A Car-Free, Car-Less, and Car-Lite Guide To Surviving Bemidji

A person trudges through snow on the middle of America Ave. NW in Bemidji, MN during light snow precipitation. In the background, a Paul Bunyan Transit bus waits to board a passenger by the Bemidji Public Library. February 12, 2019.

I thought I needed to have a car for my assignment.

In August, I was offered a position that had me relocate to Bemidji. In Northern Minnesota. 200 miles away from the only home that I’ve known outside of San Francisco, away from the friends that I’ve made.

I thought I was going away too soon. Over the past year, I was making incredible process. I had just completed a term of service at a local immigration nonprofit and had a little more clarity about what I wanted to do with my life. I just needed to stay a bit longer to get some more clarity as to what the best path moving forward was. Meanwhile, I even forgot that Minnesota Nice existed.

The assignment I took on was to bring bicycling back on the map. But as a condition of accepting the position, I would need to join the ranks of over 140 million workers 16 years and over in households in the United States who have – but not necessarily drive – combustible metal boxes that are fast killing our planet.

But it turns out that I didn’t. I think.

It turns out that my placement has fleet vehicles that I could use if I needed to. But by the time I learned that I didn’t need a car, I already bought (and got a moving violation with) it. The only times that I’ve had to use my car so far are when I want to go on trips to visit cities I otherwise would not have time to visit while living in the Cities (so far, International Falls).

But the fleet vehicles they were talking about were the ones that I had never driven before. I’ve never touched a 15-passenger van, and the last SUV I drove was enough to give me goosebumps. So maybe it’s for good reason that I bought my own deadly combustible engine enclosed in a giant metal box that can also double as an expensive and elaborate freezer in the Winter.

Then I got into a crash one evening on my way to a training in the Twin Cities.

I was already biking to my placement most days since I moved here, but losing a car meant that I needed to rely on it more than ever. Awesome that Winter was well on its way, too. There were only a couple days when it was cold enough that I needed to ride the bus. The bus worked well.

There were also times I needed to travel to the Cities, or even back home to San Francisco to visit family for the holidays. Fortunately, a combination of transit, Jefferson Lines, taxi, and Lyft saved me. Not that my car would have started after leaving it to freeze while parked outside for up to 3 weeks.

I think I’m doing just fine without a car in Bemidji. Bemidji has options. But it’s especially challenging in the Minnesota Winter: Polar Vortex edition.

Biking

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The author’s bike, sitting on the shoulder of a County Road. February 12, 2019.

For the most part, Bemidji is bikeable. While the entire community probably only has approximately one mile of on-street bike lanes, almost every street has shoulders that essentially double as a bike lane. The community also has 5 miles of trail that connect the Lake to different parts of town. Many more streets are also calm enough (let’s say, approximately 20 cars/hour) that it’s comfortable enough for me to ride a bike. It’s also mostly flat.

I live just outside of Bemidji, about 3 miles from the heart of everything. It’s very rural where I live. Many friends, colleagues, and acquaintances expressed shock that I, as a city kid, would even consider moving to a rural area, an area not known for its bikeability, walkability, or transit-friendliness.

But it works somewhat well. I chose where I currently live because it’s close to a trail that will take me to both my placement site and Downtown. I can even get to the convention center, and – if I decide to bike a bit longer – to Lake Bemidji State Park and Walker, Minnesota.

However, I didn’t realize before I moved in that the trail is closed during the winter (from December to April). It’s a grant-in-aid trail, where it is made available exclusively to snowmobiles in the winter. The snow is also very deep by January, making biking extremely difficult, if not impossible.

So I use the shoulders to get to my placement site. This adds an extra 15 minutes to my commute.

Like the trails, the shoulders also aren’t plowed in the winter. If the prevailing winds don’t slow me down, the snow will. My riding over also tends to cause the snow to “popcorn”; flakes of accumulated snow are sent flying, landing on my bike and inside my boots. Yes, I have fenders, thank you for asking.

Running errands is also more difficult with a bike, but doable. Most of the places where I purchase my goods (basically, Target) is located at a strip mall. The first street that I need to take has a shoulder, which is easier to ride on. The street that I need to take to get to Target, however, lacks a shoulder. I am forced to ride on a 2-foot section that contains gutters. It’s especially dangerous on weekday mornings, with the litany of vehicles driving to drop off their children for school. However, after a couple months, I discovered a low-to-no-traffic shortcut that bypasses the road by the middle school, which makes everything better.

But finding a place to park my bike is hard once I get there. So far this winter, no business I’ve visited plows their bike racks. I can still park my bike, it just involves wading through a foot of snow. Here’s hoping my feet don’t get frostbite. It’s a whole different story in the summer, however; bike racks and bike parking are decently easy to find and access.

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Unplowed bike rack at the Bemidji State University campus. February 13, 2019

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Unplowed bike rack at the Sanford Bemidji Medical Center campus. February 12, 2019.

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Unplowed bike rack at the Bemidji Public Library. February 9, 2019.

 

There are times when I don’t want to bike around town all the time. There’s something about biking in Minneapolis that’s different from biking in Bemidji. In Minneapolis, I have different things to look at, as well as different paths I can take to get to and from home. There are traffic lights. I also have the ability to bring my bike on a bus when I don’t want to ride anymore.

It’s different in Bemidji. I can’t bring my bike on a Paul Bunyan Transit bus if I decide I don’t want to bike anymore. There’s also something awkward about pulling over on a shoulder when I’m exhausted from biking. I don’t want to be honked at for an obstacle, not that it’s happened much since I moved out here. There are only two possible paths that I can take to get between my house and my placement in the winter, three in the summer. No traffic lights mean I keep on going. Unplowed snow makes biking treacherous and difficult, but otherwise bearable.

But it’s probably something that I need to get used to. 

It’s also usually extremely windy and cold. Depending on which way it is blowing (usually from the northwest), it could make it harder for me to get home. I’m trying my best to stay alive and avoid frostbite. Yes, the winter up here is colder, but this winter has also been a colder winter than usual. The lack of wind, as well as temps above 10°F, make winter bicycling all the more enjoyable. Or maybe this is how a Minnesota Winter is supposed to feel like, and I’m just doing what transplants do best: complain.

I guess the only time I get to complain is when temperatures fall below –10°F. That’s when the air gets too thin for me to breathe, making it harder for me to bike. That is when I start to take the bus to my placement site.

Transit

Local And Regional Transit

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Paul Bunyan Transit operates in Beltrami County, within an approximate 10mi radius of Bemidji City Hall. Buses provide door-to-door, driveway-to-driveway service.

Believe it or not, Bemidji does have transit. Paul Bunyan Transit is the primary service provider in Bemidji. Paul Bunyan Transit (PBT) was founded in 1999 from the mergers of both the Bemidji and Beltrami County dial-a-ride agencies. Out of Bemidji, it serves Beltrami County within a 10-mile radius of Bemidji City Hall. However, an earlier article mentions that the service area is bounded by certain county roads that are within the 10-mile service area. So the service area is more around anywhere between a 7 to 9 mile radius of City Hall. On the first and third Thursdays, the route operates to Waskish, stopping in Kelliher, Blackduck, Tenstrike, and Turtle River, all communities to the northeast of Bemidji. PBT continues the 100+ year legacy of different operators providing dial-a-ride transit service in the community.

I’ve found the dial-a-ride to be workable, to an extent. It’s timely, and mostly fast. It runs door-to-door. The drivers are nice. The bus itself is a nice respite from the cold weather.

But it doesn’t work well with my schedule. The first bus usually arrives at my placement site at around 8:45am, which is much later than when I need to arrive. The last bus that leaves my site is at 4:30pm, although it often comes much earlier. But I understand, it’s a dial-a-ride and everyone else is also trying to get somewhere at the same time as I am.

The buses also stop heading north after 5pm (since their priority is to get the buses back to the garage ASAP), and they stop completely at 6pm. Had I lived in Nymore (southeast Bemidji, basically, and where their garage is located), I probably would have more flexibility. They also don’t run on Sundays.

When transit doesn’t run, I imagine a lot of people living in Bemidji who are unable to drive are essentially stranded at their homes unless they have a friend to give them a ride. Unless they live close by or have a ride (be it petroleum or non-petroleum powered), they can’t really get there. The Census estimates that between 2013 and 2017, about 10% of Bemidji households do not have access to a vehicle. 

And I still can’t bring a bike onboard.

In addition to PBT, Bemidji is also served by agencies from nearby regions. Both the Red Lake and Leech Lake Reservations operate their own services into Bemidji. Additionally, there is service provided by the Hubbard County Heartland Express operating from as far as Park Rapids, and Arrowhead Transit provides service from International Falls.

Jefferson Lines

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Looking at the Holiday Gas Station in Bemidji from inside the Paul Bunyan Express. January 12, 2019.

Bemidji is also served by Jefferson Lines. They operates the Paul Bunyan Express, or Schedules 927 and 928, once a day in each direction. The morning bus goes to Minneapolis, while the afternoon bus goes to Fargo (well, Fargo proper starting today). They board both at the northernmost Holiday Gas Station, about a 30 minute walk from Downtown Bemidji, as well as outside of Walnut Hall at Bemidji State University.

Since I lost my car, Jefferson Lines has been vital in getting between Bemidji and the cities. It takes longer than it would driving, theoretically. But it’s much more spacious. By that, I mean it doesn’t get a lot of riders. I often have a row to myself, and I’m able to work on articles like this when I’m onboard. The Bemidji stop may very well be Jefferson Line’s busiest, northernmost stop in Northern Minnesota; there’s usually at least one or two other people getting on or off with me.

I can get to either of the stops where Jefferson Lines stops fine with Paul Bunyan Transit. It was a close call the first time around. My bus left home 20 minutes before I needed to be on the bus to Grand Forks. Fortunately, I made it, just as the driver waited.

But coming back is another story. I’m sure I can transfer successfully to Paul Bunyan Transit from a Jefferson Lines coming from Fargo or Grand Forks. It arrives Bemidji close to 11:15am, and Paul Bunyan Transit is running in full swing by that point. However, JL from Minneapolis arrives Bemidji closer to 5pm, the time when Paul Bunyan Transit ends northbound service.

I’m stranded, right?

Hello? First City Taxi

But just because Paul Bunyan Transit isn’t around doesn’t mean I’m stranded. There is a taxi service. First City Taxi is the only taxi service in Bemidji. It recently became Native-owned. In August, they received a permit to operate in the city limits. And it seems like things are moving along. They recently received approval to restructure their fares, and they’ve recently began putting advertising on their vans.

Riding With Strangers

There are times when strangers offered me rides coming home from Jefferson Lines. I happened to meet a fellow passenger on Jefferson Lines one day, who was going to the Red Lake Reservation to visit her sister. We found out that we were once neighbors, and that she loves riding her bike by Matthews Park in Minneapolis. She offered a ride, and I decided to take it.

Another day, I was in the middle of calling a Lyft. The next Lyft was expected to arrive in 30 minutes, but there weren’t any cars nearby. A member of the BSU hockey team happened upon me, and decided to give me a ride as he was done with classes for the day.

Lyft

Believe it or not, Uber and Lyft does exist in Bemidji. I had a better time hailing one as I got off my flight close to midnight when I came back from home. The driver I had tended to drive late; they go on until 3am. Afterward, they must get ready to take classes at a nearby community college later that morning. Talk about busy.

Airport

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Inside the Bemidji Regional Airport. December 14, 2018

Like I said, there’s also an airport. The airport is served exclusively by Skywest/Delta Connection, and there are two flights daily that go to MSP. A third flight is added during the summer months. Not only is it insanely fast, it is also insanely expensive; it only makes sense to fly if you’re catching a connecting flight to elsewhere in the country. Also, since it’s a small airport, the TSA lines are shorter. Unfortunately, it means that they have more time to physically search your belongings.

Walking

I haven’t spent a lot of time walking around Bemidji. Living 3 miles outside of Downtown kills any hope that I had of being able to walk for my errands, like I used to do when I was living in Minneapolis.

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During snowfall, the city plows the snow to form medians. Sometimes, those medians block crosswalks, forcing pedestrians to face oncoming traffic while crossing the street.

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Partially plowed sidewalk on America Ave NW in Bemidji, MN. February 9, 2019.

Downtown Bemidji is the most walkable part of Bemidji. It’s one of the few neighborhoods that has sidewalks on both sides of the street. Most of the sidewalks are plowed in the winter. Outside of Downtown, some streets are narrow enough where they essentially behave like woonerfs. Other streets have shoulders that have enough space for people to walk on. So far, I’ve only encountered people stopping for me, asking if I am fine. I am, just that I missed my bus and that I’m almost home.

Bemidji Without A Car Is (Somewhat) Workable

One day, I was walking home from my placement. I missed my bus, and there weren’t any rides available (then again, I didn’t ask). I didn’t want to spend for a taxi or a Lyft. So I decided to walk.

It was -10°F out. The walk lasted an hour and 15 minutes. Fortunately, I survived.

There were businesses that I planned to visit. One of them was a sporting goods store.

As soon as I walked in, the owner recognized me.

“We see you biking every morning!” the owner remarked. “My husband and I always talk about you biking, and we thought you need GOGGLES!”

At least twice a week, I will run into someone in town who recognizes me on the street. Out of nowhere, they compliment me for attempting to bike in cold and snowy weather. At BSU. At the cafe. At the County Administration Building.

They think I’m crazy.

Sometimes I think I’m crazy too for biking in the winter. Sometimes I do miss being in the comfort of my own metal box, listening to a favorite podcast with the heat on.

Winter makes it hard to not have a car. But, on the bright side, I don’t miss having to wait for my car to start and warm up.

On my bike, sometimes I’ll get frustrated by the wind, concerned about the feeling of pins and needles on my fingers and toes, afraid of the occasional slippage when my bike is over slippery snow or ice, and annoyed by the occasional bombardment and popcorning of snow that I’ll get while riding a bike. That’s fine with me. Life isn’t meant to be perfect, after all, just exciting.

Sometimes it’ll get cold. Like, polar vortex cold. In that case, there’s the local dial-a-ride.

As difficult as it is living in Bemidji without a car in the winter, it is indeed possible to live without one. But it would even better if there were more sidewalks, more separated bike lanes, and transit that ran longer and more predictably. If only there was the money to make it all possible. 

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10 Responses to A Car-Free, Car-Less, and Car-Lite Guide To Surviving Bemidji

  1. Melissa Wenzel
    Melissa Wenzel February 15, 2019 at 9:16 am #

    You’re not crazy. You’re amazing and resilient! I think when people call what we do as crazy or whatever, they’re actually envious that they don’t have the guts to try stuff like this. It’s NOT easy, it IS challenging, but we try it, and we find ways to succeed at something people don’t think is possible.

    • Henry Pan
      Henry Pan February 15, 2019 at 9:21 am #

      Thanks Melissa for the kind words! That’s why we must share and humanize our experiences so this becomes more of a thing! Mad props to sharing your winter biking experiences!

  2. Jenny Werness
    Jenny Werness February 15, 2019 at 9:47 am #

    This makes me want to visit Bemidji! What a great introduction. Winter biking can definitely be tough, but it is also fun. Did you get some goggles?

    • Henry Pan
      Henry Pan February 15, 2019 at 9:52 am #

      Thanks you! Bemidji is nice, and it’s even nicer in the Summer.

      If you do plan to visit, I recommend coming in either June or August. June is Loop the Lake, the premier ride around Lake Bemidji: http://www.bikebemidji.com/festival-details.html. In August, the City may be doing a bike camping trip to Lake Bemidji State Park.

      As for goggles, no, I never did. I figure since Spring is just around the corner I’ll tough it out until then. Maybe later this year?

      • Jenny Werness
        Jenny Werness February 15, 2019 at 11:00 am #

        That makes sense, and buying winter goggles in summer might even get you a discount! 🙂

        Thanks for the link to the festival, that sounds like fun. I’ve recently committed to not flying anymore (reducing my carbon footprint!), so new, closer, destinations are of particular interest to me. Bemidji is on the list!

  3. Bill Lindeke
    Bill Lindeke February 15, 2019 at 10:08 am #

    Wow, thanks for writing this Henry. 3 miles seems like an awfully long way up there.

  4. Eric Anondson
    Eric Anondson February 15, 2019 at 5:30 pm #

    This was an epic post. Well done and great topic!

  5. Brian February 16, 2019 at 1:18 pm #

    Is the Dial-A-Ride service better in Bemidji than it is in the Twin Cities? The service in the Twin Cities comes within 30 minutes of the scheduled time and will only wait three minutes. You basically have to be ready to go for up to 30 minutes. I realize it isn’t a taxi or Uber, but having to wait up to an hour for a round trip could burn up a lot of your day.

    • Henry Pan
      Henry Pan February 16, 2019 at 4:52 pm #

      I actually haven’t tried TransitLink (I think this is what you’re referring to?) so I wouldn’t know. But PBT gives you a 15min window (before or after) and will also wait 3 minutes for you before it leaves. Apparently if they run early they have to wait, but also apparently not. I’m working on a post about PBT and hope to have it up sometime in the Spring.

  6. Alex Schieferdecker
    Alex Schieferdecker February 19, 2019 at 2:19 pm #

    This post is fantastic, thank you Henry!

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