Hop on a bike and take a spin around Willmar this summer
Biking advocates continue to work hard to make Willmar into a safe and fun biking community. The city already offers a bike share program and miles of bike trails and lanes.
WILLMAR — For the past several years, the city of Willmar and a community full of advocates have been working hard to make the city a haven for bicyclists.
The effort has already brought success, with dedicated bike routes throughout town and a bike share program. In both 2016 and 2020, the city was designated a bronze-level Bicycle Friendly Community by the League of American Bicyclists.
The work isn't done yet. Both the city and the Willmar Bikes advocacy group continue to plan for future biking opportunities in and around the Willmar area.
"I want to try and help families and younger kids, to make it as easy as possible for them to be outside in a safe environment," said Chris Radel, a member of Willmar Bikes. "My dream is a family going biking on our routes."
Taking a spin with BikeWillmar
This biking season will mark the fourth anniversary of the BikeWillmar bike share program . Since its launch in 2019, Willmar has offered residents and visitors a fleet of 40 bikes to rent on an hourly basis. Those bikes, located at stations across the city, provide not only a recreation opportunity, but for some people access to work and other services.
"These are people who need a mode of transportation for a couple of hours," Radel said.
A bike can be rented for $1 an hour or $20 for an entire season of bike rides. Renters have to download the Koloni app on their cellphone, create an account and have a valid credit card to use the bikes. Rentals are available from 6 a.m. to 7 p.m. daily.
The bikes are located at hubs at various sites in the city, including Robbins Island, Selvig Park, Miller Park, MinnWest Technology Campus and the Glacial Lakes State Trailhead. A new hub is being added at Ridgewater College this year, bringing the total number of bike hubs up to 11. The college's welding course is making the bike rack, which will be located near the student center.
"We are excited to be partnering with Ridgewater," said Britta Diem, Willmar Community Center manager.
Over the past four seasons, BikeWillmar has grown in popularity. Last year, the bikes were rented out for 481 rides, 130 more rides than 2020. A total of 1,400 miles were traveled, the same as a trip to Boston. The average trip was about three miles, though there were a handful of longer ones.
"We've had one rental go to New London and back," Diem said.
During the off-season, the bikes are fixed up and maintained to make sure they are ready to roll once the weather warms up.
This winter, the bikes have also been installed with a new lock system, which Diem hopes will work better than the old one. It will definitely be easier for staff, who will no longer have to charge all the bikes up individually at least once a week. The new locks use removable batteries that need to be charged only once a year.
Diem said the bikes should start arriving at the hubs around the middle of May. With the new upgrades and growing word of mouth about BikeWillmar, Diem is hopeful 2022 will be the program's most successful year yet.
"People are getting a better concept each year about the program," Diem said. "Each month gets better; each year it has been better."
Bike routes with a Willmar flavor
With bikes at the ready, people need a safe place to ride.
Radel and the Willmar Bikes group helped create the newly laid out and soon to be signed map of 10 specific biking and pedestrian routes around the city , totaling around 32 miles. The first two routes — the Green Norway Pine and Brown Turkey routes — have already been completed. The next two planned for completion are the Orange Fox route from Kandiyohi County Road 5/Gorton Avenue to the MinnWest Technology Campus and the Purple People Eaters route from the trailhead of the Glacial Lakes State Trail to the YMCA.
All 10 routes will have names paying homage to either Willmar or Minnesota.
Radel said two more routes — the Pink Lady Slipper and the Yellow Stingers — might also be completed this year, depending on funding and available time from the city's Public Works crew. The advocacy group is using funding from the Statewide Health Improvement Partnership program to purchase the signage for the routes, which Public Works has helped install.
"I can't say how appreciative we are for all the work they've done," Radel said, adding the plan is to have all the routes completed by the end of 2023.
Another biking infrastructure project the city and Willmar Bikes are planning is improvements to the Glacial Lakes State Trail trailhead at the Willmar Civic Center. The idea is to construct bathroom facilities, shelter and parking at the site. The City Council approved applying for a grant from the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources to help fund the proposed project, which is still in its early stages.
"That would be so huge for that area," Diem said.
Pedaling into the future
To help come up with a plan for future biking improvements in the community, Willmar has taken part in a community workshop, created and held by the Bicycle Alliance of Minnesota (BikeMN), the Minnesota Department of Health and the Minnesota Department of Transportation.
The first half of the workshop was conducted remotely April 27, when participants learned about the 6-Es that should be considered when building a more bicycling friendly society. The 6-Es are equity, evaluation, engagement, engineering, education and encouragement. Using those guidelines will help cities create a plan that reaches the most people and communities.
"Different people have different barriers to living healthy and fulfilling lives," said Alyssa Stevenson from the Minnesota Department of Health.
An in-person session was scheduled May 12 in Willmar to allow workshop leaders time to meet with a group of city leaders and staff, biking advocates, school representatives and members of the public to help them create the next steps toward planning a bike-friendly future. A bike ride was initially included, but was canceled due to inclement weather.
"We are really fortunate we have so many involved in biking," said Pamela Vruwink, Willmar Community Education coordinator. "Everyone is working collaboratively. We have opportunities."
Following the workshops, BikeMN will condense all the ideas and thoughts shared during the two days into a report. That report will then be handed to the city and its Biking and Pedestrian subcommittee, which will decide the next steps. The overreaching goal of the workshop, Willmar Bikes and all the other biking support is to make Willmar the best biking community in the region.
"It gets people off their phones too. People are tied to their computers probably more so now than ever," Diem said. "You can't be on your phone for that 30-minute ride."
"It is an easy exercise too," Radel said. "Just about all people can do it."