The Booming Community of Bicycles in the Twin Cities
“When I think of the city I love and the places and buildings that represent it, I’m always just a step away from a memory of biking with a friend nearby or seeing the sight on my bike,” begins Adam Turman, talented Minneapolis artist. Turman is the artistic force behind many iconic Minneapolis and St. Paul murals and beyond—and a great deal of these feature bicycles. And why? Because he loves bikes. He shares, “Part of the fun of my job as an artist is that I am able to focus on representing things I love and love to do, and I love bikes and biking! Bikes, while utilitarian, are also high-design. They add a lot of dimension to my work.”
But, there’s more to it than that. Turman recognizes that bicycles are engrained in the culture of the Twin Cities. “Minneapolis is known for its commitment to the environment and sustainability, and choosing to bike is a visible way for citizens to show their support for green initiatives.” He adds, “But beyond that, biking in Minneapolis is fun: if you bike, you’re part of a big, welcoming community. There are tons of events for bikers throughout the year. Almost all of my best friends are bikers, and we know how lucky we are to have so many ways to enjoy one of our favorite activities. For my friends and me, Minneapolis culture and bike culture are one and the same.”
It is easy to feel the presence of bicycles here. Whether you’re leisurely riding around the lakes or running errands on the bustling streets of Minneapolis, a bike allows you to see the Twin Cities in an active, personal, and energetic way. And it’s an incredibly bike-friendly place—one of the highest ranked in the world. But its bike-ability is something many organizations, resources, and individuals are still working to improve. Building safe networks, better infrastructure, and overall confidence while on a bike in the Twin Cities is key. And that’s what the upcoming interviews aim to address.
One of the most visual and convenient biking experiences in the Twin Cities is provided by a bike share program called Nice Ride, which started in its core form in 2010 with 65 stations of bold, lime green urban bikes. Right now, there are 190 stations with 1700 bikes available for short-term rental throughout the spring, summer, and fall. With an overriding mission to provide safe, affordable, and convenient transportation, Nice Ride is the leading bike share program in the Twin Cities.
How does it work? There are two different options. You can walk up to a station and buy a pass right there and you get 30 minutes without any additional fees. The second option is to get a one-year membership for $65 or you can get a one-month pay-as-you-go membership for $15. With those, you get a full hour per trip at no additional cost. Through these options, Nice Ride facilitates a mode of active transportation that is simpler and more convenient than ever in the Twin Cities.
Well before Anthony Ongaro reached his current position as the Marketing Director for Nice Ride, he was a member of the program for over 2 years. And in this time, Anthony appreciated and utilized the fleet of lime green bikes extensively for his daily commute in downtown Minneapolis. “It was a great solution for me to get to and from work very quickly. So, the main reason I wanted to work for Nice Ride was that was I really passionate about their mission, ideas, and everything they had to offer people of the Twin Cities. When I saw that they had a marketing director position available, I decided that I wanted to keep convincing people that it’s a great idea—except, get paid to do it,” he laughs.
Now, from the inside of Nice Ride, Anthony hopes to help the company maintain the position as industry leader in this bike share market. “What we’re doing is made possible largely by our sponsor Blue Cross and Blue Shield; they are encouraging us to experiment and continue building programs and facilities that are going to inspire new people to get on a bike. So, more and more, we’re looking to expand the reach of Nice Ride and make sure the communities around the Twin Cities are actively engaged and involved with what we’re doing.”
So what is Nice Ride doing to engage communities within the Twin Cities? They are constantly optimizing existing station placements and expanding their network of bike share stations so that people can get where they need to go. They are also working on a new program called Nice Ride Neighborhood. Anthony explains, “This program works to support individuals by giving people a bike—an orange bike as opposed to a green bike. But they get to have that bike for an entire season. And we provide programming and events and incentive to get out and ride and be a part of the community. It’s a pretty exciting development.”
He adds, “We want to continue to work on these outreach efforts like Nice Ride Neighborhood that will essentially serve as different tools for communities to continue the outreach that we’re doing and to get more and more people out riding bikes. And that’s the main one—getting people out on bikes using this great infrastructure and continuing to get people healthier through active transportation.”
As an avid bicyclist and influential part of Nice Ride’s efforts, Anthony enjoys what bikes add to the culture of Minneapolis and St. Paul. “In a way, I think biking is the Twin Cities culture. So much is being developed and we’re going to continue to see more infrastructure and cyclists coming to the streets. It’s truly become a part of the culture itself.”
Let’s move on from bike sharing to the biggest bicycle race in Minnesota—the Saint Paul Classic Bike Tour. This ride features as many as 6000 bicyclists and tours some of the most beautiful and historic St. Paul spots. Richard Arey, the Ride Director for the Classic, has been planning the ride even before it began in 1995. A couple years before the Classic began, Richard received a grant from St. Paul businesses to visit other communities comparable to St. Paul in terms of climate, geography, and standard of living. Richard begins, “I got to travel to Europe, parts of Asia, and Canada with that grant money. And when I was in Canada, I did something called the Tour de l’île in Montreal, which is the world’s largest bike ride, and they get 40,000 people. It’s amazing. They closed off a lap around the city and I knew that St. Paul had this parkway system that dates back to the 1870s and would make a great venue for the ride, so that’s what I proposed.”
The 21st annual Saint Paul Classic Bike Tour will be held on Sunday, September 13, 2015. The routes range from 15 to 45 miles and each route includes rest stops that feature live music performed by local artists as well as fresh and local produce and baked goods. An event that champions bicycling and remains a non-competitive tour of Saint Paul, Richard hopes for another safe, fun ride in 2015 that showcases the beauty of St. Paul and celebrates the historic neighborhoods. With all proceeds going toward the advocacy group Bicycle Alliance of Minnesota, the Classic is a tour that promotes bicycling in the Twin Cities, encouraging people to enjoy the increasing bike-ability of the metro. In the 2015 Classic, this is emphasized through a new area that has been added to the tour. Richard shares, “We’re doing a loop around Lake Phalen, which is about a three-mile loop. It’s the biggest lake in the city of St. Paul and the Northwest corner goes on a trail that goes past a restored waterfall, which will be an interesting and exciting addition to the tour.”
In terms of Richard’s goals for the Saint Paul Classic, it’s simple: “My three goals are that we have a safe ride, ideally no rain, and everybody has fun.” In the long-term landscape of the tour, he recognizes the great deal of interest the Classic has generated for biking in the city. “The city has committed about $15 million to rebuild Wheelock Parkway over the next four years. The ride has definitely generated interest from the city for not only making it better for cyclists, but looking at it as a route for walking and roller-blading as a green belt or emerald necklace around the city.”
While we’re on the subject of improving the bike-ability of the Twin Cities, there is another major force working tirelessly to make big change. In the realm of bike safety, education, and grassroots government involvement, St. Paul Women on Bikes is one of the local advocacy organizations striving to alter the landscape. One of the founders of the program is Jessica Treat, an individual who has been working on bicycle issues in St. Paul for the past eight years. She shares, “Our goal was to build a coalition to connect women on bikes. As we became mothers, we realized that we rode differently—we weren’t as confident and we wanted more space for riding bikes. Although the leadership in the city didn’t think we existed, through St. Paul Women on Bikes, we hoped to give a voice to these women and families who want to ride more. We wanted to build a coalition to amplify that voice.”
“From the very beginning, making change has been challenging. Jessica and others followed and supported city projects that, in her words, “tanked miserably.” With great opposition, Jessica saw good projects continue to not go through. But, there was a turning point. She shares, “There was one project by the Friendly Streets Initiative on Charles Avenue in St. Paul. With the goal of adding a bike lane to the street, it was yearlong process and a summer full of block parties where they would go out and talk with people on the street, served free food, and had fun games. The street was already part of a bike plan, but they wanted to have political support when it came time to find funding. And it worked. A ton of people turned out at the city council hearing because so many people had been engaged. That changed the conversation.”
St. Paul Women on Bikes is certainly doing their part in directing the conversation. They have a network of “Spokeswomen,” and these are women across the city who work as incredibly engaged volunteers and act as liaisons to council members. “They meet with their council member and talk to them about partnering for bicycle initiatives. They also act as a link back to their neighborhood and really help us get the word out,” Jessica explains.
Beyond working toward immediate and effective grassroots change, St. Paul Women on Bikes also engages within the community in different ways. “We have fun social programs like Bikes Mean Business monthly happy hour series, where we go to a local business, bring a bunch of people, and have a fun social gathering. We have a Monday night joyride, so every Monday night, women gather and ride about ten miles at a moderate pace. And then we have Pedal Together rides, which is a series of rides happening throughout the summer and these are a slower, casual pace—a very social ride.”
The main goal of the Spokeswomen and the social events through St. Paul Women on Bikes: to get more people, specifically women and children, to feel comfortable and safe riding bikes in St. Paul. Jessica often hears the argument from government officials that people aren’t riding. In Jessica’s experience, this is because people don’t feel safe riding in St. Paul. She wants to change the mentality from “if we don’t see them, we won’t build it” to “if we built it, they will come.”
She offers, “That mentality plays out in city after city as they build more bike infrastructure. That’s the message we’re carrying forward. If we can build a network where people can feel safe on their bikes, they can more often choose that option of riding a bike, which then has all these great, positive results, from health, to the environment, to the pocketbook.”
From Jessica’s perspective, the benefits of making a city more bike friendly are extraordinary. First on the list, she visits the topic of health and well-being. “In the U.S., we have a big problem with obesity and diabetes and it’s because people lead fairly sedentary lives. Getting in that regular physical activity is important and if you can build it into your routine of errands and getting around, that’s great.”
Next up: the economic impact. “It’s good for economic development. If you’re on a bike, your distance that you can is by pedaling, you’re much more apt to support local businesses than shop at far-flung, big box stores. You keep your dollars in the local community.”
And finally, she approaches the topic of the environment. “In St. Paul, we want to grow; we want to be a bigger city. I think by 2030, there are supposed to be a million more people living in the Twin Cities region, so if every one of those people gets around by driving their own car, it’s going to be gridlock. Beyond major congestion, it’s going to be really bad for the environment. We have issues with climate change, so we want to have the ability to make people feel safe to choose to ride their bike when they can for short trips. Most trips that people make in their car are the short trips—very bike-able trips.”
The benefits are significant. And as the Twin Cities continues to climb many lists as one of the most bike-friendly places in the world, it might be high time to switch up your habits toward a more active mode of transportation. So, once you’re convinced that the wonderful world of biking in the Twin Cities is for you, PedalMN is an incredible resource to consider. With a bevy of information in tow, this website is a powerhouse of sorts. They have so much to offer bicyclists of every level and type. Colleen Tollefson, the Assistant Director for Explore Minnesota Tourism, divulges us on the details of the beginning of the resource. “Since about 2009, a group of agencies and organizations met informally for breakfast and talked about the many ways we were all involved in biking. This led to a bike conference in the Brainerd area in 2010 as our first activity, and the program, including the website pedalmn.com, social media, marketing, and more conferences grew from that point.”
She adds, “PedalMN includes the Minnesota Departments of Health, Natural Resources and Transportation, Explore Minnesota, Bicycle Alliance of Minnesota and Minnesota Parks and Trails Council. HealthPartners has been an ongoing sponsor of PedalMN. Our target markets largely are those new to biking, including women/children, seniors, and minorities.”
Through their efforts, the main goal of PedalMN is to get more Minnesotans on more bikes—and more often. Within that goal, Colleen voices that they would also like to increase participation in biking; foster connectivity; promote health, encourage travel and provide resources. She shares, “We have shared our partner resources and have had an ongoing sponsorship from HealthPartners, that has provided bike tune up stations in MSP and St. Cloud and a tune up trike at major events each year. We provide an ongoing resource (PedalMN.com) with a goal of including information and resources all things biking in Minnesota; we do marketing, social media, promotions, (Bike Mom—the mother of all bike gear giveaways) and we are engaged in statewide biking programming and activities from the Winter Biking Conference in Minneapolis to the Eco Experience at the state fair to conferences from Brainerd to Mankato. We have a full time PedalMN Coordinator working to grow the program.”
And why does PedalMN engage in all of these resources and events and promotions? Because they believe in the benefits of biking in the Twin Cities and in Minnesota on the whole. “Biking adds personality to the cities, in the diversity of bikes people ride, clubs and tribes they belong to, clothes they wear, activities they do, businesses they support, events that are developed, gear they use, purposes of trips, and a whole range of direct and not so direct biking businesses,” says Colleen. “Biking is a culture of rides and routes known largely to the biking scene. It provides people with an inexpensive (or expensive for some) form of independence and adventure.”
The depth of experience, health benefits, and the cultural and economic impact of bicycles in Minneapolis and St. Paul are immeasurable. Bicycles have the ability to reveal a new way to experience the Twin Cities. Their impression is made iconic through focal artwork showcased on buildings and in our homes, through bike share programs that make riding simple and convenient, through tours that celebrate the history of St. Paul, through advocacy organizations that aim to make us feel safe while biking in the city, and through resources that bring a world of knowledge on biking in the Twin Cities to your fingertips. It’s all here, folks; now all we have to do is grab a bicycle and get out there.