Feature Article - July 2017
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Rolling Right Along

Expand Biking Options in Your Community

By Joe Bush

Repyak said choosing to install mountain-bike-specific trails or facilities need not be an either-or proposition. Trail Solutions and its competitors will incorporate its work into greenways and leisure trail systems.

"We try to get as creative as we can," Repyak said. "Greenways can connect to bike parks, and within that bike park you can have a skills loop that introduces new mountain bikers to try features that challenge them and provide progression through ability levels. It all depends on what your stakeholders are looking for, how they're going to manage it and what they're able to allow on their properties.

"Straight paths aren't as attractive to all the people we want to attract, especially the teenagers. Let's add a little spice, a little adventure; you're cruising along (a linear trail) and you can jump off and hit a little roller and jump back on or maybe stop and play on some track under an overpass."

Companies like John Hunter's Progressive Bike Ramps produce features designed to take the straight and narrow out of biking. Bicycle playgrounds do the same as regular playgrounds, said Hunter, the company's owner and president.

"Even if your community has world-class cycling infrastructure with access to paved and natural surface trails throughout, a bicycle playground is still a great idea as it complements what already exists by providing a place purposefully built for young riders," Hunter said. "Maybe your community is trying to figure out how to become more bike-friendly but is not sure where to start, or how to get the literal and proverbial wheels turning. Start with the kids, and start with a bicycle playground."

A bicycle playground is exactly what it sounds like, Hunter said: an area with features like ladder bridges, rollers, tunnels and even teeter-totters specifically designed to offer fun obstacles to build cycling confidence safely. Recreation professionals like that these playgrounds get kids outside to learn balance, gain strength, focus on and complete tasks, and interact with other kids.

"They literally teach kids to take turns, taking turns as they complete laps around the track," Hunter said.

And because bikes are used on the playgrounds, unlike regular playgrounds with their kid-sized equipment, there is no age limit for participants. These are the types of facilities that can work together with traditional linear paths and systems, like the Midtown Greenway in Minneapolis.

The Midtown Greenway is 5.5 miles and connects with the area's Chain of Lakes to one side and trails along the Mississippi River to the other. The vast majority of it is disconnected with regular streets, either running above or below; it is plowed in the winter, open 24/7 and lit at night.

Owned by the Hennepin County Regional Railroad Authority and maintained by the city of Minneapolis, it is a prime example of the success possible when all parties work together—government, volunteers, users, donors and nonprofit organizations like the Midtown Greenway Coalition.

Soren Jensen, the coalition's executive director, said the cooperation has come from all areas of public life: funding from four government levels; a municipal task force that meets regularly to discuss greenway status, issues and improvement; and a volunteer-staffed watchdog group named Trailwatch that patrols the trail, helping fix tires, cleaning up and ready to call 911 in case of trouble.

Money comes from donors, grants and coalition memberships, and economic boosts to the community derive from the greenway's proximity to Lake Street's multitude of businesses and construction projects from developers who want to be near the greenway. The greenway's popularity and strong ties to the city's political figures helped it defeat a power company's bid to string high-voltage lines above a part of the greenway. The lines were buried instead.

A USA Today story named the Midtown Greenway one of the nation's top 19 urban bike paths.

"Ever since it went in (it was finished in 2006), it's been hugely popular," Jensen said. "It kind of kicked off a biking renaissance in Minneapolis. Five thousand people use it on busy days. Over a million trips a year. It's the key east-west commuter bike trail used to get to and from work. It's faster to take the greenway, especially during rush hour."

One of the coalition's priorities has been to make sure the greenway is used by as diverse a group as possible. Every neighborhood the greenway touches has a resident on the coalition's board of directors, and the coalition's focus on murals as beautification includes art from residents of underserved areas. Two more murals are scheduled for this summer.

Even if your community has world-class cycling infrastructure with access to paved and natural surface trails throughout, a bicycle playground is still a great idea.

"People care about this corridor. People care about this trail. There are people putting art here," Jensen said. "It brings more people to the corridor to see the art. We also like art from an equity standpoint. We are purposefully hiring local artists of color from underserved communities near the trail to come and create outreach, and there's a lot of meetings with different communities saying, 'Hey, here's an artist, he's from your community, let's talk and say what would you like to see in a mural, what would you like to see represented in the mural?'

"The idea is to say, 'Hey, you are welcome here.' This public space is open to everyone and we believe that having art that is reflective of all the diverse cultures in Minneapolis can serve as a greeting and a welcome. Also, the process of creating a mural, there's a lot of community."

What there isn't a lot of is amenities along the trail, like water fountains, picnic tables or bike parking, but that issue is lessened by the proximity of the Lake Street businesses and Midtown Global Market, an indoor space with several international eateries and shops. Jensen said there is a building on the trail that houses the coalition and a bike shop and a café.

A Minneapolis-based manufacturer of bike racks and repair stands donated four Fixit stands—equipment and tools for basic bike repairs—along the route, each sponsored and maintained by a different bike shop. The company also offers trailside installation air pumps as well as parking stands and covered shelters for bikes and people.

"We're always trying to make the greenway a great place to bike and to walk and to run and to garden, to visit," Jensen said. "If we protect the resource and work to enhance it, the people will come, and they have, and they do."