A hundred people took advantage of a tailwind at midday Friday as they rode their bicycles from City Hall to Clyde Iron Works for the mayor's annual bike ride and luncheon.
They started in the opposite direction, though, carrying their bikes up the City Hall steps and then walking them along the sidewalk to Second Street, following that east to Third Avenue West, taking that down to the frontage road adjacent to Interstate 35, then taking the ramp up to Fifth Avenue West. After a right turn, then a left turn at Michigan Street and past the Depot, they completed the detour to catch the cross-city trail that took them within a block of Clyde Iron.
The reroute was a consequence of the Superior Street construction project, designed in a way that many local bicyclists said they were disappointed with in the first place.
And although it wasn't onerous, the detour could have been made unnecessary with some thought about the construction process, said Shawna Mullen, active transportation planner for Zeitgeist, which puts on the event as part of its Bus Bike Walk Duluth month.
"There's absolutely ways that you can do construction projects that accommodate bikes," Mullen said in an interview after the event, before quickly rattling off four possibilities. One of those would have been installing a "contra-flow" bike lane on one-way streets, such as Michigan Street, allowing bicyclists to go the "wrong way" to reach the trailhead.
"It's pretty common practice in cities to do things like that," she said.
Duluth Mayor Emily Larson, contacted later, said it would be up to the engineers to determine if anything could have been done differently. She also said the construction project was bound to create some short-term difficulties for everybody.
"I'm not convinced that this first part has a lot of easy work-arounds," Larson said. "Mesaba (Avenue) is difficult. Right there, we have the junction of Mesaba and 35. ... In my mind, it's worth the inconvenience to go around it versus shortening the route by going through those roads."
Larson was on the City Council when decisions about the Superior Street reconstruction were made. She voted for the plan the local bicycling community preferred, which would have included a bike lane on the street. But that would have meant no diagonal parking on the street, something many business owners objected to.
The council ultimately chose the version that favored parking. That was a disappointment to Dorian Grilley, executive director of the Bicycle Alliance of Minnesota, who came up from St. Paul to participate in Friday's event.
"Duluth is a nationally ranked bike-friendly community, and they're trying," Grilley said after the luncheon. "But it's still an uphill battle (with) businesses that want that parking space in front of their business."
Larson participated in the ride and spoke at the luncheon, as did Superior Mayor Jim Paine, making it a mayors' bike ride for the first time in its seven years. The hundred bicyclists was up by 20 over previous years, said Mullen, a fact Paine jokingly took credit for as he left.
Texan Jason Roberts, the featured speaker, told of the grassroots, shoestring effort to revitalize the Oak Cliff neighborhood of Dallas where he lives. That grew into the Better Block Project, which has worked with cities from Akron, Ohio, to Tehran, Iran. It originated some of the ideas that have been tried recently in Duluth, such as parklets and pop-up businesses.
Roberts advocated bypassing cumbersome government planning efforts and moving quickly, even if resources are limited. White duct tape can be used to create a crosswalk, he said. When told a dog park would take months of planning, he and his neighbors created one in a weekend in a vacant lot, he said, by mowing the grass, putting up a fence and posting a sign.
"A dog park is just a fence," he said. "I think we can probably put up a fence without doing a two-year study."
The goal is to restore city blocks to the gathering places they once were rather than places traffic speeds through, Roberts said.
"We have choices we can make with our transportation dollars," he said. "We can make them where it's going to be irresistible for a business ... or we can continue doing what we're doing now, which is not working."