By Chris Rogers, Winona Post
On a chilly morning Mary Farrell prepared for her morning commute. She buttoned up a warm peacoat, wrapped a scarf about her neck and cinched a bike helmet to her noggin.
Climbing Winona's bluff roads and rugged trails has drawn scores of spandex-clad cyclists to events like the Trinona and Single Speed USA mountain bike race. Farrell explained that she is a different type of cyclist, one who rides in office attire and runs errands around town with loaded baskets. The helmet flattens her hair, and when she is running late, the car can be tempting, she admits, but the pleasure of riding calls Farrell back. For many Winonans without vehicles, bicycling is the best way to get around. With the core city flat and easy to navigate, "Winona is perfect for that," Farrell said.
If not perfect for cyclists, than pretty good, agreed the League of American Bicyclists, who bestowed a bronze level "Bicycle Friendly Community" (BFC) award to the island city this month, an improvement over honorable mentions given in years past.
(photo Chris Rogers)
"Winona has been put on the map for bicycling," said Assistant City Planner Carlos Espinosa. Espinosa, a bike commuter himself, has promoted the town as a destination for pedal-powered transport users and guided some of the improvements to bicycle infrastructure, events, and education that earned Winona its new bike-friendly ranking.
The Seventh Street bike route, bike rodeos, and free bike rentals at Lake Park Lodge are all recent additions that helped Winona clinch a spot on the bicycle league's list, but perhaps the most meaningful of those improvements, Espinosa said, is a map of local bikeways. "People come to Winona and they want to know where they can bike;" the map makes the city more welcoming, he said.
The added signage around town "showing cars that bikes belong on the road and you may see a bike on the road," is helpful, but riding in Winona is not perfect, said cyclist Liz Reach. Sometimes "it's really a battle with motorized traffic — cars speeding way too fast or people texting," she added.
Traffic conflicts between cyclists and motorists can be a two-way street. "Cyclists have a poor understanding of rights of way in our community," said City Council member Allyn Thurley at a September meeting. "I don't know if I've ever seen a cyclist stop at a stop sign." He added that "most drivers are aware of the fact that cyclists won't stop, so there is a little defensive driving," and called for increased enforcement of cycling traffic.
Inattentive cyclists may frustrate some, but supporters say there are good reasons for the community as a whole to value biking. Cycling reduces motor vehicle congestion and the need for parking spaces, Reach said. "It is a healthy way to move," Espinosa pointed out. That reason spurred the Minnesota Department of Health's Complete Streets program to help fund efforts to improve bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure.
With miles of paths around Lake Winona, a flat core city, challenging bluff routes, and access to the interstate Mississippi River Trail, Winona already has "something that appeals to every kind of cyclist," Espinosa explained. The city can easily capitalize on this existing strength, he added.
A place for bikes
The city bikeways map highlights city streets with wide shoulders and bike lanes; however, most of Winona's bike lanes are also parking lanes, requiring cyclists at times to maneuver in and out of the traffic lane to avoid parked cars. Biking is allowed on all city streets whether a bike lane exists or not, but city code and state law requires cyclists to ride as far to the right as possible.
"I come down Fifth Street," Farrell said of her commute. Although Fifth Street is marked on the bikeways map and it is the most direct route for Farrell, "I still feel like that's not the safest street to commute on because parked cars and bikes share the bike lane," she explained.
Being "doored" — crashing into the driver's side doors of parked cars that are suddenly opened — is a fear for some local cyclists when riding near parked cars.
While slower cyclists sometimes opt to ride on sidewalks, city code bans bicycles from downtown sidewalks. "I don't think that people should be biking on sidewalks either because that's dangerous for pedestrians," Reach commented. She added that she would like to see wider and more visible striping separating vehicle traffic, parked cars and cyclists.
"It's not desirable, but it works," Espinosa said of the bicycles sharing a lane with parked cars.
Seventh Street is an example of a different model for regulating bicycle traffic. A 2010 initiative converted the street into a "bicycle boulevard." Pedal- and petroleum product-powered vehicles there share a lane; cyclists are allowed to ride anywhere in the lane and cars are required to pass them as they would another vehicle. The arrangement gives cyclists less to worry about, but "for cars it slows down traffic," Espinosa pointed out.
In 2008, the city considered eliminating parking on one side of Seventh Street and dedicating space to bicycles, but neighbors opposed the plan to cut street parking.
Having separate spaces for vehicles, parked cars, and cyclists would be ideal, but it is not always possible. "We have to work with that we have," Espinosa stated. "We still have a long way to go" to make Winona more bike friendly, he continued — better bike routes across Highway 61 and bike paths leading to Levee Park tops his wish list.
Bikeway maps are available at the Winona Visitors' Center and online at www.cityofwinona.com/city-services/planning-zoning/bicycling.
Espinosa praised local colleges, Live Well Winona, the Winona YMCA, and Winona Area Mountain Bikers for helping the city earn the new honor.
See more cities in the upper Midwest who have received the Bike Freindly Community status, here.