How a “community of joyful cyclists” helped me become a walkability advocate

Laura Groenjes Mitchell, local walkability advocate, cycling on a bike path with children

By Laura Groenjes Mitchell

In March 2014 I got a new job in downtown Denver, about 5 miles from my home. I had a hybrid schedule and on the days I was required to work from the office, parking cost $10-$20/day (depending on how far I was willing to walk to the office after parking). It seemed really wasteful to spend so much money to store my car nearby while I worked when I could be spending that money on lunch from a nearby restaurant (or on other, more fiscally responsible choices). This had me thinking about alternative options. I tried out public transportation. Taking the light rail was much cheaper, but with a 10-15 min walk on both ends plus the light rail ride, it took twice as long as driving.

A month later I saw the hashtag #30daysofbiking pop up on my Twitter feed. A “community of joyful cyclists” in Minneapolis was encouraging folks worldwide to get on their bikes every day through the month of April. The website said: “Any ride, any destination, for any reason.” That sounded fun, so I started riding my bike for the challenge and following others’ posts online. A lot of people posted about their bike commutes, which had me wondering for the first time in my life: what if I tried riding my bike to work? Over the weeks and months that followed, I learned about the immense benefits and challenges of riding a bike as transportation. All of my previous riding had been for recreation or exercise, so it was easy to choose paths that maximized comfort and minimized conflict with cars. But when bike commuting, I couldn’t only rely on separated paths because they wouldn’t get me to my destinations. When I faced challenges and close calls with cars while bike commuting, I mostly brushed them off. Car-centric design was so ingrained in me that I didn’t think there was anything that could be done to make our streets safer for people traveling outside cars.

Two years later I was so in love with the benefits of bike commuting, that I was determined to keep riding my bike as long as possible through my first pregnancy. When I was 6 months pregnant I had the closest call of my life on a ride to work: a driver quickly pulled out of a curbside parking spot at the exact time I was about to pass what I thought was a parked car. The driver didn’t check their mirrors or signal that they were about to move and nearly ran me over. Although I hadn’t met my baby yet, the situation scared me in a way I hadn’t experienced with similar close calls that happened before I was pregnant. I put my bike in the garage, started paying for car parking, and figured biking was just incompatible with that stage of life – too risky. Once again, I assumed nothing could be done. Once my oldest was about a year old and able to ride in a Burley trailer, I eased back into using my bike as transportation for nearby trips to the playground, park, restaurants, etc. My family also did a lot of walking while pushing a stroller, which also opened my eyes to the safety issues inherent in so much of our street design.

With the most precious cargo in tow behind me, the way I viewed the transportation infrastructure in my city changed. Rather than brushing things off and assuming nothing could be done, I knew I wanted better for my kid and I wondered what was possible. I started to do research on safe biking strategies, thinking there was some trick I hadn’t yet learned in 2 years of bike commuting that could keep us safe while biking around car traffic. This, of course, sent me down the rabbit hole of learning about infrastructure for people walking, biking, and rolling. I realized there actually is a whole lot that can be done if we have the political will and resource investment to ensure streets are for people and not just people in cars.

When my family moved to Minneapolis in 2019 we knew we wanted a liveable community – with density and infrastructure to support walking and biking as our primary transportation. We found a neighborhood just like that in South Minneapolis and our quality of life increased immensely. We’re physically healthier because movement is built into everyday activities, we’re more connected to our community because we get to interact with neighbors and friends nearly every time we leave the house, and we feel good knowing we’re doing our part to keep some emissions out of the air.

My wife and I have two kids now: they’re 7 and 5 years old and they both attend our neighborhood school and we walk or bike there year-round. Minneapolis has made major progress on infrastructure compared to a lot of U.S. cities, but the majority of our street design still prioritizes car movement and convenience above all else. This encourages higher vehicle speeds, which results in more crashes, creates more air pollution, and reduces the opportunities for kids to exercise or get connected to their community. 

In Minneapolis, 66% of the city’s severe and fatal crashes happen on just 9% of streets. My family has to cross two of these streets on our 5 block walk to school. Many of my neighbors drive their kids to school because these intersections, in particular, can feel very unsafe outside of a car. When I started the Walking College fellowship with America Walks I knew I wanted to focus my project on safe routes to school work in my neighborhood. We already have so many important pieces in place: density, good sidewalks, and a school that draws students from the immediate neighborhood (the furthest commute any student has is 1 mile).

Through the Walking College I was lucky enough to get connected to a neighbor I’d never met before, who was also participating! He lives just a few blocks away and his kids will attend the same school as mine next fall. Together we developed an action plan with the following goals:

By 2025, a higher number of students travel to and from Lyndale Community School by walking, biking, and rolling, and this travel is safe and feels safe. We plan to support families to overcome the major barriers to walking, biking, and rolling to school by:

  • Starting a walk/bike bus
  • Advocating for improved physical infrastructure around the school
  • Developing structures that systematically engage families, school staff, neighbors, and other local stakeholders to increase their awareness of, understanding of, and advocacy around active travel options.

We’re in the early stages of this work, connecting with other families and potential partners to get things off the ground, but I’m eager to see what progress we can make over the next 6 years (until our kids move on to middle school). I’m grateful to the Walking College fellowship for helping me advance my learning and advocacy work in such critical ways.

I had a full circle moment with all of this advocacy work a few weeks ago. I now serve on the board of a local nonprofit (Our Streets Minneapolis) that’s working to ensure Minneapolis is a city where biking, walking, and rolling are easy and comfortable for everyone. We had a fundraiser, which included a group ride hosted by the founder of #30daysofbiking!

Laura Groenjes Mitchell is a parent and active transportation advocate in Minneapolis, MN. She is passionate about transportation equity and environmental sustainability. Her family (wife and two young kids) loves biking and walking, for both transportation and recreation. Walking and biking with her kids has super-charged Laura’s belief that we need to put more work into ensuring our infrastructure supports the needs of people waking, biking, rolling and taking public transportation. 

Laura serves as the Board Chair at Our Streets Minneapolis and as a District 3 representative on the Hennepin County Active Transportation Committee. Professionally, Laura works as the Director of Learning & Insights at America’s Promise Alliance, where she supports nonprofit leaders who serve youth across the United States.