In January this year, when the Draft Saint Paul Bikeways Plan was released to the public, people in the media called to ask me what I thought of the plan and why I thought Minneapolis was so far ahead of Saint Paul when it came to bicycle infrastructure. I couldn’t comment on the plan because I hadn’t seen it but I told them that, unlike Saint Paul, Minneapolis had the “Holy Trinity” of forces necessary to get stuff done– an eager mayor and elected officials, a willing Public Works Department, and lots of money. Minneapolis also had more bicycle culture and a public that supported cycling.
Things weren’t always so great for bicyclists in Minneapolis. In the early 2000s, there wasn’t much bike infrastructure and the cops were still beating the crap out of Critical Mass riders. I remember going to a Critical Mass ride in March 2002, right after R.T. Rybak had been elected mayor. Around a hundred people showed up in Loring Park on a Friday afternoon. Among the riders was a special guest, Chris Carlsson, one of the original founders of Critical Mass. He was visiting the Twin Cities from San Francisco with his 16-year-old daughter. They were looking at potential colleges for her and he was promoting a new book he’d written about the history of Critical Mass. Someone lent the two of them an old Schwinn Tandem bike for the ride. As we assembled at Loring Park, Minneapolis police cars began circling the park. When we tried to leave, they repeatedly cut us off, forcing us to ride in circles around the park. Finally we were able to leave. We rode a few blocks to the corner of Third Avenue and South 7th Street. At that point, forty or fifty people got through a traffic light and the rest of us were stuck behind it. From out of nowhere, multiple squad cars and a flatbed truck descended on the group who had gotten through the light. They yanked people off their bikes, throwing the bikes onto the flatbed truck and proceeded to arrest, mace, and beat people. They smashed one guy’s face into the cement, requiring multiple stitches. One cop shouted at my friend Ken, “Get out of here, you’re too old for this.”
In the days that followed, a group of us met with Rybak and some city council representatives. They had already gotten complaints about the police from civil rights groups. Police chief Robert Olson was eventually forced to resign, and Rybak and Council member Robert Lilligren personally rode in the next few Critical Mass rides to ensure that police didn’t attack us. Both also made cycling infrastructure improvements a priority.
In addition, the Minneapolis Public Works Department had some supporters of cycling like Donald Pflaum who were willing to consider striping bike lanes or adding bike infrastructure when streets got rebuilt. Even before Rybak, bicycle projects like the Midtown Greenway were being constructed, and there were community groups pushing for cycling projects and improvements. Among them were the Midtown Greenway Coalition and folks at the University of Minnesota. Starting in 2002, however, things really began to take off. In addition to a willing mayor and Public Works Department, U.S. congressional representatives Martin Sabo and Jim Oberstar were both supporters of cycling, and they helped to steer federal money for bicycle infrastructure towards Minneapolis. Minneapolis was one of five cities to secure a federal Non-motorized Transportation Pilot Program grant for over twenty-five million dollars, dedicated to improving bicycle infrastructure. Administered by Transit for Livable Communities, this grant funded Bike Walk Twin Cities, data collection and a huge number of infrastructure projects. During the 2000s, Minneapolis extended the Midtown Greenway to the Mississippi River, constructed the Sabo Bridge, and built dozens of bike lanes, bike boulevards and other projects.
While all this was going on in Minneapolis, Saint Paul did almost nothing. Mayor Randy Kelly didn’t seem very interested in cycling and the Public Works Department rarely took cycling concerns into account when designing streets and roadway projects. Now in his third term, Mayor Coleman seems interested in improving cycling infrastructure, but it remains to be seen if the money he wants will actually be appropriated. It also remains to be seen whether the Public Works Department will be willing to make space for bikes on critical arterial streets (by giving up travel lanes) or whether they will eliminate slip turns, ban right-turns-on-red at key intersections and do all the other little things to make bike infrastructure projects successful. Until recently, if cars and bicycles were competing for street space, the cars always won.
In 2001, Saint Paul was actually ahead of Minneapolis in many ways. It had good park trails and, in the 1990s, activists had gotten the bike lanes striped on Summit Avenue– still one of the best, most used bikeways in the city. Saint Paul had the state’s first bicycle advisory board and the first city bike tour– The Saint Paul Classic, which celebrated its 20th anniversary this past Sunday. In the 2000’s, however, when it came to bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure, the city stopped progressing. Except for Macalaster-Groveland and a few other neighborhoods, getting public support for cycling and cycling projects was difficult. For me, the low point was in 2009, when the city disbanded its bicycle advisory board.
Some of this was due to a lack of leadership and public agency support and some of it was due to the backwards nature of Saint Paul. A friend told me how, as a kid, they used to ride across the Lake Street Bridge and say to each other, “You are now entering Saint Paul; set your watches back thirty years!” By contrast, the population of Minneapolis is younger and more interested in non-motorized transportation. In addition to institutional support and money, Minneapolis had a lot more bicycle culture. This included great alley cat races, Critical Mass, shops like One-On-One, annual shows like Art Crank, great zines, and some fun, charismatic cycling advocates who owned shops or organized events.
Improving cycling and pedestrian infrastructure, education and enforcement is a team sport. Elected leaders, businesses, public agencies and the public itself have to be moving in the same direction if they want to accomplish anything. To get improvements, Saint Paul needs a lot more activist and cultural energy. People need to organize, write to elected officials and media outlets, attend public meetings, testify at hearings and do whatever they can to influence city officials and public opinion. In the late 1990s and 2000s, Minneapolis had more of that kind of energy than Saint Paul.
Saint Paul finally has a Draft Bikeways Plan, but it’s is just lines on a map. Turning those lines into reality will require that advocates work with officials, the public and each other and ensure we construct planned bicycle improvements, and construct them in the best way possible. When I’m riding on a good dedicated bike lane or on an off-street path, I know someone sat through a ton of meetings to help make it happen.
I’ve been co-chair of the Saint Paul Bicycle Coalition since it started in early 2010. I have to step down at the end of the year. I urge others to step up and get involved, either with us, Women On Bikes, Cycles for Change, Saint Paul Smart Trips or any other group trying to bring better biking and walking to Saint Paul.