Why Should Minnesota Cities Focus on Bikes, Anyway?

Someone asked me “So, Betsey…why bikes?” as in “Why are you focusing on bike advocacy in particular?”

It’s a good question since reading back in time on my blog suggests that “just bikes” is a significant contraction of my interests from city government, urban planning and economic development. Also a good question since my goal is to change the conversation (and the world) by fostering development which links land use, transportation, and economic development. The goal is to make cities more equitable, more economically and more environmentally sustainable. It’s not obvious why bikes are so important to this larger plan.

It gets even more complicated because, in my experience, presuming most people in and around local government can distinguish between placemaking, Strong Towns, smart growth, human-scaled development, urbanism, new urbanism, tactical urbanism, land use, land consumption, built environment, carrying capacity, compact development, green development, conservation development, low impact development, density, walkability, Safe Routes to School, and Complete Streets is usually a mistake. Assuming that anyone  believes that the principles underlying these buzzwords are desirable or doable does not, again in my experience, lead to much progress. World-changing requires thinking smaller.

Bikes are Small

The nice thing is that most people know something about bikes. Maybe they rode a bike to school, have one rusting in their garage, or think they might like to ride for fun or exercise. Or, at the other end of the spectrum, perhaps they are committed bike commuters, ride many miles for sport (from fat to skinny tires; pavement, gravel or trail) or enjoy taking the family to ride on bike trails. Even if someone thinks riding a bike is unpleasant, unsafe or unworkable, they still know what bikes are.

image of blue city bike

My Bike

So, bikes are accessible and talking about riding bikes brings urban design and transportation planning down to earth. By thinking about bikes, particular experiences, specific intersections, individual streets, and different kinds of riders or improvements can generate discussion, debate and disagreement.

Finally, on a project by project basis, building bike infrastructure or planning improvements is small, focused, relatively low cost and doable. And every year Northfield does a couple of street projects and each one of them is an opportunity for improvement. Indeed, changing the street landscape can be very cheap, quick and reversible. Fixing sprawling subdivisions and changing commercial development are not so easy.

Rather than starting at the policy level, getting people riding bikes is the bottom-up approach to fixing infrastructurally coerced car ownership.

Image of highway intersection with bike sensor

Despite the bike-specific traffic sensor, this infrastructure still urges me to drive

Bikes are Big

If people can get around town easily and safely on bikes, other larger things are probably happening, too. This means that bikes can be a lever for larger change. For example, think about some of the ways bikes matter to bigger questions:

Places are connected (at a human scale) — In a city the size of Northfield, distances are not great (under 5 miles) so kids could get to school without buses or parental chauffeuring if a few obstacles were removed.Retrofitting Northfield’s schools for better bike access might also encourage building the next school in a place where it was easy to reach by bike.

My daughter probably got tired of hearing me say “You have legs and you know how to use them,” but she did enjoy getting to and from school independently and I certainly enjoyed not sitting in lines like this:

School pick up/drop off traffic jam (Photo Santa Clarita Valley Signal)

School pick up/drop off traffic jam (Photo Santa Clarita Valley Signal)

Aging and mobility — If bikes can get around easily, the city has probably calmed traffic and improved transportation options for pedestrians, too.  As a temporarily middle-aged person, I’m working for a Northfield where, as I slow down, I can keep riding my bike and be able to ride or walk on and cross streets at a slower pace. Northfield has been hailed as a great place to retire, so presumably we should be continuing to work to help older residents get around.

Northfield is a great place to retire with your bike (Photo Money Magazine)

Northfield is a great place to retire with your bike (Photo Money Magazine)

Public conversation has been taking place to reconsider public space —  A really bikeable place has been rebuilding streets where space is allocated to maximize public benefit, transportation choice, public health, and the environment rather than just moving (or storing) cars. Successful bike advocacy takes networking and community support.

Equity — Finally, my take on bikes is a privileged one, but it shouldn’t have to be. So, when someone says “Oh, you ride because you’re affluent, white, liberal, etc.” they’re right. I have the money to buy a house in Northfield near work and shopping (on the “right” side of Highway 3). Strangely, because I have money, I don’t have to spend it on transportation. I have been privileged enough to live in England and Finland as well as visit the Netherlands and Europe and see how cities can enable transit, walking and bicycles so driving is neither as necessary nor as convenient.

Working for better biking is also working for building more transportation choices into the place, connecting neighborhoods, and linking people and services. In a town the size and density of Northfield, transit is mostly inefficient, but bike connections make more sense.

The question “Why bikes?” got asked not long after I had attended my last meeting as a Strong Towns board member where Chuck Marohn, after talking about wanting to build a Strong Towns movement, started enumerating all the groups he didn’t like because of the narrowness of their vision. “I hate the bike lanes people,” he said, “and I hate the Complete Streets people.”

Sure “bike lane people” might focus too narrowly (as any advocate can see the landscape only through their particular lens) and miss the larger picture for the bike lane, but bikes are small enough to get some traction on much larger issues.

A version of this post appears on the author’s blog Small Town, Big Picture


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10 Responses to Why Should Minnesota Cities Focus on Bikes, Anyway?

  1. Walker Angell
    Walker Angell April 9, 2015 at 11:31 am #

    Great perspective and post.

    I think bicycling is a critical core element to any kind of new urbanism, villageification, or other ilks. People will walk about 1/4 to 1/2 mile to a store (app 10 minutes). A bit further for longer term engagements like school. I’ll not hold my breath for a grocery within a 1/2 mile of most people’s homes though. Cars and transit are great for longer journeys but become problematic if we try to utilize them for everything beyond walking distance.

    Bicycling fills this gap and provides transportation (and hauling ability) for the 1/4 to 5 mile (each way) journeys without clogging roads with cars and tight headways on buses.

  2. Matt Steele
    Matt Steele April 9, 2015 at 2:03 pm #

    ” I’ll not hold my breath for a grocery within a 1/2 mile of most people’s homes though.”
    Exactly, because we mostly have a failed land use. We need to stop spending on needless infrastructure to subsidize sprawl and create low trip generation density. Things like bikeability will follow naturally.

    • Walker Angell
      Walker Angell April 13, 2015 at 8:00 am #

      I agree Matt. Except that bikeability will follow. Don’t you think that we need both to happen at once? Without people being able to bike to wherever a grocery store will be won’t the store view themselves as a car destination and so put in a big parking lot that will generate a lot of motor traffic and soon the city will come along and say that the intersection by there needs to be doubled in size to support all of the traffic?

      I’d think we’d need neighborhoods to be bikeable and walkable and mobility scooterable first and then when stores and schools and cafe’s are built they might be designed for people who walk, bike, or ride a mobility scooter rather than only for cars.

  3. Keith Morris April 9, 2015 at 2:20 pm #

    I noticed on street view that while there are some bike racks I noticed no cyclists on the downtown stretch of Division St even in ideal weather conditions and the fact that it’s maybe 3 minutes max from the edge of town in any direction leaves me scratching my head as to why I only see cars: everyone is driving that paltry distance instead. Same is true for other towns.

    Really, what towns like Northfield should do is close off all blocks of the main street off from cars: in Northfield that’s a whopping four blocks and if that’s too “extreme”, just the middle two. Parking would still be available on side streets and in any case, lots of residents are just a 5-10 minute walk away.

  4. Janne Flisrand
    Janne April 9, 2015 at 4:24 pm #

    I said, “I do bike advocacy because if you get good places for people riding bikes, you have good places for people.” They said I should write that in a streets post. I’m crossing that one off my list, now.

    You point out that it’s relatable — something everyone can relate to. It’s a topic that has a passionate and numerous constituency — people who ride bikes and want to feel safer than they do now.

    I’d add it’s got leverage — slowing traffic, narrowing driving lanes and crossing distances, building spaces with accessible destinations, transit, the whole bike-friendly story — gets the land use Matt is calling for. I think think we’ll get there faster if we lead with bikes than if we lead with land use.

  5. Mike Brooks April 10, 2015 at 10:38 am #

    When we come into a new town and see people of all ages walking and biking and standing around we instinctively know that community is vital. It feels right. it feels lived in. It feels safe.

    • Walker Angell
      Walker Angell April 13, 2015 at 8:04 am #

      Yes. A realtor once told me that there’s nothing that sells Shoreview (and thus the houses in Shoreview) like seeing gobs of people riding bikes to Dairy Queen.

  6. Charles Marohn April 12, 2015 at 11:03 pm #

    That’s a cheap and inappropriate misquote. Disappointing.

    • Betsey Buckheit
      Betsey Buckheit April 13, 2015 at 7:24 am #

      Chuck, I carefully recorded the quote at the meeting along with my own thoughts about how to make good use of people who start with more focused interests than the Strong Towns big picture. I was a little shocked at your statement at that meeting (which is why I wrote it down in the first place), but it was enlightening – how do we build from narrower interests or specific kinds of advocates to change the world. I believe the Strong Towns message is a powerful one, but also one which is difficult to grasp or accomplish whole. Bikes are a good place to start.

      • Charles Marohn April 13, 2015 at 12:01 pm #

        The quote, even if it weren’t totally wrong, added little to the argument of your article. It makes you look petty.

        If you want to quote me or reference your short time on our board, there are hundreds of posts on our site that you can accurately take from. I’ve not exactly been silent on the issue.

        You are better than this. Move on.