Track Cycling

Minneapolis is a big wheel in the urban cycling movement – National Geographic

If you love to bike, all roads lead to Minneapolis.

In this flat, mid-sized city, it’s common to cycle to Target Field for a Twins baseball game, to the neighborhood bar for a drink, to the store for groceries. In summer, locals join tourists in leisurely circling one of the city’s many tree-bordered lakes on two wheels. In winter, they hop on fat-tire bikes to commute to work through ice and snow.

The city is particularly known for a 5.5-mile-long former railyard corridor called the Greenway, that’s now a crosstown commuter bike path with easy access to parks, shops, and restaurants.

“The city snowplows the Greenway before they plow the roads,” says Raequan Wilson, the activities manager for Theodore Wirth Regional Park, who bikes to work year-round.

The Greenway is just one essential link in a chain of 250 miles of on- and off-street bikeways that help make Minnesota’s largest city one of the top spots for urban cycling in the United States.

The number of bike path miles isn’t the only reason Minneapolis is ahead of the curve. They’re also a leader in making biking more accessible and inclusive.

“You don’t need to take an hour-long bus ride to the grocery store if it takes 10 minutes on a bike,” says LaTrisha Vetaw, vice president of the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board and a longtime cycling advocate.

Cities around the U.S. and the world are focusing on cycling to create smarter urban landscapes, benefitting not only residents but visitors as well. These more people-focused transportation options also mean less traffic congestion and reduced energy use. 

No one in this city may appreciate the transformative power of biking more than Al Bangoura. “Riding a bike opened up the world to me,” says Bangoura, the Park and Recreation Board’s second Black superintendent in its 138-year history. “When we talk about social equity and access, I always think about human power and my legs.”

Taking the lead in urban biking

Ranking bike-friendly cities is an inexact science. The size of the city, its climate, terrain, population density, and socioeconomics are all major factors that make comparisons tricky.

Cities such as Davis, California; Madison, Wisconsin; and Portland, Oregon, earned Platinum status from the League of American Bicyclists in its 2019 rankings. Minneapolis earned Gold status, a step lower. The cities are ranked based on criteria such as a strong bike culture and inclusive bike planning and programming.

(Here’s how bicycles transformed our world.)

And in 2015, Minneapolis was only the third city in the U.S. to be featured in the biennial Copenhagenize Index, a ranking of the 20 most bike-friendly cities in the world compiled by a global bicycle urbanism consultancy. There hasn’t been a U.S. entry in the rankings since.

Minneapolis has long been sweet on cycling. An 1899 map highlights 43.5 miles of bike routes linking its parks with that of its twin city, St. Paul. In 2010, it earned Bicycling magazine’s “Number #1 Bike City” accolade, thanks to its commitment to on-and off-street cycling paths, the diversity of the cycling community, and its percentage of year-round commuters even in sub-zero weather.

The city’s commitment to infrastructure development makes even other urban biking leaders envious. Minneapolis has been “pretty aggressive” with initiatives, including “commandeering street space from cars and dedicating it to cycling. I took 10 of our staff to Minneapolis to show them what the city is doing,” says Madison’s Director of Transportation Tom Lynch.

In 2016, Minneapolis’ Park and Recreation Board became the first park system in the country to pass an ordinance making equity a guiding principle for park investments, which include cycling programming and infrastructure.

(Dreaming of biking across America? Here’s how.)

Park superintendent Bangoura understands the irony that Minneapolis, which has been under intense scrutiny for racial inequality since George Floyd was murdered by a police officer in May 2020, is a leader when it comes to access and equity within its parks system.

“The murder of George Floyd was devastating,” says Bangoura, “but our community already knew we had work to do around diversity, inclusion, and racial equity.”

Many Minneapolis residents have been doing that work for decades. Twenty-one years ago, Louis Moore founded the Minnesota branch of the Major Taylor Bicycling Club, named in honor of the first Black American to win the track cycling world championships, in 1899. Moore has also lobbied for bike racks on city buses, bike lanes on city streets, and the creation of the Midtown Greenway back in the 1990s.

“We had to pull peoples’ teeth to make sure they understood why [these projects] needed to be done,” says Moore.

For some residents, getting on two wheels has become a way to promote healing. Says the Park and Recreation Board’s Vetaw, “I’m trying to connect people to the parks and trail system here because, for all this deep trauma we are dealing with, nature is the best thing we can do for ourselves.”

The paths forward

The Park and Recreation Board’s ambitious plan for the future, released in April 2021, proposes additional bike-focused amenities in the parks system over the next 20-30 years. This includes some 136 miles of paths, as well as mountain biking trails and BMX pump tracks, and a fleet of loaner bikes for kids in underserved neighborhoods who might not have their own wheels.

(Read about the revolutionary idea behind America’s urban greenways.)

Beyond the plans of the semi-autonomous Park and Recreation Board, the City of Minneapolis itself also proposes to extensively expand cycling infrastructure with new or upgraded bikeways throughout the city.

The goal is to allow people of all ages, abilities, ethnicities, and socioeconomic backgrounds to feel comfortable bicycling, scooting, rolling, and walking around Minneapolis.

“Cycling is in a lot of ways a sense of freedom,” says Bangoura. “You get on that trail or that bike path and just go.”

Stephanie Pearson is a contributing editor of Outside magazine who lives in Duluth, Minnesota.