COVID-19: The Recovery will Happen in Public Space

New Bike Trails Changing the Face of American Cities

Craig Raphael
May 14, 2009
Dec 14, 2017

When springtime comes, a middle-aged man’s fancy turns to bikes.

‘Tis the season to skip out of work for a day or two, and log some serious mileage on the old two wheeler.

Here in Minneapolis, I can easily pedal around the city’s famed Lakes or cruise along the forested gorge of the Mississippi River in the comfort and safety of a specially designated bike trail.

In the middle of a metropolitan area of 3 million people, I can quickly find myself on a bike trail deep in the woods. Then, ready for some cosmopolitan excitement and a good lunch, I can head downtowns (either Minneapolis or St. Paul) on scenic riverfront trails free of auto traffic.

This extensive system of bike trails is great not just for recreational rides--it's boosted biking so much that Minneapolis now trails only Portland in commuters who travel to work on two wheels. This surprises most of-of-towners who know us mostly for freezing winters. Yet I bike all winter for work and for fun, and can attest that bike paths are busy on all but the most severe cold, snowy or icy days.

Urban bike paths are becoming a trend across the continent. PPS helped out Indianapolis, a city most known mostly for racecars, in constructing the ambitious eight-mile Cultural Trail bike and pedestrian greenway right through the center of the city. Davis, California has been serious about building bike trails and bike lanes since the 1960s, and now boasts that 17 percent of its daily commuters travel by bike. Boulder, Colorado devotes as much as 15 percent of its transportation budget to bicycle priorities.

Like parks and lively shopping streets, bike paths are important public spaces that enhance the congeniality and community spirit of a town. They not only provide people with transportation and exercise, but also with the pleasure of meeting up with their neighbors. At their best, bike and walking trails become a kind of linear town square—the spot where people spontaneously gather after supper and on the weekends.

Let me map out some of my most favorite afternoons here in Minneapolis. I bike to Minnehaha Creek Parkway, a dozen blocks south of my house and head east on its winding, waterside path through city neighborhoods to Minnehaha Falls, made famous by 19th Century poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow in “ The Song of Hiawatha.”

Watching the water tumble over a 50-foot wall of rock fascinates and relaxes me. Then I amble over to Sea Salt, a independently-run café in a historic park building that serves topnotch fried fish, best enjoyed on the outdoor patio. Sipping a beer while waiting for my shrimp taco to arrive, I plot the rest of my journey.

From here bike trails lead to historic Fort Snelling, the first white settlement in Minnesota and Pike Island, part of a state park where the Mississippi and Minnesota Rivers meet. The Dakota (Sioux) Indians believe this confluence of rivers is the origin of the universe. On a bright spring morning I am convinced they’re right.

Or I can take the bike trail in another direction toward the downtowns of both Minneapolis and St. Paul along wooded riverbank most of the way. Another pleasing option is to tour Minneapolis’s fabled chain of lakes, six of which lie alongside the bike trail in rapid succession.

While the Twin Cities are legendary for their great park systems, we are equally blessed with a superb network of trails—made possible by visionaries of the 19th Century who fought to claim local lakefronts, riverbanks and creeksides for public use. These superb public assets have been expanded in recent years through the work of a new generation of visionaries.

Many communities throughout the country large and small are now installing impressive trail systems and linear parks. Even densely packed Manhattan is thrilled to gain a new wonder—the High Line, an elevated freight train track now reclaimed as parkland. Most new desirable suburbs now boast bike trails that don’t simply loop around a pond, but carry people to schools, recreation facilities, nature preserves, the local library, farmers markets, restaurants, or shopping districts. People are no longer content to cycle in circles; they want places to go and things to do.

On a recent Sunday, I headed to the Midtown Greenway, a rail-to-trail bike and walking path a dozen blocks north of my house. I followed it more than 20 miles west through the suburbs to Carver Regional Park—a glorious expanse of woods and prairie dotted by lakes and more bike trails. I also stopped in on a tavern and a deli in Victoria, a small town right on the trail. When I first moved to Minneapolis from Iowa many years ago, I immediately loved life in the big city life—except for one thing. I dearly missed being able to bike all the way out into the countryside. The distance was too far and the roads too inhospitable.

But now thanks to the citizen advocates and park officials in the Twin Cities who have built an impressive trail system throughout the metropolitan area, that dream is now available any day I have a few hours to spare.

A portion of this article first appeared in Parks & Recreation magazine. Reprinted with permission from National Recreation and Park Association.

An old rail line running through  Minneapolis now serves as a popular bike and walking trail.
Craig Raphael
Craig Raphael
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