Minneapolis, MN

Minneapolis, and its twin Saint Paul across the river, are amongst the most prosperous of the northern Midwestern cities. Saint Paul is the state capital, and Minneapolis houses the main campus of the University of Minnesota, with over 50,000 students. The different political structures and cultures of the Twin Cities provide many opportunities for comparison.

Thoughts from Minneapolis

Map output

I wanted to get as much data analysis done on my home computer as I could before I head out for study abroad in Berlin. It’s not entirely perfect yet, but I have a workflow which generates these maps right out of Python for all of my cities, with some provision for longitudinal comparisons (limited by data availability). Code has improved enough that on that setup (Mac Pro 2013, 6-core, 12 GB) it takes about a day to generate these for 100 cities.

To do still are to deal with projection issues (they’re all in “web Mercator” because that’s what Leaflet uses), and centering issues caused by inconsistencies between folium, selenium, and PhantomJS. And to improve legends and captions. But it’s pretty cool, if you ask me.


See all maps from 2015


See all maps from 2010

Intersection density

OSMnx makes it easy to generate statistics on street networks by city extent, or by polygon shape. Here are the stats for the study cities, clipping the bike network (including bike paths, excluding freeways) to the 5-mile circle:

Austin Charlotte Columbus Minneapolis
Nodes (intersections) 10470 5417 12208 17892
Streets per node (avg) 2.98 2.82 3.16 3.13
Segment length (ft., avg) 323 394 321 299
Street segments, total 17733 9291 20976 30909
Bicycle mode share 3.6% 0.7% 2.3% 4.7%

This covers the entire circle, not just the census tracts, so the area is identical for the four cities. Once again these aggregated stats show very strong correlations, especially between bike mode share and intersection density (r=0.91). The fact that there are three times as many intersections in Minneapolis’ central city than in Charlotte’s is a somewhat remarkable finding, though it’s consistent with the experience of riding around those cities. Higher intersection density means that there are more choices for people getting around the city, which in turn means that the arterials have less traffic on average, and there are more alternate routes for bikes.

There’s an analogy to the geophysical concept of drainage density. A river network with fine drainage density (relatively small space between river channels) will drain very quickly during storm events because there are so many different ways for the water to reach a river channel. If you think about the networks below as representing the morning commute, the “coarse” network will require much larger, higher-speed roads than the “fine” network. And it’ll suck for bicycles.

Image depicting river systems with three different drainage densities (fine, medium, and coarse)

One of the problems of cycling advocacy is that there’s often not much that can be done to change this indigenous condition. Charlotte is already built out with high-volume streets and long blocks, and at this point you can’t make its street network look like Minneapolis’ (or Copenhagen’s).

Density = destiny?

One striking result from the target area analysis is the correlation between residential density and cycling rates in the target area.

Austin Charlotte Columbus Minneapolis
Target area (mi^2) 4.86 4.11 5.11 5.25
Population (persons) 147676 71312 129290 214592
Cyclists (work commute) 5380 464 3006 10040
Density (persons/mi^2) 30396 17342 25311 40850
Bicycle mode share 3.6% 0.7% 2.3% 4.7%
Source: ACS 2015 5-year estimates

Note that the square mileage in the above table is the square mileage of the census tracts fully contained within the target circle. Obviously the circles themselves have the same area, but because of differences in tract shapes, and non-land areas (lakes and rivers) within the circles, the census tract areas differ. This table reflects only the census tract areas, because it’s using census data.

For these four data points, the correlation between density and bicycle mode share is dramatic (r=0.97), which seems to speak to the importance of indigenous conditions in people’s mode choices. And there’s probably a real effect there. Unfortunately, the effect disappears when examined at the census tract level, becoming slightly negative in all four cities. My hypothesis is that there are threshold effects, where the most dense census tracts actually have less cycling because their walk mode share is higher. I didn’t have time to dig into that question, but it would be consistent with some of the work done by urban design superstar Jan Gehl.

Two things I would like to do are to automate the analysis to the point where I could examine this same question across many more cities, and, to combine the city data to see if the correlation flips back to the positive side when looking at census tracts across the four cities. I expect that both of those methods will show a strong positive correlation between density and bicycle mode share, but not near r=0.97.

Maps of network connectivity to jobs

One of the factors I’m trying to measure in valuing facilities is their usefulness; do they actually go where utility cyclists want to ride? I was unable to get BikeScore data (which looks pretty questionable anyway), so I had to build my own metric around it. One of the factors I used was access to jobs along the cycling network (with cycling network data obtained from OpenStreetMaps via Geoff Boeing’s awesome OSMnx tool). These maps show access to jobs within 1.5 miles from each intersection in the city; cycling routes through and near the dense areas here were scored higher.

One of the interesting things about these maps is how they visualize the density of the street network. The difference between Minneapolis’ densely connected street grid, and Charlotte’s broken-up and sparse network visualize really substantial differences in the indigenous conditions for cycling in the two cities.

These maps are using the same extents as the target area maps (the circle extenst rather than the census tract extents).

Maps of commute biking and value-added facilities

Combining my concepts of target area and value-added facilities, I developed maps for each city which select the circle of census tracts near the central city which have the great number of commute cyclists (by the 2015 ACS 5-year estimates). Each of these maps is equal area and uses the same scale.

One thing that’s visibly notable is the relatively weak connection of value-added facilities to cycling rates, by census tract; only in Columbus are they well-connected. Part of what I conclude is that cultural factors and the indigenous qualities of the street network are more important than value-added facilities in cycling mode choice.

One of my summer projects is to try to re-generate these in Python. I was trying to do all the GIS work in Python, but when it came to final output, I ran out of time and wound up having to export shapefiles and do the maps manually in QGIS. That’s why they’re not perfectly identical. Once it’s working in Python, I should be able to auto-generate the circles and the census tract data for any city in the U.S.

The methodology is potentially interesting for other kinds of analysis; I’m using bike mode share data, but you could just as easily optimize for any other census data, like median income, non-white population, educational attainment, etc. It could be a useful way to make urban areas more comparable for data analysis.

Target area data analysis

During the fall semester I took two relevant classes, one an introduction to GIS, and one on Active Transportation (with Professor Daniel Rodríguez, formerly of UNC-Chapel Hill, who will act as my thesis advisor). For my final project in the Active Transportation class, I used GIS tools to analyze bike mode share, bikeway mileage, and crash data for the four cities.

One problem I noticed while doing field research is that the city extents vary greatly; Austin, for example, has over six times Minneapolis’ land area, which means that Austin includes some sprawling, low-density areas with low cycling rates that are excluded from Minneapolis’ mode share numbers. Nathan Wilkes (from Austin’s Active Transportation Department) had done some work comparing mode share in the downtown area of Austin to San Francisco, to point out that the city has actually made more progress than would be evident from looking at the city-wide data.

Map of Austin bike mode share by census tract, showing much higher rates in the central city

Bike mode share by census tracts in Austin city extent (1:250,000)

Map of Minneapolis bike mode share by census tract, showing much higher rates in the central city

Bike mode share by census tracts in Minneapolis city extent (1:250,000)

I looked at creating a 4-mile radius circle to encompass the highest-cycling area of each city (by ACS mode share data), to be able to develop more comparable metrics from city to city. I think the method will prove very useful in the data analysis portion of the work, though I’ll make some tweaks to it in the final version. For this work I selected all census tracts which intersected the circle, but the resulting extents are still quite different in land area (by almost a factor of two). For the paper I’ll probably use a 5-mile radius and select only the census tracts which are completely included in the circle. I’ll also include census tracts outside of the central city if the circle includes them (which might affect Minneapolis, but not any of the other cities).

Bike mode share, facilities, and crashes within 4-mile radius circle in central Austin (1:100,000)

Bike mode share, facilities, and crashes within 4-mile radius circle in central Austin (1:100,000)

Bike mode share, facilities, and crashes within 4-mile radius circle in central Minneapolis (1:100,000)

Bike mode share, facilities, and crashes within 4-mile radius circle in central Minneapolis (1:100,000)

There are still a lot of issues with the data, but at least I’ll be comparing rotten apples to rotten apples.

Here’s the full paper if you’re interested.

Roads vs. streets

Urbanists like to distinguish streets from roads. There’s an interesting take on this from Charles Marohn, who’s a city planner from Minnesota, on his Strong Towns blog:

The function of a road is to connect productive places…In contrast, the function of a street is to serve as a platform for building wealth.

This is a useful distinction, but what makes it interesting is the framing; this is the neo-liberal, New Urbanist ideology laid bare. The purpose of a street (and by implication, the purpose of the city) in this view is to maximize economic return on investment. See also Marohn’s criticism of the “stroads” which constitute much of the U.S. infrastructure:

This economic view of the world is a self-consistent belief system, and it at least has a specific strategic goal. But, it also explains why these New Urbanist developments are designed for the affluent. They focus on increasing home values and developing retail businesses. Those who don’t own homes and can’t afford to eat out all the time are not included in the vision, and even less so the truly poor.

But, that’s not what this post is about. I was thinking as I was riding around that bikes need a distinction between streets and roads, too. Here are bike roads in Saint Paul and Columbus, both coincidentally named “Summit”:

Summit Avenue, St. Paul

Summit Avenue, St. Paul

Summit Street, Columbus

Summit Street, Columbus

Both Summits are long, straight roads with limited traffic interactions. Columbus’ Summit recently underwent a road diet, replacing one of three one-way traffic lanes with a two-way protected bikeway. Saint Paul’s has a decent bike lane and relatively little traffic. The thing that makes them bike roads rather than bike streets is that they don’t present a lot of opportunity to interact with the city.

In Saint Paul, Summit goes through a neighborhood of Victorian mansions, mostly set back far from the street, with fences and gates. The wide center median could be an inviting place for walking or picnicking, but the road goes for miles without so much as a bench in the median. The road is useful but you have to use it and move on. In Columbus, Summit has a lot of traffic, but the protected lane makes it reasonably safe, and the fact that it’s two-way makes it a pretty nice addition to the cycle network. But similarly, there are not many places where the rider is invited to interact with the street.

That’s fine; utility cyclists need ways to travel distances efficiently within the city as well as places that are cool to bike around. A good bike network will include both bike roads and bike streets. Summit in Saint Paul goes all the way from downtown to the East Mississippi bikeway, over 4 miles; Summit in Columbus goes 3 miles from downtown, paralleling the hip district on High Street, and connecting with Definite Article Ohio State University.

Wrapping up the Twin Cities

I did a ton of riding in the Twin Cities, largely thanks to my friend Max who provided both a nice bike and a whole lot of guidance on where to go. People who races alleycats know a lot about how to get around the city. I totaled over 300km, and hit almost everywhere I needed to get a sense of Minneapolis and St. Paul. Looking at the map there’s a bit of a gap in eastern St. Paul, but there’s really not much there in terms of infrastructure or destinations. Other than that I think I got a solid sense of what biking is like in the city, in the summer when school’s out. Having the students in town would make a big difference. Having three feet of snow on the roads would make an even bigger one. But given the constraints of summer travel, I feel pretty good about what I got to see. 398.4km total; practically a bike tour!

The video doesn’t cover all of the areas I surveyed, due to technical issues and operator error, but it’s fairly comprehensive.

GPS tracks for MSP rolling surveys

GPS tracks for MSP rolling surveys


The Twin Cities have a strong urbanist community, symbolized by the active streets.mn blog. Covering topics from transportation to housing to food systems, streets.mn demonstrates that Minnesotans have a high level of interest in figuring out what makes cities work. There’s a ton of interesting content there.

Several people had suggested that I should meet Bill Lindeke, one of the blog’s regular contributors. Bill describes himself as an urban geographer; in addition to writing on a broad range of subjects for streets.mn and for the Minneapolis Post, and sitting on the planning commission for St. Paul, he organizes walking and biking tours which highlight different aspects of the historical or current city. He does a tour of dive bars which I unfortunately missed, but my friend Max connected me with a ride he was doing called “The Hidden Lakes of Minneapolis.” Minneapolis is ringed by five famous lakes, but this tour skipped those, focusing instead on small lakes with less public access, and on areas which were formerly lakes, including one industrial zone where no water is evident near a street still named “Lakeside.” The tour highlighted how much the surface water has been altered over time, and how much management is still required to keep the lakes reasonably healthy.

Bill recently finished his Ph.D. in geography at the University of Minnesota. His dissertation, which I have not yet had time to study, is on what he calls “Affective Exclusions” in bicycle planning. He conducted what he called “ridealong interviews,” where he used a helmet-mounted camera to record the behavior of different cyclists as they used the road network. Whereas my surveys are studying the network itself, Bill was looking at  the riders, and how they made decisions about which roads to ride and where to ride on them, which he then classified into a taxonomy based on their behaviors, equipment, and the places they chose to ride. It’s intersting work and I’ll look forward to digging into it.

After the ride we got to chat about the political differences between Minneapolis and St. Paul, the history of infrastructure development in the Twin Cities, and our ideas about bike infrastructure and identity. It helped highlight for me that, while no one seems to have the answers, a lot of smart people are working on the questions.

Midtown Greenway

Slow Roll on the North Minneapolis Greenway

Slow Roll on the North Minneapolis Greenway

I’ve mentioned the Midtown Greenway a few times, and it’s worth talking about it because it’s really quite an impressive facility. It’s a former freight rail corridor which must have supported multiple rain lines; it’s quite wide. The rail line was trenched in 1912, so it passes through what’s now a highly developed part of the city with almost no at-grade crossings. De-industrialization led to decreasing freight traffic, and the line was abandoned in 2001.

Now, it’s been converted into a multi-use path, and it has to be one of the best in the country. Unlike the greenway in Charlotte, the Midtown Greenway has good infrastructure, good connectivity to the street grid, and at the few at-grade crossings, actually has priority over auto traffic, which is likely appropriate given the traffic levels. It connects to the pathway along the river, and provides a great augmentation to the natural bikeways found in the residential neighborhoods to the south and west.

(Side note: I’m thinking about changing my terminology; I’m liking the term, “indigenous bikeways,” in the sense of a facility that “exists naturally in a particular region or environment.”)

I did a bike count on the Midtown Greenway (over 300 bikes in 2 hours), and my notes from that day say, “If you want to feel better about the future of the world, go sit on the Midtown Greenway for two hours.” In terms of the official count I’m only distinguishing male vs. female cyclists, but experientially, the group using the Midtown Greenway is quite diverse, with lycra cyclists mingling with hipster urbanists, families with kids, and pure utility riders. I even saw a fully-faired HPV. There was ethnic, racial, and socioeconomic diversity among the users. It’s really a great facility that enlivens that area of the city (and has been predictably blamed for gentrification).

But context matters. People naturally want to emulate successful facilities, but Charlotte and North Minneapolis don’t have abandoned grade-separated rail lines to repurpose for cycling, so the facilities they’re building are shoehorned into the road network in ways that make them less accessible and less useful. North Minneapolis also has the problem that it’s too far out from anything interesting. The southern end of the the North Minneapolis Greenway is still over 3 miles from the edge of downtown, and the northern end is in a low-density and depopulating area. Even if the facility were as high-quality as the Midtown Greenway is, it wouldn’t get the same kind of traffic. A trip includes an origin, a pathway, and a destination. Pathways without destinations don’t generate trips.

North Minneapolis Greenway

It turned out that the most interesting finding of my Minneapolis trip was similar to that from Austin; a bike facility sitting right in the middle of a battle over identity politics. In Austin the issue was exclusion; in Minneapolis, it’s disruption.

North Minneapolis is a low-income area that has been losing population, and becoming poorer and less white, for 30 years. It’s a majority-minority district, with African-Americans (43%) being the predominant race. The typical hallmarks of disinvested ethnic districts are found there; decaying infrastructure, fewer trees, poorer schools, and higher crime rates than the rest of the city.

Inspired by the best bike facility in town (the Midtown Greenway, an impressive rails-to-trails conversion of a multi-track trenched railroad), a number of groups have been working for five years to convert some of the low-traffic street infrastructure of North Minneapolis into a greenway. The initial proposal would restrict auto traffic and reclaim part of the roadway over a six-block stretch to link two North Minneapolis parks.

There have been a number of community outreach events over the years, including an Open Streets event in 2015. The publicity around the development has stressed the importance of community engagement. There are four different community engagement reports, all of which have shown majority support for the greenway among residents on and near the route.

It so happened that installation of the demonstration greenway (road paint and movable street furniture) was finished just a few days before my arrival in Minneapolis. I got to chat with Alexis Pennie (one of the advocates for the project) about his experience with the grand opening, and I went up and rode the Temporary Greenway myself.

The whole thing makes me a little sad.

The intentions of the advocates are good. They really want to make the neighborhood better, and they really believe that creating an innovative bike and pedestrian facility will help. (Leaving aside the context, I tend to agree with them). And they have really worked to do community outreach; there are four different survey reports, all of which show significant majorities of people in the neighborhoods “support” or “strongly support” the greenway.


About a quarter of the houses had “NO’ signs on the closed blocks.

But they’ve not succeeded at getting the oppositional residents on board. On the contrary, the opposition has become more organized and strident over time, and the gap between advocate and opponent appears to have grown. Maybe a quarter of the houses on the demonstration stretch have “Say NO” signs on the lawn. (A smaller number have “Support the Greenway” signs). Opponents are maintaining a Stop The Greenway blog which displays a high level of anger and vitriol. And, frankly, it sounds like they have some valid points about the way the project has been approached. A danger for those with power and privilege is to assume that the futility of full consensus is sufficient reason to dismiss the concerns of the minority, and it seems to me like that’s what’s happened here. I don’t think the city has lived up to the aspirations of the video above.

It makes me sad because the advocates are probably right. The neighborhood probably would be a better place with better streets, and resident concerns about parking and fire truck access probably can be addressed on the margins. But the residents of places like North Minneapolis have decades of experience of the city neglecting them except to occasionally put in a big new infrastructure project which screws up the neighborhood. They’re justifiably skeptical of the motivations of the city, and angry that a project that they don’t value is getting funded when many projects they’ve asked for appear to have been neglected over the years.

North Minneapolis temporary greenway

North Minneapolis temporary greenway

I hope that some experience the demonstration project can bridge the gap, but I’m not optimistic. The authors on the Stop the Greenway blog make a big deal how only residents of North Minneapolis or the greenway route should have standing to comment. There’s a lot of “us” vs. “them” language and a whole bunch of distrust. It’s going to be difficult to break through those identity issues, even with the best of intentions. And I don’t think the project itself is compelling enough to make it happen. On my way to the airport I described the facility to my Uber driver, who opined, “There’s no way that’s going to work in a war zone.”


Women on Bikes

Charles Avenue bike boulevard. What’s the big deal?

I got to meet with Jessica Treat, who’s had a number of bike and transit-oriented positions in the Twin Cities; she’s currently the executive director of a Saint Paul non-profit called Transit for Livable Communities. She’s very politically involved and we had a great talk about the political differences between Minneapolis and Saint Paul and how they play into infrastructure decisions. Echoing what I heard from Reuben about keeping Saint Paul boring, Jessica said that Saint Paul tends to be “parochial” and resistant to change. She recounted the story of getting the Charles Avenue bike boulevard approved, work that she participated in as part of the Friendly Streets Initiative. I rode Charles Avenue, and if I hadn’t met with Jessica, I never would have thought it was the subject of a controversial, three-year-long process. Frankly, there isn’t much there other than sharrows and a couple of median cut-throughs where Charles crosses arterials. It feels like the kind of facility that would have been built 20 years ago in the Bay Area, more than anything that bike advocates would be striving for today. The fact that it was so controversial tells a lot about the participation gap between Minneapolis and Saint Paul.

Jessica also founded Saint Paul Women on Bikes, and advocated in that role for various street projects, and the adoption of the Saint Paul Bike Plan. There has been a fair amount of research done on the “gender gap” in cycling; men bike more then women, though because our data suck we don’t know exactly how much more. Different studies show gaps as low as 57-43% or as high as 75-25%. But everyone agrees that women are less likely to bike, and are more likely to be concerned about the safety of the roads they use. (According to the ZAP data, they’re also less likely to ride after dark in Minneapolis, which may be related to safety concerns other than traffic).

Various commentators have suggested that female cycling rates in a city are an indicator of healthy infrastructure, or that women’s concerns should be specifically targeted as a matter of policy. Biking uber-pundit Jennifer Dill (Portland State) did a great study on revealed route preferences of cyclists in Portland that showed significant gender differences in willingness to accept longer travel distances in exchange for a more pleasant (or perceptually safer) route.

Things appear to be changing in Saint Paul; the most recent city council votes on bike projects resulted in 5-1 approval votes. The advocates are starting to shift from fighting for crumbs to pushing for more ambitious projects.

Surly Bikes

Surly Long Haul Trucker with under-saddle growler holder

Surly Long Haul Trucker with under-saddle growler holder

I got to meet with John Fleck, “Minister of World Cycle-Domination” from Surly Bikes while I was in town. Surly is a Minneapolis bike company that has long been connected with bike messenger culture and urban cycling. They were instrumental in developing the Single Speed World Championship into a regular staple event of the new bike culture, and their build aesthetics have always had an urban sensibility. They were among the first companies to mass-produce a single speed bike targeted at urban riders (most bike messengers used track bikes or custom setups), and also more or less invented the fat bike (3″+ tire, designed for sand and snow) which is becoming increasingly popular in urban areas (especially those with a lot of snow, like the Twin Cities). Their Long Haul Trucker touring bike and Cross Check cyclocross-inspired bike are extremely popular with utility cyclists, because they’re solid, generally steel-framed bikes which are great platforms for customization. Max had set up the bike I was riding with a single chain ring, a top tube frame bag, and a few other tweaks; my wife’s Long Haul Trucker has extra dummy levers to allow multiple hand positions, nubs for attaching lights and bells, etc. Surly more than any other company has an aesthetic of building solid, good value bikes which people will want to ride for a long time.

Surly Big Dummy cargo bike

Surly Big Dummy cargo bike

Surly was also early in building dedicated cargo bikes, like the Big Dummy. In places where utility biking is common, you can see the extended rack and bag system being used for all kinds of things, including family commuting–there are attachments which can fit two small kids.

The marketing materials that Surly puts out still reflect a counter-cultural urban aesthetic, and they’ve had great success contributing to and benefitting from the increase in utility cycling in places like Minneapolis.

Alleycat races

Charting a route for an Alleycat race

Charting a route for an Alleycat race

I am fortunate to have a few Minneapolis friends in the cycling scene. Max works at the Behind Bars bike shop, and has been cycling and tinkering with bikes in the Twin Cities for as long as I’ve known him. He loaned me a sweet Surly Long Haul Trucker for my survey rides, and led me on a number of rides through different areas of the city.

His latest passion has been alleycat races. Alleycats are a race form that grew out of bike messenger culture, focused on knowledge of how to get around urban areas of the city by bike. Organization is informal; a meeting place is announced where everyone contributes a few bucks to a prize pool that will typically be used to buy beer for everyone at the end of the race. Participants must ride to a number of checkpoints, which they map out on their own. Riders design their own routes, so knowledge of the best ways to connect places in the city can be as important as riding fast. Most riders wear street clothes.

Heading off to the first alleycat checkpoint

Heading off to the first alleycat checkpoint

Alleycat races are part of the bike messenger inspired counter-culture that has expanded to cities like Austin and Minneapolis. Despite the fact that the profession of bike messenging itself has declined precipitously, the culture it spawned continues to effect urban cycling across the country.

The group also plays a social media game they call “bike tag”. One member takes a picture of his or her bike at an identifiable location in the city and sends it to the group. The first person who figure it out goes and takes a picture of their bike at the location, and then at another spot somewhere else in the city. Again, knowledge of the streets, pathways, and buildings is key.

Keep Saint Paul Boring

A cool side effect of having chosen Minneapolis as one of the study cities is that Saint Paul is right next door. The Twin Cities are small enough that they could be a single city; their combined population is ~700K, smaller than San Francisco’s. (The metro area is ~3.6M). But because of the way they were originally founded, and how they’ve grown over the decades, they have very different administrative structures, infrastructure, and politics.

I met with Reuben Collins from the City of Saint Paul about biking in Saint Paul, and the differences between the two cities. Ruben has some interesting thoughts on bikeway design on velotraffic, and I like his pragmatic approach to bike infrastructure.

I asked him if the ACS mode share data (which show more commute cycling in Minneapolis by an order of three) were really indicative of a difference between the cities, and if so, why would that be? His response was that the difference is real, and that a lot of it is related to long-ago decisions about the built environment. In the 19th century Minneapolis created a powerful parks board, and hired Horace Cleveland, a student of Frederick Law Olmsted, to design a park system similar to Boston’s Emerald Necklace. This resulted in the preservation of land along the river and around the lakes, which today provides Minneapolis with a lot of non-motorized space to work with that Saint Paul simply lacks. There are also two railroads and a freeway cutting breaking up any north-south corridors in Saint Paul, and a significant incline in and out of the city center.

st_paul_boring2All of that was interesting, but the thing that really caught my attention was Reuben’s mention of the “Keep Saint Paul Boring” campaign. One of the things I noticed in Austin, where people want to Keep Austin Weird, is that the way that Austin is weird is more or less the same as the way Portland is weird. They have the same coffee shops, the same brew pubs, the same beards, and the same city bikes. What started as a counter-culture founded by bike messengers has become commoditized and sold as part of the new urbanity. “Keep Saint Paul Boring” is a bit tongue-in-cheek, but there’s a real way it’s a rejection of hipster culture, and specifically neighborhood change. It represents the tension on one edge of the identity politics of bicycling; people comfortable with post-war, auto-oriented suburbs vs. new urbanists. In the “weird” culture, the bike is a counter-cultural status symbol, a rejection of traditional Americana. Saint Paul is more Garrison Keillor than Sleater-Kinney, and that’s part of why there isn’t as much support for bike facilities and bicycling in the smaller of the Twin Cities.

University of Minnesota bike programs

My first meeting in Minneapolis was with Steve Sanders, director of their bike and pedestrian programs. Steve has been around UMN for a long time, and has done a lot to encourage cycling during his time there. Partly as a result of his work, the Washington Avenue Bridge, which is the main bike link between downtown Minneapolis and the main campus (which are on opposite sides of the river) sees 7,000 cyclists a day during the school year. The upper deck of the bridge is restricted to bikes and pedestrians only, and it even includes a covered gallery which makes the bridge usable during Minnesota’s harsh winters. In 2011, Washington Avenue at the east end of the bridge was closed to vehicle traffic.

The bridge is an example of how some relatively small changes to existing infrastructure can make a big difference in a place like Minneapolis. Both the Washington Avenue Bridge and the nearby Stone Arch Bridge (originally for rail) have large areas of exclusive bike and pedestrian access. Most places don’t have the luxury of having an underutilized bridge that can act as a major non-motorized corridor between two important areas of the city; it so happens that Minneapolis’ freeways split to the north and south of Washington Street, taking most of the auto traffic pressure off the nearby bridges.

Austin, for example, has a much lower density of bridges, which leads them to be fairly bike-unfriendly, though most have some sort of access. Really, Portland is the only U.S. city I can think of which has similarly pleasant options for bridging of the central river by non-motorized means, so it’s no wonder that UMN has so many people commuting on bikes.

(More on “pleasant” facilities later).



One of the things Steve is running is the Dero ZAP bike commuting program. Participants get an RFID chip to attach to their spokes, and readers on the Washington Avenue Bridge and other locations record their trips to campus. Students who make a certain number of trips by bike get entered into drawings to win gift cards and other prizes. For staff and faculty, ZAP rides give you points in the health and wellness program. Earning enough points gives a significant discount off health care costs at the end of the year. It’s a pretty cool way to actively encourage cycling trips.

The ancillary benefit of the program is that the campus gets awesome data. They’ve been able to study weather effects, daylight effects, gender differences, and all sorts of other juicy topics which we so often lack the data to dig into. It’s an opt-in program, so there is some selection bias, but it’s way better than nothing. It would be cool to see something like that in Berkeley.

Bike infrastructure and identity politics


Protest sign on the lawn of a North Minneapolis Greenway house

Arriving back in Oakland, I got stuck in traffic when #BlackLivesMatter closed down the freeway. It highlighted for me that the most interesting things I’ve found on these research trips have been related to identity politics. From the exclusions of the Southern Walnut Creek bike path in Austin, to the controversy over the North Minneapolis Greenway (more on that later), to the lack of east-west connections in Columbus (more on that also), I keep coming across interesting social issues which play out in cycle infrastructure. It feels like a rich and timely topic.

It so happens that a few days before Philando Castile was killed, I’d surveyed the road where that shooting would later occur. The Falcon Heights region of St. Paul is a marginal, a mix of light industrial and low-density residential areas near the state fairgrounds. You could find a similar area in any Midwestern city. And in any Midwestern (or U.S.) city, identity politics plays out in decisions about which neighborhoods have street trees or not, who gets home loans and on what terms, and where rail lines, freeways, factories and dumps get sited. Identity also plays out in questions about who gets stopped for having a broken tail light, and what happens during those traffic stops.

I’m not researching Philando Castile’s death, or race relations in the U.S. in general; others who are far more capable of digging into that depressing topic. But having been at that place at this moment makes it hard for me to ignore how identity politics affects urban infrastructure.

Minneapolis neighborhoods

On my first morning in Minneapolis, the first thing I saw was a woman on a bike. I was staying in the Longfellow neighborhood south of the central city, and the street grid there is almost entirely natural bikeway. The residential streets are relatively narrow and tree-lined. Driveways are mostly in alleyways behind the houses, so the streetscape is continuous and human-friendly. Various cues like the lack of pavement markings signal to drivers that these are low-speed neighborhood streets.

Minneapolis residential streets are natural bikeways

The continuity of the grid, and sizable distances between arterial roads, allows for a large number of plausible low-stress trips. (More on low-stress networks later). The north-south street pictured here (43rd Avenue) looks just like this for almost two miles between Lake and Hiawatha, and similar east-west routes run for over a mile between the river and the train line, forming a roughly triangular area of over a square mile which is accessible to any kind of cyclist.

Additionally, the river provides a natural border, which allows for a two-way bike path which connects this area with the downtown or other areas of the city. The river (In Minneapolis. Not so much in St. Paul. More on that later, too.) serves both as a transportation corridor and a wayfinding tool.

The neighborhood form reminds me of Portland, and I think it is not coincidental that two of the highest cycling-rate cities in the U.S. have similar neighborhood forms. These blocks provide a great platform for a cycling network. Some of the streets are designated as bike boulevards, but to me that designation is unnecessary. Only in a few instances are the named bike boulevards treated differently from nearby residential streets in terms of traffic controls or other infrastructure. They don’t need to be, although I think there are some improvements that could be made, especially to stop sign treatments.