By Brock Berglund
Alex Tsatsoulis is volunteer chair of the Sierra Club Land Use and Transportation Committee. In an interview with Brock Berglund of the Chapter’s Communications Committee, Alex talks about the Bikeways for Everyone campaign, why it is important, and how we can all get involved.
In 2011, the City of Minneapolis introduced a Bicycling Master Plan, intending to increase the amount of trips taken by future bicyclists in the city. In its plan, the city set several goals, including reducing accidents and injuries by ten percent every year and reducing fatalities by half every five years. In order to accomplish these goals, Minneapolis will have to invest in improved bicycle infrastructure – and the North Star Chapter is organizing to show support for these changes.
Sierra Club North Star Chapter: What is the Bikeways for Everyone campaign?
Alex Tsatsoulis: Bikeways for Everyone is an effort by a number of local organizations to help Minneapolis reach its goal of building 30 miles of protected bikeways by 2020. A well-connected network of bike lanes and trails that are physically separated from traffic are a proven way to get more people bicycling. There are many other benefits as well: protected bikeways attract people to our city, enhance businesses, reduce pollution, improve public health, add new green space, and enhance quality of life.
Sierra Club: Why do the Twin Cities need more protected bikeways when we already have systems such as the Greenway and Diagonal trails in place?
Alex: The Midtown Greenway and our trail system are part of what make the Twin Cities such a wonderful place to live and to bike – their impact on our transportation network cannot be overstated. That said, I always like to picture them as the bike and pedestrian highways that let you zip along to far off destinations with few stops in between. Just like auto highways, that means that you have limited access to businesses and places you need to go along the way – and you still need to get on the highway somehow!
That’s where protected bikeways come in. By building a network of protected bikeways throughout Minneapolis, we can give people the ability to not only connect with the Greenway and other trails, but also get to the local businesses and locations they want to by bike. Part of the reason the Greenway is so popular is because it feels incredibly safe to ride on, particularly for people who aren’t confident riding in traffic yet, or who are riding with small children. But people need to feel safe riding to get to the Greenway. And they need to feel safe riding to the grocery store or hardware store, or to work –or they won’t ride. So that’s why protected bikeways are so important; it’s about giving people safer options to ride their bikes to where they want to go.
Sierra Club: What are the benefits of having more bikeways for individuals?
Alex: More people biking! The more people feel like they can safely and conveniently get to where they want to go on their bikes, the more they’ll choose to do that. Those added bikes on the road have been proven to improve safety for everyone on the road. The more drivers are used to seeing bikes, the more they expect and watch for them. Even those folks who are confident enough to ride outside of the protected bikeways will benefit by having those extra riders on the road with them.
Sierra Club: How much would adding these protected bikeways cost, and who would pay for them?
Alex: The costs of building bikeways will vary by project. Some can be as simple as shifting parking to the outside of a bike lane, and using parked cars as a barrier or installing a few bollards, others can be more transformative, and include concrete barriers. The real cost will ultimately depend on the project. Costs are negligible or can be minimized by making sure that every time we are resurfacing or reconstructing a street, we think “how do we make this project better for everyone interacting with this street – not just drivers, but people who are, or may want to, ride a bike, walk and/or use transit?”
And for me, frankly, the real question is: what is the cost of not building these bikeways and of actively discouraging people from biking, as our roads oftentimes do now? There is this misconception that gas taxes pay for all our roads and highways, when nothing could be further from the truth. We all subsidize car travel very heavily though our property taxes, not to mention with all the other negative externalities our land use choices impose on us. By helping people get where they need by bike, we are actually reducing maintenance costs on roads and highways, reducing congestion, and cutting travel times and pollution for everyone.
Sierra Club: Since working on this campaign with the Sierra Club, what are some of the biggest obstacles you have encountered?
Alex: I’d say the biggest obstacle has been to show people just how great a street that has been designed for people, and not just cars, can be. And that’s not because people don’t want to see that, but because in Minneapolis and in the Twin Cities region in particular, we haven’t thought about our streets that way for years. There is a reason areas like downtown and Uptown are booming – people want to be able to live close to work, and walk to entertainment, restaurants, and stores. Yet even in those areas, we are just now starting to see some truly great street experiences come into being.
I believe it will continue to become easier to show folks great streets as we start building bikeways and rethinking how we interact with our streets – but we’re not there yet.
Sierra Club: Do you think Twin Cities residents are more receptive toward this kind of campaign? Why?
Alex: Definitely! Minneapolis has a great culture of acceptance and community, and that really shows in the way we work to grow our city. I don’t think I’ve lived in a place before that has been so open to trying new ideas, and open about having the debates we are having now about how we best use our public streets for the benefit of everyone.
Sierra Club: How can people get involved with the Bikeways for Everyone campaign?
Alex: Come volunteer! I’m a bit biased, so I’ll say you should stop by the Sierra Club office on Franklin Avenue the first Monday of the month at 6 p.m.and join the Land Use and Transportation committee! Of course you could also go to www.bikewaysforeveryone.org and find more info and ways to plug in – but our meetings have better snacks.
Sierra Club: Is there anything beyond supporting this campaign that people can do to advocate for more protected bikeways?
Alex: Write to your city council member, your county commissioner, anyone! Write an op-ed for your local paper! And just get out there and talk to people about why this issue is important to you. Talk to local business owners and ask them to support bicycling. A lot of people want to ride their bikes in our city, but don’t feel safe – talk to them about what we’re hoping to do, and learn more about what they’re looking for in a safe street!
Brock Berglund is a volunteer with the North Star Chapter’s Legal Committee and Communications Team.