Editor's note: Tony Brown's column will now appear twice a month, on the second and final Friday.
Beginning this fall, Minneapolis City Councilman Kevin Reich will lead a yearlong process that will significantly determine the quality and character of the bicycling life of the people of his city for decades to come.
So where, in advance of that work, did he go on his summer vacation? Copenhagen, perhaps the biking-est city on Earth — a place where bikes outnumber cars, and everyone feels so safe that they pedal around without helmets.
“What was amazing was the everyday-ness of it there,” Reich said. “They just ride around on these crummy old bikes in street clothes doing their daily business. It’s all day, every day, every person on bikes. Impressive.”
Reich, who represents the First Ward, is the chairman of the council’s transportation and public works committee, which in the year ahead will draft an updated Transportation Action Plan for Minneapolis. Its mission is to “select transportation projects and guide the design of projects on all streets in the city over the next 10 years” for transit and street design and operations, and how all that complements and accommodates pedestrians and cyclists.
Reich said he is hoping the new plan will close “system gaps” such as finishing the Great Northern Greenway, which will connect the north side — physically and symbolically — to downtown and the biking network of the rest of the city; improve bike lane and bike path connections downtown and the University of Minnesota campus; and more broadly create a “car-lite” future with less auto use on the streets.
Another goal: Triple in the next seven years the percentage of people who commute by bike, from 5 percent to 15 percent.
Minneapolis embarks on this process at an opportune time. The nation and the world are in a frenzy of new thinking about how to accommodate and integrate cycling into civic life. Newfangled intersections are on the drawing boards, some people are rethinking bike design away from sleek and toward frumpy (see “crummy old bikes” in Copenhagen), and e-bikes, dockless shared bikes and delivery trikes are enlivening and complicating the picture.
Just this week, an influential new book — “The Dutch Blueprint for Urban Vitality: Building The Cycling City,” by Melissa and Chris Bruntlett — is providing a concise survey of the options that cities are pursuing.
For example, parking. As in, bike parking. The Bruntletts point out that the Dutch city of Utrecht (pop. 334,000) is building a new 12,500-bike parking ramp. Other European cities are facing similar pileups of parked bikes.
“New parking will be essential,” Reich said. “We’ll fall short if we don’t have more places to park bikes.”
Reich envisions some kind of full-service downtown bike center, developed with businesses, where commuters could park, repair, and clean up their bikes and even themselves. Reich also agrees with the book that bicycles will in the next decade need to play a significant role in encouraging and managing densification, and also overcoming social disparities that haunt cities like Minneapolis.
If the Bruntletts’ vision is correct, we are also in store for some stunning changes in the city’s biking life. To wit:
• Get ready for more roundabouts, which can be designed to both smooth traffic and separate bicycles from the rest of the traffic. Perhaps the coolest roundabout on earth is the “Hovenring” (Google it) in the Dutch city of Eindhoven. It is an elevated, suspended, circular bike path above a busy intersection that feeds pedaled traffic in four directions, without stops. Imagine a circular Sabo Bridge over Hiawatha Avenue with bike path off-ramps in four directions.
• Get ready for the opportunity and headache of e-bikes (“For a lot of people my age,” Reich said, “that’s their next bike purchase.”) They extend the range and utility of commuting for many people; they also bring faster, heavier bikes to congested paths and lanes.
• How about intersections with four-way green lights for cyclists? The Bruntletts report that the Dutch city of Groningen is trying to harmonize traffic “with eye contact.” Currently in 29 of the city’s intersections, “a dedicated light phase permits cyclists from all four directions to pass through the intersection at once,” allegedly creating “a calm and orderly ballet” on the streets.
Look for colorful and often surreal pavement paint to funnel, pool and release cyclists at busy intersections. Some Dutch intersections in the Bruntletts’ book look like grand-scale linear op-art.
One trend is apparently international, what the book calls the “bikelash” against growing bike traffic on city streets. “Some people think bike work in the years ahead will come at the expense of others,” Reich said. “It won’t. It can’t.”
A recent column reported that the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy nonprofit claimed that Minnesota has 228 miles of abandoned rail rights of way that could be reclaimed for recreational use, like hundreds of other abandoned miles across the state. A number of people wrote to say: Fine. Now where exactly are those miles of potential bike paths? Good question, which the Rails-to-Trails staff has declined to answer despite repeated inquiries. Watch this space.
Tony Brown is a freelance writer from Minneapolis. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org. See an archive of his columns at startribune.com/bikeguy.