Bicycle Commuting in Minneapolis – Part 1: Ditch the Car

It’s been a long time since I’ve done any bicycle commuting. I’ve owned a bike or two, or three…okay, maybe that number should be more like 26. Amazingly enough, they’ve all been for racing or touring. I would have to go all the way back to my teen years in 1985, at one of my first jobs at Freewheel’n Cyclery in Wausau, Wisconsin, to remember the last time I rode a bike to get to work.

I didn’t have a driver’s license yet and had immersed myself in anything and everything having to do with bicycles, so I pedaled the 20-mile round-trip to my job every day. Most days after work I would train with the local bike club and ride home. My hands always smelled like Phil Wood grease, and I was in cycling heaven.

Now, decades­–and 30 pounds–later and closing in on my mid-forties, I’ve found myself in the perfect position to again start riding my bike to work. My girlfriend and I recently closed on a house in South Minneapolis, about 6 miles from my job as a web developer downtown. I couldn’t be living in a better location, or city, to be a bicycle commuter.

Minneapolis – A Cyclist’s Best Friend

Despite its tendency for snow and sub-zero temperatures half the year, Minneapolis has long been known as one of the most bicycle-friendly cities in the states. In 2010, Minneapolis beat out Portland, Oregon for the first time as the “#1 Bike City” as rated by Bicycling Magazine. It still holds the #2 spot and currently ranks first in “Most Bikable Cities” by Walk Score.

So, what makes Minneapolis such a popular bicycle commuting city?

Well, it starts with infrastructure. Minneapolis has 92 miles of on-street and 85 miles of off-street bikeways. If these 177 miles of bike paths are the veins, the cities’ Midtown Greenway, Hiawatha, Cedar Lake and Luce Line trails are its arteries. These paved, multi-lane, multi-purpose trails move thousands of Minneapolis cyclists into and out of the city every day, and do so past some of the most scenic parks, lakes and natural areas anywhere.

Minneapolis's bicycle commuting highway, the Midtown Greenway trail

“The Greenway” photo courtesy of Micah Taylor

The number of Minnesotans taking advantage of these amenities has been growing steadily over the years. In its 2012 Minneapolis Bicyclist & Pedestrian Count Report, the Minneapolis Public Works Department determined the number of bicyclists at 30 benchmark locations increased by 56% since it started tracking in 2007. There was a 6% increase since last year alone, and I was ready to become a percentage point.

Making the Switch to Bicycle Commuting

We’ve all been there. You’re sitting in traffic one morning and someone on a bike pulls up alongside of you. The light turns green and everyone slowly lurches forward. In time, the cyclist grows smaller and disappears in your rear view mirror. Four blocks later at another light, that same cyclist pulls up next to you; you’re both moving at relatively the same rate. But one difference stands out to you; the person on the bike is smiling.

This isn’t the only scenario in which someone might decide to turn in their car keys for a helmet and join the ranks of the bicycle commuter. For others, reasons like the environment, finance and physical well-being might be the determining factor.

For me, I felt that beginning and ending my day with a bike ride would do wonders for my mental health. The 20-30 minute ride in the morning would allow me to wake up, get the blood flowing and prep my brain for some HTML coding. The ride home would allow me to decompress and soak in some sun; maybe even afford me the opportunity to journey off on a street or path I’ve never traveled before and discover something new.

I was also thrilled with the fact that not driving my car to work each day would be easier on our environment while saving me about $50/month on gas, helping offset the cost of my new bike. This would also make my car last longer with fewer maintenance issues.

As an added bonus, the daily bicycle commute would add an extra 240 miles to my monthly biking totals, allowing me to shed a few unnecessary pounds. But the main reason, as any ‘real’ cyclist knows, was an excuse to buy yet another bike.

Anatomy of a Commuter Bike

So, I was off to the Angry Catfish Bicycle Shop & Coffee Bar, which is only a short walk out my front door. The Angry Catfish is well known in the Twin Cities’ cycling community for having some of the finest bikes, service and coffee, so I scored myself a Smoked Sea Salt Mocha and began my search.

The Angry Catfish Bicycle & Coffee Bar

The Angry Catfish Bicycle & Coffee Bar – photo courtesy of Bill’s Magical Mystery Tour Blog

After a lap of the showroom, Nick Valdes, one of their knowledgeable salesmen, approached. I explained to Nick what I was looking for in a commuting bike and he was able to offer me some excellent advice, which isn’t surprising seeing the experience they have in the commuter market. Over the years, the Angry Catfish has seen steady growth in their sales of commuter bikes.

“I anticipate that at least 50% of our bike sales are used either completely as commuter rigs or commuting is one of the many uses of the bike. The large commuter base and excellent infrastructure in the Twin Cities has created an excellent environment for commuting regardless of one’s level of seriousness,” explains Nick.

So, what does one need to consider when purchasing a commuter bike?

“Primary considerations are typically reliability and pragmatism,” states Nick. “As anyone who spends a good deal of time commuting in our extreme winter weather patterns knows, it’s important to ride a rig that will handle anything that is thrown at it. Our customers are usually looking for a very solid performing bike that will allow them to commute year-round, allow for safe storage/locking of the bike, and one that will still offer enjoyment in addition.”

For my bike, I wanted something different, something original to my personality and style; Nick was more than eager to assist. Instead of buying a stock, pre-built bike, I decided to purchase a frame and build it up with the componentry I wanted, all the way down to the spokes. I settled on a frame from the Minneapolis-based, All-City Cycles. The Paul components and Brooks leather saddle I chose would give the bike a very old-school form factor. Little by little, the individual components started trickling into the shop, and just when spring looked like it was starting to break, my bike took its place on the work stand in the Angry Catfish shop.

All-City Space Horse Commuting Bicycle

My trusty steed, the All-City Space Horse. A bicycle commuting workhorse.

The bikes people choose for commuting can vary greatly depending on the length of their trip, the seasons in which they’ll be riding, as well as their own personalities. Most often though, a commuter bike can be whatever you have sitting in the garage or basement. Once you’ve settled on a bike though, it’s the accessories that can make or break your experience.

Undoubtedly, you will need to carry something with you on your commute; whether it is a laptop, change of clothing or your lunch. To do so, a backpack, messenger bag or a bike rack with a pannier bag will be necessary.

Anyone who has lived through a Minnesota spring knows how unpredictable our weather can be. In order to be prepared for the unforeseen rainstorm, front and rear fenders and a rain jacket and pants will get you there dry.

Visibility and safety should also be considerations, so front and rear lights and a helmet should be at the top of your list. How safe you are on your bike is also determined by where and how you ride your bike.

The Logistics of a Commute

For months I had been anticipating my commute and in preparation, had been scouting routes during my drive to work. Which route would be the fastest, which the safest and which the most scenic. Most of the routes I mapped were made up of low-traffic side streets with the rest being heavier-traveled thoroughfares with dedicated bicycle lanes. I knew that before I set out on my first commute, I would need primer to familiarize myself with the laws, symbols and signs associated with bicycling in the city.

On top of that, I had questions related to securing and storage of my bike; how I could keep from ‘offending’ my co-workers after a summer commute; are there any incentive programs available for bike commuters; and what could I do if my bike broke down or the weather took a turn for the worse before my commute home.

Where could I get answers to all my questions? I was able to glean some good tips off bicycling websites and forums, but was looking for something a little more personalized and local.

Days later, while walking through the Minneapolis Skyways at lunch, I happened upon the Commuter Connection. Through the window I saw displays picturing buses, light rail and…bikes!

Could this place be the answer to all my questions?

Stay tuned for part 2 of this series, in which I speak with Dan MacLaughlin, Executive Director at Commuter Connection, a program of the Downtown Minneapolis TMO. Dan answers many of my questions and sets my bike on the straight and narrow.