Minneapolis has the densest biking network of the nation’s most populous cities — and it’s not even a close contest.
The city is 32 percent ahead of Boston — its nearest rival — in bike lanes per square mile. And Minneapolis has five times the median for other large cities by that measure. That’s according to a biennial overview of bike-walk infrastructure released by the Alliance for Biking and Walking, a national advocacy group.
Yet Minneapolis is barely halfway to its eventual goal of 402 miles of bikeways across the city. With 226 miles of bike lanes in place — and drivers often raising a chorus of concern when a street cedes space to bike lanes — some are wondering, how much is enough?
“Are we going to have a protected bike lane on every street?” asked City Council President Barbara Johnson, noting business concerns about plans to add barrier-protected bike lanes plus greenery to Third Avenue S. through downtown this summer.
The alliance report measured bike networks by lane-miles. That means that a mile of street with lanes on either side counts as two miles of bike lanes, as would a two-way off-road path. By that measure, Minneapolis has a big advantage because of its park system and popular off-road routes such as the nationally lauded Midtown Greenway and the Cedar Lake Trail. Its comparatively compact size among big cities also helps its ranking.
Minneapolis tallied 5.8 miles of lanes and paths per square mile, based on 2014 stats. That’s including lanes protected with plastic posts, curbs or parked cars, regular painted lanes, and off-road paths. But it doesn’t include 35 miles of low-traffic bike boulevards and other streets designed as shared space for bikes and motor vehicles.
The national median among the 50 most populous cities is 1.1 miles of bike lane per square mile. Second-place Boston has 4.4 miles per square mile. St. Paul isn’t big enough to be ranked by the alliance but its comparable figure would be 2.3 miles of bike lane per square mile, based on city statistics.
Ethan Fawley, executive director of the Minneapolis Bike Coalition, the prime group advocating for local bike infrastructure, said he’s not surprised that a city with a long history of park bike paths has such a lead. “That’s obviously the backbone of our system here,” he said.
But he said questions about costs and benefits of additional lanes are appropriate.
“We’re not going to put in bikeways if they’re not going to serve people,” he said, before predicting, “As long as we continue to see rapid interest and growth in biking, we’re going to see additional investments.”
Minneapolis ranks third among the 50 big cities in share of population biking to work. That figure rose from 2.8 to 3.9 percent between 2007 and 2013, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
Minneapolis tied for the second-lowest fatality rate among bike commuters for big cities. But added safety is one reason bike advocates want more improvements — planners have found people prefer barrier-protected cycling.
“There still is a strong desire for protected bike lanes,” said Dorian Grilley, who heads Bicycle Alliance of Minnesota. “People still don’t feel safe out there.
Council member Lisa Bender said there’s still work needed to fill gaps to connect bikers with destinations such as business districts. Some neighbors questioned why the city added protected lanes to E. 26th and 28th streets last summer, since they parallel the busy greenway. But bikers argued they still need safe routes to nearby institutions.
“I think we should be implementing our bike plan, fully and every chance we get,” Bender said.
One critic of Minneapolis spending at the State Capitol disagrees. Rep. Steve Drazkowski, R-Mazeppa, called the city’s bike lanes an example of “excessive and overzealous” spending.
It’s not just Minneapolis that’s jumping to offer bike routes. Hennepin County aims for a county bike network of almost 1,200 miles by 2040, and it’s a little more than halfway there.
Geographic equity is also a reason to keep adding routes. Kevin Reich, the council’s public works point person, notes the need for an east-west connection linking north and northeast Minneapolis along 26th Avenue N. and 18th Avenue NE. “We still have significant gaps,” Reich said.