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Back to the future with bike power

Along with a decline in American driving that some studies date as far back as the mid-1990s, for years bicycling has shown strong, consistent growth.

"Bicycles at first were considered a nuisance on the street and sidewalk, but as the number increased and the public became accustomed to them, this sentiment gradually wore away. Moreover, the number of wheelmen has so increased that they represent quite a power at the polls."
Courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society

The year was 1897 and the Twin Cities were feeling the political repercussions of an emerging mode of transportation that raised the hackles of walkers, pushcart dealers and animal-powered wagoneers on public thoroughfares. We’re not talking the automobile here.

Conrad DeFiebre

“Bicycles at first were considered a nuisance on the street and sidewalk,” wrote L.W. Rundlett, the St. Paul city engineer, “but as the number increased and the public became accustomed to them, this sentiment gradually wore away. Moreover, the number of wheelmen has so increased that they represent quite a power at the polls.”

More than 100 years later, history is repeating itself in Minnesota and across the country. “We slipped a little during the 20th century,” Andy Clarke, president of the League of American Bicyclists, joked to Henry Grabar at Salon, who also dug up the Rundlett quote. “But we’re back.”

Hardly anywhere is this more true than in Minnesota, where new studies, national honors and expanding facilities for two-wheel mobility all reflect sturdy growth of this economical, healthful, environmentally sound and social-fabric-friendly way of getting around. For the time being, at least, proof also lies in a chorus of derision from autocentric reactionaries.

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“In politics, you get attacked because you matter,” wrote Jordan Michael Smith in an insightful Boston Globe commentary. “After decades of unquestioned, highway-sponsored dominance of cars, bikes are finally becoming — even if just on the margins — something big enough to push against.”

Thus, even though conservative icons Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush didn’t shy from being photographed on bikes, the Rush Limbaughs and Joe Soucherays of the spleenosphere have seen fit to spew outrage in that direction. Limbaugh told listeners he “won’t care” if his car door flattens a passing cyclist; a right-wing gubernatorial candidate in Colorado said bike-sharing “could threaten our personal freedoms” as “part of a greater strategy to rein in American cities under a United Nations treaty.”

This stuff is more laughable than scary, because it reeks of rear-guard desperation to snatch victory in a battle that’s already all but lost. It reminds me of the campaign to ban same-sex marriage across America via constitutional amendments — just as broad U.S. public opinion was moving in the opposite direction. Thankfully, that kind of history-defying mean-spiritedness finally came a cropper in Minnesota.

So, too, will the War on Bicyclists. All the indicators point that way. Along with a decline in American driving that some studies date as far back as the mid-1990s, for years bicycling has shown strong, consistent growth by many different measures, especially in Minnesota. Here’s a sampler of the evidence:

  • The Twin Cities annual bicycle count for 2013 found bicycling up 13 percent from 2012 and 78 percent since 2005. It also found that nonmotorized traffic, including walking, accounted for an eye-opening 16 percent of all trips over six Mississippi River bridges, including one in four over the Franklin Avenue bridge.
  • Nice Ride Minnesota claimed a “breakthrough year” for its Minneapolis-St. Paul bike sharing program, topping 300,000 rides in the 2013 season that closed Nov. 3. It expanded to 1,550 bicycles at 170 stations, and plans more Twin Cities growth next year as well as a pilot program in Bemidji.
  • Worldwide, more than 600 cities have bike-sharing programs totaling more than 700,000 bicycles. The programs span the economic gamut from government-run to private nonprofit (such as Nice Ride) to for-profit enterprise in places such as New York, Paris and Mexico City.
  • Studies show that bicycle sharing boosts business for establishments near docking stations. And nonmotorized development in general got this wide-ranging endorsement from the U.S. Conference of Mayors: “Communities that have invested in pedestrian and bicycle projects have benefited from improved quality of life, healthier population, greater local real estate values, more local travel choices and reduced air pollution.”
  • To quantify some of these benefits, Copenhagen, Denmark, among the world’s most bicycle-adapted cities, estimates that $100 million is saved annually in medical cost burdens, not counting increased productivity from a healthier workforce, according to Christopher Gerggren at CEOs for Cities. Copenhagen also says the $2 million cost of each lane-mile of grade-separated bikeways (bicycle freeways!) is paid off in about five years. How’s that? Its economic impact study estimates that every mile cycled yields a net gain of 21 cents, versus a loss of 12 cents per mile driven by car. “These figures include both savings in the public sector and the rise in private sector economic activity,” Berggren noted.
  • Research and commendations from the League of American Bicyclists suggest that Minnesota is among the nation’s best-prepared places to reap these gains. Our state ranks No. 4 among the league’s Bicycle Friendly States, scoring strongly on legislation, enforcement, policies, education and encouragement, less well on infrastructure, funding, evaluation and planning. Minneapolis and St. Paul both made the top 20 U.S. cities where bike commuting is growing the fastest, even though both already rank high in bike commuting mode share — Minneapolis No. 2, St. Paul No. 17.
  • This isn’t just a Twin Cities core trend, either. Grand Marais, Richfield and Winona joined the league’s list of Bicycle Friendly Communities this year. Bemidji, Duluth, Grand Rapids, Mankato and Rochester also boast that designation. Even Bloomington rates as the nation’s “oldest city” — median age 43.8 — on its list of places where “biking knows no age boundaries.” It came in fifth in bike commuting alone, but a runaway winner in commuting by bike and walk combined at 20.1 percent.

While Sun Belt San Diego just committed $200 million to regional bikeways over the next 10 years, the $28 million Bike Walk Twin Cities pilot project financed by federal funds winds down next year with no replacement program in sight. It will be up to farsighted state, county and local policymakers to keep up our momentum, hopefully with a push from bicyclists’ growing power at the polls.

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


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