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Foot-powered progress moves ahead in Twin Cities

In the United States, you are three to five times more likely to die in a bicycling crash than in European countries that have gotten serious about the safety of nonmotorized travelers.

Even in Minnesota, considered a national model for healthy, economical and earth-friendly biking and walking, 11 percent of traffic fatalities last year were suffered by folks not in a motor vehicle. But little or no state money addresses this problem. That's been left to local governments and national programs, which are under fierce attack from autocentric conservatives over their 1.5 percent of federal transportation spending devoted to biking and pedestrian safety.

Fortunately, the Twin Cities landed $25 million from Washington several years ago to make getting around on two wheels or two feet less dangerous and more attractive. The positive results are visible as more and more people take to bikes and shoe leather around here. Bicycling is an economic boon, too, generating $315 million a year in manufacturing, distribution, retail and service in Minnesota, according to Minnesota Business magazine.

The next few weeks will be particularly rich in ribbon-cuttings of bike lanes, a University of Minnesota bicycle service center and even the state's first bicycle stop light. Meanwhile, a free online bicycle routing site, sort of a Google Maps for two-wheelers, offers detailed trip guidance about hills, pavement quality, traffic conflicts and many other features throughout the seven-county metro.

So there's never been a better time in Minnesota to start pedaling. Here are the latest improvements on the way for bicyclists:

•    Bryant Avenue S. Bicycle Boulevard. Grand opening Thursday, Sept. 22. The longest of the new bike routes in Minneapolis, it runs from W. 58th Street to downtown via the pedestrian-bicycle bridge over Lyndale Avenue and through Loring Park. There will be easier access to the Minnehaha Parkway bicycle trail and a safer crossing of Franklin Avenue thanks to a new median.

•    U of M Bike Center. Grand opening week of Sept. 27. Located in the Oak Street parking ramp, it will include the Hub Bicycle Coop and 24-hour bike parking, showers and changing rooms for key-card-carrying members. In addition, a first-in-the-nation radio frequency identification system along campus bicycle corridors will document two-wheeled travel and qualify frequent riders for rewards such as discounts on bike repairs, equipment and health insurance.

•    New Minneapolis routes around downtown. Tentative grand openings Wednesday, Oct. 5. Another national first, "advisory" bike lanes on narrow, low-traffic E. 14th, 15th and 16th Streets, will flank single, center driving lanes. If no bikes are present, cars can drive on the bicycle lanes. Plus, the Hiawatha LRT trail will be extended from its current terminus at 11th Avenue S. into the heart of downtown via paths next to the Valspar parking lot leading to 3rd and 4th Streets S.

•    Bicycle stop light, three Northeast routes. Tentative grand openings Thursday, Oct. 6. The new 5th Street Bicycle Boulevard will run from Dinkytown to 26th Avenue N.E., providing safer crossings with a push-button traffic light at Broadway and signals at Hennepin and Central Avenues that can detect a bicycle's presence. New east-west bike routes will intersect 5th on 22nd Avenue N.E. and off-road alongside 18th Avenue N.E. Another Northeast route, the Presidents Bicycle Boulevard on Fillmore and 6th Avenues N.E., will open next year.

•    North Minneapolis bike lanes. Grand opening Saturday, Oct. 8. North-south lanes on Emerson and Fremont Avenues N. will connect with existing lanes on 7th Street N. to downtown and 10th Avenue N. to Northeast.

•    LaSalle, Blaisdell and 1st Avenues S. bike lanes. Grand opening Sunday, Oct. 9. These lanes run south from downtown Minneapolis to the 40th Street RiverLake Greenway. Safety features include traffic buffers on 1st south of 33rd Street and green-painted bicycle boxes at the busy Lake Street intersections.

At the same time, St. Paul is ramping up development of its Citywide Bicycle Plan with public open houses Thursday, Sept. 22, at the West Minnehaha Recreation Center and Monday, Sept. 26, at the Phalen Recreation Center. Both events will run from 4 to 7 p.m.

Minnesotans are voting with their feet in response to these welcome infrastructure upgrades that recognize the value of all transportation modes, not just motor vehicles. Four percent of Minneapolis commuters are on bicycles. And Nice Ride Minnesota, the bike-sharing program in Minneapolis and St. Paul, reports 215,000 paying riders in less than 12 months of warm-weather operation since June 2010.

Hats off to Nice Ride, federal grantee Bike Walk Twin Cities, the U of M and all the other advocates and activists who have made foot-powered travel a vibrant, growing part of Minnesota's economy and culture.

Conrad deFiebre is a Transportation Fellow at Minnesota 2020, a progressive, nonpartisan think tank based in St. Paul. This article first appeared on its website.

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