As Steve Clark and his friends waited at a light on University Avenue in St. Paul, a pickup truck pulled up next to his bike — the same truck that had just passed them moments before on Dale Street.
The driver leaned out the window and said, “Are you the people I just saw riding bikes on Dale?’'
Uh-oh, thought Clark. Here it comes.
But the guy surprised him. “Man, you guys really made good time! I’m going to have to get me one of those bikes,” he said. “They’re great.” And off he went.
“I thought: Now that wouldn’t have happened 10 years ago,” said Clark, a St. Paul bicycle advocate and educator for the League of American Bicyclists. “Things are changing.”
After nearly a decade of grudging, sometimes dangerous, and often profane coexistence, something approaching cordiality is emerging among Twin Cities’ motorists and bicyclists. While there are still high-profile cases of car-bicycle accidents, the rates are falling. And the safety that comes with mutual courtesy, civility and respect is making Twin Cities’ streets among the most bike-friendly in the nation.
“I think it’s better out there,” said David Wamsley, a longtime Minneapolis bicyclist. “People still yell at you, but it’s getting better.”
Over the past seven years, as bicycling traffic counts in Minneapolis soared 76 percent, the antagonism has at times been palpable.
Neither side has been without blame.
Motorists, long used to sole occupancy of the Twin Cities’ streets, found themselves increasingly unnerved and annoyed by growing herds of pushy, occasionally reckless cyclists, many of whom were emboldened by their numbers and a broader bike-rights movement. And almost any bicyclist can tell a story of a belligerent or even sideswiping motorist.
A 10-year analysis of bike-car crashes by the city of Minneapolis found neither side was solely to blame, reporting: “It appears that bicyclists and motorists are equally contributing to the causes of the crashes.”
Still, the crash rate for cyclists has plunged. According to the city’s analysis, about the same number of crashes occur now (about 270 a year) as 20 years ago, but the numbers of cycling commuters more than tripled.
The progress is generally attributed to three factors: A historic expansion of bike lanes, paths and boulevards, which separate bikes and cars; broader public knowledge that bicyclists have the right to be on the streets; and “More bikers mean that more drivers are also bikers. That changes the way they drive,” said Simon Blenski, the bike planner for the city of Minneapolis.
Take up the whole lane
As the program specialist for the League of American Bicyclists, Clark travels the country, helping towns and cities integrate the interests of car drivers and bicyclists. To him, the transition already underway in the Twin Cities is something most cities will eventually experience.
While the metro area has plenty of room for improvement, “almost nowhere is more bike friendly right now than the Twin Cities,” he said. “We can’t forget about that.”
Just ask 38-year-old Matthew Hoven. He moved to Minneapolis last December from rural Arkansas, where drivers throw things at bicyclists, he said. “You know those spit cups for tobacco? I’ve had people throw those.”
Riding on Twin Cities streets is “different altogether,” he said. “I have been pleasantly surprised. It’s been great. People [here] don’t realize.”
Still, activists on both sides say that challenges to peaceably sharing the roads remain.
Jerks, for instance.
“There are jerks on bicycles and there are jerks in cars,” Clark said. “That’s not going to change.”
And both drivers and bike riders could use a little education.
“No one has any training,” said Kirby Beck, a retired Coon Rapids police officer and longtime bike safety consultant. He said the region can’t evolve without more training. “There’s confusion all over the place. It’s a mess.”
Beck points out, for instance, that when there is no designated bike lane, the safest place to ride is fully in the lane of traffic. If bikes ride far to one side, up against the curb, cars tend to pass them without changing lanes, dangerously crowding bikes. With bikes well out in the lane, he said, cars change lanes and give cyclists the 3 feet of clearance to which they are legally entitled. “People see someone on a bike in the lane and they get angry,” he said. “That shouldn’t happen.”
Reaching across the road
There are those who maintain that drivers and bicyclists will never get along. In fact, they see the antagonism as another metaphor for an intractably divided America.
It’s a question that’s widely discussed in the transit and public policy communities: Are cyclists and motorists simply different kinds of people, forever doomed to antagonism?
For example, the states that made the League’s list of the nation’s most bike-friendly all voted for Barack Obama in 2012 (including No. 2 Minnesota). The least-bike-friendly states? They all voted for Mitt Romney.
The bicycle world noticed. “Are bikes the new gay marriage?” Fred Clements of the National Bicycle Dealers Association recently asked in his blog. Just in case, Clements then launched an “Adopt-A-Conservative” outreach program. To win over bike-phobic motorists, Clements suggested reminding them that “George W. Bush is an outstanding cyclist.”
Those are the kinds of efforts that make Blenski optimistic about motorist/bicyclist relations in the long term.
“They’re not perfect at all,” he said. “We’re just going to go through growing pains.”
Tony Brown is a Minneapolis-based freelance writer. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org