Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Can Minneapolis transit planning survive Minnesota weather?

People like to ride bikes when the weather is good. And over the long-term, we either need to over-provide bike infrastructure for the winter months or under-provide it for the spring and fall. The problem is particularly intense for a bike sharing program, since the targeted users are precisely the marginal cyclist rather than the hard-core bike commuter.
Greetings from the frozen North, Matt. Minneapolis winters make Boston or DC winters look tropical by comparison, and the city actually does nonetheless maintain a bikeshare program. The city has its own way of dealing with seasonal variations: our bikeshare stations are removable and disappear during the endless winter months, presumably cutting down on maintenance costs.

I have wondered how well this works, though. On one hand, it certainly doesn't make sense to provide bikes when every week sees another foot of snowfall and temperatures are dropping to -15 or worse. Any cyclist crazy enough to go out in that kind of weather surely has their own bike. On the other hand, it seems to somewhat defeat the purpose of building bike-and-pedestrian-centric infrastructure if everyone just drives everywhere from October to April. Also -- and this may or may not be related -- I've had a hard time getting a sense of how deeply the Nice Ride program has taken hold. You do see people on the signature green bikes pretty often. But just anecdotally, those people always seem to be tourists, sight-seers, or just out for pleasure rides. That's nice, but to really make a dent in car traffic, the program needs to be adopted by commuters.

Despite a number of fairly compact, walkable neighborhoods, the Twin Cities metropolitan area sprawls a long way out. I do wonder how much of this is because of the weather. What's the point of moving closer to the city centers when you're always going to need a car and a parking space for a good fraction of the year? No matter how busable, bikeable, or walkable you make Minneapolis or Saint Paul, hardly anyone who can afford to drive is going to go outside in sub-zero, frostbite-inducing temperatures. It must be a depressingly insurmountable challenge for transit planners in the cities.

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