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Bikes Paths are Among the Greatest Inventions of the Past 100 Years

Midtown Greenway, a former rail corridor-turned-bike and walking trail, in Minneapolis.

by Jay Walljasper - June 23, 2008

I count myself a lucky man this time of year because I always take a couple of days off around my birthday and bike all over town. I feel lucky not only because I was born into the glorious warmth of June, but because I live a short ride away from one of the best network of urban bike trails in the country.

Leaving my door in Minneapolis last week, I was soon pedaling around Lake Harriet, along Minnehaha Creek, past a waterfall made famous by poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and through the forested Mississippi River gorge.

In the midst of a metropolitan area of 3 million people, I felt like I was deep in the woods. Then, ready for some cosmopolitan excitement and a good lunch, I headed into the bustling downtowns of Minneapolis or St. Paul on scenic riverfront trails free of auto traffic. And when it came time for dinner with my family, I hightailed it home on one of several old railroad lines converted to bicycle expressways.

With a couple more days off I could have cruised on trails all the way to the rolling countryside of rural Minnesota--past the suburbs sprawling far west of Minneapolis or east of St. Paul--hardly ever mixing it up with traffic on city streets.

This stellar system of bike trails is great not just for recreational rides--it's boosted biking so much that Minneapolis now trails only Portland in commuters who travel to work on two wheels. Since we are famous for our brutal winters, this fact surprises almost everyone. Yet I bike all winter for work and for fun, and can attest that bike paths are busy on all but the most severe below-zero days.

Building urban bike paths is becoming a trend across the continent. Indianapolis, a city most known mostly for racecars, is constructing the ambitious eight-mile Cultural Trail bike and pedestrian greenway right through the center of the city. Davis, California has been serious about bike trails and bike lanes since the 1960s, and now boasts that 17 percent of its commuters travel by bike--a number that is certainly rising with advent of four-buck-a-gallon gas. Boulder, Colorado devotes as much as 15 percent of its transportation budget to bicycle priorities.

To learn more about urban bike trails, which also are wonderful for walkers and skaters, check out the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy and Walk and Bike for Life.

And see our guide on biking to work: "Shifting Gears: 12 Tips on Moving From the Fast Lane to the Bike Lane."