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Jane Ahlin, Published April 21 2012

Ahlin: Catching up to philosophical leap to urban bicycle-riding

Urban cyclists: Perhaps the term encompasses all people who ride bikes within city limits, but that’s not what the term brings to mind. Instead, we think of the downtown area and bicycle riders intent on specific destinations, most often, workplaces. Of course, Fargo’s urban cyclists also include students heading to North Dakota State University’s downtown campus for class. Indeed, NDSU students are leading the charge for more designated bike lanes, particularly on 10th Street and North University Drive, which are major arteries for traveling between NDSU and downtown.

But back to the term: Images not conjured up when we hear “urban cyclists” are those of parents with young children – whole families out on bike paths in residential areas early in the evening before it is time for baths and beddy-bye. Nor does it bring to mind people – almost any age – out riding simply for fresh air and exercise (my kind of cycling group). For most of us recreational cyclists, the north-south corridor of bike trails suffices (east-west, not so much). The point is, we don’t mind meandering like the river because being on the ride is more important than getting to a specific place.

Downtown destination riders, on the other hand, have schedules to meet. Unfortunately for them, routes to downtown Fargo are not bicycle-friendly; more unfortunately, it appears there’s a concerted effort to keep them that way. It’s as if the idea of the bicycle as a mode of transportation is too foreign for the opponents of bike lanes on streets to accept. But mode of transportation it is, more so for immigrants and students than the general population. Yet, that, too, is changing.

The revitalization of Fargo’s downtown over the past 15 years has been miraculous. No longer a hollowed-out city core with empty store fronts, struggling businesses and minimal housing opportunities, downtown now is a hopping place in every way – Fargo’s urban center – our heart and hub.

The interesting thing about change, of course, is that one kind of change feeds another. The growth of urban cycling has been fed by the busyness and diversity of activity downtown. People are downtown to interact with one another, but they’re also downtown to interact with the environment. Cyclists are part of that; they fit in. Nothing points up the compatibility of cycling with the downtown environment more than the 20 bicycles Fargo police have for patrolling.

The point is the philosophical leap to cycling in downtown Fargo has been made; now it’s time for the practical requirements to catch up. The good news is that Fargo does not have to start from square one to get motorists and cyclists sharing roadways safely and agreeably. Many larger cities have figured out what does and doesn’t work already. No place has been a faster success than Minneapolis-St.Paul, where public cycling doubled between 2005 and 2010. In a 2010 article for “Bicycling” magazine about the Twin Cities being named the magazine’s “No. 1 Bike City,” in America, writer Steven Friedman employed wry humor to explain that designation for a place on a “godforsaken slab of frozen prairie.” He was impressed with bike infrastructure, such things as paths and designated lanes, but he was amazed at public understanding and support for the biking community.

Fargo has yet to make that commitment to public understanding. As quoted in a Forum article by Kristen Daum, Commissioner Mike Williams said, “We missed a step on public education on biking in this town.” He’s right. Most people wary of bike lanes are worried about safety. One good friend told me, “I worry about that blind spot on my right when I’m going to turn.”

Hers is a common concern. However, the answer isn’t forcing bicycles off the road; it is educating drivers and cyclists to mutual standards for navigating streets and roadways together.

Ahlin writes a Sunday column for The Forum.

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