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University of Minnesota
September 4, 2012
More than 6,500 bicyclists cross the Washington Avenue Bridge every day. In the foreground is one of 20 solar-powered "Zap" stations at UMTC, which register users' rides and reward faculty, staff, and students for riding. The program is the largest in the nation. Photo by Patrick O'Leary.
There is a revolution in biking happening at the U of M—every time the pedal turns. Take that literally if you like, but there's a reason why when you type "biking" into the Google search bar the first search result returns as "Bicycling in Minneapolis" and there's a reason why Bicycling Magazine named Minneapolis among the best bicycling cities in the nation, second only to Portland, Oregon.
Minnesota as a whole, in fact, was recently ranked as America's fourth most bicycle friendly state by the League of American Bicyclists. With the U of M incentivizing biking at its campuses around the state, and inspiring cities and businesses to do the same, Minnesota won't be losing ground anytime soon.
Between the West and the East Banks on the Minneapolis campus, more than 6,500 bikers cross the iconic Washington Avenue Bridge every day. There are 9,000 places to (legally) park a bike on campus. Riders bike for exercise, for transportation, for fun and recreation, and more—and the U is supporting their efforts.
In June, for example, just eight months after its grand opening, the U of M Bike Center won an innovation award from the International Parking Institute. The center offers everything from repair and retail, to showers, lockers, and a gathering space for classes. A couple nights each week, its open shop program gives members free access (others $5) to the center's tools while professional staff help with questions.
Fits like a glove
With so much biking going on, it's no wonder U students are innovators in biking, too. College of Design student Tony Carton was awarded the "Most Innovative Design" award at the International Symposium of Wearable Computing, held this past June in England, for his context-aware signal glove, which uses LED signals to respond to and amplify the rider's hand gestures—including the, shall we say, "universal gesture of disdain."
The Bike Center is also home base for the U's "Zap" bike commuting program, the first-in-the-nation program of this magnitude, says Steve Sanders, alternative transportation manager at UMTC. The program incentivizes biking through the installation of small radio frequency tags affixed to registered users' bicycles. When a rider passes by one of 20 towers erected around the Twin Cities campuses, the tag registers a "zap"—bikers hear an audible "beep" and the ride is logged wirelessly online. The U's Crookston, Morris, and Duluth campuses are also participating in the program.
Bikers can log in and see a number of stats, including how many miles they've biked, about how many calories they've burned, gallons of gas saved, and the carbon those miles have offset. Users also receive incentives to ride—reduced healthcare premiums for faculty and staff, and everything from bike tools and accessories to gift cards and free movie tickets for students.
Sanders says that Parking and Transportation Services (PTS) was hoping for 300 to 500 users in the first year. Just nine months in, 1,400 people have signed up—800 of them faculty and staff, and the student numbers are growing every day now that school has begun, says Sanders.
Participants can also create teams and compete against each other in contests. In the latest, the "summer challenge," student Justin Tan, a junior at the Carlson School, competed with the team, "We Never Have to Pay for Gas."
"Both my teammates are fairly competitive people … there was one day during the summer where I never got a chance to get on my bike, and so at 11 at night they took me out past a few zap readers just before the day ended," he said.
By the numbers
"Zap" since Jan. 1, 2012
•Faculty, staff, and students registered: 1,400 and climbing fast.
•Rides counted: More than 87,000.
•Calories burned: Nearly 22 million.
•Miles biked: More than 700,000.
•Gallons of gas saved: 25,000+.
•CO2 reduction: Almost 500,000 pounds.
Tan says he got into biking during his freshman year at the U after taking a freshman seminar titled "My Other Car is a Bicycle" with associate professor of chemistry, Lee Penn.
"Since I took that class, she's influenced me a lot to bike in and around the Cities, and her class showed me a lot of routes that I've taken my friends on. Most of my biking interest sparked from that class," says Tan.
Penn, a McKnight Presidential Fellow, is an avid biker, to say the least. In 2011, she won the largest all-female alley cat race in the nation, "Babes in Bikeland," held in Minneapolis. Read a fascinating interview about that win.
Penn says that she actively recruits and teaches first-year and grad students about biking, providing maps, resources, and information on how to do it safely. "I want them to really get to know the community—they live here. They are not just visitors," says Penn.
The U Zap program is designed to be fun, but it has other tangibles. Beyond health and environmental benefits, says Sanders, more people biking means less strain on existing infrastructure. "That means less need to build new parking facilities, which are expensive to build—and there's not a lot room for it," he says.
Biking also amounts to less traffic congestion—and the potential there is considerable. With 51,000 students, 16,000 faculty and staff, and 15,000 daily visitors, the UMTC campus is the third largest traffic generator in Minnesota. The U's Zap program has been so successful, in fact, that the cities of St. Paul and Minneapolis have taken note: Zap towers were installed in downtown St. Paul and Minneapolis in preparation for a late summer TC-wide program launch.
Nice Ride bike rental
Don't have a bike? No problem. Minneapolis was a pioneer in bringing bike-sharing to America. Nice Ride, now in just its third year, has 2,577 bikes ready to ride at 144 stations throughout the Twin Cities, with 16 stations on or near the UMTC campus. In fact, the Kolthoff Hall station is the 3rd busiest in the entire Nice Ride system, and 5 of the 16 stations on campus are in the top 20. More than 30,000 Nice Ride trips have been taken on the U campus since April 1, 2012.
The U of M Bike Center won an award for innovation in June from the International Parking Institute.