The Drive: AAA to bicyclists: Help is on the way

  • Article by: TIM HARLOW , Star Tribune
  • Updated: May 19, 2013 - 9:07 PM

Motorists with an AAA Minneapolis card who run out of gas, get flat tires or encounter any other difficulty that leaves them stranded on the road can make an SOS call and the agency will send help. Starting July 1, bicyclists will be able to do the same.

The club, which serves more than 200,000 members in Hennepin County, will become the third AAA chapter in the country to offer roadside assistance to people on two wheels.

The new offering comes at a time when demographics and mobility patterns are changing, and more people are opting for modes of transportation besides cars. Recognizing this, the century-old club is innovating to remain relevant.

“We can’t be seen as the auto club of the 1940s and ’50s,” said CEO Tom Sorel, the former commissioner of the Minnesota Department of Transportation. “We are not casting aside our history with the automobile. A lot of our members value the automobile. This will be a supplement and support where we are going in the future. We think this will be an attractive benefit for future members as well.”

AAA Minneapolis’ membership is skewed to the older generation, with only 25 percent under 35. By adding service for bicyclists, Sorel said the club wants to retain current members, become attractive to new members, and showcase its wide array of services, which include travel planning, insurance and a license bureau.

“Roadside service is what really defines us to our members, and if we succeed at that we are golden,” Sorel said. “If people have a really good experience with roadside assistance, they are likely to utilize other services within AAA and be a continued member. If we fail, we are going to have issues.”

Bike assistance will be included with the club’s three levels of membership: Basic, Plus and Premier. The service will be provided only within Hennepin County, and for now only to bicyclists who have a breakdown on a street. AAA is looking to partner with other organizations that would allow it to expand the service to include problems that occur on trails such as the Midtown Greenway or the Cedar Lake or Luce Line trails through the western suburbs.

“This gives them peace of mind, and that has been our mantra,” Sorel said. “If they have trouble, we will be there for them.”

With biking on the upswing in Minneapolis — it has the second-highest number of bike commuters of all big cities and was ranked No. 2 by Bicycling magazine — it’s possible the club will consider bike-only memberships down the road, Sorel said.

The bike service signals a shift for AAA Minneapolis, which has long been an advocate for automobile infrastructure. With its current goals — to improve the quality of life for its members, to be seen as innovative and to collaborate with others — the club is backing efforts to build a wider transportation system, including “Complete Streets” that have room for cars, bicycles, pedestrians and mass transit.

It’s also reviving its efforts to be seen as a leader in the arena of public safety, as it was in the 1970s.

“AAA Minneapolis is committed to improving the quality of life for everyone that we serve,” said spokesman Matt Hehl. “Transportation is a major factor in quality of life, and our members want options that are multimodal. The new bike service is part of that commitment.”

Follow news about traffic and commuting at The Drive on startribune.com. Got traffic or transportation questions, or story ideas? E-mail drive@startrib une.com, tweet @stribdrive or call Tim Harlow at 612-673-7768.

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