This past year while I was still living in Oregon, Portland took back its ranking as the number one bike-friendly city in the U.S. That made sense to me. Portland feels like a compact city for its size with a strong bike culture, lots of bike lanes, great weather in the summer, and if you don’t mind a little rain, decent weather in the winter.
Minneapolis had been ranked number one the previous year. Perhaps I should have shown more loyalty to my home state, but I was dubious of that ranking. Minneapolis always felt so spread out to me. During visits home over the years, I always saw Minneapolis from the passenger seat of a car, paying little attention to distances. And snow? Can we talk about the snow?
Wait, strike that. Let’s hope we can wait a month or two more before we have to talk about snow.
When I decided to move to Minnesota, not just visit, I set a goal to remain car-free; I planned to get around by foot, bus and bike like I have since heading off to college in 1985.
Upon arriving in Minnesota, a friend gave me a bike route to try. So on my first day I followed her route past the beautiful lakes of Minneapolis straight to a bookstore, Magers & Quinn on Hennepin, to buy a bike map.
The bike paths around the lakes were a good start, but I had to see for myself how Minneapolis could get such a high ranking for biking. Looking at the bike map, I saw lots of red lines for bike paths on city streets, but also tons of green lines for urban trails and corridors. Well, we would just see about that.
From where I stood at Lake & Hennepin, I needed to cut across Minneapolis to check out an “office” space. According to my map, I was just a block away from the Midtown Greenway, a corridor that cuts east-west through Minneapolis.
The Midtown Greenway, a 5.5 mile bike and pedestrian corridor from the Chain of Lakes to the Mississippi River, was once a below-grade railroad line. In 1879, the Chicago, Milwaukee & St. Paul Railroad built a rail line that crossed 50 streets from Lake Calhoun to Cedar Avenue, creating a hazard for pedestrians (and eventually cars). Although not popular with some businesses, the community advocated for dropping the line below grade. It took four years, but by 1916 the line was lowered and 37 bridges were built to cross the line.
The Hennepin County Regional Railroad Authority (created in 1980 to design and implement a light rail transit system in Hennepin County) purchased the land in 1993 to provide an alternative to car travel by creating barrier-free bike and pedestrian trials with potential space for light rail transit. Construction began in 2000 near the lakes and the trail reached the Mississippi River in 2006.
In addition to the Hennepin County Regional Railroad Authority, the Midtown Greenway Coalition is a nonprofit organization that has actively worked to protect and enhance the Greenway by working with developers to construct buildings with the Greenway in mind, coordinating nighttime safety patrols, advocating for better access points and signage, and organizing trail clean-ups.
Rather than becoming a trash bin running through the city, the Greenway has become a magnate for new development and businesses. As I sped along the corridor for the first time, however, I didn’t know any of that. All I knew was there were no cars in the way and there was a bike shop along the way – Freewheel Bike (I should probably check out their class on “winter bike commuting”).
The Greenway is a bike commuter’s dream. “Frickin’ sweet” is the text I had to send my brother.
With this corridor, I began to see why Minneapolis ranked so high among bike-friendly cities and am a little ashamed I was so dubious. I still love Portland and its dedication to bikes, but I think it might be time for Portland and Minneapolis to have a good old fashion dance off in their battle for number one.
In the meantime, I’d like to hear if your city is ready for a visit from Stella! and me. We just need to know how easy it is to bike in your city. Can you get to all the important landmarks in your city by bike?*
*In addition to historic sites and museums, my definition for ”important landmarks” includes restaurants, cafés and bakeries.