A tale of two cities: biking in MPLS/STP

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It is the best of times or the worst of times for bicyclists in the Twin Cities. It all depends on whether you live in Minneapolis or St. Paul. The Twin Cities have often been cited as among the most bike-friendly places in the U.S. But for the last 15 years Minneapolis has carried most of the weight of that claim. That could soon change, though—if St. Paul can implement its new Bikeways Plan.

Minneapolis’ climb to the top of bike-friendly cities lists came after a concerted effort to build an abundance of safe, convenient infrastructure specifically for cyclists, including everything from bike lanes on city streets to dedicated off-street bikeways like the Midtown Greenway. Currently, Minneapolis has some 210 miles of on- and off-street bikeways, more than almost every other city in the U.S. (Portland has 319 miles of bikeways.)

The history of cycling in the Twin Cities dates all the way back to the late 1800s and early 1900s. That’s when the Good Roads Movement, an effort by bicycle and car manufacturers to improve road conditions, swept the U.S. Local projects like the Grand Rounds Scenic Byway also took root in the early 1900s. But it wasn’t the late 1990s and early 2000s that Minneapolis’ cycling infrastructure and the number of people who chose biking as their primary mode of transportation really started to grow.

Several factors helped Minneapolis surpass most other U.S. cities on the biking front. One was the Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act (ISTEA), passed by Congress in 1991. Until then, the transportation funding package passed by the federal government every six years was focused primarily on highways and cars. ISTEA changed this pattern, giving more attention (and money) to non-automotive transportation.

As part of the ISTEA deal, Minnesota congressman Jim Oberstar negotiated for federal “transportation enhancement” grants to be set aside for bicycle infrastructure projects. Minneapolis was awarded funds for the first non-motorized commuter trail to be commissioned by the act: the Cedar Lake Regional Trail, built in 1995. ISTEA funds were also used in Minneapolis to refurbish the Stone Arch Bridge as a bike/pedestrian bridge, to construct the Kenilworth Trail, and to begin building the Midtown Greenway.

It was back in the late 1980s that cycling advocates around the city organized the Midtown Greenway Coalition. The group advocated for building a bikeway—the Midtown Greenway— along the railroad that cut across south Minneapolis. The coalition became an official nonprofit organization in 1995, and worked to get each section of the Greenway completed from 2000 to 2007. It has since become one of the busiest bikeways in Minnesota and is recognized as the best urban bike trail in the nation.

Former Midtown Greenway Director Tim Springer recalls seeing a big paradigm shift in peoples’ attitudes toward biking in Minneapolis in the 1990s. He says that’s when Minneapolis Public Works department engineers began looking at bicycles as a real mode of transportation as opposed to just recreational vehicles.

In the 1990s, the University of Minnesota also began to focus more on bicycle infrastructure. In 1994, they began building the Dinkytown Greenway to connect the University with downtown Minneapolis. It wouldn’t be completed until 2014 and is only a mile long, but it is considered one of the most important bike trails in the city. Bike lanes were painted onto all University-owned streets and pathways over 30 feet wide. They also added better bike parking around campus and began coordinating with the City of Minneapolis on bike projects of mutual interest.

As ridership increased, a cycling subculture developed in Minneapolis, complete with its own zines, such as Cars-R-Coffins, as well as shops, art, alley cat races, and monthly critical mass rides.

Minneapolis’ biggest leap forward came with the 2002 election of pro-bike mayor R.T. Rybak and the creation of the federal Non-motorized Transportation Pilot Program in 2005. The program provided four communities with $25 million to demonstrate how proper infrastructure and programs can increase rates of walking and biking. Minneapolis was selected as one of the four cities, thanks to help from congressmen Oberstar and Martin Sabo, both of whom also played a role in creating the program. They also managed to steer additional federal money to Minneapolis for bicycle infrastructure.

The result of all these efforts? In the last 10 years, Minneapolis’ bicycle infrastructure and the percentage of bicycle commuters in the city have more than doubled. Today, approximately 4.5% of all commuters in Minneapolis get to work by bike, and bikes have an 11% mode-share of on-street trips. These numbers are second only to Portland, Oregon. Amid the growth, Minneapolis has also reduced the number of crashes between bicycles and motor vehicles from an average of 320 per year (during the 1990s) to about 270 per year.

Next page: Can St. Paul catch up to its neighbor to the west?

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