I am concerned about a recent restriction that has made traveling east-west across the heart of the University of Minnesota campus more difficult. The UM has made the entire length of its Scholars Walk a bicycle dismount zone. For those who aren’t familiar, the Scholars Walk is a wide pathway that connects the heart of the Twin Cities campus east-west from 15th Ave/Pleasant Street, across the Northrop Mall, to Oak Street near the McNamara Alumni Center.
While many students and employees walk across this key route, the name “Scholars Walk” can be misleading as there are also many students and employees who bike across the Scholars Walk. I work at the U’s McNamara Alumni Center on the far east end of the Scholars Walk. Like many other bicyclists, my commute involves crossing the Washington Avenue Bridge, looping around half a block to the Scholars Walk, and taking the Scholars Walk east to my building.
I’m not sure of what the U wants bicyclists to use as an alternative to the Scholars Walk. If its goal is to get all bikes out of the heart of campus and onto streets with cars, I suppose it would recommend that bicyclists who work or attend class on or near Northrop Mall backtrack 1/2 mile to 1 mile in the wrong direction by going north on 15th, and turning east onto the road that loops around the Rec Center and back to the Scholars Walk area.
I’ve heard that the U might also create an alternate route for bicyclists on the southernmost stretch of sidewalk on Northrop Mall that runs parallel to Washington Avenue. This would be a welcome change. At this point, however, I would suggest that anyone who needs to bike beyond Northrop Mall avoid this alternative. It’s ok for the first couple of blocks, but past the Mall it hits an intersection that requires you to a.) cut northwest across the narrow, diagonal sidewalks of the ee/c-sci area and back to the Scholars Walk anyway, or b.) ride through a loading dock area that spits you out on the Washington Avenue side of the ee/c-sci complex. From the Washington Avenue side, there is really nowhere to go but back toward the Scholars Walk on a narrow, makeshift pedestrian sidewalk that is barely wide enough for pedestrians to use–let alone bicyclists and pedestrians.
As someone who has used the Scholars Walk thousands of times over the last decade as both a bicyclist and pedestrian, I do not see the value in converting it into a bicycle dismount zone. There is little that leads me to believe this would make things safer. I have rarely seen conflicts between bicyclists and pedestrians in the heart of campus. It seems the two have coexisted well over the years and that both are ingrained in the U’s culture. I also have some concern that this restriction will discourage bicycling in the long run. Many bicyclists are first introduced to this mode of transportation during their college years. By making it more difficult for students with tight schedules to bicycle across the heart of campus, the U may inadvertently cause Minneapolis to lose future cyclists.
It’s unfair to say that the U hasn’t taken steps to make bicycling better and safer. I applaud much of the work that has been done across campus–from adding bike boxes and lanes to key routes to installing bountiful bike parking to building a new bike center. In the case of the Scholars Walk dismount zone, however, it would be wise for the U to reevaluate this change or to focus on a new option that would not discourage bicycling across such an important part of campus.