We pedalled leisurely on a designated bike street through the university campus, crossed the Mississippi River on a railway bridge converted to a broad cyclist-pedestrian crossing, then zipped along the riverbank where the bike trail wound past the city’s carefully preserved historic flour mills.
It was around then that the suspicion started to sneak up on me that I had been a deluded snob about Vancouver.
My city isn’t cycling nirvana. It isn’t even close. So I came to realize as I pedalled my way around Minneapolis, the city that wrassles Portland every year for the title of best U.S. biking city.
My husband and I were dubious at first. Minneapolis was mid-western muggy when we arrived downtown, which combined the charm of Winnipeg’s flat empty streets with a small, hard-core cluster of Chicago-style office towers.
But half a block from our hotel was a bike station filled with mint-green and blue bikes. The Minneapolis Nice Ride bikeshare system.
We stuck in a credit card and liberated two bikes – heavy, tank-like things that nevertheless had three speeds, functioning brakes, and easily adjustable seats.
With the Nice Ride map clutched in my sweaty hand, I navigated us a little nervously through downtown – across the Granville-like Nicollet Mall, across their two crazy downtown-club streets, and past the area with the homeless people. There were no separated lanes in sight, which made me feel exposed, more exposed than riding around legally helmetless did.
But once we manoeuvred to the Cedar Lake Trail and got past the freeways overhead, we were in a park. Then next to a lake. Then in more forested park. I could see from the map that, if we kept going south, we could ride all the way around four city lakes strung out in a row in front of us and eventually over to the river.
Instead, we decided to head across town on the Midtown Greenway. To my surprise, it turned out to be a below-street-grade rail line converted more than a decade ago, creating a 5.2-mile protected bike- and walk- and skateboard-way that provides a direct route across the mid-southern section of the city.
Unlike Vancouver’s seawall, it was delightfully uncongested, filled with a mix of hard-core cyclists in their lycra court-jester outfits, scrubby teenagers, families with kids (including a few from the big Somali community), work commuters, and zigzagging tourists like us. And, when we were tired, we rode up a carefully graded slope to the streets above, where we found a station to park the bikes.
We planned our expeditions for the next two days based on available bike stations, riding to an area we wanted to explore, dropping them off and then finding a new station for more bikes to ride to the next place. Everywhere it was clear the city welcomed cyclists. There was a second cyclist/pedestrian river crossing – the historic Stone Arch Bridge, overpasses across the freeway, clearly marked residential streets for cycling, and carefully graded paths from the river bank to higher land. As we rode, we could see stations that gave us ideas for future trips: the Walker Art Gallery, downtown St. Paul, Nicollet Island Park.
My husband, the kind of guy who bikes to Horseshoe Bay and back before breakfast, was so impressed with the stunningly uncrowded off-street trails that he rented a proper bike for a four-hour ride along the Mississippi. He wanted something lighter … and also cheaper than the Nice Ride tanks.
Because we’d kept the bikes out for almost two hours the first day (there were no bike stations near the lake where we stopped for a swim), it had cost us $18 apiece, instead of the $6 daily rate you’re charged as long as you keep your infinite number of rides to less than 30 minutes.
My husband’s decision was typical of what happens with a bikeshare, locals told me, contrary to what local private rental companies fear.
In spite of all that, the president of the Minneapolis Bicycle Coalition said he’s envious of Vancouver.
“It’s easier to be a recreational cyclist here,” Ethan Fawley said as we compared notes on Minneapolis. He’s ridden in Vancouver – without a helmet, it turns out, because he didn’t know there was a helmet law. “But it’s harder on streets. We haven’t done this very well yet.”
They’re working on Vancouver-style separated lanes and routes next to major arteries so they can be as good as we are. Now, if only we could develop 120 kilometres of uncrowded trails along the Fraser River, Burrard Inlet and False Creek, we’d be as good as they are.