Dozens of cyclists do a group ride in Minneapolis for a City Nerd event.

A City Nerd Bike Party (and Latent Support for Urbanism)

If you were out driving in Minneapolis a week ago Friday, you may have had to wait one or two extra light cycles as hundreds of bicycles rolled through the intersection in a huge pack. Who were they, and where were they going? Were they really running red lights?

One passerby asked the group, “What are you riding for?” to which someone shouted, “Biking!”

In brief, that answer suffices. It would have been hard to summarize in a quip that the bicyclists were a pack of like-minded people who just had crammed into a bike shop for a chance to talk with one of their favorite YouTubers about, yes, biking — but also housing policy, freeway removal, transit, and sustainable, multimodal, mixed-use and dense cities, along with a litany of other concepts that, while having become more familiar to the general public, are still widely misunderstood in their true scope and benefit. These folks would likely call themselves urbanists.

The YouTuber, Ray Delahanty, whom I and more than 200 other bikers all went to see, calls himself  “City Nerd,” and he has gained a following of over 250,000 for his weekly videos that explain the logic of urbanism. His tone is even keeled, methodical and dryly humorous. It’s the kind of thorough, data-driven argument that could actually help the uninformed get on board with urbanism.

Hundreds of bikes neatly stored alongside the Midtown Greenway.
Space-efficient parking for 200 bicycles.

Perhaps the most popular video among his fans that attended the event was his City Visit video for Minneapolis, released last summer, in which he opines about what Minneapolis does best as a city and what makes it unique among other metros.

In the video, Ray heaped praise on the Minneapolis parks system and how municipal ownership of all lake fronts has created uncommonly equitable access to the city’s best natural assets. He also highlighted the Midtown Greenway and declared the extensive, dense development that has occurred along it to be unique, saying that “it’s 100% a transportation corridor, and if you’re one of the many people in Minneapolis who bikes, this has to be just about an ideal living arrangement.”

Cyclists gather outside Venture Bikes and Coffee.
Venture Bikes and Coffee is located directly on the Midtown Greenway.

Therefore it was fitting that the YouTuber’s “City Nerd Bike Party” (a collaboration among, Our Streets Minneapolis and BikeMN) was hosted at Venture Bikes and Coffee, a recently opened bike and coffee shop in the only storefront located directly on the Greenway itself.

Crowd gathered to listen to Ray Delahanty (aka City Nerd) and Anthony Taylor.
Ray Delahanty (aka City Nerd) and Anthony Taylor discuss Minneapolis, biking and more.

Founder of Slow Roll Twin Cities and Venture Bikes collaborator Anthony Taylor sat down with Ray for a discussion as the crowd packed the room, half of them sitting on the floor. Ray told the backstory of how he started his YouTube channel while on sabbatical during the pandemic. He recapped some of his Minneapolis City Visit praises, and he cautiously declared the City of Lakes to be “maybe the best bike city in the U.S.” (audience cheers).

City Nerd and Anthony Taylor in discussion.
According to City Nerd, “the good news is happening here!”

But Ray and Anthony also discussed how far American cities have to go. Regarding modeshare, or the percentage of people who commute by bike, Anthony jested, “Aren’t we doing victory laps at like 5%?” (audience laughs). And in terms of freeways, Ray shared some “terrible news”: Progressive cities Portland, Seattle and New York are not planning to dismantle their freeways like Rochester, New York did.

“In a lot of cases, they’re doubling down on terrible decisions of the past,” said Ray. Although, to the crowd’s delight, he shared “the good news is happening here!” In reference to Our Streets Minneapolis’ vision for the Twin Cities Boulevard, he said: “In my opinion, very few advocacy organizations have made as bold a statement as Our Streets. That’s a strong statement of what Minnesota DOT should be looking at for I-94.”

Around fifty people seated and standing on the left-hand side of crowd.
A full house for the “City Nerd Bike Party.”

The topic cycled back to bikes and what fuels the apparent rage that drivers have for bicyclists on the road. Ray reflected, “As someone who bikes every day, I don’t encounter that much rage, but when I do … yeah it’s kind of shocking … [drivers] don’t mind being delayed to yell at you. But if you cause them 2 seconds of delay at a stop sign, they get so irritated. But again…like 99.9% of the time, I feel like drivers are seeing me and taking care, but the problem is that that 0.001% of the time it could be deadly.” The one time he suffered an injury from a bike versus car accident, it was a Volvo with a bike rack on it. Which suggests a car is a dangerous object no matter the driver’s ideological beliefs. 

Anthony expressed concern that the us-versus-them dynamic with regard to bikes and cars was hurting more than helping: ”I really worry sometimes that what we see is fear. It looks like anger because we’re vulnerable, but many, many times, I just feel like [drivers are] afraid.” 

This topic was left unresolved. But my personal takeaway was that most future urbanists are currently driving cars. And some current urbanists might be hitting you with their Volvo.

City Nerd and others prepare to set off on the group ride.
Ray Delahanty (aka City Nerd) prepares for a bike ride with 200 fans.

The 200-plus-person event was already behind schedule, so it was time to prepare for the group ride. Anthony Taylor laid out the rules, saying that we would not get separated. Once the front of the pack entered a green light phase, we were to all follow through as one, even after the light changed to red. Ride marshals, clad in fluorescent green vests, would cycle the edges of the group and physically block vehicles at intersections from bisecting the group and make sure we took up no more than one traffic lane. 

Dozens of cyclists line either side of the Midtown Greenway.
The group bike ride began from Venture Bikes on the Midtown Greenway.

On the ride, most drivers and pedestrians who saw us smiled as the group passed. They were often impressed by our numbers and curious of our cause. However, a number of people in cars apparently had their days ruined because of this. By Lagoon Avenue and Bde Maka Ska Drive, a car attempted to take a left turn into the group and separate us. The driver was evidently unhappy they had to wait about three minutes, and I assume they had not seen City Nerd’s video on exponential growth of car traffic and, therefore, hadn’t realized that traffic delay is a feature of car travel, not a bug. Some loud words were exchanged, but the group was not separated, and everyone was OK. Again, crossing Lyndale Avenue by Walker Art Center, a driver of a waiting car became irate. I wasn’t there to hear the exchange, but I heard several people mention it throughout the rest of the night.

Map showing the route the group ride took, starting from Venture Bikes along Midtown Greenway, heading north alongside Lake of the Isles, and circling back around via Nicollet Avenue and Portland Avenue.

It dawned on me that this was not only a fun community activity, but an act of defiance against automobile priority. It felt, at times, like a protest, but it really wasn’t: We were just biking. But to some impatient drivers, it was a three-minute affront. Maybe they were jealous because they had just seen City Nerd’s video on the true cost of car ownership and were grappling with the personal and societal financial toll their vehicle was imposing.

Overhead view of the group ride as they progress down the Midtown Greenway.
According to City Nerd, the Midtown Greenway is “100% a transportation corridor.”

The more I pondered this, the more I realized how much this defiant energy pervades any bicycling for transportation in an American city. Whereas in the Netherlands, biking is an everyday occurrence, in the States the bike commuter is a curiosity at the office, a “hazard” on the streets and some kind of brave warrior in the winter.

Several riders bike past construction on Lagoon Avenue.
The group ride takes over the right of way on Lagoon Avenue.

This is even true in a “bike city” like Minneapolis. This is still a city where drivers are often oblivious or surprised you even exist. They might park in the bike lane and imagine it won’t affect anyone. You might have a route  to work on a fully separated path, but it’s almost twice as far as the direct route, so you take to the unprotected streets and hope that people see your hi-vis vest and realize bikers go everywhere, not just parks.

Cyclists in an unprotected bike lane while cars drive alongside or exit nearby parking.
An unprotected bike lane next to three lanes for cars, parking and more parking.

As we rode, these thoughts all connected back to the discussion at the bike shop earlier: Are drivers really angry? Or are they afraid? 

I think they are both. And I think sometimes they’re just confused. A bicycle on a road is a situation for which most drivers have no framework. According to society writ large, the bike on the road is a hazardous foreign object in an environment that’s not designed for them. And that’s really the point: Urbanists want streets to be designed to thoughtfully accommodate bikes and pedestrians. And here’s the best part: When that happens, drivers of cars won’t have to be scared, angry or confused. Many of them will begin to choose bikes.

A group crosses through an intersection, among them Metropolitan Council Member Reva Chamblis.
The rider on the orange bike is Metropolitan Council Member Reva Chamblis.

People unfamiliar with urbanism have a similar reaction to a lot of its concepts and ideas. Against the paradigm of a car-dependent society, it may not be immediately intuitive to the average person that we should remove a freeway. If you don’t know the concept of induced demand — which explains how added lanes can actually make traffic worse — and haven’t heard that freeway-free cities like Vancouver are getting along just fine, you might think removing I-94 is crazy. If all you’ve heard about urban rail is that its construction cost is measured in billions, you’d probably not guess that it’s cheaper to operate per passenger than buses. But you’ll be pleasantly surprised to find out these counterintuitive solutions will benefit everyone, even the naysayers.

Cyclists on Nicollet Mall ensure there is room for the Route 10 bus heading in the opposite direction.
The group ride makes sure a Route 10 bus has room to pass on Nicollet Mall.

Urbanism is like biking in the Twin Cities: doing pretty well, but still an underdog. And people will need some coaxing to get on a bus or a bike, especially if they don’t know how much it will personally benefit them, their wallet and society. We’ll need to keep making the case and correcting common misconceptions such as that adding more lanes will reduce traffic (it doesn’t) or that bike infrastructure is expensive (it’s virtually free). The urbanist logic seems obvious to me. But it’s a big shift for society.

Dozens of cyclists lined up in the bike lane as the Blue Line train passes ahead of them.
At The Commons park, we waited for a Blue Line train to pass.

At the bike shop, Ray pondered: “It’s hard to say what will move the culture in the direction it needs to move.” When it comes to encouraging more pedestrians and cyclists in a car-centric society, the question becomes, “How are we going to keep them safe? I don’t know what the answer is. It has to be a very broad cultural change. And it’s hard to see how that happens. I try to be a voice for changes that I think we want to see, but there’s only so much you can do when you have a YouTube channel.”

Evening view of the Minneapolis Skyline as riders cross the Portland Avenue bridge of I-94.
Downtown Minneapolis skyline as seen from the Portland Avenue bridge of I-94.

It was ironic for him to be so humble, considering he said this in front of a packed room full of hundreds of fans. On YouTube, 250,000 people follow him not just because of his dry wit, but because he’s an articulate storyteller who backs up his views with data and research. Given the momentum of decades of status quo, the average person is not going to intuit the concepts of urbanism on their own. But if well-reasoned videos, blogs, articles and conversations with friends continue to promulgate the rhetoric, maybe someday our freeways could look like this:

All photos and video by author Luke Birtzer.

About Luke Birtzer

Luke bikes his way through life in Minneapolis, enjoying photography, urbanism, maps, coffee, and other things. He writes here on behalf of his own opinions.