Thursday, June 16, 2011

Why Did the Italian Cross the Bike Lane?

Yesterday Leif and I were riding our bikes to the outdoor market at the closest piazza and I noticed something strange…ok, not strange for Florence, but strange when compared to my experiences in Minnesota.

For those who don’t know, Minneapolis, Minnesota recently replaced Portland, Oregon as the most bike friendly city in the US. Pretty good for a city that spends almost six months of the year being “bike friendly” under a blanket of fresh snow. They were awarded this title because Minneapolis has dedicated commuter and recreational bike trails throughout the metro area. They are also expanding their on-street bike lanes. The city buses have bike racks on the front for bad weather or those who can’t get all the way to their destination on the bike trails and riders can bring their bike on the light rail for free. There are bike rental/sharing agencies for those who don’t/can’t own a bike. There are a number of bike coops in town that help promote the concept of biking as a reasonable alternative to something with a motor.

Which brings me to what I saw yesterday that struck me so hard. What I haven’t seen in Minneapolis (and excuse me please if things have changed since last fall) is a line of pedestrians along the bike lane (immediately next to the sidewalk) watching impatiently for a break in the stream of bike traffic in both directions so they can get across. At first I thought it was just funny, all these people were anxiously watching for a break between bikes big enough to cross a bike lane that was only four feet wide. But then I realized it wasn’t funny, really. It was what should be happening in Minneapolis. But then Minneapolis doesn’t have the network of bike lanes that Florence does, allowing bikers to ride to many places almost exclusively on bike lanes.

In Minneapolis I haven’t seen a curb separating the bike lane from the motorized traffic lanes when they are forced to share the same surface. I haven’t seen a street lined with hundreds of bicycles chained to every available surface, not even on a college campus. I haven’t seen what I see here, so many people commuting by bike: professionals, parents with children, students, “real” cyclists, the elderly. If I stop on any street at almost any time of day I know that I will see at least one person on a bicycle, if not a whole crowd of them.

Most importantly, I haven’t seen drivers in Minneapolis treat bikers the way drivers in Florence treat bikes and their riders. In Florence everyone shares the road. Yes there are sometimes problems, but the majority of drivers here treat bikes like another car, not like the enemy. I am responsible to look out for cars and they are responsible to look out for me. I have seen a biker cross 4 lanes (I am guessing here as lanes of traffic don’t really happen) of cars in the space of a block so they could turn left. There were no horns blaring, no sudden moves by any of the cars and trucks (this was close to rush hour). No one appeared to find it unusual or risky. Just part of getting around Florence, no matter what you are getting around in.

I still miss riding around the lakes in Minneapolis and taking some of the trails out to the suburbs. But I don’t miss the anxiety I used to feel trying to get from place to place. Sharing the road with people who expect that bike riders will take thoughtless risks and are angry about that (before anything even happens) makes every ride feel hostile. I am enjoying being a full partner on the road with cars, buses, trucks and scooters. I hope that my friends in Minneapolis begin to feel that more as Minneapolis basks in its’ title of “Most Bike Friendly City in the US” and takes steps to hold on to it in the future.

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