Joyful Bike Commuting

Last fall, my wife and I decided to move away from our downtown condo and bought a house in South Minneapolis. This was kind of a big deal for me, as I always viewed being able to walk to work as an important part of my physical and psychological well-being. Indeed, I bought a condo downtown in no small part because it meant not having to commute by car.

Nonetheless, you get married and your building doesn’t allow pets and you start looking at single family homes. A lot of single family homes. As you look, you start to realize the trade-offs in location, nearby amenities and the like. Those Lowry Hill townhouses that you think would make a great location turn out to underwhelm. Those houses closer to Lake of the Isles are waaaay too expensive.

Eventually, we found a house in our budget that seemed to meet our key needs. The only problem was that I wasn’t sure about the location. It seemed awfully far south, and I still didn’t want to commute by car. I started studying transit options (really looking at the bus system in detail for essentially the first time). It turned out there was a regular bus I could catch to downtown just a few blocks away and an express bus option, maybe (note: I’ve never actually figured out if I can catch it where I think maybe I can). If I want a bit of a hike, I could even mosey over to the Blue Line (haven’t done that on foot either). So there were non-car options.

But most importantly, I rode my bike down past the house a few times and tried to weigh whether it would be a reasonable bike commute. Depending on the route, it’s 5.5-7 miles each way. I generally ride pretty slow, so we’re talking about 30-45 minutes. Given that I had a habit of going out of my way to walk that long getting to work from my condo, I figured it was something I could do.

Commuting, the long way (sorry it's blurrier than I realizes)

Commuting, the long way (sorry it’s blurrier than I realized)

Having decided I’d bike commute, at least part of the time, I asked you guys for help. I went to a lot of bike shops and strongly considered getting a Dutch-style city bike. While I still kinda want one, I decided to stick with the cheap hybrid on which I knew I would be comfortable. Not totally ignoring your advice, I got fenders and a cargo rack. I bought gloves, pants, and wool socks. The wife got me some warm gear for Christmas (and I pretended not to notice that it was part of her ongoing attempt to get me to wear high-viz). I even started “practicing” on the one mile commute from the condo before we closed on the house.

To Bike or Not To Bike

As I’m very much a creature of habit, I eventually worked out a routine. When the weather was “good enough” and the roads not too slick or snowy, I biked to work. When I wasn’t comfortable with roads, when it was too cold, or when it was actively snowing, I took the bus, which for me beats driving in that I don’t have to drive in rush hour traffic and I get at least a little physical activity in getting to and from the bus stop (roughly similar travel time to biking, depending on how much of the route I walk). As spring came around, I added another rule: if it’s actively raining, I drive (it’s too far to the bus stop with a shelter to not wind up soaked).

Adapting to the weather has required some planning, but wasn’t exactly difficult. With the gear I currently have, I don’t bike when it’s below 30 degrees (we’ll see if I’m motivated to push that during winter number two). Between 30 and 40 degrees, I wear my warmest gear and carry my work stuff in a pannier. In the 40s, I wear normal work clothes, gloves, a headband and a light jacket. In the 50s (this is the sweet-spot!), I happily bike in normal work clothes. Over 60 degrees, and I need cooler clothes. Luckily, I have an office with a door, so it’s no big deal to change when I arrive.


Back when I was first planning to bike commute, I told Bill Lindeke, writing in his column of MinnPost, that I planned to make regular use of the wide, buffered bike lanes on Park and Portland to get to and from the south side. Again, with the whole riding pretty slow thing, I like that there’s room for me to stay to the side and let faster bikes go by, without having to venture too close to parked cars (aside from the stretches around Lake and north of Franklin, where the buffer goes away).

A map of my week-day biking over roughly the last six months

A map of my weekday biking over roughly the last six months

As you can see in the map above (using Moves data via Move-O-Scope) I do often go up Park and down Portland, which is why they are the brightest blue lines. They are, after all, the fastest and most direct route. But I don’t always use them.

One thing I don’t like about the Park/Portland pair is the speed of the cars. I’m told it’s better than it used to be, when the driving lanes were wider and there wasn’t a buffered bike lane, but nonetheless, some of the drivers do zip right along, which makes riding there less pleasant.

Especially as they aren’t all paying that much attention. It’s not unusual to hear screeching tires as someone has failed to adequately anticipate slowing traffic in front of them. Once, I heard and partially saw a speeding car sideswipe a pair of parked cars near 27th and Portland, only to speed off around the corner (if you’re wondering, if you call 311 to report something like this, they will re-direct you to 911 who will say there’s not much they can do).

And on one occasion I had a more personal run-in with a car. I was biking home down Portland last fall around dusk when an SUV, apparently attempting to park, stopped in the rightward traffic lane and proceeded to back up into the bike lane and into me. Maybe my mind had drifted toward work a bit or something, because it seems like this is something I should have seen in time to stop. But I didn’t, so my front wheel took the brunt of things and I ended up with a bloodied knee and some broken spokes. The driver waited around long enough to see that I was not seriously injured, I guess, but left without speaking to me. It took me a bit to recombobulate but eventually I walked my hobbled bike to Full Cycle, where the nice people were able to sell me an inexpensive used wheel and get me back on my way.

Anyway, it’s really more the general unpleasantness of speeding cars than that minor “crash” but these days my route is less exclusively the one-way pair. As you can see, sometimes I take the Minnehaha Creek Trail to the Blue Line LRT trail, for an almost entirely off-street commute, even if it adds an extra mile (I like to race the cars on Hiawatha, if it’s backed up).

More typically, I wind around on city streets most of the way until I eventually cut over to Park (on the way in) or the 17th Ave. bike boulevard (on the way home). As it turns out, low-traffic city streets are pretty great for biking. Especially if you’re not in a hurry and/or are willing to engage in the outrageous behavior of “blowing through” the occasional stop sign because you can clearly see there’s no conflicting traffic or pedestrians. I’d say my preferred route in is 17th Avenue to 43rd Street to 16th Avenue to 39th Street to 13th Avenue to 36th Street to Elliot Avenue to 34th Street to Park. In other words, I wind around avoiding hills and riding on streets on which I rarely have to interact with many cars.

I was going to conclude with an attempt to put some numbers around how often I commute by bike, bus and car (the latter fewer than 10 days so far, I think), but this is getting a little long, so I’ll save that for another day. Instead, I’ll conclude with a 30 Days of Biking-inspired thought I had about the time I snapped the picture above: when the weather is right, biking to work is joyful. When’s the last time you experienced joy commuting to work in your car?

Adam Miller

About Adam Miller

Adam Miller works downtown and lives in South Minneapolis. He's an avid user of the city's bike paths, sidewalks and skyways. He's not entirely certain he knows what the word "urbanist" means.