July 18, 2013

Active Towns Blog #3

The MidWest Active Towns Tour Wrap Up 

On Tuesday, June 25th I embarked on a 4,095 mile journey from Boulder into the upper MidWest and returned on Wednesday, July 10th. I visited 7 states, explored over 25 cities and camped in half a dozen or so state parks, the only paid lodging in the budget.

The Tour featured an amazing mix of destinations from Nebraska, Iowa, Minnesota, Michigan, Indiana, Illinois and Wisconsin. The following are some of the more memorable stops that I made along the way, which also correspond to the photo albums provided on our Facebook page, so be sure to check out the images:

  • Lincoln, NE: An impressive amount of construction happening in the historic Haymaker District, looks like a fun place with an emerging bike culture.
  • Omaha, NE: A ton of potential in the old town area and featured some of the roughest cobbles I have ever experienced on a bike. Need to check on my fillings.
  • Avoca, IA: What? You’ve never heard of Avoca? Not surprising this is a tiny yet charming farm town I just happened upon.
  • Des Moines, IA: A riverfront pathway, B-cycle bike-share and the Des Moines Bicycle Collective – yep, some good things happening here.
  • Lanesboro, MN: A small destination town that features as one of its primary draws the Root River Trail, which is integrated into much of the town’s commercial activity.
  • Minneapolis, MN: This metropolis lived up to its reputation as a being one of the most  activity friendly places in the nation. I was particularly impressed with the pathway system & park network integration. Oh yeah, and with the on-road bike network too.
  • Stillwater, MN: A riverfront town with an attractive old town working to establish itself as a bike friendly destination for twin cities metro cyclists.
  • Brainerd, MN: In many ways this city is struggling to find its identity and to just survive. Even so, it has the potential to activate its assets and infrastructure to encourage human powered movement. Overly wide neighborhood streets with no sidewalks are being proposed for reconfiguration (a potential Strong Towns project) of on-street parking to create protected walkways and narrowed travel lanes to bring motor vehicle speeds down to acceptable, comfortable residential levels.
  • Bemidji, MN: Hockey, Paul Bunyan & Babe the Big Blue Ox, a lakefront pathway which stretches for miles and ample opportunity for summer time fun sailing and stand up paddle boarding all help to make this university community an emerging Active Town. Well, I’m not sure how Paul & Babe help, but they sure get a lot of attention.
  • Duluth, MN: Home to the Grandma’s Marathon (actually now a festival of running events), an amazing lakefront and intact old town complete with pedestrian skyways for use during the bitter cold winter days. Oh and a kid friendly ski lift within walking distance from a major residential area. This is an emerging Active Town with a level of toughness that can’t be dismissed.
  • Marquette, MI: This upper peninsula college town on Lake Superior exuded activity at every turn, from the plentiful bike racks featuring other activities carved into the frame to the charming downtown to the inviting lakefront pathway.
  • Mackinac Island, MI: Pronounced “mack-in-aw”, this car free destination is an absolute delight. More on this amazing, almost unbelievable place later.
  • Dexter, MI: This small village outside of Ann Arbor features a charming old town, quiet country roads, many of which are unpaved and a new riverfront pathway that has connected a previously isolated suburban neighborhood with a safe and inviting route downtown. An extension to this path will also soon connect the village the nearby Metro Park along the river.
  • Ann Arbor, MI: This quintessential university town has always had a tremendous amount of bike and pedestrian traffic, especially when school is in session, but I was impressed by the enhancement of the on and off road facilities and provisions for both walking and biking. Also worth noting is the water focussed activities on the Huron River which runs through parts of the northern edge of town.
  • Grand Rapids, MI: Quick, what’s Michigan’s second largest city? It’s actually Grand Rapids. Did you guess that? It is home to some of the biggest furniture companies and is an impressive place to roll into, although I did so on a quiet early Sunday morning. I had a hard time determining its activity friendliness though and may deserve another visit at some in the future.
  • Western Michigan Lakefront Towns: Taken in sequentially as a group (Grand Haven, Holland, Saugatuck and South Haven) these were some of the most delightful towns I witnessed during the trip. Although cars were present in the old town – downtown areas, they were not the focus, as people were walking and biking everywhere. Yes, these are vacation destination areas, but as I ventured on my bike into the residential neighborhoods, it was clear that the active lifestyle is enthusiastically embraced by many of the locals as well.
  • South Bend, IN: To be honest, I ventured into Indiana with the intention of exploring South Bend and then driving to Indianapolis to check out the wonderful work they have initiated to transform the city, however I ran out of time and had to shove off for Chicago. So I owe Indiana a return visit.
  • Chicago, IL: One of our great large American cities that is “getting its bike on”. I lived in the city in the mid-1990’s and I was extremely impressed with the enhanced bike friendliness throughout the neighborhoods and in the city center. The cherished lakefront path and beaches were vibrant with all forms of physical activity.
  • Madison, WI: Another university/capital town with an energetic pulse of bike and pedestrian activity. Since the city is situated between two inviting lakes there is no shortage of water based recreational activities to chose from. Yes, they have green bike lanes and yes, they had cycle tracks. There’s still some work to be done though, as I found many overly wide streets and one way multi lane roads with high speed traffic threading through the city at various inopportune points during my bike tour. Great place and has the opportunity to be even better.

Favorite Place

Upon returning to Boulder, several people have asked what was my favorite place. To be clear, I saw some truly beautiful communities in terrific settings, with many featuring physical activity as part of their culture to some level.

But, if I am pressed to pick a favorite community from the trip, it would have to be Mackinac Island, a place that invites and encourages active living not by implementing costly, complicated and creative bike and pedestrian facilities, no they did it by simply eliminating all motorized vehicles as a transportation option from the scenario. Yes, you could hire a ride via a horse drawn carriage, but trust me when I say pretty much everyone was walking or riding a bike


One of our commenters on the Facebook page made the observation that the roads still pretty much look like they are made for cars. Perhaps, but I can assure you that they are at a comfortable human scale and are therefore quite inviting for pedestrians in addition to cyclists.

This is truly a cleaner or perhaps more sanitized, as the roads are paved and there is a maintenance crew deployed to cleanup after the horses, glimpse into an idealized life prior to the automobile.

The very first sensation I had in getting off the fairy and climbing onto my Brompton folding bike was one of relaxation and release. The realization that took hold, as I took a deep breath and glanced around at a picturesque 19th century scene teaming with bicyclist and pedestrians, was that I did not have to worry about being run over by a fast moving motor vehicle.

Oh yes and the noise… gone was the incessant roar of the of the cars, trucks and motor bikes and in its place was the glorious sound of people as they communicated, the live music emanating from the restaurants and watering holes and the occasional clop, clop, clop of the horse drawn wagon or carriage. When you venture just outside the downtown area on the paved pathway that circles the island, you are in a peaceful natural setting surrounded by the sounds of birds and the rustle of the leaves. But make no mistake this trail is occupied by people: families and couples taking in the gorgeous lakefront sights, so you also hear the conversations and the giggles of the children absolutely delighted with their excursion on their bikes, perhaps over to the ice cream shop set up about half way into the journey.

Now cars are amazing inventions for sure and I am not an anti-car guy, heck the Active Towns Midwest Tour was facilitated by my dependable Honda Element, however just imagine if you will, a life where we would only use our cars for long trips from our cities or villages to far off destinations and we would walk or bike to meet our daily needs. Well it’s a pleasant dream anyway, at least it is for me.

What’s amazing is that I did not initially plan to go to Mackinac Island, as it was not on my radar. I believe it was a destination recommended by one of my gracious Minneapolis based Strong Towns hosts Nate Hood or perhaps Jim & Faith Kumon.

While I am on the topic of hosts, I’d like to close by sending out a huge thank you to all you out there who helped me along the way with this journey by feeding me, giving me a warm shower and a place to sleep, guidance or advise and/or leading me on a tour through your community. As we say in Hawaii, Mahalo nui loa (Thank You Very Much!). In approximate order of the trip: Nate & Kelly, Jim & Faith, Dorian Grilley, Lisa Luokkala, Chuck Marohn, Justin Burslie, Brian & Jennifer Baird, Mark Rouse, Randy Neufeld, Robert (Fireman Rob) Verhelst and Nicole Quint Maly. I hope I didn’t forget anybody…

That’s all for now folks… now get out there and be Active!

Please feel free to give us your comments and/or suggestions for emerging and established Active Towns on our websiteFacebook page or by email to: info@activetowns.org

Also, we could use some help financially, so if you’d like to help us directly in our efforts to facilitate healthier communities across the country, please make a tax deductible donation. Click here to donate.

Thank you for helping create and support Active Towns everywhere!


John D Simmerman, MS
Co-Founder, President & CEO
Advocates for Healthy Communities, Inc.
Actives Towns Initiative