Jan and I are planning a return trip to the Upper Midwest later this summer and so I’ve been online doing a little reconnaissance. We plan to bring the bikes and explore because Minnesota and Wisconsin are pretty special places for cyclists, especially in the summer.
Some of you may already know that Minneapolis is the only US city that consistently makes Copenhagenize.EU’s list of the world’s best cities for cyclists. Back in the 1990s when we lived there it was all about the Grand Rounds in Minneapolis and paths along both sides of the Mississippi River including the iconic Stone Arch Bridge. These days there’s the Midtown Greenway and the Martin Olaf Sabo Bridge over Hiawatha Avenue. There’s also NiceRide Minnesota, one of America’s largest and most encompassing bikeshare programs.Mostly, though, it’s about people who ride year round in what most folks from points south (and that’s pretty much everyone who doesn’t live there) would consider pretty harsh weather. It’s about the little things done amazingly well. Little things like what? I’m so glad you asked.
Let’s start with the trail system. They plow it. They don’t do that in Ogden or Colorado or anywhere else I’ve ever lived, but they do it in Minneapolis. That’s good. If you want people to use bicycles instead of cars for getting around town, you have to make it easy and nothing makes it harder than 12 inches of crusty snow and -50 degree wind chills. Plowing helps.
Minneapolitans love their trails, and the most popular ones around the city lakes (Calhoun, Harriet, Lake of the Isles and Nokomis) can get quite crowded. So in those places there are separate trails for walking and cycling. That avoids the type of problems that are becoming more common in other more coastal areas like Boston.
What I especially like about the Twin Cities, though, is how they are integrating bicycling and transit into virtually all road projects now. I know they’re starting to do this everywhere, but the Cities are decades ahead of everywhere else. Most of it is functional as opposed to spectacular, but it works. Call it Midwestern pragmatism or whatever you like.
When the Wakota Bridge on Interstate 494 across the Mississippi River was expanded in 2006, they put a bike/pedestrian crossing in. There are three primary rivers (Mississippi, Minnesota and St. Croix) in the Twin Cities metro and virtually dozens of major highway crossings. Most of them have bicycle and pedestrian sidepaths or lanes. No other US urban region I’ve been to comes close (Sorry Denver. Sorry Portland) to this kind of coverage. It makes all the difference in the world in terms of getting from here to there.
One especially exciting project currently under construction is the St. Croix Crossing bridge on US 36 just south of Stillwater. As part of the project, state officials in Minnesota and Wisconsin are building a bicycle loop that includes a sidepath on the new bridge as well as bike lanes on the old Stillwater lift bridge a few miles north. There will be separate sections for pedestrians and cyclists at the chokepoints. I’m guessing they’ll plow it, too. I’ll have to go back in the winter and verify that.