Hennepin County released a draft plan this week to guide bicycle transportation policy for the next 25 years. The plan sets the target of adding 20 miles of bikeways to the county each year, quadrupling the number of bike commuters and giving suburbanites more access to bike paths and trails.
Hennepin County Commissioner Peter McLaughlin said the plan represents a shift from transportation policies that prioritized car traffic over transit, pedestrians and bikes.
"We're not dictating that people ride a bike," McLaughlin said, "but frankly we're overcoming the neglect of bicycle infrastructure that went on for 50 years, and trying to provide a safer place and more inviting way to bicycle."
That policy shift comes as more people, especially the young, are driving less and biking more. The amount of time that Minnesotans spend on the road has declined more than 5 percent since its peak in 2004, according to Federal Highway Administration and Minnesota Department of Transportation data. In a survey conducted by the county in preparation for releasing this plan, about 21 percent of county residents reported biking for transportation purposes at least once a week.
"There is an evolution in how people live their lives, and it's driven by the options that we make available to them," McLaughlin said. "If we can create facilities that invite them to ride, we're going to get more riders."
The county's bicycle transportation plan was last updated in 1997. After years of building bike lanes and big off-street projects like the Midtown Greenway, Hennepin County now has 651 miles of bikeways, which includes bike lanes, trails and boulevards. The revised bike plan would aim to increase the amount of bikeways by about 80 percent by 2040.
Much of that current bike infrastructure is in the county's urban core of Minneapolis, but McLaughlin said the revised bike plan is an opportunity to make biking more accessible to people in the county's suburbs as well, including on the site of the proposed Bottineau light rail line, which leads to Brooklyn Park. A stated goal is to build bikeways within a half mile of 90 percent of residences in the county.
"It's going to be safer, and that's very important for the long term health of the county," McLaughlin said. "It's also going to be healthier — getting people out biking is a good thing for residents of the community."
Rather than focus on hardcore bikers, the plan aims to better serve riders hesitant to travel with car traffic on busy streets, which the county's survey found accounted for about 53 percent of the population. The revised plan would emphasize bikeways that feel safer to these sorts of riders, including off-street bike trails and protected bike lanes on city streets.
Dorian Grilley, executive director of the Bicycle Alliance of Minnesota, said the plan seems to emphasize safety and comfort of people of all ages and skill levels.
"It's so important to include what many public health people call the 8-80 rule," Grilley said. "Would you be comfortable putting your 8-year-old out on that street or trail on a bicycle or walking or your loved 80-year-old doing the same?"
Minnesota was named the second most bike-friendly state in the country this year by the League of American Bicyclists. Grilley said Hennepin County's plan could help push the state to the top spot.
"It needs to be a multi-modal transportation system and any transportation funding increases needs to include not only roads and bridges, but transit, biking and walking," Grilley said. "All indicators are pointing to more bicycling and walking in the future, and we need to be prepared."
It's not only Hennepin County that's promising to build infrastructure for modes of transit other than cars. The Metropolitan Council recently closed a comment period for a draft transportation plan up to 2040 for the region, and the Minnesota Department of Transportation is currently working on a statewide bicycle plan.
Hennepin County bicycle and pedestrian coordinator Kelley Yemen said collaborations among city, county and state levels of government are necessary to keep building up bike and pedestrian infrastructure.
"Alot of our projects are developed, not just the county going out there and building something, but working with cities, or Three Rivers Park District or the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board, and partnering with these different agencies where it has to be a priority for all of us," Yemen said. "We wanted to put our priorities out there, 'This is what we wanted to do, come join us.'"
Yemen said the county is also looking to integrate these biking and walking projects into already existing projects.
"We're not just building a bike lane on its own, but that when we're reconstructing a road, that we can incorporate that in and get the cost savings of doing it all at once," Yemen said. "If we lay all this out and have this comprehensive plan now, it reaps a lot of benefits later."
County planners are soliciting comments from the public until Dec. 5. The Hennepin County board will consider the final plan in early 2015.