, the group gathered at a fire station transformed into a sports bar with Bikes Belong staff members Zach Vanderkooy and Zoe Kircos to discuss what they learned in Minneapolis. Here are the new ideas they were taking home.

Stephen Patchan, Bicycle/Pedestrian Coordinator, City of Pittsburgh

"To increase mode share for bikes you need more than people who strongly identify as bicyclists. You also need to reach people who simply ride bikes. I also noticed how well Minneapolis uses parks and trails as the springboard for a bike system. Pittsburgh has a lot of trails that we can use to form a bike network by filling in the gaps."

Nick Popa, Bikeways and Community Mobility Manager, City of Columbus

"I realized how much bike lanes promote traffic calming; which means everyone benefits, not just the bikers. And when I saw the cycle tracks (bikes lanes separated from motorized traffic –ed.) I thought: we have places in Columbus where we can do that."

Yarone Zober, Chief of Staff for Pittsburgh Mayor Luke Ravenstahl

"The bike facilities here are not all big, expensive infrastructure. You can do a lot to make biking safer just with paint on the streets. And the Nice Ride bikeshare system works really well."

Alan McKnight, Director of Recreation and Parks, City of Columbus

"You see right away how bikes are accepted as a mode of transportation. And the bike trails connect very well with the street system of bike lanes."

Darla Cravotta, Special Projects Coordinator for Allegheny County (PA) Executive Dan Onorato

"The trip reenergized me in thinking about biking. We have a lot of what we call recreational trails, which we should call bikeways. Some could be great commuter routes."

Greg Bachman, City Engineer, Pickering, Ohio

"They bike in the winter here! It can be done and it is. And I was impressed with the amount and diversity of facilities and trails they have, and how many people use them."

Scott Bricker, Executive Director, Bike Pittsburgh

"This helps me understand that a good bike system is not a cookie-cutter approach; you adapt and improve based on local conditions. And I learned a lot of the nitty-gritty about running a successful bikeshare program."



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