Cyclists in Duluth are working toward a more bike-friendly city

Piedmont Trail Steep, narrow, and winding roads are in no shortage in Duluth. While cities like Minneapolis are praised for providing a plethora of biking opportunities, Duluth's hills and climate continue to present a unique set of challenges to bikers in the area. Regardless, there are groups, organizations, and individuals working to change the image of Duluth from a hilly, icy city to a city full of biking opportunity.

Adam Sundberg and Matthew Evingson are volunteers in a Twin Ports organization called Cyclists of Gitchee Gumee Shores (COGGS). COGGS is involved in a number of different projects in the cyclists community. They host rides and races in the area for road and mountain bikers and maintain about 30 miles of trails in parks like Lester, Hartley, and Piedmont. According to Sundberg, their mission is to improve the cycling opportunities for bikers in the area while working to establish Duluth not only as a biker-friendly city, but as a mountain biking destination as well.

Regardless, people who use bikes as a form of transportation over recreation will continue to face many of the same challenges.

"The cold and the ice and the snow is a big barrier to a lot of people," Sundberg said. "And there are safety issues that come with winter. The winter is one thing, but the hill is a much more significant thing. In Duluth, no matter what we could do with the streets, it's always going to be a small percentage of people who are biking to work."

Despite the difficulties, Sundberg says that a person in Duluth could hypothetically use a bicycle as their only mode of transportation and live comfortably.

"I know plenty of people who go months without driving a car," he said. "It's a lifestyle choice where you're not going to want to travel much, you're going to want to keep to a pretty small area as far as where you're doing your recreation, your shopping. Is it feasible? Yes. But the number of people that I know doing it is less than five."

Evingson agrees.

"You've got to be really committed," Evingson said. "It's just not a hospitable climate for seasonal use unless you're pretty hardcore."

Doug Robertson of Duluth is hardcore enough. He got rid of his truck ten years ago, started a blog about biking, and started biking through the winter. He commutes to work every day, and during the warmer months, uses his bike to run errands.

"It took me a good four or five years to figure out the cold thing and the equipment to where I was really comfortable with it," Robertson said. "Now I got it down. I know how to dress for almost anything, I have the bikes I need for icy or snowy weather."

Robertson said it helps that his commute to work is on a lightly traveled road. Each day, he rides from West Duluth to Central Hillside using Skyline Parkway.

"If I had to do it on the really busy streets, I think it would just be too scary," Robertson said.

"I put it out there on my blog, it can be done," he said. "There are people around the world who've commented on my blog or emailed, they looked outside their window in the morning and saw that it was raining or snowing. They thought to themselves, ‘well, would Doug ride?’"

"Even though I'm an accomplished bicyclist, some days I look at that hill and have to talk myself into it. It's definitely a hurdle,"  Evingson said. "That's with commuting. For mountain biking, it's just the opposite. The city has challenges that we actually seek out."

Though there is little that can be done about Duluth's environment, the city provides routes in town for cyclists. Kody Thurnau works for the Duluth and Superior Metropolitan Interstate Council (MIC) and said that the city plans routes based on amounts of traffic, shoulder width and speed, all with safety in mind.

"You see drivers who don't know how to react to bikes on the road. So, it's important that the safest routes are used," Thurnau said. "What's being determined by the city right now is whether we should have more bike lanes and more sharrows to guide bicyclists as well as cars."

A "sharrow" is a regular shared street with lanes for cyclists and drivers, marked with symbols to designate where the respective vehicles belong.

Piedmont Trail map

Despite the cold weather and the inclines, there are many things about Duluth that draw in recreational cyclists, Evingson said. City parks like Piedmont and Hartley provide mountain bikers with places to ride, while areas like Park Point do the same for cyclists with road bikes.

For about five years, COGGS has been in the process of planning a new bike route for Duluth. The organization, volunteers and the city of Duluth are currently working together to fund "Duluth Traverse," a biking and walking path that will connect with existing trails to span the length of the city. Eventually, there would be over 100 miles of trails within city limits.

Evingson said that the new trails would be more inclusive to cyclists who lack the experience to tackle some of the tougher rides in town.

"Tourism is also part of the focus," Evingson said. "We have all this green space, we have enough terrain to make very interesting mountain biking trails. And we have an active community."

New trails don't come cheap, and the volunteers at COGGS have been actively writing grants to receive funding. While the city cannot fund the creation of the trails, COGGS has been getting their support with the co-authorization of some of their grants. Also significantly, voters in Duluth passed a referendum in November, 2011 that increased funding for the public library system and the Duluth parks systems. Some of that money will go to upkeep of existing bike trails.

"I was hopeful that it would pass, but kind of doubtful that it would," Evingson said. "I was amazed that people stepped up and decided that this was something that was important. It's not surprising that this community wanted that, but it is surprising in this economy."

Another city in Minnesota is a leader in cycling initiatives.  Minneapolis was named the country's most bike-friendly city by the League of American Bicyclists in 2010. According to the 2011 City of Minneapolis Bicycling Account, the city has around 130 miles of bike lanes and trails. They plan to have that number around 180 by 2015. The city participates in community outreach programs like the Bike Walk Ambassador Program.

The program is a Minneapolis education and outreach initiative with the goal of encouraging people to walk or bike rather than drive. There are currently three ambassadors, all of them trained bicycle instructors. They teach classes on city biking, bike maintenance, and general biking skills.

"One of the goals is to try and encourage people to know how to do it and do it safely," said David Peterson, one of the ambassadors. "We want to make sure people are doing it the right way by using lights at night, knowing how to lock your bike so it doesn't get stolen, basic things."

"There's a strong bike culture here," Peterson said." It's sort of like a rising tide; let's sell boats, right? There are a lot of people biking, and it helps encourage more people to do it."

Peterson said that in 2011, the city had started a number of new bike-friendly initiatives. Bike boulevards, which are low-volume streets where the city uses certain treatments like traffic diverters to control drivers and discourage car use, are being seen for the first time. Also new are a variety of shared lanes for cyclists on streets with heavier traffic and new buffer lanes, giving bikers and drivers more space between vehicles. There have also been about 35 miles of new on-street biking added this year.

Perhaps the most well-known feature in the Minneapolis biking scene is the rental system. Nice Ride Minnesota is a non-profit organization that provides bike rental stations in the city. Last year, the bikes were used for over 100,000 rides. Specialized bike racks throughout the city allow users to rent bikes for different rates of time. Wheels for a day will cost a person $5.

"You know, put a little feather in our caps, Minneapolis is really the first city in the U.S. to try and do this on a large scale," Peterson said. "You'll see that a lot of places are starting this, and a lot of places are using the same system that Minneapolis uses."

According to Peterson, that includes cities like New York, Boston, Washington, and London.

"It's not tied to any particular place," Peterson said.

Thurnau says that Duluth could see a rental program in the future.

"The city has certainly started looking at the areas in Duluth that could benefit from a rental program," Thurnau said. "It might be far off still, but it seems like it could be an asset here."

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