Wheels v. World

It may seem strange for your erstwhile correspondent, he of the Over-40 With Washtub Abs and Rock Lobster Pecs Demographic, to lobby for more equal pavement for bicycles.  Maybe it’s my Third of Six Birth Order personality trait, but I’ve always felt the best and brightest of our traffic engineers could come up with a better way to serve the two-wheeled, calorie-fueled commuters among us.

Even the most fervent advocates for 10-Lanes of Piston-Pumpers in Minneapolis have to admit that street designs are stacked against bicycles and pedestrians. Let’s appeal to their distant memories when carbon-based horsepower was the furthest thing from their minds.  After all, we were all once kings of the wheeled world — when the training wheels came off our Schwinns and there was no room for anyone else in the driver’s seat.

Bicycles were once central to my life. Still in the single digits when pedaling to the Cooperstown, North Dakota landfill (formerly, The Dump) and to the Cheyenne River and back, I couldn’t imagine the need for Corvairs or Mustangs or even Beetles.

Later my bike kept me in sticky-rolls from the lunch a la carte line at Bowling Green (Ohio) Junior High, not to mention joy buzzers, whoopie cushions and faux emesis mail-ordered from Johnson Smith Co.  

Yes, my $69 not-American-made model from ShopKo brought me my first gainful employment, delivering the BG Sentinel-Tribune in the school-canceling fog that rolled off Lake Erie. I delivered that rag to real hippies on the BGSU campus and thinking, “What more could an eighth grader want or need?”

This was during the height of environmentalism, when you could still smell the smoke from the burning Cuyahoga River on the other side of the state. My classmates Peter and Darryl “the Nut” and I once planned a summer bike trip to California and back, to the consternation and subsequent Kommisseriat Veto of our parents.  

My earth-hugging secondary education notwithstanding, biking became more of a necessary evil to get through college, when I picked up an orphaned Bianchi at a bike shop in Mankato. That rickety 10-speed got me through five years of my seven-year undergraduate studies at the U of M, including a near-daily gantlet on 31st Street to the Uptown Theater, when they would show three Hitchcock films every day.

By 1983 though, when Steve Roberts derailleured across the continent in his recumbent “Winnebiko,” my two-wheeling dreams took a back-seat — nay, a trunk — to the desire for my own car, even if it was Dodge Colt with no air, no radio, manual everything. Although I rented a bike locker and commuted downtown all four seasons for a few years, the job scene here mitigated against a bicycle commute.

Even so, I remember the pleasures and perils of biking around town well enough, and have seen enough alternative accommodations for bikes around the world, to cast my vote for a better way for bikes and petrol-pushers to co-exist. And now that I pass by the Jimmy Nisser ghost bike every day on Excelsior Boulevard, I can’t help thinking there is at least one better way out there. So America-Firsters — cover your ears: I found a better way in Europe.

When Jo and I splurged for a trip overseas a couple years ago, we saw one very workable solution in Munich. With time to kill between train rides we strolled to the main drag that mixed pedestrian, bicycle and car traffic in a way that made them all safer. We waited at a crosswalk for the green Ampelmann signal. A half a block away a biker rang his bell at us. Immediately we saw we were one-half step down from the sidewalk curb, and one-half step up from the roadway. Nothing could be more obvious — we retreated with apologies: We had stepped into a lane set aside and *raised* for bikes. I sure could have used that extra asphalt lip between me and the cars on West 31st Street on my way to the “Vertigo-Psycho-Frenzy” triple-header at the Uptown. With no tactile separation between me and the cars, I didn’t need Hitchcock to keep me in suspense.  

Need we wait until every intersection in Minneapolis has turned into a ghost bike memorial before we do right by bicyclists, who are killed in traffic accidents far out of proportion to their numbers on the streets? Give bikes just a few extra lanes here and there — but give those lanes a curb, perhaps with corrugation like those rumble strips on the freeways that wake up motorists when the drift to the shoulders. I don’t know if such a configuration would have given Jimmy Nisser more of a chance against the vehicle that killed him, but it would give every motorist a regular reminder that they alone don’t own the road.

And while we’re talking better ways to do things, hey Uptown Theater, why not revive your three-for-one classic movie deals like you had in 1983? You could kick it off with The Bicycle Thief, Breaking Away and Les Triplettes de Belleville.  I might even break out my dusty 18-speed knobby tired Giant to get there.

Luther Krueger is a crime-prevention analyst for Minneapolis Police Department’s 1st Precinct and lives in the Lyndale Neighborhood. Contact him at kruegerian@gmail.com.