To Amy Brugh, new bike lanes on Twin Cities streets are a welcome, overdue sight — and she wants to see more.
“I really welcome the buildup in the network,” she said. “But because I am someone who rides, I feel like it’s still totally lacking.”
To Rick Brimacomb, the bike lanes are maddening, especially when traffic’s heavy, parking spots are limited and there are few cyclists in sight.
“It’s pitting the 2 percent against the 98 percent,” he said.
The city governments of Minneapolis and St. Paul are building a network of bike lanes on streets like never before. Minneapolis has added 75 miles of bikes lanes and trails in the past six years, and St. Paul has added 27 miles since 2015. The growth is cheered as a way to combat climate change and make cycling safer, but also reviled as a plot to take away parking and pinch lanes available to cars.
In passing long-term plans that call for hundreds of millions of dollars for the bike network, officials in both cities have argued the lanes are essential to deal with growth and cut greenhouse gas emissions. Narrowing lanes for motor vehicles and lowering speeds makes streets safer for everyone, they say — even drivers.
“Our bicycle network is important in its own right,” said Minneapolis City Council Member Lisa Bender, a co-founder of the Minneapolis Bicycle Coalition. “But it’s really part of a bigger look at how we’re designing streets for all users, how we are planning to meet our greenhouse gas emissions goals, how we’re planning to make our streets more livable.”
Cities from Chicago to Portland are beefing up their bicycle lane networks. Minneapolis is seen as one of the leaders, appearing on national and international lists of bike-friendly cities.
Minneapolis and St. Paul have limited data on usage of specific bike lanes, though both cities recruit volunteers to count bicycle traffic at various locations each year. Those surveys show an increase in cycling, and census data show bicycle commuting in Minneapolis rose from a little more than 3 percent to 5 percent between 2011 and 2015. Bicycle commuting in St. Paul grew from about 1 percent to about 2 percent during the same period.
Still, the things that make Minneapolis and other cities bike-friendly are also what create controversy.
Bender participated in a group bike ride in her south Minneapolis ward on a recent Saturday afternoon, organized after about a dozen people gathered earlier in the day to protest bike lanes.
What began as a fake event posted on Facebook by an online prankster escalated into a real demonstration, drawing protesters fed up with the proliferation of bike lanes.
As the group marched down the middle of a bike lane on W. 26th Street, carrying signs that read “Stop the anti-car agenda” and “Nazi lane,” bicyclists swerved to avoid them.
Both cities have identified potential spots for new projects, including striped lanes, lanes divided from traffic by barriers and streets designated as “bicycle boulevards.” The features are often added in tandem with other street work.
But time and time again, the lanes draw opposition.
In St. Paul, business owners along Cleveland Avenue fought bicycle lanes in 2016, arguing they’d lose customers if there wasn’t adequate parking. This spring, residents and business owners along E. 38th Street in Minneapolis made a similar argument and won some concessions from the city in the form of new short-term parking, loading zones and a study on the impact on small businesses.
Over the summer, residents in the Marcy-Holmes neighborhood learned SE. 8th Street was slated to get a bike lane and that they’d lose parking on one side of the street.
Longtime residents argued the fast-growing neighborhood already had enough bike lanes and couldn’t afford to lose parking.
Stephanie Schleuder, president of the St. Anthony Condominium Association, said they didn’t get much of a response from City Hall. “It’s very disappointing that the city has been so nonresponsive to the residents who actually live and work in this area,” she said.
David Schorn, a candidate challenging Bender for the Tenth Ward council seat, said at the protest that the city’s bike plans are “ill-conceived” and that officials need to rethink transportation plans.
But for people who rely on a bicycle to get around, designated lanes make it possible to travel safely.
Aaron Berger lives in the Longfellow neighborhood and takes his son to and from preschool on a bike with an attached tagalong child’s bike. Berger said they rely on the E. 38th Street lane, which separates them from vehicle and pedestrian traffic. “The alternative for us to using the bike lanes is biking on the sidewalk,” he said.
Minneapolis’ Bicycle Master Plan identifies more than $280 million of future projects; St. Paul’s plan calls more for than $100 million. Funding is expected to come from sources including grants and borrowing.
St. Paul Bicycle Coalition co-chairman Andy Singer said he remembers visiting the Twin Cities in the 1990s and finding that St. Paul’s park trails and Summit Avenue bike lanes put it ahead of Minneapolis in bike-friendliness. But then Minneapolis shot forward, in part because of a $25 million federal grant. “Minneapolis went on a tear,” Singer said.
Bicyclists and advocacy groups across the country are expanding their focus to include pedestrians and transit users as they try to get more people on board with transportation beyond cars.
In Chicago, the Chicagoland Bicycle Federation became the Active Transportation Alliance; the Street Trust in Portland was formerly the Bicycle Transportation Alliance; the Minneapolis Bicycle Coalition is now Our Streets Minneapolis.
“Right or wrong, cycling can seem not as inclusive as we want the choices to be,” said Jillian Detweiler, executive director at the Street Trust. “That was part of formalizing the broader mission — to say, clearly, we’re all in it together.”
In the past year, Minneapolis officials have focused city transportation policy on pedestrians, bicyclists and transit users over cars. They’ve also taken steps to reduce driving in other ways, including cutting back on parking development.
Still, cyclists say close encounters with cars continue to be part of their day-to-day reality.
Brian Martinson, a St. Paul bicycle commuter who chairs the Macalester Groveland Community Council’s transportation committee, said he often has close calls. He said adding bike lanes helps drivers see cyclists as regular commuters. “These are normal people doing normal jobs, going about their lives, just trying to get from point A to point B,” he said. “It’s not an us versus them thing.”