By Jesse Marx
By Chris Parker
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By CP Staff
THE RALLY WAS supposed to start at 5 p.m. But with their commutes constantly at the mercy of cars, trucks, and buses already competing for space on city streets, it's little wonder the bicyclists were late to their own rally. By the time the few dozen cyclists, many of them couriers, started rolling up at 12th and Nicollet at 5:10, the area was peppered with flyers. Barbara Carlson--sans bike, naturally--was already there, shouting "don't run over anybody!" as angry riders started down the mall.
Called Critical Mass, the rally last month was the opening salvo in a bikers' battle to defeat a city proposal to ban bikes from Nicollet Mall. Its organizers even have a solution to the bike-bus impasse: reroute southbound mall buses and devote half the mall to bikes. Whether the city agrees to their solution, however, these cyclists say they're going to keep riding on the mall.
Following the 1993 death of a cyclist, the City Council created the Minneapolis Bicycle Advisory Committee. After looking into the issue, the committee concluded that heavy bus traffic on the mall makes it unsafe for bikes. In 1994, the city proposed banning bikes from the mall entirely unless the committee could produce an alternative within two years. In July, the Council approved the ban, sparking so much protest from people who ride in downtown Minneapolis that it quickly sent the issue back to the committee for further study. The committee's newest findings are soon to be released, and cyclists are worried that their ideas won't be taken seriously.
One solution the committee is considering is simply restricting bike use. Under this plan, there would be Hennepin-style bikes lanes added to Second and Marquette avenues. Cyclists would still be able to ride on the mall in the evening and on weekends. Those in favor of this plan, mostly non-riders, say it will solve the safety issue during peak bus-traffic hours. The cyclists, however, say bikes lanes like the ones in the middle of traffic on Hennepin aren't safe. They propose rerouting some buses and devoting Nicollet's southbound lane to bikes.
In a letter to Gary Sjoquist, a committee member and the executive director of the Minnesota Coalition of Bicyclists, a group of couriers asked Sjoquist to promote this option. Sjoquist said no. "While unhappy to be supporting any restriction on bicycle use," he wrote, "the majority of the board felt that the choice was the best of a bad situation." Because of its slow speed limit (10 mph) and no-passing laws, he added, the mall "is simply not the best choice for bicyclists trying to get through downtown." Plus, Metro Transit had offered $83,000 toward creating alternate bike lanes, which showed that MT had "exhibited a decidedly pro-bicycle stance." More recently, Sjoquist has asked whether increasing the police presence on the mall would help.
The coalition is just one of the groups making recommendations to the advisory committee. Two other major players, the Downtown Council and the Downtown Minneapolis Transportation Management Organization, echo the coalition's perspective. In a letter to the City Council, Sam Grabarski, president and CEO of the Downtown Council, wrote that, although his organization advocates alternative transportation, it believes that "efficient bus service on Nicollet Mall is essential to the mobility of downtown's work force, residents, and visitors." If the only way to guarantee reliable mall bus service is to remove bicycles, he added, "then bikes must be rerouted." The management organization said much the same thing, stating that although it "actively encourages the use of alternate modes to driving," it also favors restricting bikes. Plus, the state Department of Transportation's Charles Cadenhead adds, the city and MT have no idea how to go about rerouting the buses.
As if there weren't enough factors working against the bicyclists, it turns out that Nicollet Mall is a federally funded transit mall, which means the cyclists can't sue over a ban. However, they say they aren't giving up. The advisory committee is scheduled to meet November 4 to agree on its recommendation to the City Council, which should vote on a plan later that month. In the meantime, the cyclists say they won't sit quietly and let the city decide their fate. They want half of the mall, period, and vow not to abide by any sort of restriction. "We," they threaten, "are staying right here."