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Don’t Try This at Home

Suburbs, cycling, cul-de-sacs, and semis, oh my!

October 8, 2006 |
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service


It’s not easy being a biker in suburbia.

It all started when I got a summer job in the suburbs, at Camp Butwin.

According to Mapquest, Camp Butwin was just 15 miles away from my home in St. Paul, Minn. Biking to work would be wonderful exercise, I thought, imagining an exhilarating ride.

But it turned out to be awful. And it helped me realize just how bad it is for bikers once they get beyond the safe confines of places like St. Paul, which must be a national capital for bike paths and bicyclists.

But what I discovered was hardly just my problem. It must affect the vast majority of suburban residents who, lacking safe, direct route bike routes that will get a cyclist to work on time and uninjured, have to drive whether they want to or not.

Suburbanites have a real problem here: They can’t exercise on the way to work. They can’t reduce their dependence on foreign oil or cut tail-pipe emissions that contribute to asthma and global warming—unless they buy a brand new hybrid car or move. With half the American population—about 150 million people—living in the suburbs, that’s a big challenge for everyone who has to breathe air or live with the consequences of climate change.

Making biking a practical way to get around—even and especially in the suburbs—would cut our dependence on foreign oil, reduce our green house gas emissions, and tone our quadriceps. It needn’t be expensive either: It’s far cheaper to add bike lanes than to widen or build new roads.  

Pedalling Off
But back to the story at hand: The night before my first day of work at camp, I decided to plan my route. Unfortunately, my road map didn’t tell me where to find bike paths and bike lanes, or wide-shouldered highways. And when my roommate saw that Camp Butwin was off the map, she insisted that I take her car. 

But I hated to pass up an adventure. With a little help from Mapquest, I cobbled together a route; the next morning, I blithely pedaled off on a beautiful riverside bike trail in St. Paul.

When I missed my first turn, it was easy to get directions, thanks to the throngs of exercise enthusiasts walking, loping, or cycling along the Mississippi River, attracted by the dozens of miles of bike trails that wind through the Twin Cities. Minneapolis alone has 34 miles of on-street bike lanes and 56 miles of off-street bike trails, according to the City of Minneapolis bicycling Web site. St. Paul, where I live, has many more.

All these trails, combined with walkable neighborhoods, a new light-rail line, two vibrant downtowns, a major university, and several liberal arts colleges, attract active, creative people—college students, researchers, entrepreneurs, artists, and professionals—who enjoy staying healthy and happy--and give great directions.

One of these happy, healthy residents pointed me to a stairwell made especially for bikes, with a small “track” next to the steps. Details like this make St. Paul a pleasure to bike in, and helped Minneapolis achieve the nation’s highest rate of bicycle commuting—2.36 percent—among large cities in the 2000 Census.

Strolling with Semis 
But after flying down the stairs, I soon found myself at a junction of country roads, highways, road blocks, medians, and prairie. I was lost and—now that highways had replaced bike trails—quite alone.

I spread my map over my handlebars and seat, trying to keep the middle from sagging to the ground. An inch below a tangled mass of pink and gray lines—which is where I figured I must be—ran a long, busy street—the final leg of the route to Camp Butwin. Unfortunately, the map didn’t tell me how to get there.

When I looked up, I was surprised and relieved to see a lone, middle-aged mom power-walking along the busy highway. She gave me directions, and I told her to watch out for semis.

I crossed the highway, pedaled over a highway bridge, then raced down the street, where I promptly ran into a dead end and got ambushed by a wild turkey. Beating a hasty retreat up the hill, I started looking for a way around the cul-de-sacs that were starting to make me not only miserable, but late for work.

What I saw looked bleak: Stop and go traffic. Ugly strip malls. Impatient drivers. No bike lanes. Lonely, deserted sidewalks next to streams of speeding cars.

Drivers whipped by, ignoring stop signs and cross walks, and giving me dirty looks for making them five seconds later to work.

Serene-looking streets beckoned, promising relief from the heavy traffic; I followed their siren songs again and again, only to find manicured cul-de-sacs that tacked on extra miles. If I wanted to get anywhere, I realized, I had to bike alongside speeding traffic. No wonder everyone else was driving—an armor-plated SUV now seemed very appealing.

It was now two hours since leaving St. Paul, and I was late. As I peddled up and down the rolling hills of suburbia, I wondered why I had not taken my roommate’s advice, and her car.

Biking Off the Map
Finally, I reached the end of my map. Still a few miles short of Camp Butwin, I turned onto what I hoped was the last street—and yet again ran into a dead end. 

“No!” I inwardly shrieked (my throat was too clogged with highway dust and semi fumes to speak). “I’ve been biking for two hours and 30 minutes! No! This is not 15 miles!

Out of time, out of energy, and off the map, I called camp for directions. They told me to turn around and head back to the highway.

Exhausted, hungry, and embarrassed, I kicked myself for being too stubborn to drive. The universe seemed to agree: As I turned onto the highway, a passing truck kicked gravel in my eyes.

Finally, I saw a little sign behind a tree branch: Camp Butwin. Forcing myself to smile, I limped into camp to teach swimming lessons. Great job, great kids, great people, but all I could think of was the way home.   

Katherine Kelly is a senior at Macalester College, in Saint Paul, Minnesota, where she is studying biology, researching lactic acid production in endurance athletes, and swimming. Reach her at katherineikelly@hotmail.com
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