Nebraska’s Capital of Biking

I was driving from Indiana to Utah (again) yesterday and decided to stop in Lincoln, Nebraska to check out the bike scene.  I’d read something somewhere about protected bike lanes and the city’s commitment to cycling and wanted to see if it was real or just PR fluff as it seems to be so many other places.

First, let me share a little background.  Lincoln is a growing city of approximately 300,000 people.  In addition to being the seat of government, it’s also home to the University of Nebraska  with an enrollment of approximately 25,000 students.  Even though it’s smallish, it’s not a college town.  It’s a smaller city that just happens to be home to a big college, sort of like Madison Wisconsin.

Nebraska's totally awesome state capitol building.

Nebraska’s totally awesome state capitol building.

I’ve been through Lincoln many times on Interstate 80 but I’ve never explored the city.  The super slab skirts the edge of town. It’s smooth and fast and it’s hard to peel yourself off knowing that you still have many hundreds of miles to go.  Yesterday was different, though.  My hotel in Omaha was in the middle of nowhere and breakfast wasn’t free.  I decided to stop in Lincoln instead.

Truth is, I wanted to go to Brueggers and that meant going downtown.  I rationalized that it would allow me to check out the bike scene, so even though I had 900 miles of driving ahead of me I took the 27th Street exit and headed into town.

Mopac Trail at 27th Street.  When completed, the Mopac Trail will connect Lincoln to Omaha.

Mopac Trail at 27th Street. When completed, the Mopac Trail will connect Lincoln to Omaha.

I hadn’t gone far before I ran into the Mopac Trail.  This converted rail line runs right into the heart of the city.  It provides connectivity between neighborhoods and the core.  I knew it was there, but I didn’t expect the overpass.  A grade crossing probably would have sufficed, but wow, this was really great.  The overpass allows cyclists to continue without having to stop for traffic.  This is no small thing.  When infrastructure is designed in this manner, it makes cycling more attractive than driving.   This was done well.  Lincoln had my attention.

Next I turned right onto Q Street.  This is a one way arterial that borders the south edge of the University of Nebraska campus and heads straight into downtown, terminating at the railroad tracks in the city’s revitalized Haymarket district.  I’d only gone a few blocks on Q before I ran into the Rock Island Trail.  Like the Mopac, the Rock Island was done up right.  It wasn’t an afterthought.  A lot of care and attention had gone into design and it was impressive.

Q Street is one way, but the speed limit is relatively low and parking is limited to the left side.  That makes this a pretty good street for cyclists, even without marked bike lanes or sharrows.

Q Street is one way, but the speed limit is relatively low and parking is limited to the left side. That makes this a pretty good street for cyclists, even without marked bike lanes or sharrows.

The Rock Island trail at Q Street.  There are multiple paths, underpasses and beautiful connections to adjacent streets.  This is very well done.

The Rock Island trail at Q Street. There are multiple paths, underpasses and beautiful connections to adjacent streets. This is very well done.

So here I was in my car passing all of this awesome bicycle infrastructure and it suddenly occurred to me that I could take the bike down from the rack on the back of the car and bicycle to Brueggers instead of driving and so that’s what I did.   Ironically, I ended up on the streets instead of the trails and this is where Lincoln really shined.  It wasn’t just easy to navigate the streets of the urban core on bicycle…it was actually delightful.   Motorists were friendly.  Traffic was calm, even though it was moderately crowded due to a running event in the area. There was plenty of secure bike parking.  It was as good an experience as I have ever had in urban cycling even though (and this is important) there were no bike lanes or sharrows anywhere to be found.

IMG_20160402_094801894_HDR

The new O Street viaduct (above) includes a wide cyclepath as it crosses the railroad tracks to the west of downtown. It connects to a sidepath on the west side.

I love these dividers.  They had an incredible traffic calming effect and made this intersection much safer for cyclists and pedestrians.

I love these dividers. They had an incredible traffic calming effect and made this intersection much safer for cyclists and pedestrians by forcing motorists to keep their distance and slow down.

Bicycles (and bike parking) were everywhere in the Haymarket and downtown Lincoln.

Bicycles (and bike parking) were everywhere in the Haymarket and downtown Lincoln.

When it comes to determining whether a city is truly bicycle friendly, there is no substitute for actually seeing for yourself.  I couldn’t even begin to tell you what the data says about Lincoln’s bike-friendliness but from the saddle, Lincoln rocks.  The people who are behind the transformation of this city from all car to active transportation deserve kudos.

One more thing, and I would be remiss if I didn’t mention this.  Lincoln is a hub in a growing regional network of bikeways that span Nebraska, Kansas, Iowa and Missouri.  In addition to the aforementioned Mopac Trail connection to Omaha, you can bicycle south all the way to Marysville Kansas on rail trails.  There are plans to extend that route into Topeka and Kansas City, and from there you will be able to take the Rock Island and Katy Trails all the way to St. Louis.  To the north, the Cowboy Trail starts in Norfolk and stretches over 200 miles west to Valentine.

From the perspective I gained after an hour of navigating Lincoln by bicycle, I can say that this is without a doubt one of my favorite places to cycle.  I plan to reach out to the bike community and city officials to learn the back story, because I think they’ve hit upon a formula that could be used to improve other places as well.  Oh yeah, almost forgot…I never did find those protected bike lanes.

 

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