John Metcalfe was CityLab’s Bay Area bureau chief, covering climate change and the science of cities.
The Midtown Greenway has been the site of many high-profile attacks on cyclists.
Drew Ditlefsen was pedaling his Long Haul Trucker cycle Wednesday on Minneapolis' Midtown Greenway when he heard a crash of breaking glass. That was followed by a fwoooosh! and the trail behind him was suddenly lit up with fire.
"At that point I was kind of heading away as quickly as I could," says Ditlefsen, a 27-year-old delivery man for Peace Coffee. "I had the chance to look back, and there were flames a few feet high across the pathway."
The cyclist glimpsed people huddled on a bridge on 15th Avenue that he had just ridden under. It wasn't hard to put two and two together: In past trips through the Greenway, Ditlefsen has had many things lobbed at him from bridges. It's been mainly sticks and bottles, although he has a friend who claims somebody tried to drop a shopping cart on her. The Molotov cocktail was a new experience, and one that baffled him.
"It was crazy because it was at one in the afternoon," he says, wondering "who has the time in the middle of a Wednesday" to construct an incendiary device favored by Finnish freedom fighters. "It's a pretty random time. Most people are working or doing other things with their lives."
The police are now investigating the Molotov bomb, which landed within feet of Ditlefsen judging by the way he reeked of petro-fuel afterward. But it's only the latest in a string of attacks on cyclists on the Greenway, an otherwise pleasant 5.5 mile trail for bikers and joggers sited along an old railroad track in south Minneapolis. Wanderers of the scenic byway have been punched, dragged screaming into the woods, had rocks thrown at them, basically everything except set on fire (and it seems the bad guys are working on that).
It's not clear if the path is any more dangerous than the city streets. Out of 1.5 million bike trips per year on the Greenway, there are fewer than five assaults on bikers, according to the Midtown Greenway Coalition. The trails are monitored by volunteer patrols and sometimes Minneapolis police in squad cars (some of whom, unfortunately, are yelled at by bikers to get off the trail). The coalition is also pressing the city for additional safety measures, like better lights and more security cameras, and has offered to subsidize Krav Maga classes to bicyclists who want to learn self-defense.
But the public perception right now is that it most certainly is more hazardous, a point driven home by media coverage of each violent incident that goes down. (Including this story!) The message boards at Minneapolis Bike Love are crawling with tales of "Greenway Attacks," with one person who claimed to have "witnessed and stopped a brutal attack first-hand" venting:
That said, it has not put me off the Greenway at all. In fact, I scan for lurkers, call the cops when I see suspicious behaviour, and (not very seriously) wish for another opportunity where I could actually catch one of the f------ a------- who use the trail as their own personal sport fishing pond. I fantasize about locking one to a pole with my Ulock for the cops to find. Again, I am not actually inviting it, but after seeing what they did to my new friend from last year, I yearn for some payback.
That's a pretty typical statement of people who love the Greenway: Bad stuff has happened, but I'll still ride it. It's no different with Ditlefsen, who made several more trips on the trail the very same day someone tried to burn him. He just remains extra vigilant when riding from Bloomington Avenue to 15th Avenue, where all the attacks on his person have occurred. The canyon-like area, with high walls and few exits, seems to attract people who like to ambush bikers from overpasses.
"It seems that in that little region," he says, "things happen."
Below, find a few of the things that have happened on the Midtown Greenway:
2007: A cyclist crouches in fear beneath a bridge as people above reenact that scene in The Wire where an apartment tower tosses everything but the kitchen sink out the window. Reported CBS: "Patrick Kane remembers the night in 2007 when he had to hide under a bridge and wait for help. 'Stuff was coming over the edge, flower pots, rocks and trees and bottles,' he said. He said one biker tried to go through and got hit by a rock."
2008: A biker is kicked and punched by three "older teenagers" for about 10 minutes. "When they left they took my maroon 62cm Surly Steamroller bicycle and went south on 30th Ave," the victim writes. "I had my helmet on the entire time and it proved to be very helpful in protecting my head during the attack."
2009: A Bike Love forum member writes: "Seven or eight kids(?) ran down the banks of the greenway tonight from both sides. Incident occured just east of 28th Ave around 5:15pm. They were really loud and jumping around the center of the greenway. I took the (conviently placed) 28th ave exit ramp about a block before the kids, and tried to yell to the guy behind me. He didn't hear and continued. From the overpass bridge, I saw him first chased by the kids, then knocked off his bike. I was so freaked out, I got the hell out of there while calling the cops."
2009: A man assaulted by a pair of teens named Jackson and Whirlwind Horse strikes back with a knife, killing one of them.
November 2011: "Rider had rocks thrown at him; cleaned up a pumpkin that had also been dropped onto the trail." And, "Solo rider passed three young men on the trail; one of the young men threw a brick at the rider that hit the rear bike tire." And, "Two riders were hit by rocks. A group of four (roughly) 11-year-old kids threw the rocks from the overlook on the north side of the trail." (Via)
January 2012: One of two men pushes a cyclist off her bike. “The other guy came up from behind me and wrapped my scarf around my face and then they just starting hitting me a bunch,” she told CBS. They dragged her into the woods to "knock me out, rape me, kill me or something,” but fortunately a passing Good Samaritan chased them off.
June 2012: Writes Jeremy Iggers at the Twin Cities Daily Planet: "Monday morning shortly before 9 a.m., riding to work on the Greenway, I found the road partly blocked at 14th Avenue by half a dozen kids – some teens, some probably younger – standing in the middle of the road. I said something like, 'hey, you can't block the road' as I went around them, and then one kid threw a rock at me, hitting me in the upper body. I stopped a few yards ahead, not sure what to do. Just then, another biker coming from the opposite direction was hit by a rock. He dismounted and started to confront the group. One of the bigger boys started throwing punches. The biker at first stood his ground, but when he got hit hard in the face, and more kids started to surround him, he retreated. He ran to me, and asked me to call 911, which I did. He said one of the kids had stolen his iPod."
Sometime in 2012: Writes a woman on the Greenway coalition's Facebook page: "Last year, an empty glass bottle came hurling onto the Greenway from a bridge (don't recall the exact one). Missed my bike trailer with child by mere inches. That was scary, but could have been someone just randomly chucking garbage like they do everywhere.” She then wonders how to get these object-hurlers from calming down: “Mandatory common sense implants for everyone? Seriously, though...”