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.)*
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Grid Chicago is a blog about sustainable transportation matters, projects and culture in Chicago and Illinois, by John Greenfield and Steven Vance since June 2011.
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