Biking is up, even, and especially, in the cold

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Bike riders entered the Mill Ruins Park in downtown Minneapolis.

Photo: David Brewster, Star Tribune

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The number of bicyclists in and around Minneapolis has soared in the past year, signaling that a decade-long cultural shift in transportation and urban design is gaining ground.

The number of people burning calories instead of fuel to turn their wheels increased by 22 percent in the past year and by 52 percent since 2007, according to data to be released on Friday by Bike Walk Twin Cities, an advocacy group.

The numbers are still low compared to car usage. But, experts say, they are big enough now to make an impact on health, air pollution and traffic congestion.

"It's become a cultural phenomenon, and part of the identity of many people who reside [in the Twin Cities]," said John Pucher, a professor of urban transportation at Rutgers University in New Jersey. "Minneapolis is one of the most successful [biking] cities in the United States, which is incredible given your weather."

The trend is also producing new attitudes toward commuting and -- in case you hadn't noticed -- a need to share the roads no matter what the weather.

"I'm going to ride in the tire track, right where the cars are," said Jill Hamilton, 48, as she described how she handles her bike commute to downtown Minneapolis on snowy days. "My mindset is: I'm sharing the road, too."

The fact that Hamilton is riding -- Minneapolis has more female riders than the national average -- and doing it in the winter is evidence that millions of dollars invested in biking lanes and trails are resulting in a transformation of the city, Pucher said.

A few cities like Minneapolis and Portland, Ore. -- widely considered the biking-est city in the country -- are reaching a tipping point where the numbers "begin to snowball," said Dan Burden, executive director of the Walkable and Livable Communities Institute in Florida, which advises cities on urban design. "That gives everyone permission to do it."

Part of the trend can be attributed to a $28 million federal transportation grant Minneapolis received in 2005, which has been administered by Bike Walk Twin Cities. It has helped pay for public-awareness programs, the lime-green bike share program called Nice Ride, and, most important, bike trails and lanes on streets.

Local and national experts say it's a classic case of if you build it, they will bike.

For example, the federal funds paid for a new connecting link and bike lanes on the Lake Street Bridge between Minneapolis and St. Paul. According to the annual survey of bike counts, that spot has seen a 218,000-person increase in the number of bicyclists since 2007.

The Bike Walk survey, considered one of the best measures of bicycling activity in the Twin Cities, posts monitors at 42 sites around Minneapolis to track the number of walkers and bikers within the same two-hour period on the same day each year.

She plans ahead

Seeing other "warriors" biking to work inspired Hamilton when she moved to Minneapolis from Ohio five years ago.

"I remember seeing bikers going down Hennepin in the snow and wind," said Hamilton, who runs the employee health program for Hennepin County. "I thought, 'That's incredible. That is a commitment.' "

Now she thinks nothing of riding her bike from downtown Minneapolis to a meeting in Golden Valley. She's learned how to plan her wardrobe accordingly -- warm but workplace appropriate. She's also learned that she has to apply her eye makeup when she gets to the office, not before. The cold wind makes her eyes tear up.

And, yes, it does take more time, she said. But she adjusts her work schedule, and she's found that by biking she gets in her exercise and decompresses from the day. "It's a great way to unwind," she said.

Gasoline saved

A separate survey by Minneapolis officials showed that after this year's completion of the Cedar Lake Trail extension under Target Field to the Mississippi River, the number of bicyclists counted at that site jumped from 520 to 2,310.

Much of the increase reflects cyclists who otherwise would have ridden elsewhere, said Simon Blenski, who manages biking data for the city of Minneapolis. But overall numbers across the city are up as well, he said.

"We have seen increases almost across the board," he said.

The overall impact is hard to assess because tracking biking is a fledgling form of transportation research. But between 2007 and 2010, the average number of miles biked by each Minneapolis adult increased by 12 a year, according to a pilot model designed by a research group that includes Bike Walk Twin Cities.

The number of miles walked is up significantly as well, an increase of 16 miles per year, according to the analysis.

Altogether, it means that there are now nearly 7.5 million miles of transportation in and around Minneapolis that are not taken by car, said Tony Hull of Bike Walk win Cities.

Another way of looking at it: One bike commuter who rides 5 miles to work, four days a week uses 100 gallons less of gasoline -- equal to a 5 percent reduction in the average individual's carbon footprint, according to the national Rails to Trails Conservation group.

That's just about what Hamilton is doing. And now she's sufficiently committed to justify an investment that will ensure her safety this winter come rain, snow, sleet or impatient drivers:

Steel-studded bike tires.

Josephine Marcotty • 612-673-7394

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