Travis Norvell, the pastor of the South Minneapolis’ Judson Memorial Baptist Church, is a self-described “MPR nerd.” Like many people I know, he starts his morning with ears glued to Cathy Wurzer’s Morning Edition on Minnesota Public Radio. If he’s like me, he particularly savors Wurzer’s up-and-down relationship with meteorology and traffic during the long Twin Cities winter.
But one thing kept bothering him. An avid bicyclist and proselytizer for getting out of the car, Norvell listened to reports about traffic jams on different metro area freeways. One day he began to wonder, what about the rest of the people?
“I was just listening to the news one day, and [Wurzer] talked about a car fire on Interstate 35-E,” Norvell explained. “On the next day, a semi trailer had jackknifed. [The information] was all for commuting, and I thought, ‘I wonder if she would possibly do a bike commute thing for people who get around not by car?’”
The next week, Norvell leapt into action. He sent Wurzer a tweet with a short summation of bicycle commuting conditions, asking if she’d share the information with her listeners alongside the latest freeway congestion news.
“She said ‘yes,’” Norvell exclaimed, like someone who’s just gotten engaged. “I was blown away when she read them verbatim.”
A grassroots effort
Thus, the Morning Edition bike conditions report was born. It’s a pretty grassroots affair. Most days, Travis Norvell collects info from a few reliable commuting sources via social media, or, if he’s truly desperate, from his family.
“Usually people will text me their commutes on their way to work,” said Norvell. “Sometimes, my wife takes the bus downtown and she’ll tell me what she’s seen on her bus ride. Sometimes my son, when he’s walking to school, will tell me what the sidewalks are like and ask his friends.”
Then, sometime after 7:30, Cathy Wurzer will usually read out the day’s digest alongside the litany of congestion. Wednesday’s missive: “The same as yesterday, another dirty snow-slash-brown sugar ride. Clear bike paths, mix of hard pack, pavement, and ice ruts on bike lanes.”
And of course, Wurzer summed it up with ever-present cheer: “And that’s some information for those of you biking around today.”
The pedaling pastor
Norvell lives a short ride from his church on Harriet Avenue South, and for the last decade at Judson, has been an acolyte for getting people out of their car. Though he admits that these days, with COVID in the air, the commute is easier; there are no in-person services, at least for another month.
For Norvell, biking and walking are part of his ministry, such a part of his practice that his Twitter handle is “pedalingpastor.”
The bicycle conditions report is just one small way that Norvell hopes to move his flock.
“How do you get people to move them from A to B on climate?” Norvell asked me recently. “Most of the time, a lot of us shame people, but we never provide them with a viable alternative. But in the Twin Cities, it’s not perfect, but biking and walking and public transit is a viable alternative.”
Norvell even wrote a book about the connection between bicycling and faith coming out this spring from Judson Press, called Church on the Move. The new book centers on the connection between walking, bicycling and being a pastor, about how he found God at work by biking, walking and taking the bus in the area around his church. For Norvell, there’s a firm link between Christianity and environmental sustainability.
He hopes to have a book release sometime in the late spring, hopefully paired with a bike ride around South Minneapolis. By then, we can all pray that the snow has cleared up.
100 words for snow-covered bike lanes
Meanwhile, getting useful information about bike conditions across the Twin Cities metro isn’t easy. As any winter cyclist knows, the season poses problems for commuting. Even more than for drivers, snow cycling conditions change dramatically from day-to-day, with safety hurdles ranging from ice ruts to soft, oatmeal-y mush to dry powder conditions. The report’s details about things like wind speed can mean the difference between adding goggles or an extra layer to your cycling gear.
“It’s been an interesting winter as far as the way the cold has gone,” Travis Norvell told me. “It’s either been really cold, or been kind of warm. The snow’s kind of dirty now. I don’t really like this time of year.”
(He and Wurzer have that in common.)
Most critically, small changes in trail maintenance and bike lane plowing can make or break a commute. That’s why Norvell relies on social media friends to get the latest scoop on trail clearance. Earlier this month, his report warned of “stiff mashed potatoes on the side roads” or that “you might have to make your own path to get to plowed main roads.”
For Norvell, the report has another effect of nudging people to think outside the single-passenger vehicle, of ways of getting around besides the freeway.
“There have got to be different ways to normalize bicycling,” Travis Norvell said. “Maybe it’s just people hearing that there are more ways to get work or school or pleasure than just in your car. At least, in people’s minds, it creates a little bit more room for imagination and possibility.”
It’s true that, for folks who bike, walk or take transit to work, the daily drip of traffic and parking information can become a minor annoyance. Speaking personally, the traditional Minnesota greeting of “so, where’d you park” begins to grate at your sensibilities. When your answer is “actually I took the bus,” it shuts down small talk like an audible fart. It’s annoying enough that a friend of mine gave me a special Christmas present this year: a winter toque that says, embroidered on the brim: “Yes, I biked here.”
This winter, Norvell is certainly grateful to Wurzer for including him in the daily routine, that the bicycle commute report has been a regular feature for January mornings.
As for Wurzer, she likes it too.
“Isn’t Travis great? Reaction has been universally positive,” Wurzer said. “Car commuters might be puzzled, but I think it’s a nice touch, and more reflective of what the morning commute has become in the metro.”