How Can We Shape the Suburbs for Cycling?

When people think about the best places to cycle, they often focus the conversation on cities rather than suburbs. While this St. Paul resident would agree that Minneapolis is among the best cycling cities in the country (with its twin hoping to catch up, thanks to its new Bicycle Plan), it’s not as necessary to own a bicycle in much of Minneapolis or St. Paul thanks to walkable grids and public transportation.

A bike can be a means of transportation, exercise and camaraderie, especially for families, and it’s great that there is choice. City dwellers can choose to bike, walk, or take transit, thanks to a largely uniform grid and old development patterns in both Minneapolis and St. Paul. In the suburbs, however, living without a vehicle of any type can be nothing short of a challenge. Growing up in Burnsville, I don’t recall my family ever taking cycling trips. We generally drove, and, occasionally, walked. In the suburbs, cycling is often a recreational activity.

I think that cycling actually makes a lot of sense for suburban transportation. With greater travel distances, and less transit coverage, it could be a great way to reduce car dependency and even lead to better access to suburban transit. 

Cedar Lake Trail parallel to the Downtown Hopkins LRT station. Photo by Katie Nicholson

For starters, the Green Line extension, also known as Southwest LRT, follows portions of the Cedar Lake Trail. This alone ensures good bicycle access for the suburbs of St. Louis Park and Hopkins, who are among an increasing amount of suburbs implementing a pedestrian and bicycle plan. These are plans that will increase protected and shared-use infrastructure for both pedestrians and cyclists. St. Louis Park and Hopkins are also among the Twin Cities’ oldest suburbs, adhering to a largely uniform street grid similar to Minneapolis, which allows cycling by way of low-traffic side streets.

Eden Prairie, which is where SWLRT ends, is connected by shared use paths along arterial roads. There are also paths within residential areas, despite the dead-ends and cul-de-sacs for automobiles. It’s a great example of the tools in our toolbox we can use to start encouraging cycling instead of continuing to encourage car trips, and I hope to see this paired with cities and counties implementing road diets to increase safety on our arterial streets.

Pedestrian path in Eden Prairie. Photo by Katie Nicholson

Say you don’t live somewhere with a currently under-construction rapid transit line. What can we do to enact change there as well? Looking at Dakota County, where I grew up, you still see a sizable bikeway network growing. While it’s far from fully realized, with a lot of trail and sidewalk gaps, there are some cities within the county, such as Eagan, where a trail network is mostly complete. Meanwhile, neighboring Inver Grove Heights definitely has the beginnings of a fully realized network, with its excellent park trails, but leaves a lot to be desired in comparison to Eagan, due to its currently missing arterial connections.

Eagan and Inver Grove Heights trail networks

Creating the Shared-Use Path Forward

The suburbs clearly have a lot of potential, and it may sound like it’s possible to ditch the car for many trips. However, there’s one big reason I don’t think it’s been widely adopted yet: personal safety.

Last April, I had the opportunity to testify on behalf of St. Paul’s expanded bicycle plan to help shape the future of cycling in my city. While the majority of people in support of the Bicycle Plan brought up how excellent it would be to have a wide network of protected paths (ideas I do support), my biggest concern was street crossings. Far too often, the driver is blind to the cyclist. In many cases, this is due to drivers not paying attention, but there are unfortunate situations where it may be impossible to see a cyclist or gauge their speed.

This is where the protected or Dutch-style crossing may come into play. This type of crossing positions cyclists farther away from car traffic, particularly right-turning vehicles, for improved visibility. There’s little excuse in suburbia not to build these crossings everywhere. You’re space-constrained in a city, but when you have big intersections, it’s an achievable feat. Some green paint, moving the path away from the road, and you’ve got yourself a much better intersection.

A protected intersection. Source: Arlington County, Virginia

In suburbia, you do have to worry about the mighty slip lane, too. Slip lanes encourage right turns to be taken at high speeds by curving the lane in a similar fashion to a highway on-ramp. While I’ve found that many drivers are actually pretty respectful of a pedestrian crossing in a slip lane, some will continue moving on through at high speed. Why take the chance with people’s lives when we could remove slip lanes and prohibit right-on-red? There’s also ample opportunity to close off side streets and driveways along arterial roads, and only allow bicycle and pedestrian traffic to flow within these areas.

A slip lane in Woodbury. Photo by Katie Nicholson.

Of course, the big question remains. What about parking? This question, often asked about automobiles, can also be extended to a bicycle.

Unfortunately, in my many bicycle trips I’ve taken to the suburbs, I have had to get creative with where to park my bike. When I was using a chain lock, I tied my bike to flagpoles with a u-lock. I’ve used handicap signs. Even when there is bike parking, sometimes it’s inadequate, due to its placement, or the type of rack. Given the amount of surface parking most of these strip malls have, it shouldn’t be difficult to take away just a couple parking spaces and turn them into bike parking. The most likely places you’ll find usable bike parking are big-box stores such as Target, as well as most transit centers and libraries. This is hit-or-miss depending on the suburb, unfortunately, so your mileage may vary.

Bike locked on handicap sign at a restaurant in Roseville vs Bike locked on a rack at a Target in Woodbury. Photos by Katie Nicholson

In Minneapolis and St. Paul, bicycle parking is often built by the city, or neighborhood, along arterials. While it is best to have bicycle parking right up against residences and businesses, adding bicycle parking along arterials and bus stops in the suburbs can be a great way for a suburban municipality to increase capacity and encourage cycling. It also ensures we’re not waiting a long time for business owners to add their own racks before people can start cycling.

Bicycle parking at the Snelling and St. Clair A Line station. Source: Google Maps

We have a ton of transit projects in the works, such as the already mentioned Green Line extension to Eden Prairie, as well as the Gold Line Bus Rapid Transit from St. Paul to Woodbury. We also have planned projects such as the Blue Line extension to Brooklyn Park, and County Road 42 Bus Rapid Transit between Shakopee and Apple Valley. Many of these projects will be going into areas that are currently lined with single family homes typical of suburbia.

In spite of that, I remain optimistic that the expansion of local bicycle networks, as well as up-zoning of transit corridors to encourage more apartments and townhomes along transit routes, can yield a ton of potential bicycle ridership, and reverse the effects of car dependency.

About Katie Nicholson

Pronouns: they/she

Katie grew up in Dakota County, but has now landed in St. Paul's Highland Park neighborhood, giving them experience on the different ways people get around the cities we live in. They enjoy a car-free lifestyle, preferring to get around on foot, bicycle and especially public transportation. Outside of transit and transit advocacy, Katie enjoys their time watching cartoons, using old technology, taking a walk in the park and spending time with friends.