America's unlikely top city for biking: Minneapolis

The city has edged out Portland, long the leader, by focusing on building bike lanes separated from auto traffic. Such lanes bring more women and older folks into the cycling revolution.

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Even in winter, Minneapolis loves to cycle.

The city has edged out Portland, long the leader, by focusing on building bike lanes separated from auto traffic. Such lanes bring more women and older folks into the cycling revolution.

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 biking was even possible in a state famous for its ferocious winters.

But this skepticism fades with a close look at the facts. Close to 4 percent of Minneapolis residents bike to work, according to census data. That’s an increase of almost 33 percent since 2007, and 500 percent since 1980. At least one-third of those commuters ride at least some days during the winter, according to federally funded research conducted by Bike Walk Twin Cities. Even on the coldest days about one-fifth are out on their bikes.

Minneapolis also launched the first large-scale bikesharing sytem in U.S. — called Nice Ride — and boasts arguably the nation’s finest network of off-street bicycle trails. It was chosen as one of four pilot projects for the federal Non-Motorized Transportation Program, which aims to shift a share of commuters out of cars and onto bikes or foot.

“Biking has become a huge part of what we are,” Mayor RT Rybak declared to a delegation of transportation leaders from Pittsburgh and Columbus, Ohio, on a Minneapolis tour sponsored by the Bikes Belong Foundation. “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 year the city is adding 57 new miles of bikeways to the 127 miles already built. An additional 183 miles are planned over the next 20 years.

In a city where bicyclists of all ages and backgrounds already ride recreational trails the goal is to encourage people to hop on their bikes for commuting or short trips. This is not a far-fetched dream, since nationally half of all automobile trips are three miles or less — a distance easily covered on bike in 20 minutes.

To make that happen, Minneapolis is committed to creating separate rights-of-way for bikes wherever feasible. That factor helps explain why the city defies trends of bicyclists as overwhelmingly male. While only a quarter of riders are women nationally, the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey reports 37 percent in Minneapolis.

Research shows that most people — including many women, families, and older citizens — are wary of biking alongside motor vehicles on busy streets. Having the option to ride apart from heavy traffic encourages more people to try out biking as a form of transportation.

Since the 1970s Dutch planners have separated bicyclists from motor vehicles on most arterial streets, with impressive results. Women now make up 55 percent of two-wheel traffic and citizens over 55 ride in numbers slightly higher than the national average. The Dutch also found that as the number of riders rises, their safety increases. Shaun Murphy of the Minneapolis Public Works Department, notes the same phenomenon — your chances of being in a car/bike crash in the city are 75 percent less than in 1993.

Mayor 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, transit. “We need to get more use from all the streets we already have,” Rybak said.

Bike projects in the Twin Cities are not limited to Minneapolis. St. Paul and many 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. (There’s a Complete Streets national network and advocacy organization.)

Elkins also extolled the virtue of road diets, conversion of four-way streets into three-way configurations with alternating center turn lanes — which create opportunities to add bike lanes or widen sidewalks 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.

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. Mayor Rybak noted, “we’ve found they’re the best traffic calming device around.”

And 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 and among young people. The option to commute and do errands on bike make it easier for many families to get along with one car, with happy results for the household budget.

Minneapolis was not always a great biking town. I live here, and would have howled with laughter 25 years ago if you told me Minneapolis would one day be named America’s best bike city 30 years ago. It was a frustrating, uncomfortable, and dangerous place to bike.

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:

  • 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.
  • As a Mid-American city far from the glamor capitals of the coasts, biking has become part of our positive self-image. Even people who haven’t rode a bike in years cheered when Minneapolis was named America’s number-one biking city.

This story comes to Crosscut via Citiwire, a news service about urbanism and regionalism.


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