Let me start by saying I love Milwaukee, and I will never root for the Minnesota Vikings. But I visited Minneapolis for the first time this past week, and must admit I was smitten. Admittedly, it was summer (technically – the weather was definitely Octoberish); I know the winters are even harsher than here along the shores of Lake Michigan. What struck me most was that, despite a lot of similarities to the Cream City, Minneapolis had a much more vibrant feel, reflecting its reputation as a magnet for millenials. The total urban population is similar, the number and type of Fortune 500 companies are similar, the number of major league sports teams, the latitude, the northern European heritage, etc., etc., etc. Why is Minneapolis so hip, and Milwaukee, well….?
At the considerable risk of over-reaching based on a 72 hour visit, I would pose that a significant factor is the infrastructure. Specifically for transportation. Minneapolis has light rail, a system of bike paths that resembles Madison on steroids, and robust bike and car sharing programs. Not that Milwaukee isn’t trying. But young professionals simply don’t want to be tied to cars (heck, even an old professional with any sense wouldn’t want to be tied to a car), and in Minneapolis they don’t have to be.
The bike trails were mind-blowing. We could park our car when we arrived and not get in it again until it was time to leave town 3 days later. Now, I do love Milwaukee’s Oak Leaf Trail, which basically circumnavigates the county. But it’s hard to get anywhere in the middle. It’s great for recreation (at least the segments that have been maintained – a good bit of work is still needed!), but limited for commuting. The Hank Aaron State Trail is an increasingly well-used commuter route that essentially parallels I-94, but again, the reach is pretty limited. In Minneapolis, there are trails for both fun and work. One of the paths, clearly meant for commuting, we nicknamed “the superhighway”: 2 bike lanes in each direction, separated by a median, and a separate pedestrian path. That is serious infrastructure! And they clear snow in the winter; people commute by bike year round despite the 50+ days of below-zero temperatures.
Not surprisingly, Minneapolis is one of the top-ranked large cities for bicycle commuters (4th of the 70 largest cities, with 3.7% of commuters traveling by bike), while Milwaukee is sadly behind at 26th (1.1%) – just behind Anchorage! It seems likely that this is one factor in Minneapolis’ slightly lower rate of obesity. More striking is that in Minneapolis, 17.1% of residents are considered physically inactive (no exercise in the prior 30 days), compared with 24.4% of Milwaukeeans. Interestingly, there is a strong inverse correlation between the percentage of bicycle commuters and bicycle fatalities. I don’t know whether this is a direct cause (i.e., more cyclists increases familiarity among drivers and makes it safer for the cyclists), or indirect (better infrastructure makes cycling safer and more attractive), but I’ll take Minneapolis’ 40% lower rate of cycling deaths.
Oh, Milwaukee, we have better beer, better ball teams, better beaches. It sure would be nice to have better bicycling.