Start Seeing Statistics: The mangled math behind Duluth's bike lane plans

November 30, 2017


Ryan Swanson
Zenith News

In the background of Duluth Mayor Emily Larson’s proposal to raise the sales tax to pay for street repairs, another debate has been brewing. The week after Larson unveiled her tax proposal on August 7—with news cameras rolling as she posed on a street so damaged it might have been vandalized by a pack of deranged squirrels—the City Council approved spending $72,000 for a new mountain bike trail at Spirit Mountain Recreation Area.

“The particular tax [for that trail],” says City Councilor Joel Sipress, “is a tourism tax on hotel/motel, food and beverage that was approved by the state legislature and specifically designated for recreational projects in the western part of the city. This was an initiative from [former] Mayor Don Ness...that was approved by the city council and the legislature, and is legislatively restricted to only be used for recreational projects in the western part of the city. If we were legally able to cancel this project, and move these dollars into our street fund, I would gladly vote for that tonight.”

It’s hard to know for sure how many Duluthians and Duluth visitors actually ride bicycles here. A 2011 Trail and Bikeway Report, prepared for a Ness-appointed task force by the Hoisington Koegler Group, an urban landscaping consultant out of Minneapolis, claimed, “In 2009 50% of Minnesotans, more than 2.6 million people, road [sic] a bicycle.”

That’s a little hard to believe, considering it’s the same percentage of bicyclists as in Copenhagen.

A 2016 study by the Minnesota Department of Transportation (DOT) and the University of Minnesota found that 45 percent of Minnesotans never ride a bike. Six percent ride once a year or less.

The Hoisington Koegler Group has prepared virtually identical reports for towns across outstate Minnesota—all of them repeating dubious statistics and recommending investment in more bike trails.

Their report goes on to claim “the economic impact [of cycling in Minnesota] to be in excess of $1 billion per year, which is more revenue than hunting and snowmobiling combined.”

Neither of these figures is sourced (the report cites almost no sources at all). The DOT and U of M study found a $14.3 million total economic impact, most of it from bike events for cycling enthusiasts.

The study notes that the cycling industry estimates an economic impact of $779.9 million (which is sort of like “in excess of $1 billion,” if you’re really bad at math). But that figure also includes the economic activity of “bicycling advocacy groups.” (We’re not saying that’s how the Hoisington Koegler Group got their estimate up over $1 billion; we’re content to think they just don’t know how to round numbers.)

To be fair, Hoisington Koegler does source one factoid: “Over 50% of Duluth residents indicated great support for a temporary or permanent tax increase for additions to and extension of existing bike/walk trail. Source: 2009 Duluth Parks and Recreation Community Survey.”

But 50 percent of how many? According to the Parks and Recreation 2010 Master Plan, 80 people filled out an online survey and 439 completed a mail-in survey in 2009. However, a statistically valid—and completely separate—Parks and Rec survey didn’t ask about raising taxes. In the “priorities” portion of that survey, most said bike trails are “overkill.”

Parks and Rec did recommend greater connectivity between existing bike trails as well as better signage.

The Lake Superior Hiking Trail skirts south of Duluth and continues in spurts along Lake Superior. The Willard Munger Trail heads north from Hinckley to Duluth, where multiple sections in the western part of the city are closed due to age-related issues, such as sediment settling, and damage from the 2012 flood.

Near the Duluth Zoo, the Munger Trail is rebranded the Western Trail, spilling out into city streets as it continues northward. At 46th Avenue West, it connects with a designated bike lane/protected walking path on the Bong Bridge.

The bike route shares the road along Highland Avenue/Stebner Road headed towards Hermantown, with only a scant white line separating bikes from cars, and a steep shoulder dropping off into a ditch. The Western Trail runs north as it approaches 40th Avenue West, sending bikers up a steep sidewalk shared by pedestrians along Haines Road.

As the bike portion of the trail passes through Duluth, it reemerges around Lincoln Park and crosses I-35 on a walking bridge with a flight of stairs down to Railroad Street. From there, the path weaves under the highway pylons and reappears in downtown.

Last June, temporary bike lanes were routed to the Downtown Transit Center from the west end of Lower Michigan Street, a one-way arterial serving a high school, a handful of businesses, and access to the Medical Arts parking garage. It remains to be seen if the reflective tape that delineated the bike lane will become a permanent fixture along Michigan.

“What’s the whole plan?” says Craig Guzzo, Vice President of Duluth Plumbing Supplies, which needs Michigan Street access for its delivery trucks. “Even before you would be for or against something 100 percent, you want [the whole plan]. Otherwise, when they did the original Skywalk, for example, the Skywalk was put in kind of piecemeal.”

Harbor City International School was decidedly unimpressed when the bike lane work crew inadvertently blocked the school’s drop-off and pick-up zone. “If there was going to be a bike lane on Michigan, it would have to go down the middle of the street,” says Director Anne Wise of Harbor City School. “You need to have traffic pull in front of a public school on a one-way street. This was a concern for me.”

Enter James Gittemeier, Planner at the Arrowhead Regional Development Commission of the Metropolitan Interstate Council (MIC), which advises local governments on urban planning, land use, transportation, and regional coordination. It is thanks to MIC, for example, that roadways from one community to another don’t simply stop at the city or county line.

Gittemeier has been given the job of working with stakeholders on the bike lane issue, which he says could get complicated. “A lot of people will look at it like, well, the bike lanes are for recreation. Like when you’re going for a bike ride on the Lakewalk. And there’s a gray area, of course. People get in their car and just drive around for recreation as well.

“I’ve been asked the question in the past if we count the people who are biking for recreation or for transportation. And we do not, but we don’t count motorists [that way either]. Are you driving a car for recreation or for transportation? The [bike lane] network is being designed to get to places and back, whether it be to a job or the grocery store. Whatever their transportation entails, that is what this bike lane network on the street is being designed for.

“Transportation has always been evolving and changing. A hundred years ago our streets were very different. There were still horses on them and traffic was moving very slow. There was still mud and dirt. Our transportation 100 years from now is going to be very different from what it is today. So our streets are always evolving.

“Cities have been around for thousands of years, and cars have only been here for 100 years. Cars are something that we have been designing for a very short period of time when you look at the history of cities overall. I say that because we say this is how it’s always been and how it always will be, but we’re always evolving and changing and learning.”

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