Nonprofit, independent journalism. Supported by readers.


Minneapolis Park Patrol enforces antiquated parkway cyclist rule: ‘Get in single file!’

If any Minneapolis streets should allow cyclists to “take the lane” and calm traffic, 20-mph recreational parkways running through the nation’s leading park system are the place.

A recent Minneapolis "Joyful Riders" group ride.
James Cowles

A few weeks ago, 30 customers gathered at the Angry Catfish Bicycle Shop on East 42nd Street to head out on their usual Minneapolis rounds. Like a lot of bike shops, Angry Catfish hosts a weekly “shop ride” where customers, workers or anyone in the neighborhood rides around for fun and community. The typical Angry Catfish ride is about 20 miles at a decent pace, and is a great way to reward regulars for frequenting their LBS (local bike shop).

That night, though, the shop ride took a turn for the weird. The group headed south down the Mississippi River Boulevard as it runs through Minnehaha Park, the most popular park in the city. They came to the roundabout where the Minnehaha Drive meets Minnehaha Parkway, one of the choke points in the system. 

According to one south Minneapolis man, astride a Salsa gravel bike at the time, here’s what happened next.   

“We try to stick into that bike lane as much as we can,” Reed Osell told me. “You get to the roundabout, and the parkway narrows. There’s not really a shoulder, and historically on group rides, a dozen or more riders stick to the road. Anytime you’re around Sea Salt [café] and Minnehaha Falls, it’s very busy. There are a lot of people walking.”

Article continues after advertisement

Minneapolis’ off-street bike trails are not wide by international standards, and a two-way trail like the one running through the park doesn’t allow much leeway. It only takes a jogger, a dog on a leash, or (worst of all) a rented four-passenger pedal cart to make trails practically useless for groups of cyclists. 

“Folks who don’t live around the area might not know [the rules], but we are a bit more risk averse,” Osell explained. “[So] we bike onto the road, about 15 mph, when we hear someone yelling though a PA speaker. I glanced back a couple times, quickly saw a park patrol car and realize the sounds were coming from him. I was trying to to figure it out: he was saying “Everyone get in single file!’”

Bill Lindeke
]The spot in question where Minneapolis Park Patrol has been enforcing the single-file rule.
(It’s worth pointing out that the speed limit on South Minnehaha Drive is 20 miles per hour, as it is on every Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board parkway.)

“I don’t see any lights, and there was no other cars behind him,” Osell continued. “We got in single-file for a majority of that section, but he never passed us. No other vehicle passed us. Eventually we got back by the dog park [about half a mile], and he stopped following us.”

This experience has happened more than once this summer Minneapolis parkways: police yelling at cyclists on parkways to get in line. One of the cyclists working at the rear of the group ride, “marshaling” to alleviate conflicts with motorists, talked to the officer, who rudimentarily cited a city ordinance. Everyone left confused. 

Ordinance dissonance

I looked into it, and it turns out that the fault didn’t lie with the officer that day (though surely they could have found better uses for their time). The problem is a 50-year-old Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board (MPRB) rule that’s still on the books that though  long out-of-date. According to Robin Smothers, who does communication for the MPRB, the policy states:

“Every person operating a bicycle upon a parkway or designated bicycle path shall ride as near the right side of the parkway or designated bicycle path as practicable, exercising due care when passing a standing vehicle or bicycle or one proceeding in the same direction. Persons riding bicycles upon a parkway or designated bicycle path shall not ride two (2) abreast except for parkways when set aside for the exclusive use of bicycles.”

Smothers also cited the state law as a reference, but in that case, the rules are a bit different. State statue 169.222 dictates: “persons riding bicycles upon a roadway or shoulder shall not ride more than two abreast, shall not impede the normal and reasonable movement of traffic and, on a laned roadway, shall ride within a single lane.”  

Article continues after advertisement

Even Dorian Grilley, executive director of advocacy group BikeMN, admits that the law is “a bit fuzzy” and could certainly be clarified. (See also the recent change to state law on bicycle positioning within lanes.) But he added a caveat pertaining to another other state law that requires three feet of space for drivers to safely overtake a cyclist.

“On a local street, it doesn’t matter if bicyclists are riding single file or two abreast,” Grilley explained. “A 7- or 8-foot-wide car in a 10- or 12-foot driving lane must enter the other lane to pass a 3-foot-wide bicyclist riding 3 feet from the edge by 3 feet, either way.”

What are parkways for?

Minneapolis’ parkway system is a tremendous legacy asset to the entire city, but they still occupy a vague place in the transportation network. Should they be designed for slow-paced recreation, or rush hour commuting? Is it possible to design a street that serves both needs, or should the MPRB choose one of these groups to better serve? 

A lot depends on how you answer the question, and issues like speed limits, right-of-way fights, and partial “closure” of streets like Minnehaha Parkway to cars have long been a political fight at Park Board meetings. 

My take is that if any Minneapolis streets should allow cyclists to “take the lane” and calm traffic, 20-mph recreational parkways running through the nation’s leading park system are the place. Minnehaha Drive, the West River Road, Victory Memorial Drive and a half dozen other parkways full of joggers, kids and dogs are the last places where drivers should be passing cyclists at excessive speed. 

That said, I readily admit that this isn’t that big a deal. Even Osell admits that they were not put out by the encounter, and mostly confused by the experience. Only a fool would blow this situation out of proportion.

By the way, I recently learned a fun fact: when the German army occupied the Netherlands during World War II, they also implemented a single-file cycling rule. Transportation historian Carlton Reid describes what happened in 1940s Holland (emphasis mine):

“Dutch cyclists were used to ruling the road, and they continued to ride in front of motor vehicles, even though the motor vehicles now contained Nazi soldiers. This came to a head in the year after the invasion, with cyclists ordered to keep their hands on their handlebars at all times, not to ride two-abreast, and to cede priority to motorists at junctions.” 

Article continues after advertisement

(These new rules, along with German confiscations of people’s bikes, did not sit well with the Dutch, though they had little choice in the matter.)

In other words, maybe it’s time for the MPRB to choose a different path, allocate their resources more carefully, and change their backward-looking rule. Enforcing a policy that clashes with both state law and common sense seems fruitless; I can think of fewer less effective policing tasks, other than that of the Sisyphean traffic cops waving flashlights at drivers in the MSP Airport pickup lanes. 

“It was a beautiful evening,” Reed Osell said, describing the Angry Catfish ride. “Minnehaha Falls was busy, but the parkway itself wasn’t. There weren’t many cars along that whole stretch, we saw maybe 2-3 oncoming vehicles. What difference does it make if we’re single file or not?”

The last thing we need in Minneapolis is cops chasing packs of cyclists with megaphones, yelling into the void.