A boost for bikers and walkers

What would it take to convince you to leave the car at home and start commuting by bike or foot?

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Published March 5, 2007 by Downtown Journal
By Dan Haugen 

Minneapolis — Federal grant to pay for bike racks, walking plan��What would it take to convince you to leave the car at home and start commuting by bike or foot? How about $7.3 million?

That’s how much the federal government is prepared to spend this year on encouraging more Minneapolis-area residents to use nonmotorized transportation.

The program has already announced plans to pay for 1,000 new bike racks at schools, recreation centers and transit stops throughout the city, and it’s also funding the development of a pedestrian plan.

The rest of the money, which was allocated as part of the 2005 federal transportation bill, will be available through a grants process that’s open to Minneapolis and 14 neighboring cities.

The city’s Public Works Department solicited ideas at an open house on Feb. 21. It was an unseasonably warm afternoon — ideal weather for those who came on bicycle and locked up their wheels in front of City Hall.

Larry Bontreger, 53, wore a maroon and white Golden Gophers jacket as he wrapped a chain around his yellow bike along 4th Street. “Cycle & Recycle” was written on the bike’s frame, which was speckled with fresh, gray road slop.

The city might encourage more ridership by improving the flow of bike lanes in the city, he said. It’s inconvenient when lanes or trails end abruptly without connecting to other routes, he said.

The most pressing need for bicyclists, though, is the education of drivers, many of whom don’t understand the rules regarding bicyclists, Bontreger said.

“I honestly believe most drivers view a cyclists as something that’s in their road and slowing them down,” he said.

He wasn’t alone in his concern about driver behavior. Upstairs at the open house, others scribbled their frustration about inattentive and inconsiderate drivers on a large tablet set up for leaving feedback.

It’s a worry for walkers, too.

“They do not look out for pedestrians,” said Jan Sandberg, a Downtown resident and member of the city’s Pedestrian Advisory Committee. She said she likes the idea of red-light cameras if the city could find a way to use them.

Mackenzie Turner, a program specialist with the Downtown Minneapolis Transportation Management Organization, entered the room pushing a Metro Transit bike rack secured to a four-wheeled cart. It’s usually parked in the organization’s front lobby to demonstrate how to hitch bikes to the front of buses.

Turner said she thinks inflated fear about crime is also a factor limiting the number of people who walk and bike in the city.

“At commuter fairs, it’s come to my attention that a lot of females who might like to walk or bicycle to work maybe have chosen otherwise because they don’t feel very safe,” Turner said. “I think there is great potential if we can increase the perception of safety on these facilities. It’s going to help out greatly to encourage more females to walk and bike.”

Don Pflaum, a transportation planner who coordinates the city’s bicycle programs, said the goal is to increase the number of people bicycling as well as make things easier for existing riders. They also want to make sure the benefits are spread across the city.

One of the first priorities will be installing the bike racks, for which the city is receiving $200,000.

“Our goal is to make sure that every school, every park, every post office, every public building in the city is getting a bike rack,” Pflaum said.

The money is expected to take a couple months to reach the city because of paperwork and other processing requirements. Pflaum said they hope to start placing the bike racks by late spring.

The city recently finished an inventory of bike racks in the city and found many public areas did not have places to park and lock a bicycle. They found five of 12 post offices, 35 of 77 schools, 84 of 126 parks and 14 of 15 libraries had bike racks. Those locations missing racks will get them first.

After that, a cost-sharing program will open to businesses, in which the city will pay half the cost of purchasing and installing a bike rack for their buildings, Pflaum said.

As the money is spent, the impact on commuting habits will be studied for possible expansion of the pilot program to other cities or regions.

Turner said, “It’s one of those things where it looks like it’s a difficult transition to take [i.e., to switch to nonmotorized transportation], but if you get people past that first step, which is the hardest one, they realize it’s not as hard as they thought it was.”