Editor's note: This new column appears the second Friday of the month.
Canadian-Danish urban planner guy Mikael Colville-Andersen has created a bit of a buzz in the global bicycle infrastructure crowd. His last TEDx talk has drawn more than 135,000 views. European magazines have referred to him alternately as the "Pope" or the "Bieber," as in Justin, of urban cycling. He lives in Copenhagen, where four in 10 people bike to work or school, aided by more than 200 miles of curb-separated bike lanes. His mission is to "Copenhagenize" the world.
He has opinions. Bike helmet advocates? "Safety nannies" pitching "emotional propaganda." Most city planners? Office-bound technocrats who force bicyclists to "adhere to traffic rules and traffic culture designed to serve the automobile … sending badminton players to play with ice hockey rules."
In an Instagram post in January he scorched Portland, Ore., after a visit there, writing, "I know I'm not the first to say it but Portland is so completely overrated as bike city. … It is a car city that squeezed some bike facilities in. Almost reluctantly, it seems."
Colville-Andersen then added, "But biketown? Don't buy the hype. … Go to Minneapolis, Montreal or San Francisco. Places that are at least trying."
That nice little backhanded compliment needs some context. There's no evidence that Colville-Andersen has been to Minneapolis (and he did not respond to an e-mail). But he hates, among many things, bicycle boulevards ("a product of lazy planning"); bike lanes in car-door zones ("What a face palm"); and "sharrows," those big bike stencils on streets that allow cities to boast about alleged bike routes with no more investment than a bucket of reflective paint.
Huh. Now, where on Earth is there a city with lots of bike boulevards, bike lanes that share car doors, and bike stencils on the street?
So Colville-Andersen, like many advocates on the conference circuit, is a bit of a purist, theatrically disengaged from the grubbier realities of municipal politics and budgets. He wants urban planners to be out studying the "desire lines" of a city's bicyclists — that is, the efficient, safe routes they choose to ride on their own. Then, he says, build infrastructure — protected lanes for starters — on those pre-desired routes.
So when Colville-Andersen does come to town, it would probably be best to keep him away from, say, the Bryant Avenue bicycle boulevard. He'd lose his lunch. Such a boulevard (according to the National Association of City Transportation Officials) is supposed to have slower, reduced volumes of car traffic, minor street crossings, and a design that "discourages through-trips by motor vehicles."
If only. Bryant Avenue is a busy bus route with lots of traffic lights and parking on both sides.
At times, it becomes a tense, multimodal mash-up, with cars piling up behind buses and commuters on bikes. Then the real fun starts on Bryant: Bottled-up cars swerve out and accelerate to pass, only to find oncoming cyclists riding in the other lane — each rider hoping, desperately, that no one opens a parked car door as they try to avoid being sideswiped head-on.
But Colville-Andersen probably hasn't seen Bryant Avenue, so he's been upbeat about Minneapolis. Two years ago in Wired magazine, he rated the city 18th on a list of the world's 20 best bike towns, after Paris but ahead of Hamburg and Montreal. He wrote: "Minneapolis would do well to increase its commitment to protected infrastructure and to focus on making the continent's best on-street network, and the first city NOT to feature sharrows. It's hard to think out of the box in America regarding transport, but somebody has to do it. Why not Minneapolis?"
Why not indeed. Last year, Colville-Andersen dropped Minneapolis from his 20 best bike towns list in Wired, going with Helsinki instead.
Bike Guy notes
• A correction: For my Feb. 9 column on bike building, I asked a Trek dealer about buying a steel touring frame. The dealer said the company would only sell me a full bike. Turns out, the dealer was just talking about the steel frame. Trek, as the company affably reminded me, does sell some bare frames, just not the steel one. Well noted.
• Note to all cycling public policy geeks: Bicycle Alliance of Minnesota (aka BikeMN), the nonprofit advocacy group, will convene its annual MN Bike Summit on March 15 at the Christ Lutheran Church, across University Avenue from the State Capitol in St. Paul. It is your chance to hang out with legislators, commissioners, and mayors, and hear and talk about safety, transportation management, and public health.
Tony Brown is a freelance writer from Minneapolis.