Fall is kicking in to gear in Minnesota, which means that it will soon be time for those of us who are not ambitious winter bicyclists to stash our steeds away for a few months. For reasons that now elude me, I was never a big biker as a kid; the bike helmet strapped to my bag is a new addition, and given the choice, I’d rather just walk everywhere. But my graduate program contractually obligates me to begin something akin to a Tour de France training regimen, and so I have begun my education.
As Adam Gopnik writes in a recent urban planning omnibus New Yorker piece (alas, it’s behind the paywall), cycling rose to prominence in the 1890s not because it was cheap or necessarily fun, but because it was the fastest way to get around at the time. This became true for me this summer, as construction fouled up traffic between Uptown and Downtown Minneapolis. I took a certain glee in whizzing past the people trapped in their cars along Hennepin Avenue every morning, and Minneapolis’s generally excellent bike infrastructure made the decision to abandon the bus an easy one. When safe lanes are in place, the cyclists will follow.
As the summer went along, though, I began to take a few trips beyond the route of my daily commute. My Tours de Minneapolis never did quite enough to make my runner’s knees totally happy on a bike, but there’s something deeply satisfying in coasting through Theodore Wirth Park or pushing the pace past laboring cyclists on the few inclines this city has to offer. I would around the lakes, cruised along the river, and even made my way over to St. Paul from time to time. A bike camping trip out to the crimson trees of Maple Grove this past weekend seemed the ideal way to cap my first summer as a regular biker. It’s a pleasurable way to cruise about a city, with every corner suddenly at one’s disposal; nimble and versatile, both leisurely and a decent workout, depending on one’s desires.
Defenders of the bicycle are locked in a long-running, low grade war against their great antagonist, the automobile, and no self-conscious cyclist can pedal away from the debate. A lot of drivers are supremely ignorant of cyclists, and I’ve witnessed more than a few cyclists returning the favor by weaving recklessly in and among cars. If this is how rule-conscious, respectful Minnesotans handle things, I can’t imagine the battles elsewhere. As a runner, I’ve also endured countless cyclists who either give no indication of their presence or like to think they own the entirety of a shared path. Such is the grey zone of cycling etiquette, and the frequent imbalance between the letter of the law and what proves good practice on city streets.
In the end, people remain people, often inclined to vent their disgust at other anonymous individuals hurrying off to wherever it is they need to go; sometimes they simply have larger machines with which to express their pathologies. My code on the roads ignores rigid rules and settles for basic common sense. Cyclists need not come to a halt at every stop sign and red stoplight if there is no traffic in sight; a simple yield will do. For pedestrians’ sake, bicyclists should stick to streets when possible, but it is no sin to escape to the sidewalk on particularly dangerous streets. Signaling turns is the polite, and safe, thing to do. Please, cyclists, announce your presence (without sounding passive-aggressive, as if your presence should be self-evident) when approaching pedestrians who appear oblivious or might risk wandering into one’s path. And drivers, open your eyes: you do not have a monopoly on the use of our streets, and never will.
As long as I’m on the topic, I’d be remiss not to add a few stray words on Duluth’s bike controversy this summer. Even though I think the Michigan Street compromise was the most practical option—and for the skeptics of it, I always took Michigan Street both ways on the handful of occasions that I bicycle commuted from my childhood home out east to jobs on the west side of Downtown—I couldn’t help be a bit sad to see the Superior Street push fail. I understand the practical limitations, but it otherwise seems like Duluth is going all in on the bicycle mecca development plan, and the lack of any accommodation for them on the city’s signature street is a glaring miss. (Suggestion for making the Michigan Street corridor work: get a ramp from Lake Place down to the street. Lugging a bike up and down those stairs isn’t ideal.) As long as the network continues to grow and people can learn what a cheap, fast, and valuable form of transport bikes can be, the end result will be a happy one.