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Congressman James Oberstar and Berthold Tillmann

Minnesota Congressman James Oberstar (left) and Berthold Tillmann, mayor of Munster, Germany, pose before a bike ride on the Twin Cities campus.

A drive for more biking and walking options

2006 Oberstar Forum addresses the role of non-motorized modes of transportation

By Rick Moore

April 11, 2006

In the town of Munster, Germany, more than 35 percent of daily travel is by bicycle, and if you tack on walking and mass transit that share becomes about 60 percent. There are about 300,000 residents in the city, who between them make about 370,000 bicycle trips daily, aided by clearly marked bike lanes and streets and intersections that often give an advantage to bicycles, rather than automobiles. Its bike-friendliness is one reason why Munster was named the Most Livable City in the World in 2004.

Granted, the Twin Cities metro area--with its significant sprawl--shares few similarities with 1,200-year-old Munster, and Minnesota hardly resembles Germany, but examining ways to embrace non-motorized modes of transportation was the focus of Monday's James L. Oberstar Forum on Transportation Policy and Technology, titled "Transportation Choices: The Important Role of Walking and Biking."

The fifth annual forum was sponsored by the U's Center for Transportation Studies and bears the name of the Congressman from Minnesota's 8th District, who has served since 1975 and is the longest tenured Minnesotan in Congress and the highest-ranking Democrat on the Committee on Transportation Infrastructure.

Oberstar has been a longtime leader in developing national transportation policy, and believes strongly in the importance of expanding non-motorized modes of transportation.

Schuster said that it's up to the public to create the political will for investing in bicycling and walking. "To have the highest level of cultural shift, you need to have the highest level of public involvement."

He pointed out in the opening session that while transportation planners are trying to make travel economical, comfortable, safe, and pleasant, there is increasing pressure "to create livability."

While biking and walking can decrease the amount of congestion on roads, there is another pressing reason for Americans to step away from the automobile--the obesity epidemic. Oberstar pointed out some of the grim and growing statistics: 36 percent of Americans are obese; about 300,000 people die each year from causes related to obesity; 10 percent of children are obese; and the percentages of children who walk or bike regularly are less than 10 and less than 2 percent, respectively.

Conversely, European countries with the highest levels of walking and cycling have the lowest levels of obesity, diabetes, and hypertension, Oberstar said. Four countries in particular--Germany, Belgium, Denmark, and the Netherlands--spend less than half on health-care expenditures per capita than the United States, and their citizens live up to four years longer, on average, than Americans.

Oberstar also quipped that reducing automobile traffic is a moral issue, too. "The name of the Lord is taken [in vain] more often in traffic on weekdays than it is [mentioned] in church on Sundays," he said.

"We have to provide the funding, but we [also] have to change attitudes," Oberstar added. "We have to change the habits of an entire generation and make this the bicycling century."

The forum featured a panel discussion on plans for non-motorized transportation in four U.S. communities--the Twin Cities; Sheboygan, Wisconsin; Columbia, Missouri; and Marin County in California. The four pilot sites have begun a four-year program funded through SAFETEA-LU--the transportation bill authorized by Congress last year.

A representative of each community described the concerns and climate for non-motorized transportation that each faces. Lea Schuster, executive director for St. Paul's Transit for Livable Communities, said that the Twin Cities is the most urbanized of the four sites, but is blessed by having a strong history of investment in biking infrastructure. "There is a culture here [for biking] in rain or snow," Schuster said, but generally weather is a disincentive in Minnesota. She also said that it's up to the public to create the political will for investing in bicycling and walking. "To have the highest level of cultural shift, you need to have the highest level of public involvement."

Sheboygan County is one of the top 10 counties for golf courses in the United States but is not necessarily known for its biking, according to planning director Shannon Haydin. Her goals include having tourists use bikes to explore the region, and to convince residents--half of whom have a commute of 15 minutes or less--that biking amenities should be more of a need than a want.

In Marin County, Steve Kinsey of the Board of Supervisors also wants to change public attitude toward non-motorized transportation and create strong advocacy organizations to envision what the county of 200,000 people can be as a community. Kinsey said the county is focusing on low-cost, high-return investments, and that 9 of 11 cities in the county have master plans to turn "dreams into drawings."

Columbia mayor Darwin Hindman noted that his city, which has about 95,000 residents (including about 30,000 students from the University of Missouri), has been a trailblazer before. Twenty years ago it built one of nation's first trails in a former railroad bed. While there was originally skepticism for the idea, the trail has been a huge success, which has convinced Hindman that, "If you provide people with a comfortable, safe [biking] system, they're going to go out and use it." Columbia has recruited a 35-member advisory committee and will also use a consultant to develop its own bicycling master plan. "We're hoping to become the Munster of Missouri, at least," Hindman said.

Munster's mayor Berthold Tillmann was the keynote speaker for the event, and he described some of the details behind the cultural shift in Munster that has more people getting around on foot and by bicycle than by automobile.

Munster tries to approach all development with a sense of its history. The town that began with the founding of a monastery in 793 A.D. had to be rebuilt after 90 percent of it was destroyed in World War II, Tillmann said. A 4.5-kilometer (or 3-mile) promenade encircles the center of town, and there are another 500 kilometers of bicycle lanes and paths in the city.

Berthold Tillmann
Berthold Tillmann

Many of the bike lanes are colored red and are at least two meters wide, allowing adequate room for passing. In certain bus lanes where speeds are slower, bicycles are permitted, and there are specific bicycle streets where, Tillman said, "motor vehicle traffic is permitted secondarily." Stoplights at intersections may have special signals and timing for bikers, and some intersections even have a bicycle "floodgate." In these areas, bicyclists gather en masse, and when the light turns green they get up to a 20-second head start to clear the intersection and make their turns.

In addition, there are 8,000 bike racks downtown that supplement a 3,000-bike facility beneath the central train station. As for service, Tillmann said there are 40 bicycle stores in town, and if a bike breaks down during a trip, people can phone the Leezendoc service, which dispatches a vehicle Tillmann said is "packed with replacement parts to get their bicycle back on the road."

And while cyclists do not uniformly wear helmets, Tillmann said the roads are relatively safe. Of 370,000 bike trips only 848 accidents were reported all last year, and they happen "so seldom that every accident is noticed in the papers," he said.

While Munster's may be a model to emulate, every area has its own innate challenges. Kevin Krizek, an assistant professor in the Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs, pointed that local bicycle commuters tend to be male, white, aged 18-44, and of relatively high income. Communities need to look at who chooses to use non-motorized transportation and why, and address their plans accordingly.

The 2006 Oberstar Forum drew a crowd of about 300 to the Great Hall of Coffman Memorial Union on the Twin Cities campus. Out the windows to the west stood the two-tiered Washington Avenue Bridge, whose lower level transports cars over the Mississippi River while up above, thousands more cross from the East to West Banks by bike or on foot. Even more fittingly, the forum aligned with the first breakout day of spring, when temperatures climbed to the upper 70s and bikes came out of the woodwork.

When the event ended just after 4:30 p.m., Oberstar announced his next activity, which he would share with Mayor Tillmann and some other guests--a bike ride around campus.