At top Duluth destinations, bike parking is catch as catch can
In most of Duluth, the city code doesn't require businesses to provide bike parking. Many do, but it's inconsistent in both quantity and quality.
DULUTH — "You know Bent Paddle?" said Mark Alsum, service manager at Duluth's Continental Ski & Bike. "Go there later this weekend, and there's going to be 20 bikes out front. So if you lock (bikes) up to parking meters and signs and all that, it's going to get in other people's way."
At Duluth's most popular venues, it's clear that motorists are expected. Large parking lots and multistory ramps abound, and directions to any given place will typically come with car parking tips.
Bike parking, by contrast, often seems like a second thought, if a thought at all. Visits last week to dozens of the city's top destinations revealed a widely varying array of parking options for bicyclists. Some venues are clearly prepared to welcome bikers, while others are much less so.
When bike racks are "thoughtfully located near main entrances," said James Gittemeier, senior transportation planner for the city of Duluth, it signifies that "this is a legitimate mode of transportation that people are welcome to take and encouraged to take."
"In Duluth, because we don't have a lot of bike parking," said Shawna Mullen, a local cyclist who's on the board of the Bicycle Alliance of Minnesota, "you kind of have to just look around and lock your bike to weird objects that aren't bike parking. Sometimes that works, but honestly, it's not an ideal situation, because a lot of times it can block pedestrian access, doorways."
There are also security considerations, added Mullen. "If you want to use a U-lock, which is the most secure kind of lock there is, it really doesn't fit around much. It has to be on a bike rack in order to work."
"Obviously, you don't want to lock up to something like a fire hydrant or something that someone else might need to use," said Alsum. "You can lock it up to a stop sign or something, but that's it's not an ideal spot. It's really close to the edge of the road and it has sharp metal edges that can scratch your bike up."
Continental's name marks one of two bike racks that were positioned in front of Bent Paddle last week. The East Hillside shop has been distributing racks for years, and Alsum estimates there are now "dozens and dozens" such racks at the doors of Duluth businesses.
"Light poles or stop signs or whatever, you can just get one or two bikes on there," said Alsum. "You want (bike parking) to be a safe place, well-visible place, and also a place that's designed to hold bikes and not not damage them."
While a bike rack of any kind is generally better than no rack, "there are standards for bike racks," said Mullen. "Most of our bike parking, the vast majority in Duluth, does not meet those standards. It's bike racks that aren't actually bolted to the ground, or it's the style of the bike rack doesn't actually support the frame of the bike, so bikes just tip over when they use the bike parking."
Lots of parking lots, few racks for bikes
In Duluth's tourism hub, options for parking cars are highly visible. You probably wouldn't think to go looking for bike parking in those lots, and you'd generally be disappointed if you did.
The St. Louis County Depot is flanked by two sizable parking lots, but bike accommodations are sparse. There are two racks available on the sidewalk near the historic station's entrance; last Wednesday morning, four bikers chose to cram their cycles into a small rack from Continental rather than take their chances with the larger but deteriorated rack adjoining it.
Across the highway at the Duluth Entertainment Convention Center, ramps and parking lots provide capacity for 1,800 motor vehicles, according to the venue's website. The site's multiple parking and directions pages assume visitors will be arriving by car (or RV), and the only readily apparent permanent bike parking at the contiguous DECC complex is a rack near the entrance to the Marcus Duluth Cinema.
A short distance away at Bayfront Festival Park (managed by the DECC as an event venue), a couple bike racks are available near the children's play equipment. Beyond that, attendees at Bayfront concerts are directed to lock their bikes to the fencing surrounding the park's perimeter.
Canal Park has more bike parking options, but they're not generally to be found in the area's extensive parking lots. For example, the large surface lot bordering the Harbor Basin, behind Bellisio's and The Garden, encompasses the Wheel Fun bike rental service, but may not be wheel fun if you're looking to park your own ride.
The various venues in Canal Park illustrate the patchwork provision of bike parking in Duluth's marquee tourist spots. The city's zoning and development code does not require businesses in most of Duluth to provide bike parking, said Gittemeier; that's only true in the higher education overlay district surrounding the University of Minnesota Duluth and the College of St. Scholastica.
On Lake Avenue, the main drag leading to the Aerial Lift Bridge, that often means bicyclists end up improvising with street signs or with bars protecting utility equipment. Just off Lake Avenue, there are small racks near Green Mill and, at the DeWitt-Seitz Marketplace, near the Northern Waters Smokehaus patio.
There are two classic bike racks in the middle of Canal Park, near the entrance to the Lake Superior Marine Museum. Visitors may want to use those racks when patronizing Grandma's Saloon & Grill, where a ship-shaped bike rack is more artful than functional.
The Grandma's bike rack is one of the last vestiges of a public art project from the late 2000s that involved commissioning artists to create bike racks in hopes of making Duluth more visibly cycle-friendly. Gittemeier cites the fish-shaped racks outside the Duluth Public Library as an example of a design from that project that was both artful and practical. The boat-shaped Grandma's rack, on the other hand, "really didn't even fit a normal-sized adult bike tire."
Bikers can roll right up to some lakeside venues, including Canal Park Brewing Co., which has a sizable bike rack just outside its front door. The Great Lakes Aquarium provides not only a convenient bike rack, but also repair tools for quick fixes. At the William A. Irvin, a bike rack is tucked under the stairs to the gift shop.
Among hotels, the Canal Park Lodge and the Lift Bridge Lodge both provide convenient bike parking; at the latter, the bike rack even gets its own little plaza. Up the hill, the Radisson also has a bike rack patio, although absent the shelter and the flowering plants.
The Inn On Lake Superior has a prominent shelter for bikes it lends to guests; if you're just looking to lock up your own bike, you may end up going around back, where an unsheltered rack adjoins a picnic table and a cigarette disposal receptacle. The Hampton Inn also has a bike rack, but it's anchored so near to the hotel wall that its grid design can't be used as intended.
Rings of tire
While the recently reconstructed Superior Street does not include a dedicated bike lane through downtown Duluth — much to the chagrin of cyclists who advocated for such a feature — it does include numerous parking spaces for bicycles. The rounded, embedded conveniences beckon bikers like rings in the video game Sonic the Hedgehog.
As in the video game, though, the Superior Street parking rings are more readily found in some areas than others. They're convenient to venues like Fond-du-Luth Casino and Duluth Coffee Co., but they're less convenient for patrons at places like the NorShor Theatre. To park your bike at the NorShor, you might need to cross Superior and compete with patrons at Blacklist Brewing and Zeitgeist.
Bikers looking for a secure spot at the popular Dubh Linn have to be even more adventurous: crossing the street, going down the block, and spotting the parking rings underneath the skywalk. Patrons of downtown businesses off Superior Street will often look in vain for convenient bike parking infrastructure, with cyclists on First Street routinely locking their rides to street signs.
Continuing along Superior Street to the east, past the parking rings, it becomes catch as catch can for cyclists looking to lock up. Some establishments, like Sir Benedict's and Fitger's, have bike parking available out front. Other popular spots, like Portland Malt Shoppe and Va Bene, have no bike parking to be seen — although if patrons are willing to walk a couple of blocks, there's parking available at the west end of Leif Erikson Park.
Bike parking is conspicuously less sparse in Lincoln Park, where a stretch of West Superior Street has Duluth's first fully protected bike lane. Establishments including the Caddy Shack and Corktown Deli have Continental racks; there's a small rack outside Duluth Folk School; and Frost River even has an anchor-chain sculpture from the artist-designed bike rack project, salvaged from outside U.S. Bank during the downtown Superior Street reconstruction.
While bike parking in commercial corridors is part of the discussion when streets are reconstructed, particularly when bike lanes are installed, sidewalk bike parking can also be a neighborhood project. "The Lincoln Park Craft District has been putting in bike racks themselves," said Gittemeier.
Farther west down Superior Street, permanent on-sidewalk bike racks provide limited parking opportunities outside establishments like Wild State Cider, Ursa Minor Brewing and Duluth Cider. The latter also sports yet another Continental rack.
In the farther reaches of the city, bike parking sometimes beckons. There are small racks at Zenith Bookstore and Wussow's Concert Cafe in West Duluth — racks that might benefit patrons of the West Theatre across Central Avenue, which has none of its own evident from the street. The Lake Superior Zoo has a sizable bike rack standing behind the admissions building at the zoo's entrance.
Glensheen not only provides a rack, the historic mansion offers a $2 tour discount to visitors who arrive by bike. High above the city, by contrast, bikers who make it up the hill to Enger Park won't find a readily apparent place to park their bikes near the parking lot at iconic Enger Tower.
Does Enger Park really need bike parking, given the substantial climb required to get there? Mullen observed that "the weather and the hill are probably the most-cited reasons why people think we shouldn't do bike things" — that is, create infrastructure like bike parking and bike lanes.
"The reality is that you can bike anywhere in Duluth," said Mullen. "You're not going up the hill for every destination, you're not going a long way for every destination. It's not terrible weather 365 days a year."
Mullen continued: "When you have infrastructure in place, even if you're not using it in that moment, just seeing it kind of triggers something in your head, like, 'Oh, there's a bike rack here. People must bike here.' ... and then if you see bikes using it, that (thought process) happens even more. So it sort of builds on itself."
Pedaling into the future ... and parking there
Bike parking encompasses more than just street racks, noted Gittemeier. Racks such as those might be called "visitor parking," intended primarily for the use of bikers making relatively short, occasional stops.
An apartment building, for example, might benefit from both that sort of bike parking — for the use of visitors — and longer-term parking, perhaps in a secure area, for building residents. Similarly, office buildings might require different bike parking accommodations for employees than for guests.
Gittemeier, who saw "a huge increase in bicycling to schools" after he worked with Duluth schools to incorporate bike parking into facility designs, said he's just beginning the process of studying the city code to consider recommendations for bike parking requirements beyond where they currently exist.
"That's a huge piece for sustainability," Gittemeier said. "In our multifamily apartment districts ... residential districts and our commercial districts, development would have bike parking regulations just as (there are) car parking regulations."
"I would just love to see the city take ownership and responsibility in making sure that there is convenient and plentiful bike parking in destination centers where people want to go," said Mullen.
The highly-visible Continental racks, along with occasional others sponsored by businesses like Ski Hut, have become emblematic of Duluth's largely DIY bike parking infrastructure. Alsum said that though customers rarely mention the bike racks specifically, "if one day we had to go collect all of our bike racks, people would notice ... people would be like, 'Where'd all the bike racks go?'"
"We have no way of keeping track of what good it does for us," said Continental owner William Howard. "We just know that it's a good thing to do."
"We don't have to wait for bike lanes on all of our streets in order to encourage cycling," said Gittemeier. "We already have a huge network of streets that are really conducive to cycling, but the other end of that is the parking piece, and we don't have ... well-designed bike parking at a lot of facilities."
That doesn't just mean entertainment destinations, Gittemeier said: It means places like grocery stores. "If we're looking at sustainability, and we're looking at shifting modes (of transportation) ... then it's really critical, the bike parking piece is."
"We definitely are behind the curve when it comes to bike parking," said Mullen, "which is disappointing because it is a pretty low-hanging fruit when you think about everything that you could possibly do for people who want to bike. So it's not necessarily a difficult thing to do. We just aren't doing it."