Shared Streets for All Ages

Tank’s a fan of biking. He was a bike commuter (in addition to walking, running, and transit) starting in the 1940s, riding even when coworkers mocked him and family teased him. My earliest foggy memories are of being on the back of my mother’s bike while she cycled to meet up with him as he biked home from work in the foothills of Denver. Had they access to the kind of cargo bikes that I see other parents using with their children, I have no doubt that they would have kept biking for transportation even as my siblings were born. Tank doesn’t ride anymore, though his sister kept biking in Minneapolis through her mid-90s, but we frequently show up to bike events or admire the bright green of passing Nice Rides.

We often walk Lyndale, a major commercial corridor in Minneapolis nearly totally ceded to commuter car traffic. Drivers speed by and bike lanes disappear without warning, so we’re not surprised when people end up biking past us on the sidewalk. But Tank is often surprised (and alarmed and scared) when people bike past us as we walk.

I don’t think it’s that the people who are riding on sidewalks are riding without consideration for others anymore than most drivers are trying to scare or block those who walk and bike. In both cases, it’s generally a lack of empathy and shared experience, not malice. It’s that many who ride on sidewalks are able-bodied people who don’t walk much and haven’t thought about how their actions could impact someone else.

Tank is 96–his only prescription at his last doctor’s appointment was “don’t fall.” His hearing is good and he walks frequently, but again, he’s 96–he’s not able to pick up the quiet sound of bikes approaching from behind. For him, what registers as physically threatening and unsafe has a different threshold than for me, an able-bodied person in my 30s. “Don’t fall” isn’t an easy directive to follow at the best of times when you’re walking on the unmaintained and uneven sidewalks and crossings of Minneapolis and Tank takes it seriously. Add in sudden unexpected cyclists, and it’s easy for him to feel as if his next brewery stop might have St. Peter checking IDs at the door.

If you’re biking on the sidewalk, be considerate, not just in the Golden Rule way that makes your behavior acceptable to some other You, but in a way that doesn’t make more vulnerable people feel scared and powerless. Go slowly, particularly around those who use assistive devices like Tank’s cane. Announce your presence and intention to pass, loudly enough to be heard on a noisy street by an old man who’s engrossed in conversation or lost in thought. Announce it with enough time for someone whose reaction time is slower than his wit. Give the person a wide berth–at least as wide as you wish a driver would give you, and then maybe a little extra because you know what it’s like to be buzzed. If you can’t go wider, go slower. And if you still get the stink eye, try slowing it down more the next time. Understand that the stink eye isn’t necessarily a response to you, but to the sum of walking in Minneapolis on streets so inhospitable to human life that even you find yourself biking on the sidewalk.

Tank’s working for the same better future you are, the one where people biking aren’t shunted to side streets as if their presence (and money) is unwanted on our major commercial and community corridors like Lyndale. He wants to cross the street without waiting in frostbite conditions for a light longer than it takes him to say the Angelus (that clocks in at 82 seconds) or sit through three TV commercials (90 seconds). He wants a city where well intentioned drivers don’t block sidewalks and bike lanes crosswalks and curb ramps. Those of us who walk and bike in Minneapolis know the horrible adrenaline rush of a near-miss, the driver who didn’t see us or, worse, didn’t care. Part of our shared work for safer, people-oriented streets must be seeing and respecting one another’s needs and vulnerabilities.

About Tank's Ghostwriter

Tank's Ghostwriter is a care-giver and walking companion for Tank, a 96-year-old life-long Minneapolis resident who enjoys hot chocolate, tennis, good conversation, fighting for the underdog, schooling you in grammar, and whooping you in ping-pong. Follow Tank's adventures on Twitter @capandcane.