Candidates go out of their way to align themselves with bike advocates in Minneapolis. Cyclists have lobbyists at the State Capitol. Now new advocacy groups are popping up in places like Northfield, Mankato and Duluth.
Minnesota’s lobby for bicyclists is emerging as a force around the state, as communities are building more bike lanes and legislators are writing more laws to make cyclists feel welcome. With so much at stake, members of the state’s bike lobby are determined to be front and center as cities and the state are transforming a transportation system designed largely for cars.
The state’s scrappy bike lobby sprouted up without a lot of money, but with a committed band of organizers that could quickly summon a passionate fan base.
In just five years, the Minneapolis Bicycle Coalition has become a potent advocacy group around City Hall.
“It isn’t about ramming through an idealistic, unrealistic vision for the city,” said Ethan Fawley, director of the Minneapolis Bicycle Coalition.
When city officials were contemplating an ambitious pledge of 30 miles of protected bike lanes by 2020, the city’s bike lobby turned out 3,400 handwritten cards of support.
It successfully pressed Hennepin County to add off-road cycling paths to Washington Avenue, delivering 500 postcards. The group also takes credit for getting the county to install wider bike lanes on Portland and Park avenues downtown. It even pressed for a revamp of the city’s Bicycle Advisory Committee.
In a show of strength more common to unions and business groups, the group produced a 10-point questionnaire for voters that 75 candidates answered in the last city election. Some bike coalition members also handed out campaign literature for one of the group’s founders, Lisa Bender, who won a City Council seat in 2013.
She said she found running as a bike advocate in her Uptown area ward was a “huge plus” in her campaign.
On a statewide level, the Bicycle Alliance of Minnesota has been less focused on specific bike projects and more focused on laws and education. This year, legislators are considering more than 20 bike-related proposals at the Capitol, everything from new penalties for motorists who collide with pedestrians and cyclists to money for additional bike paths.
The Bicycle Alliance of Minnesota, which has an annual budget of about $673,000, employs two lobbyists at the Capitol, according to state Campaign Finance and Public Disclosure Board records.
State and federal funding for biking and walking initiatives in Minnesota is about $45 million annually, according to an estimate by Transit for Livable Communities. That doesn’t count local funds, typically from local property taxes.
The growing amount of money for bike and pedestrian lane projects has drawn sharp criticism from those who say the state is diverting precious dollars away from the state’s crumbling roads and bridges. Business groups say overhauling roads and bridges is paramount to the state’s future economic growth.
Annette Meeks, CEO of the Freedom Foundation of Minnesota, sent a letter to critics of Gov. Mark Dayton’s proposed gas tax increase for billions of dollars in new road and bridge improvements, including bike and pedestrian paths.
Meeks called the $75 million for trails, paths and pedestrian infrastructure “nonessential programs that don’t ease gridlock or fix our roads.”
Demand is outstripping the money, however. In a recent competitive round for federal bike-walk funds, only $6 million in projects were funded out of $21 million in requests from around the state. Bike-walk organizations are seeking another $50 million for such projects through the statewide Move MN transportation lobbying coalition.
Requests for new trails and paths are popping up around the state. Applications for trail grants have originated from Roseau to Elgin and from Luverne to Grand Marais.
The Minneapolis coalition stands as the most seasoned example of cycling advocacy in the state. The coalition advocated for the $1.5 million that Mayor Betsy Hodges wants to spend on protected bikeways over the next couple years. The city also upped its budget for clearing protected bike paths in the winter.
The success of the coalition has also engendered backlash as critics argue that City Hall has skewed too far in favor of bike-walk projects. They argue that too much time, money and space has been diverted from the city’s driving lanes.
Mark V. Anderson of Minneapolis said that there are far too many bike lanes for far too few riders. He points to Portland and Park avenues, where a narrow bike lane was widened to occupy what had been a car lane. “It’s just politically correct not to drive these days,” Anderson said. “I don’t understand it because most of the people in power drive.”
Bike funding and dedicated facilities for biking have exploded nationally as mayors and other public officials have attached themselves to an area of public infrastructure that’s popular with many constituents, especially less car-dependent young voters. Some politicians, like former Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak, bike regularly, while others, like former Council Member Robert Lilligren, eschew cars entirely.
Bikers haven’t always been as organized or effective.
A turning point for bikers that prompted the coalition came in 2009 when the city revamped bike lanes on Hennepin and First avenues, leaving them feeling unprotected in shared lanes on Hennepin and vulnerable to car doors on First, where a lane was buffered by parked cars. “How did something so prominent get done so poorly?” said Fawley, the coalition’s director.
One who joined the cause was Bender, a community organizer who lived in several cities with bigger cyclist-pedestrian advocacy groups. She missed that voice here. She said that the coalition “has a significant voice because it’s able to organize people.” As a council member, “You don’t always hear from hundreds of people on an issue.”
The coalition has no plans to follow bike groups in New York and other cities that make political endorsements and form professional political-action groups.
Fawley said he’d rather keep the organization grass roots, involving many people in discussions about transportation projects and coming up with solutions based on the desires of walkers, bikers and transit users.
“They’ve been a welcome presence and a strong one,” Hennepin County Commissioner Peter McLaughlin said. “We went 50 years where the auto was king … We’re trying to change that balance.”