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A Perfect Climate for Biking and Walking

April 24, 2014 By Conrad deFiebre, Transportation Fellow

It's a welcome sign of spring when Nice Ride Minnesota's sturdy green bicycles appear at docking stations in the Twin Cities. This year's rollout began two weeks ago in less than balmy weather, but Gopher State riders scoff at the cold. If not, why would Nice Ride undertake its first Greater Minnesota expansion in far-north Bemidji?

While it's true that climate has an influence on the extent of nonmotorized transportation from place to place, it's probably not the way you assume. Across the nation, cold-weather locales like ours are nearly indistinguishable from the rest when it comes to active commuting, and the slight differences actually favor the north. But it's the hottest places that have significantly less biking and walking for basic transportation.

These surprising findings come from the Alliance for Biking and Walking's latest benchmarking report, which gave high marks to Minneapolis in a number of bike-walk-friendly categories.

Here's another thing you wouldn't have guessed: The No. 1 state for both bicycle and pedestrian commuting and per capita spending on facilities to promote these healthy, economical activities is ... Alaska. As a whole, Minnesota doesn't particularly shine in the alliance rankings, ranging from 11th to 22nd in those measures plus the rate of bike-ped fatalities and the population's level of physical activity.

But Minneapolis hits the top 10 among 52 large U.S. cities on three of those rankings, placing 15th in physical activity. (Do some Minneapolitans hibernate in winter?)

St. Paul was too small to be rated by the alliance, but it recently launched an aggressive 20-to-30-year plan to match the progress in its twin to the west. The blueprint includes a parkway and riverside Grand Round, 214 additional miles of bikeways and 47 miles of bicycle boulevards shared with low-volume auto traffic.

This retreat from the autocentric urban transportation planning of the past half-century or so will rile up some critics -- think Joe Soucheray and Katherine Kersten -- but it's overdue on several counts:

  • Basic equity. Significant shares of households -- nearly 20 percent in Minneapolis -- in the core cities are carless, and many low-income workers commute by foot or bicycle. Since most city streets get no motorist user funding from state fuel or registration taxes, designing them for all modes should be a no-brainer.
  • Safety. The more secure bicycle and pedestrian facilities are, the more people will use them. This is particularly true of women, who are generally much more leery of riding in traffic than men. And the more people walk and ride and become more visible to drivers, the fewer are maimed and killed by cars.
  • Prosperity. According to a study cosponsored by the alliance, protected bike lanes boost urban redevelopment and real estate values, increase retail visibility and sales volume (with less space needed for parking), help attract talented workers and keep them healthy and productive.
  • Reversing sprawl. Memphis, Tenn., was recently ranked as the nation's sixth most sprawled metropolitan region, having added just 4 percent to its population over 40 years while expanding its geographic area by 55 percent. But a visionary new mayor, A.C. Wharton Jr., has spurred construction of 71 miles of dedicated bike lanes, doubling the city's biking rate and cutting accidents by a third since 2008. Meanwhile, Memphis went from one of Bicycling magazine's worst cities for biking to its Most Improved in 2012. Along with building bicycle infrastructure, "Memphis is cleaning up older neighborhoods and investing our time and money [to] generate high returns," Wharton wrote in Memphis Daily News op-ed. The efforts "are returning people to the core of the city, where we have seen a 40-50 percent reduction in vacancy rates."

Memphis is at the head of the sticky Mississippi Delta, but it's demonstrating that climate is not destiny. Other auto-dependent southern and southwestern cities could learn from its example. It is the top entry from the South -- No. 13 -- on University of Michigan Prof. Michael Sivak's list of 30 large cities' percentages of non-car households. Interestingly, all 11 falling below the U.S. average of 9.2 percent are in the South.

New York City, known as the world center of ambition, leads with more than 56 percent, followed by wealthy cities such as Boston, Chicago and San Francisco, places that generally also score well in active transport benchmarking. The auto-dependent, bike-walk-challenged metros of the South can't match their economies. But the South's richest city, sprawl capital Atlanta, is a regional outlier with bike-walk benchmark participation and spending inside the top 20.

Minnesotans often wring their hands over the supposed negative effects of our frigid winters on the state's economic attractiveness and performance. We shouldn't. A wide body of evidence shows that our climate promotes not only prosperity, but also the growth of smart, sustainable and healthy ways to get around.

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  • Jackie Huber says:

    April 28, 2014 at 8:07 am

    I wish Roseville/St. Paul were safer to ride a bike in. I live in Brooklyn Center, work in St. Paul. I can get through Mpls on bike trails. As soon as I hit Roseville I’m stuck on roads such as County Road B and B2 which have no sidewalk and a bike lane exposed to heavy fast traffic. There are spots where the bike lane is filled with acorns which makes riding precarious. I ride my bike to work about once a week in spring and fall but would do it a lot more often if I could find a route that did not so endanger my life. Last year I got hit by a car. Thank you God I was fine and my bike just needed a new back tire (a bit of a miracle at the speeds we were both traveling) but it makes me reluctant to ride.

    • Jackie Huber says:

      May 7, 2014 at 8:09 am

      That being said, I jumped on my bike and rode the 19 miles from St. Paul to Brooklyn Center on Monday. Going again today. It is great to get out on the bike.