Skating the city: A view from high atop small wheels

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I must be a fan of small wheels. You may have seen me riding around on my little green folding bike, and I also have even smaller wheels: eight of them, to be exact, in the form of inline skates. For all the great things we can say about bicycling, in most cases you can’t park your bike securely and it can be a hassle to carry it with you on the bus. Skates and particularly longboards (skateboards designed to go fast) solve these problems, and more people are using them to get around. A bike-friendly city should at least theoretically be skate-friendly.

However, skating is an often misunderstood mode of transportation. In most places it is still treated as a play sport, banned from streets and public spaces — just as bicycling is arbitrarily prohibited in many public spaces — and generally viewed with contempt. The cultural view that skates are still toys causes drivers to give skaters little respect, most businesses to deny us entry, and security guards to completely lose their minds. While Minneapolis has an ordinance explicitly permitting “prudent and careful” skating, it arbitrarily prohibits skating on Nicollet Mall (possibly the safest place to skate downtown), and the University of Minnesota both restricts inline skaters to sidewalks (dangerous) and completely prohibits skateboarding. That’s especially problematic at a university where a growing number of students ride a longboards to class.

Skaters should usually act like bicyclists and handle challenges in similar ways. A standard five-foot bike lane should be considered the bare minimum for safe skating but is completely useless if it’s full of cracks or partly in the “door zone” next to parked cars. Unlike bikes, skaters need to occupy 4-5 feet while traveling, and taking the lane is common in case a sudden lateral move is necessary. Like biking, it would be easier and less stressful if other road users understood my actions: no, I’m not being a jerk; I’m crossing some train tracks at a 90-degree angle and will I’ll let you pass as soon as it’s safe.

Pavement quality is much more important than for bicycling: potholes, cracks, sewers, rough roads, tree branches and debris have a nice way of bringing your face in close to them. A certain skill level is required to step over railroad tracks and metal expander joints (on bridges) without getting your wheels caught. Someday I’ll learn to drive a skateboard so I can easily board buses, and more importantly, bail before getting hit by a train …

Bicyclists have fought long and hard to be considered seriously in street design decisions, but skaters are usually ignored. It’s often the simple things — unpaved paths, dirt, rocks, bricks, the surface of the Stone Arch Bridge and that awful wood boardwalk nearby — that cause the most trouble. And whoever thought it would be a good idea to put loose gravel all over Seward and Riverside … please extend them an offer to join me on some small wheels.