Biking from Uptown Minneapolis to the Minnesota State Fair: What a long, strange trip

Biking from Uptown Minneapolis to the Minnesota State Fair: What a long, strange trip

I’ve biked from my Uptown Minneapolis apartment to the Minnesota State Fair a few times this year, and Janne Flisrand on the invaluable blog nails it with respect to the challenges of getting from the University of Minnesota Transitway to the nearest State Fair bike corral: it’s not for the faint of heart, and once you get there it can be difficult to find a space for your bike even inside the corral if it’s a busy day at the Fair. That last tenth of a mile is just the tip of the iceberg, though: the whole journey from Uptown to Falcon Heights is a strange trip that illustrates the motley state of bicycle infrastructure in the Twin Cities today.

My trip starts in the Wedge (not the co-op, the neighborhood also known as Lowry Hill East that gave the co-op its name), where I proceed down Bryant Avenue. Bryant is designated a bike boulevard, which means it sports speed bumps to slow traffic and a lot of signage declaring that it’s a bikeway. That’s certainly better than it not being a “bike boulevard,” mostly because the increased volume of bike traffic often forces cars and trucks to be more accommodating. If you’re the only bike on the “bike boulevard,” though, in my experience cars act basically the same as they do on other Uptown streets: that is, impatiently. (I once overheard a cashier at Hum’s Liquors regaling his coworkers with a screed about how all the presumptuous bikers on Bryant drive him nuts, saying he’d like to sideswipe them to break their legs so they learn their lesson. I haven’t shopped at Hum’s since, but I still bike on Bryant.)

That brings me to the Midtown Greenway, which is of course glorious, so dense with bikers and walkers of all shapes and sizes that I feel like the bully, biking faster than most. I remind myself to practice what I preach and to be patient, and when crossing the Sabo Bridge, I feel more valued and respected as a biker than I do anywhere else in the Twin Cities: lifted over the Hiawatha traffic on an illuminated cable-stayed bridge with an epic view of downtown Minneapolis.

All good things must come to an end, though, and if you’re following Google’s directions for biking from Uptown to the Fair, you’ll get off the Greenway on 26th Avenue. There’s a bike lane on 26th—not a protected one, but then, few are. The lack of lane protection gets a little more harrowing when you turn right on Franklin (one of the Twin Cities’ most lethal streets for bikers) and cross the Franklin Bridge, where you get one of these cross-your-fingers bridge bike lanes that’s at least a bit more accommodating than most.

Things really start to get dicey when you cross University and turn right on S.E. 4th Street—a heavily potholed street with no lanes whatsoever and no illumination at night, so BYO headlight if you want to stay upright on your bike. You cross the Green Line at 29th Avenue and hook left on 30th where you gain entrance to the bizarro world that is the University of Minnesota Transitway.

I refer to the Transitway as a bizarro world, because it’s an example of the kind of thinking that’s also informed transportation infrastructure on Nicollet Mall and Hennepin Avenue downtown: the thinking that because bikes and buses are not cars, they’re basically the same and can share the same lanes. Any experienced Minneapolis biker knows that Nicollet, which Google and other bike maps regard as a royal road for bicyclists, is one of the slowest and most frustrating streets in the city for bikers: you’re constantly getting stuck behind buses, which you can’t legally (or safely) pass since that would involve either veering into either the oncoming lane or jumping the curb to bike on the sidewalk.

On the University of Minnesota Transitway, bikers have quite the opposite challenge to deal with: it’s not that the buses are moving too slowly, they’re moving way too fast. Cars aren’t allowed on the Transitway, but buses are allowed to go a zippy 40 miles per hour—just five m.p.h. slower than the speed limit on I-35E, an interstate highway (excuse me, “parkway”), as it passes through St. Paul. There’s no separate bike lane, so buses have to pass you; most buses I’ve encountered on the Transitway have given me wide berth, but a few rumbled right past me—at 40+ m.p.h.—so close that I could almost have reached out and touched them. There is a sort of shoulder lane for sections—not all, just sections—of the Transitway, and it’s tempting to regard it as sort of bike lane, but at regular intervals it features sunken drainage grates that you don’t want to get your wheel caught in, especially if a bus is passing you at 40 miles per hour.

Did I mention that bikers are encouraged to use the Transitway?

For a biker to criticize the Transitway might seem like biting the hand that feeds us, since it certainly is a convenient way to get from Southeast Minneapolis to the State Fair. You’d be crazy not to use it, even if you also feel sort of crazy using it. Still, it’s fundamentally a busway that was manifestly designed for buses and is unsafe for bikers. Yes, I’ll use it, but I certainly hope no one is confusing it with a true bikeway like the Midtown Greenway—or patting themselves on the back for providing it to us.

That brings us to Como Avenue, which is where Janne picks up—at the Fair, or nearly there. I love biking to the Fair, and I love biking home from the Fair even more: it feels great to stretch my legs and to burn up some of those calories I just gleefully sucked off a bunch of sticks. It’s free, and it’s fast: about 45 minutes each way, which makes it easy to beat your friends who have to negotiate traffic in their cars. Still, biking to the Fair is an acute reminder of how far we have to go to create an environment where riders can feel confident relying on bikes to get around the Twin Cities—safely.

Jay Gabler