It was close to 10:30 on a Friday night when cyclist Allison Thoele’s regular ride home turned ugly.
As she headed north on the paved trail that parallels the Hiawatha Avenue light-rail line, Thoele, 28, spied three shadowy figures lurking up ahead.
She briefly considered turning around, but – weary from a long day at work at the VA hospital and wanting to get back to her home in Northeast – she opted to employ a tactic used by many other cyclists facing would-be attackers. She rose high off her saddle, cranked up her speed and kept barreling down the trail.
But this time, it was the wrong decision.
The men jumped out of the bushes and wrenched her off her bike; her helmet cracked as she slammed onto the pavement. They pepper sprayed her in the face, and as she lay writhing on the trail, they demanded her money.
Hundreds of feet to the west, Hiawatha Avenue buzzed with the sound of cars moving too fast for their drivers to notice the trouble on the dark trail; to the east, desolate industrial buildings offered no help.
Luckily, the attackers gave up after Thoele insisted she had no money and started hollering for help. They left her on the ground, blinded and “blubbering,” but not further hurt.
“I yelled and I screamed, and another biker came along and called the police for me,” she said.
(Full disclosure: Thoele is a friend of the author.)
Thoele’s attack, which happened in late September, has prompted her and others from the Twin Cities cycling community to reconsider the safety conditions along this north-south stretch of trail that connects the Midtown Greenway with downtown. The trail in question, which is owned by the Metropolitan Council, starts at approximately East 28th Street and ends at 11th Avenue, just southeast of the MetroDome. Compared to the Midtown Greenway, its more prominent east-west counterpart, the so-called LRT or Hiawatha trail is short: It measures less than two miles in length.
Although cyclists say the whole trail needs safety improvements, two particular sections of it give them pause. One, the spot in which Thoele was attacked, is between east 28th and 24th streets. Further north, a second problem area lies between the Cedar Riverside train station and the trail’s end.
Advocates for hasty trail improvements say these sections, which are bordered by brush or industrial buildings, turn into danger zones after dark.
“It’s pretty creepy,” Robin Garwood, policy aide to Ward 2 Minneapolis City Councilor Cam Gordon, said. “It’s just ripe for ambush.”
But Bob Gibbons, director of customer services and public relations for Metro Transit, an arm of the Met Council that oversees the light-rail line, argued the trail conditions aren’t so bad.
Trains frequently pass by, their headlights illuminating the trail and their operators serving as “eyes” that could spot any trouble along it, he said. There’s also a transit police station just off the route, so if a train operator were to notice and report suspicious activity along the trail, transit officers would be close to the scene, he said. (Gibbons said he did not know, however, if a Metro Transit train operator has ever done so.)
While there may be no lights on the trail proper, there are plenty of “ambient” lighting sources that provide some trail illumination, he said. Gibbons cited as examples the intersection lights at 26th Street and Hiawatha Avenue, the lights from the Franklin Avenue and Cedar/Riverside rail stations, and those coming from the bars north of the Franklin Avenue station, like the Cabooze.
All these elements add up to the trail not being as remote as some make it out to be, Gibbons said.
“It’s not like you’re in the Boundary Waters, that’s for sure,” Gibbons said.
Unlike the Greenway, the trail in question doesn’t have a formal, easily recognizable name. Depending on which cyclist is talking, it’s referred to as the LRT trail, or the Hiawatha trail, or as some combination of the two.
Or, in the case of some outside the cycling community – such as crime-prevention specialist Shun Tillman of the Minneapolis Police Department’s Third Precinct – it’s simply lumped in with the Greenway, and lacks a distinct name identity of its own.
One thing’s for certain, though: whatever it’s called, cyclists are using this trail. According to figures presented in the Capital Long-range Improvement Committee’s annual report, an average of nearly 800 riders were counted cruising down the path during daytime hours. This makes the path the sixteenth-most traveled in the city when compared to other paths monitored in the count.
While the bikers have been counted, quantifying the number of attacks that have happened along the stretch is more difficult, Tillman said.
When the Greenway’s 911 call boxes were installed, it was given a street address and corresponding coordinates, so emergency responders would know just where to go when an incident was reported. But the LRT trail hasn’t been given these call boxes or a distinct street address, Tillman said.
This can make it difficult for first responders to find an incident scene, as well as for law-enforcement agencies wanting to track problems along the stretch, Tillman said.
The Greenway is owned by Hennepin County and is maintained by the city. Its better safety infrastructure, when compared to the LRT trail, is because trail investments were made after several people were attacked along the Greenway last year, Tillman said.
Tillman was quick to mention the positive results seen from the citizen efforts of the Midtown Greenway Coalition, which has implemented nightly volunteer safety patrols along the Greenway and LRT trail.
But on a bureaucratic level, there’s yet to be the same level of effort put toward recognizing the LRT trail as a distinct place like the Greenway.
“It’s probably going to have to be a group effort,” Tillman said, “… to put everyone on the same ship.”
The Daily Planet had little success when it put in a formal request to the Minneapolis Police Department for crime statistics along the trail.
“I have heard back from the analyst section that the material is in the queue to be pulled, but they cannot tell me when they will get to it due to higher priority law enforcement issues,” Public Information Officer Sgt. William Palmer said in an email.
The Capital Long-range Improvement Committee was also unsuccessful in finding the data for its annual report, which establishes the city’s capital-improvement priorities for the next five years.
“Public Works was unable to obtain current crime statistics for CLIC, but there have been several well-publicized attacks,” the July report said. “Typical is the case of a Seward resident, who was knocked off his bicycle, beaten and robbed in a dark area of the trail near 24th Street last July. The attackers were able to see him coming and ambush him because of his headlight, a safety precaution for all responsible cyclists.”
Bike-shop chatter and forum conversations found on Web sites such as Minneapolis Bike Love also suggest cyclists have good reason to be wary of traveling the stretch.
Reached through Bike Love, Dale Hammerschmidt, a commuter cyclist for nearly 47 years, recalled how he was assaulted on the trail in July 2007. Riding north toward the Franklin Avenue station, Hammerschmidt ran into four young men blocking the trail.
“The leftmost guy turned and punched me hard, with a closed fist, at the front of the right shoulder; a second blow to the head glanced off my helmet,” Hammerschmidt, an associate professor of medicine at the University of Minnesota, said in an e-mail.
Hammerschmidt was able to make his way through the men and emerged mostly unharmed.
But the unprovoked attack, he said, was “was enough to strain a guy’s pacifist ethic.”
Red-tape obstacles to change
Stories such as these prompted CLIC to plan, in its annual report, for a $1.5 million light installation project along the trail. CLIC ranked the project in the top third of all of those needed across the city in the coming five years.
Right now, the project is slated for completion in 2013, a date deemed reasonable by the Department of Public Works. According to Don Pflaum, a Public Works transportation planner, it will take that long to put in place the funding, plans, contractors and permissions from the Met Council.
But, in the comments section of its report, CLIC strongly recommends the project’s completion date be pushed ahead for next spring.
Pflaum called that “extremely aggressive.”
“I can tell you it’s unrealistic,” he said. “2011 is the best-case scenario, and that’s if all the chips fall into place.”
From his office in Minneapolis City Hall, Ward 2 City Councilor Cam Gordon said he’d like the project to happen sooner than 2013.
“We want the base level of the (trail to) be of the same quality of the Midtown Greenway, because it’s not even there yet,” he said.
Gordon questioned whether the Met Council shouldn’t be improving its own trail.
“It’s great that when they put in the (rail) line, the Met Council put in a bike path,” he said. “That’s fabulous. But it’s too bad they didn’t put in sort of a finished, more useful bike path.”
The city is stepping up, Gordon said, because trail-specific improvements aren’t on the Met Council’s immediate horizon.
The Met Council plans to build a “light-rail support building” off the trail near east 24th and 26th streets, Gibbons said.
He said lighting planned for the building will have the secondary effect of illuminating that area of the trail, where Thoele was attacked.
That project is “fully funded,” he said, and will be completed by early 2011 at the latest.
Gibbons said the Met Council would welcome trail improvements from the city, and suggested it was the city’s responsibility to do so in the first place.
“We think that’s a terrific idea,” Gibbons said. “We’re in the public transportation business and primarily we operate buses and trains.
“We don’t anywhere else in the region own a bike path,” he continued. “But in the cities in which bike paths are developed, either the cities or the counties typically are responsible for the maintenance and the safety of those public facilities.”
Biking around the problem
In the meantime, cyclists like Katie Meyer adapt.
Meyer, 39, takes the LRT trail every day as part of her commute to work. On a recent Wednesday, just before dusk, she made haste to get home. She schedules her commute, she said, so she’s not out alone on the LRT trail after dark.
“Luckily, I have a very flexible work schedule, so I think I can travel on here when it’s light out,” Meyer said. “But in the winter, when there are only a few people out biking, it could be a problem.”
Gabriel Hoffman, chair of the Midtown Greenway Coalition Safety Committee, said some cyclists choose to “ride dark” – that is, without any front light – if they’re caught on a sketchy stretch of trail after nightfall. This tactic allows some cyclists to pass by would-be attackers unmolested, but it can lead to other collisions.
Tim Bekke, 24, works at the Hub Bike Collective and uses the LRT trail to get to work. Compared to Meyer, Bekke was less concerned about the trail’s safety conditions after dark. He takes the trail at night, and he sometimes rides dark to escape notice.
“There were a couple of close calls – like branches in the trail – but it’s totally doable,” he said. “But (trail) lights would be nice.”
As for Allison Thoele, she has become more cautious about her commute. If she’s not going to get off work until late, she will drive instead of bike.
But she wishes she didn’t have to.
“It really goes against our city’s goal to encourage people to bike more and to use our city’s resources already put into place to drive less,” she said.
To Thoele, 2013 seems like a long time to wait for lights, especially in a city recently noted for having the second-highest percentage of bicycle commuters in the country.
“I think it’s ridiculous that it’s going to take that long – because I know I’m not the only person to have had an incident along there,” she said.
“The next person to have a problem may not fare as well as me, and it seems like the city and the Met Council are really dragging their feet,” she added. “Someone could get killed.”