Minneapolis tries to topple Portland as America’s most cycle-friendly city

The Twin Citys ambitious new bike plan includes 144 miles of protected lanes and a doubling of cycle numbers by 2020. Portland, though, is opposing back

Minneapolis does not have the immediate looking of a place set on becoming a city where lots of people ride bikes. Aside from the long, freezing wintertimes, this is a place very obviously built around cars. The roads are generally multi-lane, often one route, and parking is largely straightforward, even in service centres. But things are changing.

Lisa Bender, the city council representative who has done as much as an anyone to pushing cycling in Minneapolis, laughs when asked if the aim is to stimulate her home the second most bike-friendly city in the US, after the traditional cycling centre of Portland, Oregon.

Oh no, first, she says. Thats the official policy. The best, maybe in the world. All joking aside, when I think about biking in Minneapolis I know that if you look at Copenhagen and the style they transitioned their city to non-motorised modes, we could do that here. If you look at the map of our city we have a grid. We have ponds and a river, and old rail corridors. Most of the neighborhoods grew up around transit lines, and they are fairly dense.

The Nice Ride motorcycle share scheme in the twin cities of Minneapolis and St Paul. Photograph: Meet Minneapolis

This might sound ambitious. Minneapolis does have something of a bike culture, thanks in part to to a well-established network of off-road routes operating through parks. It has since 2010 also had a public motorcycle share system, Nice Ride, which stretches to parts of the smaller adjoining twin city of St Paul, and uses the Canadian Bixi-type bikes familiar to anyone who has used the London or New York schemes.

But, for all that, the overall share of bike trips in Minneapolis is just over 4.5%. This is pretty good by US standards, but some route from Portlands 7 %, a figure cycle activists in Portland say rises to about 20% for commutes in some neighborhoods. Copenhagen, meanwhile, considers about about 35% of all trip-ups constructed on a bike, and has a 50% target for all commutes.

Minneapolis is, however, moving rapidly. Its new cycle plan will supposedly see about 230 miles of lanes built around the city, with 144 miles of these segregated from motor traffic. These latter routes should be completed by 2020.

A good deal of this is down to Bender. A Minneapolis native, she spent eight years working in New York and San Francisco before returning in 2009 to find cycle planning in her home city moribund, and some bike lanes even being removed for bus roads.

Pro-cycling city council representative Lisa Bender. Photo: Carlee Hackl/ TommieMedia

I was wondering: where are all the people on bikes? Bender remembers from her office in the Italianate 19 th-century city hall. I knew we had this great reputation for supporting cycling, but when I got back I was amazed at how this all played out on individual street projects, or biking in the city. What cycling there was seemed to happen despite rather than because of proper planning, she notes: Frankly, I think its because our transit system isnt as good as some other cities. If you have a choice between taking the bus and biking, a lot of people in Minneapolis choose to cycle because its faster and more reliable.

Bender co-founded the Minneapolis Bicycle Coalition, where she and her fellow activists agitated for better facilities, using innovative tactics like collecting hand-written letters from people about alternative notions for a major road about to be rebuilt without bike lanes. In 2013 she jumped the fence from advocacy to government, getting selected as a city representative.

Ethan Fawley, one of her co-founders at the Minneapolis Bicycle Coalition , now heads different groups. He notes that one of the main obstacles to boosting bike utilize is the fact that driving in Minneapolis remains relatively easy.

My wife and I dont own a vehicle, but we were very intentional about where we would live and where we would work, he says. If wed not been conscious about both of those things it would have been almost impossible. If you live outside of a couple of miles from downtown it gets much harder.

The new Minneapolis bike plan will see more than 200 miles of new lanes. Photo: Alamy

Cycling, Fawley argues, must be made a positive choice: The reality is that we still have to very much develop the bicyclist. You have to want it, you have to be choice it not exclusively because its the most convenient alternative but because it builds you feel good.

This was Fawleys own route into cycling: as a city planning student at the university he drove everywhere until his car broke down for good and he bought a motorcycle instead. When I changed that I was healthier, had more fund, he says. I weigh less than I did then. Im a lot happier because of it, and I think about how many people would be in the same situation. Theyve forgotten about it because of the systems and culture we have. Its not going to make sense for everyone. But theres more people who, if the system supported them, would have a similar thing where their lives would just be better. And thats what its about for me.

Bender, meanwhile, explains her push for cycle infrastructure in terms of social justice. Minneapolis has significant faultlines over race and poverty, and she sees the bike network, which is intended to stretch to all suburbiums, as offering an option to people who cannot afford to run a car.

She describes working earlier in her career for a non-profit organisation which operates transport projects in developing nations, and being taken on a tour of a freshly rebuilt former slum area in Bogot by Enrique Pealosa, the former( and now only re-elected) mayor of the Colombian capital, a major proponent for bike routes.

Pealosa, she says, proudly pointed out a smooth, paved road for motorcycles and pedestrians. There was this bicycle and pedestrian track and next to it was a dirt road, she says. Enrique made the phase: We made this selection intentionally. Automobiles dont need paving, and this is a poor region, most people dont drive anyway. So we prioritised putting the money into the bicycle and pedestrian lanes.

Bender adds: It was a moment that really stuck with me. How you spend money as a city or a government genuinely shows your values, shows what you are investing in. Thats genuinely influenced how I do my job now.

The new Minneapolis bike plan has as its target a doubling of cycling numbers by 2020, which would put it ahead of Portlands current figure. Unsurprisingly, those in Oregons largest city, which built its first plan for cycling in 1973, stress that they have expansion plans of their own.

I dont think Portland is close to losing its place as Americas number one cycling city, says Jonathan Maus, who runs the influential Bike Portland website. Not at all. With bike share launching in July and a slew of protected bike lane projects coming soon, were about to make another big jump in ridership after years of stagnation.

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