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The Biking Scene: The trails and tribulations for the SoMinn biking community

June 7, 2018

When Mankato resident Dana Sikkila got onto her bike to ride home from work one night in January, it seemed like any other for the avid bicyclist. As always, she was covered in protective gear and riding with working lights to stay safe along the poorly lit streets.

Leaving her art studio, the 410 Project, she biked along downtown Mankato until she reached the residential area of lower North Mankato and turned onto the street where her house is located. Cars were parked on both sides of the street, making it narrow and cramped, but she wasn’t worried; at 10 p.m., there wasn’t much traffic around — except for a car she could hear coming up behind her. She figured the car would go around her or at least slow down, but instead, it accelerated.

And then it hit her.

The car rammed into Sikkila’s back tire, launching her forward and sending her skidding along the icy pavement until her bike flew out from underneath her. She fell backwards onto the snow, hitting it so hard that she received a concussion. The car never stopped to check on her.

“It felt very strategic and planned,” Sikkila said afterwards. “It took me a couple days to realize what had happened, and then I started getting really angry about it. Someone did this, and it completely affected my physical body. Someone instantly took away my physical and mental strength.”

Unfortunately, Sikkila’s story isn’t unique. During the past year, several people have spoken up about being harassed and injured while biking in Southern Minnesota. Besides being hit, Sikkila has had eggs thrown at her three times since moving to Mankato in 2008, and she said drivers have shouted at her to “get off the road,” honked and more while she was using bicycle lanes.

“It’s something that’s been happening a lot this past year in Mankato,” she said. “People biking … they shouldn’t have to feel like they’re at risk of being physically hurt or harassed. If you ask 10 bikers if they’ve been harassed, the majority will say ‘Yes.’ You start wondering, ‘Is it safe for me to ride by myself? Is it safe for me to ride on a street with no bike lanes?’ It’s to that point.”

A thriving bike community

Sikkila, who has biked in cities across the country, said she has never had as much of an issue anywhere else compared to Mankato.

“A lot of people who bike in this town would say there’s a lot of negative backlash towards people who bike,” she said. “It’s a weird mix of positive and negative energy when it comes to people and their opinion about cyclists in this town, compared to anywhere else I’ve gone.”

Yet Sikkila is quick to praise Mankato’s bike scene, saying the city does an “amazing” job of making it easy for cyclists to get around the city. She points to the city’s numerous bike lanes and extensive trail system, which can even take people to places such as Eagle Lake and Faribault. In addition, the biking community is active, welcoming and full of opportunities, whether you prefer mountain biking, road cycling, fat tire bikes or even bike polo.

Key City Bike is a nonprofit organization that teaches people how to repair their own bikes, along with reclaiming and recycling old bikes to offer at low prices, and the Nicollet Bike Shop not only sells bikes but also hosts group rides and offers biking clinics. The Mankato Area Mountain Bikers (MAMB) Club and Mankato High School Mountain Bike Team both offer people the chance to explore mountain biking, while the Blue Skunks polo team swaps horses for bikes every Thursday evening.

In addition, annual events such as the Mankato River Ramble have become beloved staples of the biking community. The ramble is a 12-50 mile ride (depending on riders’ preferences) that takes bikers along five scenic routes in Southern Minnesota every October. Then there’s the Mayo Health Clinic’s annual bike rally, where the clinic offers helmet fittings and discounted helmets courtesy of Scheels, and the annual Mayors’ Bike Ride, hosted by Mankato and North Mankato mayors Eric Anderson and Mark Dehen in May.

“Mankato is a really good biking community, just in terms of the people,” said Lee Ganske, president of Greater Mankato Bike and Walk Advocates. “We’ve got all the ingredients to make for a good bike community.”

In fact, Mankato and North Mankato were designated a “bronze” Bicycle Friendly Community by the League of American Bicyclists in 2016, making the area one of only around 200 in the nation to receive such a distinction. This selection was thanks in part to the area’s 26-plus miles of trails and the city’s “share the road” perspective whenever it works on street projects. Dozens of bike lanes have been added in recent years, and the city also added five bike repair stations last year.

“Any street project is looked at from a multi-modal perspective, whether it’s a simple overlay of bituminous or a full reconstruction project,” explained Mankato City Councilor Mike Laven. “It’s somewhat of a standing marching order, business as usual, how we look at bikes and transportation as a whole. It’s not just cars.”

More to be done

Mankato has made a lot of progress in recent years when it comes to making the city more bike-friendly, but, according to Acacia Wystaske, executive director of Key City Bike, it still has a ways to go.

“I feel like Mankato is way behind on being a bike-friendly community,” she said. “But with that being said, I see they’re trying to move forward.”

Wystaske said making Mankato safer for cyclists could mean radically overhauling the way the city looks at transportation, pointing out that bigger cities such as Minneapolis have worked to narrow roads, broaden sidewalks and slow traffic speed so that it’s safer for other modes of transportation. She also suggested adding far more bike lanes throughout Mankato and North Mankato, even if they’re just temporary lanes that give new riders the chance to feel safer while commuting across town.

“People feel safer when there’s a bike lane,” she said. “I would like the city to plan more bike lanes, especially in our downtown area. Why not get more cars off the road? Right now, our society is very car-centric. [The city] could go a lot further, making it more pedestrian friendly. That’s really how city centers thrive.”

Wystaske said she personally hasn’t had many problems while using bike lanes, saying Mankato drivers have been pretty good about giving her space and treating her as another vehicle. The biggest danger, she said, is when someone opens a car door to exit the vehicle and doesn’t first check to make sure there isn’t a bicyclist passing by.

Another concern Wystaske has is how police and public safety respond to accidents involving bicyclists.

“They have procedures they have to go by, but those procedures don’t protect cyclists,” she said. “The head coach of our mountain biking team was hit about six months ago, and it was really poorly handled. The driver only got charged with driving with an expired license — not failure to yield, not attempted manslaughter.”

She added that representatives from both Mankato Public Safety and the highway patrol attended the most recent Greater Mankato Bike and Walk Advocates meeting, which at least helped people understand more of the legal side of things.

“We didn’t make a lot of progress, but we heard their side,” she said. “Based on their professional procedures, there’s only so much they can do, and their hands are tied.”

“That’s a real serious concern for us,” Ganske agreed. “We have a desire that law enforcement and public safety take a little more active role in policing bad driving and bad cyclist behavior. It just doesn’t seem like it’s a very high priority. [But] cyclists and pedestrians are super vulnerable… What would be a fender bender for two cars can be fatal if it’s a vehicle crashing into a cyclist.”

“I understand that frustration,” Councilor Laven said. “What’s the purpose of having these laws if these people aren’t held accountable? It’s very similar to how other crimes are reported and/or handled, whether it be assaults or property crimes or violent crimes. If we really don’t have an understanding of how to respond to these types of crimes … what other things do we do differently or not consistently?”

Changing attitudes

As important as physical improvements like bike lanes are, the biggest way to make Mankato a more bike friendly community is changing people’s attitudes about biking. As Sikkila explains, Mankato’s biking community is strong, but it isn’t a totally accepted part of the Mankato community as a whole.

“There’s still kind of a separation between a biking community and a driving community,” she said. “Biking is really strong, but they’re not really strong together. We’re putting all this work into bike positivity, but as a community, we’re backtracking, not just by little things but big things like being physically injured or harassed. It’s [affecting] people’s… interest to bike.”

She says education is the biggest part of bringing the two communities together, and there are already efforts across the city to raise awareness about biking, both for drivers and for bicyclists. Key City Bike volunteers work with elementary students at after-school programs, teaching kids how to commute safely on the road, and the organization also offers workshops for cyclists on everything from basic maintenance to shift cable replacements. Meanwhile, Greater Mankato Bike and Walk Advocates have certified instructors through the League of American Bicyclists who are able to meet groups across Mankato to teach about bike safety.

Wystaske said she’d like to see the city of Mankato become even more involved in educating people about bicycling, such as including blurbs and videos about bike safety on its Facebook page and “Visit Mankato” website.

Overall, everyone could get more involved in addressing the problem, Sikkila added.

“People think it’s just a personal problem, but a topic like biking is a community’s problem,” Sikkila said. “That’s a community issue that we need to address on a bigger level.  We’re creating these experiences… [and] giving people that sense of negativity through something that’s supposed to be an amazing experience. That shouldn’t be happening.”

No matter what happens, though, Sikkila will not let herself be discouraged.

“I’m not going to stop biking,” she said.

Making residential areas safer

People may feel nervous about biking next to fast-moving traffic, but Sikkila said it’s actually residential areas that have been the most dangerous to her friends in the biking community.

“Any time I’ve had an issue, it’s never in the downtown area,” she said. “We should focus more on residential areas.”

She said one problem is how many residential streets don’t have very good lighting. Adding lights and sidewalks to streets that have none could go a long way in helping cyclists stay safe, she said, especially at night.

Educating bicyclists

When it comes to keeping streets safe for everyone, it isn’t just drivers who need to learn to share the road — bicyclists sometimes don’t understand traffic laws either.

“There are people out there who are biking and not following the rules,” Sikkila said. “Cyclists are responsible for knowing those rules too.”

When bicyclists use roads, they’re required to follow traffic laws such as riding in the same direction as other traffic, stopping at stop signs, yielding at yield signs and passing on the left. In addition, bikers are encouraged to always wear protective gear, use lights on their bikes and wear reflexive clothing that can catch drivers’ eyes—as well as making eye contact with drivers to ensure that the driver sees them.

“As a biker, it’s our job to put ourselves in safe situations,” Sikkila said.

Updating Riverfront Drive

When the city of Mankato announced last year that it was planning to improve Riverfront Drive, one of the city’s largest corridors, biking enthusiasts hoped the updates would keep cyclists in mind — but not everyone is happy with how the ultimate proposal looks.

“They’re not putting in bike lanes,” Wytaske explained. “That’s so backwards.”

She said she contacted the city to express her concern and was told that she should just use the bike lanes on Broad Street, but that’s out of her way.

“I’m not going to get out of my way to get on a bike lane just because [they] designed something from the 1960s,” she said. “I have every right to be on the road.”

When asked about the Riverfront proposal, Laven said the city is still looking at ways to make the corridor safer and more accessible to other types of transportation. One idea is slowing down traffic, while another is reducing lanes from four to three.

“Part of me thinks that’ll make it easier to bike on the street because you’re narrowing the road and reducing the speeds,” he said. “It’s similar to residential areas.”

No matter what happens with the project, though, Laven stressed that bikes have the right to be on the road.

“Bikes are perfectly fine on any part of the street,” he said. “Sometimes people have the perspective that, if the bike isn’t in the bike lane, the bike’s in the wrong. But people need be more aware that bikes can be everywhere.”

 

By Grace Webb

SouthernMinn Scene | editor@southernminnscene.com |
115 5th Street West Northfield, MN 55057