The Free Press, Mankato, MN

June 27, 2011

Cycling advocates: If you build it, they will bike

By Dan Linehan
Free Press Staff Writer

MANKATO — Eric Harriman likes commuting to work in downtown Mankato, but says it gets to be rather dangerous, especially when he’s climbing the hill on Val Imm Drive and cars are rushing by at 30 miles per hour.

He’d commute more if it were safer.

“If you don’t have accessible infrastructure for bike commuters, then it’s unlikely the community will begin to bike,” said Harriman, who is pursuing a master’s degree in urban studies at Minnesota State University.

That conclusion was echoed Monday by St. Paul-based Minnesota 2020, which calls itself a progressive, non-partisan think tank. Researcher Conrad deFiebre visited Mankato’s Flying Penguin Outdoor Sports, a bike shop, to release the findings of a study promoting the benefits of commuting via bike and foot.

There’s a distinction here between biking or walking for pleasure, which can be accomplished with trails, and for commuting to and from work. Getting from point A to point B on foot or bike is a much more complicated proposition.

The claims in deFiebre’s report are mostly intuitive: Bicycle commuting decreases gas consumption and improves health.

According to university research cited in his report, 48 percent of all trips in American cities are shorter than 3 miles, which opens up fertile ground for the expansion of bicycling.

Another thing we probably already knew: It costs about $8,000 to operate a car for a year, $12,500 for an SUV, but only $300 or so for a bicycle.

The Minnesota 2020 report follows a local effort, called the Mankato Area Transportation and Planning Study, or MATAPS, finished earlier this year. The local report is a transportation blueprint through 2035, and for the first time devotes a lot of space to non-motorized transportation.

Lisa Bigham, planning director for the Minnesota Department of Transportation’s 7th District, said not every road can accommodate every type of user.

But planners are currently picking out larger roads, including Glenwood Avenue and Stoltzman Road, that could be modified to accommodate bicyclists. That could mean separate lanes or “Share the Road” signs and stencil paintings of bicycles on lanes.

Bicycling advocate Tom Engstrom, who attended the Minnesota 2020 press conference, said bikes lanes are better than signs, but acknowledged that the former cost money. He said Mankato bicyclists have an advantage in this area’s lack of heavy traffic when compared to big cities.

There are ways to accommodate bikes without spending a whole lot of money.

A few local examples:

n Warren Street will be converted to a two-way street, probably sometime in late August. The city will examine whether all four lanes of the new street will be needed. If not, one or two lanes could be converted into parking or a bike lane. The city has heard requests for both uses.

n An MSU class is taking on as its class project making Veterans Memorial Bridge safer for bicyclists. Linking the two cities for bikes is a goal of planners, but the bridge isn’t the safest place for bikers right now.

In May, Mankato became one of six Minnesota cities to be recognized by the League of American Bicyclists. Along with three others, Mankato only has currently an “honorable mention,” but the group gave the city areas it can improve. It recommends officers on bicycles, a bike-sharing program and secure parking.

Harriman, the downtown commuter, has a simple analogy for bike lanes: Roads.

The city has built roads, including Sibley Parkway, in order to entice businesses to come. It would be foolish to expect a business to come without sewer, water and road connections. Likewise, bikes won’t come unless it’s safe.