Voices: A plea for a nicer ride in Northeast

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April 9, 2012
By: chuck terhark
chuck terhark
A bike is a nice way of getting somewhere. For many people it’s much more than that. For some it’s a workout, a status symbol, a hobby, a life. For still more it isn’t anything at all. But for me a bike is a cheap, leisurely way of getting around. It’s just a nice thing.

It’s not a terribly deep thought, I know, but like a bike, it’s simple, and I like it for that. It occurred to me today while I was on my bike, which is where I think I do my best thinking. A bike moves at what feels like the speed of the world, unlike a car, which puts the world behind it as fast as it can. (A walk is also a nice pace, but its not a terribly useful means of getting anywhere.) I feel like I can get a better handle on things when I’m moving in sync with them, which is why riding a bike feels like setting a record to the correct RPM on a record player. On a bike I’m engaged with the city, with its smells and sounds, and I can still get to downtown in 10 minutes without much effort. As I click my bike lock and unclip my helmet and take a breath and wait for my heart rate to settle, I think, “A bike is a nice thing.” It really is.

You hear a lot about the bike culture in the Twin Cities, about our great biking community and its race with Portland to be the bikingest city around. I don’t care much about racing for anything, particularly imaginary prizes, and I suspect most of the city’s bikers are like me. We appreciate the wind in our faces and the joy of self-propulsion and the easy availability of parking without feeling like it has to be part of our identity. Of course there’s nothing wrong with the self-identified bike nuts out there, with their sprocket tattoos and grease-stained three-quarter-length pants, or their full-body Lycra and Livestrong bracelets. Those folks are great, even if they make bike shops more intimidating to the rest of us than they need to be. (Car mechanics can be jerks, too. It’s not just a bike thing.) I don’t need to put bike-themed art on my wall or bike puns on my T-shirt or bumper stickers on my car about how much I love biking. (Nor do I don’t need to get rid of my car, because it, too, is terribly convenient, especially in winter. It really is.)

What I do need, though: Some bike lanes in Northeast. I am as casual a biker as you will find, and I need them, so imagine how the neighborhood’s hardcore riders feel. As the city completes a major — and by most accounts extremely successful — half-decade push toward increasing its cycling, it’s hard not to feel a little left out up here in this corner of the city. In my neighborhood we got one meandering “bike boulevard,” marked with stencils of pedaling stick people (who wear helmets now, which is a nice thought except it makes them look like skeletons — not the greatest image for a city trying to focus on bike safety), and not much else. Two of the neighborhood’s major thoroughfares, Lowry and Central avenues, are unrideable for all but the bravest of bike daredevils. MN-DoT started looking at ways of making Central more bike-friendly as far back as 2007, and crews may finally begin work on the project this year, but current plans call for just eight to 12 blocks of bike improvements along the busy corridor — not nearly enough. Drivers won’t take a half-baked bike lane seriously, and if drivers don’t respect a bike lane, it’s worthless.

Biking has never been cooler than it is right now, but you don’t measure Minneapolis’s bike culture on its coolness. You measure its commitment to bike safety, as square as that sounds. The safer it is to bike to work or school or the park or the bar, the more people will ride bikes, be they fast bikes, slow bikes, cool bikes, or dorky bikes — especially dorky bikes. The best biking cities in the world teem with people happily pedaling cheap, slow, dorky bikes. The Nice Ride bike-sharing program is the perfect example of this: There has never been an uglier bike than those green clunkers, God bless ‘em, and they’re incredibly popular, as they should be.

But you don’t see Nice Ride bikes north of 13th Avenue in Northeast, and certainly not on Central Avenue. You don’t see any bikes on Central. For the thousands of people in Northeast, Columbia Heights and beyond who would utilize a fully functioning bike route into the heart of the city, it would be a very nice ride indeed.  

Chuck Terhark writes about life in Northeast for The Journal.