A College Town Comes of Age: Mankato’s New Bike Lanes

bike lane sm

For a city that likes to refer to itself as a “biking destination,” Mankato–in its current incarnation–is woefully behind the times in regards to cycling infrastructure. Most mocked the ribbon-cutting ceremony for the two-block bike lane in Lower North, but that baby step turned out to be just that. According to the Mankato Free Press, the city is going all-in on two-wheel transport:

By the end of 2016, bikers will have a nearly unbroken route of dedicated bike lanes stretching the length of the city within the Minnesota River Valley — from Highway 14 to West High School.

And within five years, 40 miles of bike lanes covering 20 miles of streets will tie virtually every corner of the city to the system or to bike trails connected to the system.

And there was much rejoicing. Well, mostly. (More on that later.)

But, seriously, this is monumental. To date, the biggest hindrance facing Mankato’s relevance to greater Minnesota has been its outmoded ambition for suburban sprawl. Since I moved here nearly eight years ago, most of this city’s investments have been focused on outward expansion, creating venues for box stores and strip malls connected by miniature highways.

This is symptomatic of a generational defect, a keeping-up-with-the-Joneses thirst for consumption and one-upsmanship. Similar to the weirdly unquenchable thirst for a 2.5-kid family complete with a quarter-million-dollar McMansion, a pair of bank-owned SUVs, and the latest array of home theater equipment purchased via Capital One, Mankato has been little-sistering itself against the likes of Rochester and Bloomington, leaking out from its core instead of embracing the renaissance of downtown revitalization.

Now, many of you SUV-owning, Jimmy-John’s-and-Five-Guys-devouring citizens might be asking yourselves:

What’s wrong with that, you hipster prick?

Well, nothing, I guess, other than the fact(s) that it’s a vaguely depressing and blatantly homogenous. existence. When you force conformity upon a populace under the guise of economic development, an absence of culture becomes the status quo, and local businesses suffer. And then? People leave. (Minneapolis isn’t that far away, right?)

Case in point: Until very recently, I kept one foot out of Mankato’s door at all times, because I was blinded to what made this city special.

(Obviously, I hadn't been to CherryBerry yet.)

(Obviously, I hadn’t been to CherryBerry yet.)

The revelation was slow, but it was significant: I didn’t truly enjoy living in Mankato until I started commuting by bicycle daily. Eleven months ago. That means I basically just survived in this town for the better part of a decade. But you know what? I’m glad I did. Because once I got out and experienced the best this town had to offer from beyond the confines of a glass n’ steel cage, I fell in love.

Well, at least like. Let’s go with “like.”

Thing is, it’s impossible fall in like with a city’s quirks when you’re merely shuttling yourself from chain store to chain store. But when you can chain together visits to locally-owned establishments on Front Street, Old Town, and Lower North? It actually feels like you’re part of something greater than yourself.

It’s easier said than done, though. For a small city, Mankato is curiously disjointed. There are thriving businesses in the Front Street “entertainment district,” Old Town is looking the best it has in years–with the advent of Mom & Pop’s and Friesen’s, coupled with the city council’s subtle-ish whip-cracking upon Midtown and the Ole–and Lower North continues to be the most charming corner of the city. Yet, they remain islands unto themselves. These areas are too spread out to comfortably traverse by foot (at least in the midst of winter), and driving to each region is not only a wasteful pain in the ass, but parking is a major issue.

Bike lanes are a perfect, too-obvious solution. Hopefully, this marks a sea change in Mankato’s development style, and local businesses and loyal residents can reap the benefits of the taxes generated by chain restaurants and out-of-town shoppers over the past decade or so.

In the short term, at least, this rollout gives the impression that the “Complete Streets Plan” is on the right track; following the successful Front Street re-vamp, the city’s seemingly scored two victories in a row.

Now if only its citizens would realize it.

[Coming soon! In-depth rebuttals to asinine, unoriginal comments on the Free Press’ Facebook page regarding bicycles. Stay tuned!

‘Til then, go see Nato Coles and the Blue Diamond Band at the NaKato on Saturday and buy me a beer.]