Pedaling influence

The Minneapolis Bicycle Coalition shapes bike projects and policies

Ethan Fawley, executive director of the Minneapolis Bicycle Coalition, looked on as Mayor Betsy Hodges declared Winter Biking Day. Credit: Dylan Thomas

One of Mayor Betsy Hodges’ first official acts was to declare Jan. 3 Winter Biking Day in Minneapolis, and a small but hardy group gathered at noon at an intersection on the windswept Midtown Greenway to watch her do it.

Considering the conditions — overcast and 12 degrees with a stinging wind chill — there was mercifully little pomp and circumstance to the brief outdoor ceremony, where Hodges was introduced by Ethan Fawley, executive director of the Minneapolis Bicycle Coalition. But there was still an introduction to the introduction, with Hodges’ policy aide, Peter Wagenius, first lauding Fawley, whom he called a “hero” of the local bicycling community.

“I’ve seen their organization at work,” Wagenius said afterward, praising the coalition’s ability to mobilize citizen support behind city bike projects by organizing letter-writing campaigns and packing public meetings. The coalition is also prodding the city and county to take Minneapolis’ bike lane network to the next level, adding protected bikeways that make street riding comfortable for more riders.

“We’re running out of opportunities to do rails-to-trails, so we’ve got to get space out of streets,” Wagenius said. “Well, [Minneapolis] Bicycle Coalition has been absolutely great about saying we’ve got to innovate and do things people might be uncomfortable with at first.”

Just more than four years old, and up until recently run entirely on volunteer power, the nonprofit is a force that shapes Minneapolis bicycling policy and projects.

In November, one of the coalition’s founders, Lisa Bender, won election to the Ward 10 City Council seat. In a close December vote, the Hennepin County Board adopted a plan to reconstruct part of Washington Avenue in 2014 with a protected bikeway — meaning a physical barrier will separate riders from other traffic — an outcome guided in part by the coalition’s advocacy.

They couldn’t get the county to do the same for Minnehaha Avenue, slated for reconstruction in 2015, but the coalition helped win improvements to the existing bike lanes, which will at least get a painted buffer strip.

Asked if he saw the coalition’s influence growing, Wagenius responded: “Absolutely.”

First success

Three days after the Midtown Greenway press conference a polar vortex began its subzero lashing of the Midwest, and Fawley set a new “personal low” by biking into work at the coalition’s Seven Corners office. It moved into the suite above Town Hall Brewery in October: a single large room with a few desks, a conference table and a flatbed bike trailer leaning against one wall.

The new office, three staffers hired since August and Fawley’s shift from volunteer president to paid executive director are all due to the coalition winning a contract from Blue Cross Blue Shield in July. It’s leading the collaborative Bikeways for Everyone campaign to add 30 miles of protected bikeways to city streets by 2020.

The contract accounts for about half of the coalition’s roughly $300,000 budget in 2014. Individual donations make up another 10 percent and much of the other funding comes through business sponsorships tied to Open Streets, the car-free neighborhood events it began organizing in 2011. Businesses also sponsor Minneapolis Bike Week — what Fawley called “the next evolution” of Twin Cities Bike Walk Week — an event that debuts in May.

When he assumed the executive director role, Fawley left a job with the St. Paul-based environmental nonprofit Fresh Energy, where he worked on transportation policy issues. Like Bender, who invited him to the first meeting of what would become the Minneapolis Bicycle Coalition in the fall of 2009, Fawley holds a degree in city planning.

At that first meeting, 15 or so people laid plans for the organization. But they also vented about the then-recent conversion of Hennepin and First avenues to two-way streets.

Gone was a bike lane down the middle of Hennepin that was statistically one of the most dangerous in the city, but few thought sharing the right lane with buses and turning cars was much of an improvement. On First, the city created its first protected bike lane, but riding between parked cars and the curb made many cyclists nervous.

A few coalition members met with city engineers. The following summer, the city painted the Hennepin bike lanes green and added a painted buffer between riders and parked cars on First.

“That was our first real success,” Fawley said. “Basically, we did drawings of what it could look like, of ideas, and then those things got implemented.”

Guiding discussions

On Aug. 1, 2012, the coalition delivered 500 handwritten letters in support of a protected bike lane on Washington Avenue to Ward 7 City Council Member Lisa Goodman. They were collected over the summer at the downtown Mill City Farmers Market, and copies went to former Mayor R.T. Rybak and Hennepin County Commissioner Peter McLaughlin.

Goodman said it wasn’t so much the letters that won her support; it was talking with constituents who live and own businesses on Washington. It was also her own experiences as a bicyclist.

Goodman said she was intimidated by “the aggressive nature of cars” when lane-sharing on city streets and — like a majority of cyclists, studies show — felt much more comfortable riding on trails. She’s exactly the type of rider who stands to benefit from the Bikeways for Everyone campaign.

Washington Avenue is a county road, and the Hennepin County Complete Streets Policy adopted in 2009 directs planners to consider bicyclists and pedestrians when designing streets. Still, Jennifer Lowry, the engineer who led the redesign, said it was “fair to say” the coalition’s involvement tipped the outcome in favor of a protected bike lane.

“I think we had discussed it from the beginning, but it wasn’t one of the front-running options,” she said.

Meeting resistance

Engineering standards for protected bikeways, also known as cycle tracks, are still new and evolving. Fawley said that “adds an extra layer of resistance” when the coalition pushes for their inclusion in a street project.

On Minnehaha, engineers’ safety concerns trumped the potential benefits of a protected bikeway. It’s a very different street from Washington, too; it’s narrower and crosses intersecting streets at a diagonal.

“As engineers, we have to sign a plan at some point and take responsibility for that,” said Nick Peterson, a county engineer who worked on the project. “… If there’s a crash on a corridor, we have to take a phone call a lot of times and face that family.”

Peterson is not unfamiliar with cycle tracks; he visited Portland to see them in action. But he noted Minnehaha is also a transit corridor with both residences and businesses, and any street design must consider all users.

“Increasing bicycles is a goal, but we also have to have a balanced network,” he said.

The Minneapolis Climate Action Plan calls for 30 miles of protected bikeways by 2020. Bender, who left the coalition last year to run for office, aims to identify those routes and add them to the city’s Bicycle Master Plan this year and, she hopes, get them built on a faster timeline.

“We certainly are behind other cities in building infrastructure that works for everyone,” Bender said, noting Chicago recently added 30 miles of protected bikeways in just 18 months.