Four Things Minneapolis Can Learn from Seattle, Bike-wise

Woman riding on a two-way protected bike lane, not dying. [by Seattle DOT]

Woman riding on a two-way protected bike lane, not dying. [by Seattle DOT]

Cross-posted from Bikeways for Everyone

Seattle has been working on a bike master plan, and it looks really, really good. Unless a few lawyers get in the way, Seattle city council will vote on the plan in the next couple months. The bike plan calls for drastic improvements to Seattle’s bike network by 2030. Here are the details, courtesy of Seattle Bike Blog:

  • 50 new miles of protected bike lanes
  • 52 upgraded miles of protected bike lanes
  • 32 new miles of off-street trails (many along highways over bodies of water)
  • 239 new miles of bike boulevards (called “neighborhood greenways” in the plan)

There’s also a map showing where the proposed bike routes would go.

As the City of Minneapolis and Hennepin County rework their bike plans, it’s useful to draw lessons from Seattle’s achievements. The cities aren’t the same: while I’d kill to have the world’s richest person donating to Minneapolis’s bike-friendly organizations, I’m happy we don’t have as many hills. The cities are roughly comparable. Seattle just bid adieu to a progressive bike-friendly mayor. So did Minneapolis. Seattle has a highly-educated healthy population. So does Minneapolis. Seattle’s home to the corporate headquarters of Fortune 500 companies like Starbucks, Amazon, and Nordstrom. Minneapolis has Target, US Bank, Xcel Energy, and Ameriprise. Seattle has Macklemore and Ryan Lewis, Minneapolis has Doomtree. If they can put together a popular and progressive bike plan, so can we. We just need to learn a few lessons.

Pedestrians next to a protected bike lane.

Pedestrians next to a protected bike lane. [by Seattle DOT]

1) Get businesses on board.

Studies show that biking is good for business. A report from Portland State University shows that a customers who bike make more frequent trips and spend more money on average than customers who drive. As you might expect, bike infrastructure is a boon to local shops: after they built a protected bike lane in Manhattan, nearby stores saw sales increase by 49%, while the average growth across the borough was just 3%. Employees who commute by bike are healthier and more productive.

There are many ways businesses can make profitable investments in bike stuff. They can make the pledge with Bikeways for Everyone, which costs zero dollars. They can reward bike commuters, like Quality Bicycle Products and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation do. They can use the city’s cost-sharing program to build more bike parking for employees and customers, or they can follow Amazon’s lead and actually build a protected bike lane by their corporate headquarters. Chicago mayor Rahm Emanuel is trying to attract talented workers with a world-class network of bikeways, and Minneapolis businesses should join the movement for safe, convenient bikeways to gain a competitive edge.

2) Talk to — and listen to — stakeholders

If you’re an activist, you might be tempted to focus exclusively on changing the minds of “decision-makers” — elected and appointed officials, planners, and engineers. They’re the important ones, right?

Not always; sometimes change happens from the bottom-up. Seattle’s popular and visionary bike plan was influenced and supported by stakeholders from all corners of the city. The Seattle Department of Transportation collectively spent thousands of hours meeting with neighborhood organizations, businesses, residents, and other stakeholders all over the city, listening to their hopes and concerns for their neighborhoods. All this work paid off in two ways. First, the stakeholders’ input improved the plans by tailoring them to the unique needs of each neighborhood. Second, the stakeholders became emotionally invested in the plan, and worked to see it come to fruition. There’s hardly a more effective way to persuade a public official than by packing a meeting with diverse and enthusiastic supporters of safe streets.

Bikeways for Everyone is working hard to involve places of worship, PTA boards, health advocates, local businesses, large corporations, racial equity groups, and car-sharing companies to work together to improve Minneapolis’s streets. If you’re interested in getting more information for your organization, just send an e-mail to

3) Communicate clearly

A well-organized public outreach campaign can be ruined by too much engineering jargon. Some of the Seattleites who spoke against the bike plan were confused about the terminology. Seattle Bike Blog reports: “One neighbor said she would prefer a ‘slow bike trail’ over a ‘cycle track.’ These terms, as far as I can tell, refer to the same thing.” Recent research shows that practically no one knows what “cycle track” means, so let’s get more descriptive: “protected bike lane” clearly conveys the characteristics and benefits of the infrastructure.

Another speaker in Seattle was concerned that the protected bike lane would “occupy half the street,” in contradiction to the dimensions in the plan. People receive and retain information in different ways, so it’s important to have cross-sections, bird’s-eye views, detailed descriptions, and artistic renderings so all kinds of folks can wrap their heads around the proposals.

4) Don’t shame people — entice them

Carbon emissions are bad, and higher bike ridership will help reduce the amount we pollute. But there are exciting things that a network of protected bikeways will do, too!

Kids with bikes

Kids with bikes [by carfreedays on Flickr].

It’s also about attracting young workers to Minneapolis. It’s about easing the burden of transportation costs on low-income families. It’s about creating opportunity for communities of color by connecting neighborhoods. It’s about reducing the congestion and wear-and-tear on our streets. It’s about rebuilding the population of Minneapolis in a financially sustainable way. It’s about addressing our health crisis. It’s about improving our quality of life.

Building world-class bike infrastructure is just as much about possibilites as it is about problems. Seattle Neighborhood Greenways won supporters in all the corners of the city by promoting improvements that make streets safer for all users. That’s something Minneapolis can get excited about, too.

Creative Commons photos by Seattle Department of Transportation and carfreedays on flickr.

Scott Shaffer

About Scott Shaffer

Scott Shaffer works for a nonprofit community development corporation in Minneapolis. He has a master's degree in urban and regional planning from the University of Minnesota. He and his wife live in the Powderhorn Park neighborhood with their daughter and two Siamese cats.

6 thoughts on “Four Things Minneapolis Can Learn from Seattle, Bike-wise

  1. Joseph TottenJoseph Totten

    We need to see what we want the protection to be as well, as we do have different circumstances than Europe (politically) and the West Coast (meteorologically) . Rumble strips in a few feet of empty space could result in effective protection while minimizing snow removal complications/costs.

    1. jeffk

      This is something to consider. I’ve made my peace with protected bike lanes as potentially helpful in drawing new riders while having zero personal interest in them. But it’s been my observation that the plowing situation has been predictably dismal. Even when it’s done right, I still end up in the road because car tires cut through the last half inch of crud.

    2. Scott ShafferScott Shaffer Post author

      I’d want to see some evidence that people actually feel protected by just rumble strips before I’d call it a protected bike lane. Cutting costs while eliminating the benefits wouldn’t be wise.

      Calgary is finding that two-way protected bike lanes make snow removal easier:

      But also the University removes snow from narrow paths all the time, so it’s obviously something that can be done with the right equipment (bobcats with snow plows and rotary brush doohickeys, maybe).

  2. the other scott

    Unfortunately, unless the City and County plow curb to curb after EVERY snowfall, even bike lanes like the one on Park Ave (where I live) are difficult to negotiate in winter. Little nuisance snowfalls like the ones we have had this winter accumulate, plus snow from the auto lanes gets pushed into the bike lanes and then the cars parking next to the curb drive over the chunky, mushy snow. I end up taking the auto lane much of the time on Park and Portland around Lake St because of the mess. Perhaps it would have been better to create a plowable protected bike lane between the curb and parked cars? And don’t get me started on the cars not moved for snow emergencies.

  3. Walker AngellWalker Angell

    Scott, excellent points!

    We also need to keep in mind the stakeholders who don’t speak up. Probably 90% or more of potential bicycle folk don’t go to meetings or write letters to the editor. They ride around their neighborhood or haul bikes to a recreational trail in their SUV. Some wish they had safe places locally to ride but don’t say anything, most though don’t even give it a thought.

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