Why does bike-friendly matter?

Bikes help us imagine a better city. At Open Streets Lyndale June 7, this boy and many other people got to try out the pop-up protected bike lane Credit:

Minneapolis has once again been recognized as a Gold Bicycle-Friendly Community by the League of American Cyclists, which means our city “welcomes bicyclists by providing safe accommodations for bicycling and encouraging people to bike for transportation and recreation.”

To this accolade, some people might reply, “so what?” Does living in a bicycle-friendly community mean anything to those not using bicycles? Are there any greater benefits to society?

The short answer is: “yes!” I know you saw that coming, you are reading the “Bike Beat” column. Here are a few examples of what bicycles are doing for our community. Encouraging real estate development, including the creation of 1,200 new apartment units along the Midtown Greenway in the last 10 years. Directly generating $1 billion in revenue through the bicycle industry, and contributing 5,000 jobs across the state, according to University of Minnesota studies looking at recreational and road cycling from 2008 and 2009. But the benefits of more bikes are not only economic. To illustrate how overall quality of life is affected, this column will focus on one of the most visible examples of our cities ever-increasing bike-friendliness: Nice Ride Minnesota.

The bike-sharing program of the Twin Cities just celebrated five years since its launch when 300 bikes went rolling down Nicollet Mall. That high profile moment was followed by another two weeks later when residents from North Minneapolis began asking why their neighborhood had been excluded from the program.

In a recent interview, Nice Ride Executive Director Bill Dossett explained it was the same reason Kenwood was excluded — i.e. low-density housing and few daytime destinations in each neighborhood — but Dossett also acknowledged one major difference. North Minneapolis has suffered a long history of disinvestment while Kenwood has not. The bikes initiated a conversation about the inequities that exist in our city, but more importantly, they proved to be a vehicle for action.

Nice Ride stations have since been added in North Minneapolis, but addressing equity means going beyond equal distribution of resources. It means investing in communities where there is limited access to resources like public transportation or disproportionate health complications.

Nice Ride is doing this in North Minneapolis, Little Earth and Saint Paul’s Frogtown through Nice Ride Neighborhood. Launched in 2014, this program aims to boost ridership by giving participants a bicycle to use for the summer. Free maintenance is also provided, and at the end of the season, those who ride twice per week and attend four events receive a $200 voucher to purchase their own bike. Last year, the program included 146 participants and this year the program is growing to include 260. What is significant is that the bike is being used to empower people.

Nice Ride is also contributing to the development of an integrated urban mobility system where people can switch between multiple alternative modes seamlessly. Part of this has to do with making bike share more user-friendly, studying the Uber model in which an app makes accessing and paying for the service simple.

It also has to do with creating a network of stations supporting daily trips in places where many people work or live, or in connection with transit lines, but that’s not the full extent of the station planning approach or Nice Ride’s approach to integration within a greater transportation system. Nice Ride has partnered with Car2Go, the car-sharing service, marketing to people who want to live car-lite. Now, Nice Ride is beginning work with a diverse group of local partners to make this vision of integrated and sustainable mobility a reality.

Dossett said that in the last five years he’s witnessed a change in perception of what’s possible. “Prior to 2011, we thought about bike lanes as individual projects on a block that took years to implement.” Today, we’re talking about building a network of 48 miles of protected bike lanes.

This forward-thinking mentality and vision for a better future are reasons we should continue to cultivate bicycle-friendliness in Minneapolis. Bikes can be a tool for strengthening the economy, improving public health, distributing resources equitably and giving all people transportation options.

Annie Van Cleve is a freelance writer, blogger and volunteer with the Minneapolis Bicycle Coalition.