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Bikes, bicycling, and road safety.

Bicycling in Minneapolis: A Slightly Contrarian View

So, there’s been a bunch of buzz about Minneapolis and bicycles lately. Grist is all a-flutter about Minneapolis as a bicycle town. There’s the kerfuffle about the Minneapolis bicycle coordinator hiring, as evidenced in this Star-Tribune story (and the Minneapolis Bicycle Coalition’s recommended response). There was a bunch of gushing praise about bike-sharing and infrastructure following the Safe Routes to Schools conference.

Regardless of how one approaches the coordinator issue, one thing is going to become more and more clear in the near future. Minneapolis has become used to being able to do big, fancy stuff for bike/ped infrastructure thanks to being one of the pilot sites for the Non-Motorized Transportation Pilot Program (NMTPP). And the Grist article rightly calls out that progress in Minneapolis has been both due to investment and commitment. But the future holds a lot more commitment than funding to do much.

Realistically, the NMTPP is not going to be extended. Hell, right now on the federal level there is debate about even extending the gas tax (once practically considered automatic), let alone keeping dedicated funding for cycling in the transportation bill. The odds on the pilot program becoming a program program and spreading to other municipalities, let alone getting more funding? Fairly laughable.

Minneapolis and Saint Paul are also reeling from reductions in Local Government Aid from the state of Minnesota. Finances are a struggle. There’s not going to be generous additional funding from the cities — and not just because of the kinds of reactions seen in the comments on the Star-Tribune story about the bicycle position with the city, although you have to believe that’ll factor in, but also because these are cities having issues with basic street maintenance right now, let alone improvement and upgrades. When you can’t fill a pothole or buy a new snowplow to replace one that is at double its recommended service age, fancy street upgrades aren’t likely either. The ROI of bike improvements versus other improvements isn’t an issue when there are no improvements being made.

The seriousness with which Minneapolis treats bicycle safety and infrastructure is great. It will make a difference going forward. There are plenty of ways the bicycle coordinator position can continue to impact cycling in the city, and work on improvements. But I think cyclists locally are going to have to get used to improvements being less showy. Funds may still be available from various sources and grants, but the net total will be far less than previous. You’ll likely see more paint, and less concrete.

At least until economic conditions improve.

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Author: julie

Julie Kosbab is an online marketing consultant and active transportation advocate living in Anoka County, Minnesota. She was one of Minnesota's only League of American Bicyclists Certified Instructors when certified in 2005. She is a past member of the National Bicycle Tour Directors Association. She has 2 children and 4 bicycles. Find her on Twitter as @betweenstations.


  1. My biggest disappointment is that when I was a student at the U in 2005 when the NTP funding was announced I got pretty excited, and now years later, we’re still waiting for projects to be implemented or they are finally just happening now, when a majority of them are just paint on the street. I have little faith that the City will be able to make improvements outlined in a Bike Master Plan that contains no costs, timelines, or specific plans for completing projects, when projects with guaranteed funding sources have been stalled and delayed. In fact if you read the plan (http://www.ci.minneapolis.mn.us/bicycles/Chapter7Projects.pdf), there are no projects on the 5-year (2011-2016) CIP timeline after 2011 (aside from lighting the Hiawatha LRT in 2014 and completing the UMN Transitway in 2012).

    An easy comparison is of course Portland whose “2030 Bike Plan” (one section here:: ftp://ftp02.portlandoregon.gov/PBOT/Bicycle_Plan_for_2030/Plan_Documents/Individual_Sections/PBP_PartFive.pdf) has at least an idea of how much funding is needed (600 MILLION!!) and they have a mayor who can come up with great ideas on how to come up with funding. As someone in their late twenties thinking about starting a family soon I want to make sure that happens in a city that is prepared and planning successfully for it’s future.

    I doubt we’ll see any stories like this any time soon about places that need serious attention like 28th St and the Midtown Greenway where one person was nearly paralyzed last year and another had a very serious accident this spring, and improving it isn’t even considered in the Bike Master Plan.

  2. One last thing point I forgot to make is just look at how vastly different the plans are in terms of language, format, and presentation. Which one do you think will be more successful over the next 20 years?

  3. Hey, Randall,

    Two things. First, the bike plan is largely about defining the environment and corridors for bike infrastructure. We’ll not be spending much retrofitting existing streets, but when roads are rebuild (or even milled-and-overlayed) we’ll be looking at things like bike lanes. (When I say “we” I really mean Public Works, but as a member of the citizen’s group that helped write the bike plan I feel some ownership.) Keeping track of what Public Works is doing with roads with an eye to the bike plan is one of the things the new Bike Coordinator will be doing. Without this monitoring, things will surely be missed.

    There will be a supplement to the bike plan, called the Implementation Plan, that will be published by years-end that will have some of the things you are looking for.

    Second, the NTP projects were a new experience for everyone involved. While there certainly have been some city-caused delays, the major hold-ups have been from the Federal bureaucracy that reviewed each project. The Feds are used to evaluating multi-million dollar projects and have little experience with the thousand-dollar projects Minneapolis sent them and they put our projects through the same extensive and time-consuming review process they use for all projects submitted to them. Too, the State (MnDOT) had to approve each project because the federal money came through them and that took time.

  4. Pingback: In Defense of the Minneapolis Bike Coordinator « Thoughts on the Urban Environment

  5. Minneapolis is definitely headed towards a crisis of public works, but it’s not specific to bicycle infrastructure. In 1966, 86% of the streets in Minneapolis were unpaved. 15 years later, nearly all of those streets had been paved. What’s the lifespan of an asphalt street? 40-60 years. Someone’s going to have to figure out how to get a massive infusion of funds into infrastructure at all levels, and they’ll have to do it at a time when the popularity of government is extremely low.

    But the good news is, if we do decide to rebuild our roads instead of letting them crumble, it really won’t take much more money to include bike facilities, and hopefully the Bike/Ped Coordinator position will help that along.

    My question about the NTP program is: if it was really the federal process that delayed the projects, how were the other pilot project areas able to expend their funds years before Minneapolis?

  6. To further Alex’s point on an impending crisis of public works, a vast majority of the cities sewers are reaching the end of their lifespan. Updating / replacing underground infrastructure on a mass scale is going to be costly.

  7. You didn’t mention the fact that we also are risking substantial cuts to the fire department, and perhaps police as well. In that environment, we cannot afford more bicycle infrastructure other than maybe a few bike lanes. Sharrows and bicycle boulevards are pretty much a waste of money, as bikes are allowed on all roads except freeways anyway, and the boulevards ar primarily on low-traffic residential streets. I don’t see the point of that spending. Bike lanes yes, bike boulevards, no.

    But the main issue is we need bike users (myself included) to pay a small but notable dedicated tax, which allows us to both help fund infrastructure and point out to the righties that no, we are not freeloading off the gas tax. I suggest a 2% tax on all bicycles and accessories, which is perfectly affordable, and charges more to the well-off cyclists who can afford a few grand for their ride.

  8. Bicycle boulevards, despite the name, aren’t really about bikes. They’re about context. And there’s a lot of value in the context they create.

    Using the RiverLake Greenway as an example, the added concrete of the boulevard setup forcibly redirects through traffic to streets designed to accommodate it. Even prior to the addition of the concrete, much of what is now the bicycle boulevard was NOT intended for through traffic due to na rrow roadway, parking regulation, the way stop signs and traffic controls were set up, etc. The neighbors frequently had to deal with people who wished to use their streets as throughways regardless. By redirecting that traffic WHERE IT BELONGS, it also helps the city appropriately direct maintenance and enforcement resources, and makes the residential streets better for all intended users — not just bikers.

    I typically prefer sharrows to bike lanes, because bike lanes often are treated like mandates: This is the place on the road bicycles are allowed. Stay inside the lines! And as we’ve seen repeatedly, there are all kinds of bike lanes in this city, in St. Paul, and elsewhere that are hazardous because of the sightline they suggest cyclists should be in.

    And given that, to date, a minority of funding for transport infrastructure has come from gas taxes, the idea that cyclists aren’t paying their share is ridiculous. There is plenty of writing out there on this topic, but given that the gas tax has been less than a third of the funding source for many years…

  9. Just to add one thing to Julie’s last point, the idea that cyclists aren’t paying their share *also* presupposes that bicycle infrastructure only benefits bikers. In reality, improving conditions for bicycles means getting more bikers on the road, which means fewer drivers (automobilists?), which means less congestion, fewer potholes (which saves money on fixing them), and other benefits for cars.

    BTW, since Randall mentioned 28th & Midtown, the Minneapolis Bicycle Coalition says (over on Facebook) that “[t]he final approvals are being made to install a planted median that will ensure that traffic will be just one lane in each direction. The median will also allow cyclists and pedestrians to worry about one direction of traffic at a time while crossing. Construction may begin next week!” So that sounds better.

  10. Well, the problem with that is that if you don’t want people to use side streets as through streets, the easiest way to achieve that end is by putting up a lot of stop signs, thereby making that route more of a hassle than it’s worth. By doing that though, you also make it a slower bike path, as we are supposed to stop just like cars (although many people don’t–and some bikes and even cars for the matter, don’t even slow down, which is incredibly dangerous).

    A more permanent fix employed in some areas is an engineered dead-end, where you have some trees and pylons blocking off a road permanently in order to prevent through traffic.

    I just don’t see much benefit in sharrows, as they do not provide a safe method for cars to pass, whereas bike lanes do.

    As to funding, no, gas taxes don’t pay the full cost of roads, and yes, bike paths can take cars off the road (although not nearly as many in winter). However, expecting us to get certain levels of funding while being unwilling to pay a small dedicated tax to provide a portion of that funding is pretty surprising. I’m willing to pay a user fee for a portion of the cost of bike facilities just like car owners pay taxes to fund a portion of their facilities. I hope you’ll join me in advocating for a guaranteed source of funding.

  11. Much of the route of the RiverLake Greenway DID have stop signs. Didn’t stop cars trying to create Awesome Shortcuts(tm)! If you visit the bike boulevard, much of the route has been calmed via the use of engineered dead-ends for cars, with curb cuts that allow for low-speed, low-weight traffic — ie, pedestrians and bicyclists — to use the street through.

    Frankly, I am not typically a big fan of dedicated facilities for bikes, be it bike lanes or be it sidepaths, although I grant trails and sidepaths their place in the universe, which is typically more as a recreational facility than as a transportation facility (with exceptions). I do like Complete Streets, well done. Most bike boulevards are simply a Complete Street poorly named, because they’re really about enforced context, and Complete Streets are all about contextual use.

    We don’t need dedicated funding for bikes so much as we need smart use of funding being spent regardless, and appropriate funding levels to reflect that our crumbling infrastructure is a much greater security and economic threat than ‘terror’ is.

  12. Sadly, most of the backlash these projects see is because of the bicycle label.

    Minneapolis should go the route that Portland did last year and start calling bike boulevards what they actually are – “Neighborhood Greenways.” – Streets with low traffic volume and speed where bicycles, pedestrians and neighbors are given priority.


  13. Here’s a video!


    Maybe Minneapolis’ use of giant “BIKE BLVD” label on the street should be re-considered.

  14. Yeah. I get that it’s part of the enthusiasm of Minneapolis for ‘We’re an awesome biking town! Yip yip hip zip! Hooray!’ but I think when you call it a Bike Boulevard — which happens many places, not just here — you’re underselling the actual impact on neighborhoods. This is about enforcing context on a streetscape in a way that is meaningful for residents and users. You let the nearby through-street be a through-street, and can regulate speed, intersections and parking as appropriate for a through-street. The boulevard provides an alternate path for non-motorized traffic, and has different contextual speed and parking restrictions. Everyone actually wins.