This weekend I had the pleasure of visiting New Ulm, MN, for the first time. Friends had suggested I hike up to see Hermann the German, listen to the Glockenspiel at an appointed time, and of course drink plenty of Schell’s beer. However, one of the things I was looking forward to most was the New Ulm “Bike Circle Route.”
Bike Circle Route
This route is described by the city as a “13-mile loop around the beautiful city of New Ulm” and states that “the paved recreation trail is well marked and has several benches for resting.” It sounds great!
We started bicycling from our bed and breakfast in the middle of town by taking quiet side streets. Since the Bike Circle goes around the town there isn’t much reason to use it for strictly downtown destinations. We ended up later at the newish and awesome Starkeller Taproom, which is on the far NW end of town. It was dark and we didn’t know the town very well, so we decided to take the Bike Circle back to our B&B.
This was a great experience for us. The path was unlit, but my strong headlight made up the difference. We were happy to find that it was a completely separated bike path and though it had several turns it was extremely well signed. We never felt lost, and I only checked Google Maps to make sure we turned at the right street for our destination.
The next day we rode calm side streets again to the historic Schell’s brewery to buy tickets for a tour. Afterwards we decided to get back on the Bike Circle to find the Hermann monument.
This time our experience was far different. Instead of a separated bike path we were on a barely marked side street going through what felt like a suburban development. At least it was still well signed, but now it seemed like the signs were simply a way-finding system that didn’t really indicate a dedicated bikeway. Sharrows appeared infrequently.
Even worse, when we later continued on the off-street path that we had used the previous evening we were suddenly directed onto a busy four-lane street (20th St) with no shoulder or bike lane.
Surprised, we opted to take the narrow sidewalk instead! As soon as we got off the sidewalk we found it led us through a closed Target and Burger King’s massive parking lot.
The Bike Circle map indicates that this intersection is going to be trouble, but it does not tell us that we will be directed onto a busy street and then through a massive parking lot.
I think I understand why they chose this route. 20th St was the only way to get across the urban highway that is Broadway Street because it had a traffic light. 18th Street would have made a lot more sense and been more direct except there would be no way to cross the Death Road.
An Incomplete Route
I now understand why I didn’t find the Bike Circle Route reflected on Google Maps: It’s not really all there. Google rightly indicates the sections that are separated bikeways and leaves the rest out entirely.
It’s such a great idea to have a loop feature like this, whether it’s around a small city like New Ulm or around the downtown area of a larger city like St. Paul. However, if left incomplete it is both disappointing and dangerous. Especially on a route that is supposed to be as iconic as this one there needs to be consistent safety features for the rider. Sharrows are not a replacement for safe bicycle infrastructure, and leading people onto busy streets without a hint of protection is irresponsible.
Not only must these features be complete to really be useful, we also need to be bold by giving bikes safe space on and across busy streets. Bikes can’t cross Broadway in New Ulm unless there is a light, so they need to be on 20th Street. But now the city needs to install bike lanes (preferably protected) on 20th Street. Which streets in St. Paul safely cross dangerous roads like Maryland or White Bear Avenues? The other streets that are busy and big enough to have traffic signals, such as Arcade and Minnehaha Streets. It’s nice to have calm side streets on the bike plan, but eventually they run into a busy street and often you’re stuck. Crossing medians are nice, but having space on streets that go where you want to go is even nicer.