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The Midtown Greenway, a multi-use rails-to-trails conversion in a sunken railroad viaduct. 

I recently spent a day in Minneapolis, Minnesota, visiting friends en route to Duluth for a bike trip along Lake Superior. Last year Bicycling magazine named Minneapolis the best U.S. city for biking (I guess they couldn’t keep giving the award to Portland, OR, every year) while Chicago dropped down to tenth place. So I was curious to see if the City of Lakes offers any lessons on ways to make cycling better here.

In fairness, the Twin Cities area has a few inherent qualities that have encouraged bike-friendliness. The combined population of the cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul is about 667,000, not much larger than Milwaukee and only a quarter the size of the city of Chicago. Minneapolis had ample available railroad right-of-way, which made it relatively easy to create a great network of urban off-street bike paths, 84 miles compared to Chicago’s 50. (We do have almost three times as many miles of streets with bike lanes.)*

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People in Mill City tend to be wealthier and better educated than their Chicago counterparts, and they tend to have more progressive politics, perhaps a result of the region’s Scandinavian influence. For better or for worse, these demographics usually coincide with the type of people who walk, bike and use transit by choice, making it easier politically to spend money on green transportation projects.

I’ve been to area a few times in the past, for the 1999 Twin Cities to Chicago AIDS Ride, for a conference of the Association of Bike and Pedestrian Professionals (APBP), and to compete in the notorious Stuporbowl alleycat race, held every year in January – highly recommended. But I’d never paid too close attention to where I was actually biking, so this time I took notes.

On the recent Saturday when I visited, one of my friends took me for a 15-mile triangular bike ride around Minneapolis. Here’s an approximation of the route. We started in the Longfellow neighborhood near the Mississippi River on the south side of town then went a few blocks north to the Midtown Greenway. This path is one of the city’s most popular bike routes, running east-west from the river to the western ‘burbs and sunken below street level in a green tunnel of foliage.

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Several other rails-to-trails lead downtown from other parts of the city, making them very practical for commuting. In Chicago, the Lakefront Trail is basically the only useful path for riding into the Loop, but the Bloomingdale Trail elevated greenway will be a step in the right direction and Mayor Emanuel has pledged to complete it within a few years.

My friend and I stopped at the Midtown Bike Center, 2834 10th Avenue South, adjacent to the trail. This all-purpose bike commuter hub is located near several office buildings and two hospitals, with indoor parking for dozens of bikes, showers and lockers; it was financially supported by funds from the federal, city, and county governments as well as local corporate partners. Freewheel Bike operates a full-service shop (minus bike sales) in the building with rentals, repair classes and work stands and tool sets the public can use for $16/hour.

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Mechanic Karl Stoerzinger demonstrates how to use a bus bike rack at the Midtown Bike Center

This last aspect is a great idea, sort of a for-profit version of West Town Bike’s Tinker Town Tuesday open shop night. Minneapolis also has a number of true bike co-ops. Unlike Chicago’s four great, non-profit community bike shops, these are places where you pay a membership fee to have access to workspace and tools. Bike co-ops would be great addition to our city, especially in neighborhoods where lots of people bike but there is no community shop nearby, say Lakeview.

The Midtown Bike Center also features its own in-house cafe, a very common business model in the coffee-crazy Twin Cities. It would be great for someone to open a bicycle store / coffee house combo in Chicago as a hangout for people to swap bike know-how and road stories. Although Chicago has a number of bars and cafes where cyclists often congregate (Cal’s Liquors springs to mind), right now the Handlebar is our only intentionally bicycle-themed establishment.

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Cafe at Midtown Bike Center

The Midtown Bike Center building also house the offices for the Midtown Greenway Coalition and Nice Ride Minnesota, which runs the local bike sharing system. After stopping by gorgeous Lake Calhoun, thick with paddleboats, kayaks and sailboats on this warm afternoon, we headed northeast on streets to downtown.

Throughout the ride we’d encountered many people cruising on some of the city’s 700 Nice Ride bike share vehicles, slated to expand to 1,000 this year. Largely funded by a grant from Blue Cross Blue Shield, this program seems to be a big success. The quantity of bikes and kiosks (over 65, growing to 85 this year) makes the system highly visible and accessible. Chicago’s 100-bike, privately run B-cycle bike share system could benefit from a similar wellness-related grant from the private or public sector to help expand the fleet. It’s so small at this point that I’m guessing most Chicagoans don’t know it exists.

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Nice Ride bikes at a downtown kiosk

Our next stop was One on One Bicycle Studio, 117 Washington Street N., in the old downtown warehouse district, a very hip bike shop, café and gallery that sponsors the annual ArtCrank exhibit of handmade bicycle posters. There’s a huge basement space with old bike parts to pick through, and deer, buffalo and moose heads from the owner’s hunting expeditions adorn the walls of the new bike showroom. I’d definitely welcome a cool, quirky bike entertainment complex like this in my hometown.

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From there we headed to a beautiful paved bike trail along the Mississippi, one of two on either side of the waterway, and took a leisurely car-free spin back home with an inspiring view of the Big River. It was a lovely afternoon of cycling in Minneapolis, one that got my mental gears turning with ideas to improve our own bike-friendly metropolis.

*Steven compared Minneapolis and St. Paul bicyclist journey-to-work data with Chicago and found that each of the Twin Cities had higher bicycle mode shares of people 16 and older who ride to work. Data in the comparison was from the 2006-2008 3-year American Community Survey estimates.

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  • Bob Kastigar

    What about winter?  Minneapolis is colder, and has more snow, than Chicago, doesn’t it?  How do they handle it?  Is there something similar to our Bike Winter thing?

    • Greenfieldjohn

      Minneapolitans are very good at celebrating winter with cool events like
      the Stuporbowl and ice biking on frozen lakes. Paths are generally
      plowed within 24 hours of a major snowfall. Here are some tips from the city of Minneapolis on winter biking: http://www.ci.minneapolis.mn.us/bicycles/winter-biking.asp

    • Greenfieldjohn

      Minneapolitans are very good at celebrating winter with cool events like
      the Stuporbowl and ice biking on frozen lakes. Paths are generally
      plowed within 24 hours of a major snowfall. Here are some tips from the city of Minneapolis on winter biking: http://www.ci.minneapolis.mn.us/bicycles/winter-biking.asp

  • http://www.bikewalklincolnpark.com Michelle Stenzel

    I tried out the

  • http://www.bikewalklincolnpark.com Michelle Stenzel

    I tried the Nice RIde bikes and was impressed by how many racks there were, and how easily they could be used by riders of different heights. Also, the price of a 24-hour membership was really reasonable. But I wasn’t prepared with how heavy the bikes are compared to my own bikes at home, and I had no idea how hilly the Twin Cities are, at least on the path along the river. I agree it seems like a great town in which to ride a bike.

  • Dhin

    I think the CIty of Minneapolis suggestions on winter biking say it all about why they are far far ahead of us. Thank you so much for this look at how they are creating a great cycling city. I think the note on the  tips suggesting you should cal 311 if you need to report a winter impediment on the roads that should be cleared or plowed reflects a totally different mindset from the city of Chicago.

    • John Greenfield

      Well, of course you can call 311 if you need to report a winter impediment on the roads that should be cleared or plowed in Chicago as well. Our city actually does a really good job of plowing the streets after a storm (although they sometimes skip the bike lanes). We can thank former Mayor Michael Bilandic for that – he lost reelection after the city was slow to respond to a major snowstorm. Since then Chicago mayors have been very careful to clear the streets quickly after a storm.

    • John Greenfield

      Well, of course you can call 311 if you need to report a winter impediment on the roads that should be cleared or plowed in Chicago as well. Our city actually does a really good job of plowing the streets after a storm (although they sometimes skip the bike lanes). We can thank former Mayor Michael Bilandic for that – he lost reelection after the city was slow to respond to a major snowstorm. Since then Chicago mayors have been very careful to clear the streets quickly after a storm.

  • Jared Kachelmeyer

    It probably helps that the Twin Cities is much smaller than Chicago and thus people on average live closer to work.  I’m sure other factors are in play, but that’s probably one of them.

  • http://twitter.com/carfreechicago Carfree Chicago

    I’ve only been to Minneapolis in the dead of winter just after a big snow and didn’t see many people on bikes, but I’ve been curious about their trails. Thanks for sharing.

    Doesn’t Chicago have a couple bike shop/coffee house combos, as well as bicycle themed hangouts? Kickstand cafe in Lakeview is bike-themed and usually has a good number of bikes parked out front. And also in Lakeview, I know there’s a new bike shop opening soon on Lincoln that supposedly will serve Stumptown Coffee and sell Bowery Lane Bicycles: https://www.facebook.com/heritagebicycles . I thought Dutch Bikes in Wicker Park was also planning a cafe.

    • John Greenfield

      Kickstand is a great cafe but I don’t think there’s much of a bicycle theme yet besides the name, although the owner has told me they’re thinking about having mechanics on hand to provide quick bike repairs on certain days. Hadn’t heard that Bowery Lane bicycles or Dutch Bikes were planning to serve coffee, but that’s good news. I don’t know why more bike shops don’t do this – it seems like a pretty easy way to add revenue, especially during the winter slow season.

  • Jrojet

    Another nice thing in the Twin Cities are the bike racks on the light rail train cars.  Bikers have a designated place for the bikes to go secure and out of the way of other passengers.  Very hard to manage a bike on CTA, I’ve found. 

    • John Greenfield

      Yep, I forgot to mention that other bike-feature. Minneapolis has a very nice-looking commuter train, although it’s only one line rather than our extensive network of CTA and Metra train lines. In that sens, we’ve really got it good here compared to most U.S. cities. but it would be great if these agencies added dedicated bike hooks, let alone separate bike cars ala Caltrain on the West Coast.

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