2006 Oberstar Forum Summary

Forum examines role of walking and Tillmannbiking in a multimodal transportation system

A diverse group of regional, national, and international officials, policymakers, and professionals joined U.S. Rep. James L. Oberstar on April 9 and 10, 2006, to explore the value of integrating non-motorized transportation into communities. This was the fifth meeting of the transportation policy and technology forum named in honor of Oberstar and hosted by the Center for Transportation Studies at the University of Minnesota.

Oberstar headlined the two-day event, which also featured Berthold Tillmann, the mayor of Münster, Germany. Though Münster, which recently received a global “Most Livable Community” award, looks like the medieval village it once was, it has a highly effective transportation network with a daily mode share of bicycling approaching 40 percent. Many other state and national leaders and advocates attended the forum. CTS director Robert Johns served as master of ceremonies.

A vision for non-motorized transportation

“The cost of congestion in the U.S. today is $68 billion dollars,” Oberstar said, laying a foundation for his argument that non-motorized options must be part of any effective multimodal transportation system. “People are spending a week longer in traffic and buying tanks of gasoline more than they would if they could drive at posted highway speeds. With growing concern over congestion, pollution, and public health, we have to promote bicycling and walking as alternatives for commuting and other utilitarian purposes.”

The portion of the event for invited leaders included a series of presentations and discussions following an introductory report on new perspectives surrounding non-motorized transportation from Parsons Brinckerhoff vice president Steve Lockwood. He asserted that even quadrupling the number of people in the United States who walk and bike to work would not measurably lessen environmental, and other, harms from motorized vehicles. Instead, Lockwood suggested the “winning hand” in promoting walking and biking as transportation modes must include a focus on quality-of-life benefits that show short-term, dramatic payoffs.

Additionally, University of Minnesota researchers presented findings from their recent Twin Cities biking and walking studies. “The statistics are spotty and the literature is heavily populated with advocacy, which means we don’t know a lot about bicycling,” explained Humphrey School of Public Affairs assistant professor Kevin Krizek. “We do know that there are many reasons people do not cycle, and the built environment is just one. The bottom line is that personal preferences, lifestyles, and attitudes trump all else.”

Metropolitan Design Center professor and director Ann Forsyth discussed “walkable” environments and offered ideas for enticing people to walk more. Until recently, she explained, it was thought that environmental change—building sidewalks for example—was the way to get people walking. “There are good things about walkable environments psychologically,” she said, “but better solutions revolve around policy changes such as increased fuel taxes and parking fees.”

photo of panelists

Panelists (from left) Kevin Krizek and Ann Forsyth, both University of Minnesota professors, discuss research related to non-motorized transportation.

Making non-motorized transportation a higher public priority

Attendees scrutinized various aspects of non-motorized transportation during a facilitated conversation. Dialog centered around the benefits of investments in non-motorized transportation, the challenges for making non-motorized transportation a higher priority in planning and development, and the short- and long-term implications for public policy and programs.

During the discussion, many participants agreed that one of the main benefits non-motorized transportation provides is an enhanced quality of life. “Some people say the bike will not transform the world,” said Steve Clark, program manager with Transit for Livable Communities in St. Paul, Minnesota. “But I know it has transformed me, and it can make us all healthier and more productive.”

“If people have accessibility to trails or walkable streets, they get out and walk more,” added Richard Thomas, director of government relations with Ames Construction. “I now live in a walkable community, and I’ve met more people in a year than I did living 10 years in my last community.”

Steve Elkins, Bloomington, Minnesota, city council member, noted a stronger sense of community in areas of the United States where the environment is conducive to walking and gathering. “In these places,” he said, “I see both planned and spontaneous interaction of neighbors.”

In addition, Bob Works, with the Mn/DOT transit office, observed that people are hungry for a way to make a contribution. “When we bike, walk, or ride the bus, we are no longer part of the congestion problem—we are part of the solution.”

While she agreed that investing in non-motorized transportation is important from a public health standpoint, Marcia Marcoux, member of the Rochester city council and the National League of Cities board of directors, felt that using this point as a “sales pitch to the public” may not work because the benefits will not be immediately apparent. “It’s an easier sell when benefits are seen right away, ” she said.

University of Minnesota civil engineering associate professor David Levinson cited another reason many people are not walking or biking. “Some people,” he said, “have complex lives and need to get far distances, say from a job site to a daycare provider. These complexities create barriers to biking and walking that we need to think about.”

Humphrey School assistant professor Carissa Schively suggested one way to address these challenges is through a comprehensive planning process. “It’s not just about getting things in the plan,” she said, “ but assisting communities and showing them what tools are available to help them accomplish short-term and long-term goals.”

Larry Blackstad, Hennepin County administrative manager, agreed and added that coordination in the planning process is also important. “It doesn’t make much sense to build trails if they don’t connect,” he said.

Not surprisingly, several participants brought up the issue of scarce resources as a barrier to advancing non-motorized transportation. Mary Hill Smith, Metropolitan Council district three member, explained that officials, already challenged to find dollars for transportation in general, find it especially difficult to justify dollars for trails and paths used by less than 5 percent of the population.

Adding to that, retired Minnesota state senator Carol Flynn noted two recent, high-profile murders in Minneapolis focused discussion on the challenge of paying for bike trails when there is a need to pay for more police officers.

University applied economics associate professor Jerry Fruin offered that perhaps the best way to move non-motorized transportation higher up the priority list is to “increase fuel taxes and parking fees, and let economics take its course.”

Keith Laughlin, president of the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy, agreed with other participants that partnerships will play an important role in overcoming many of the challenges. “Looking at biking and walking only is too narrow,” he said. “We need to connect people and places with sidewalks, bike lanes, off-road trails, and with transit, and give people the option of mobility without the automobile.”

In the spirit of partnership, Mary Vogel, University of Minnesota landscape architecture senior research fellow, suggested looking at pressure points in local communities to see how biking and walking can be linked to solve some of a community’s challenges.

While most participants also agreed that change of any kind often takes time, Lee Munnich, senior fellow and director of the State and Local Policy Program at the Humphrey School, reminded participants to think back 10 years ago to where the Twin Cities was with regard to transit, light rail, congestion pricing, toll lanes, and similar projects. “All of these initiatives took a lot of time and work, but they happened,” he said. “It really comes down to local leadership, along with entrepreneurship and innovative ideas, to make these sorts of projects a reality.”

Finally, Ann Canby, president of the Surface Transportation Policy Project, pointed out the passion that people in the biking and walking world bring to the dialog. “If we want a more complete transportation system,” she concluded, “we all need to have that passion.”

Oberstar looks to Münster

During the public portion of the forum, Oberstar offered his vision of the possibilities and promise non-motorized transportation brings communities across the United States. “American cities are experiencing tremendous growth and face enormous challenges,” he said. “The greatest of these challenges is livability: today’s transportation congestion is making cities unbearable, if not unlivable.”

“Non-motorized opportunities do not exist separately from other transportation options,” Oberstar continued. “They are integral to an overall mobility system. Imagine a future in which most Americans live within a sensibly designed seamless network of sidewalks, trails, on-the-road bicycle facilities, and transit and rail that provides access to the majority of day-to-day destinations."

In his speech, Congressman Oberstar also expressed a hope to help mitigate numerous societal problems by changing the habits of an entire generation, and he challenged all to make this the bicycling century. “Imagine, and take action to fulfill this vision in your community,” he urged. “We must unravel past inadequacies and policy misjudgments to plan and implement change. To do this, we have to change attitudes. The goal of this forum is not to document the dreary statistics on biking and walking, but rather to inspire us to become agents of change.”

Next, Mayor Tillmann provided a video presentation followed by discussion on the many ways Münster efficiently mobilizes approximately 300,000 people each day. “What motivates the citizens of Münster to get on their bicycles as often as possible,” he said, “is that we ensure bicyclists can travel safely, conveniently, quickly, and systematically.”

He described many of the city’s bike-friendly features, including separate bicycle traffic signals, head starts for bicyclists at intersections where motor vehicles and bicyclist share the road, bicycle- and pedestrian-only promenades, and ordinances requiring bike parking facilities in all new home, business, and other real estate developments.

“Everybody rides a bike in Münster,” Tillmann explained, “but we don’t ride our bikes because of convenience, but rather out of conviction. This is partially why Münster is such a livable community and a nice place to call home.”

Photo of Lea Schuster, Darwin Hindman, Shannon Haydin, and Steve Kinsey

Panelists (from left) Lea Schuster, Darwin Hindman, Shannon Haydin, and Steve Kinsey discuss the impact on their communities of a four-year pilot study funded by SAFETEA-LU in July 2005.

Pilot study communities

Representatives from the four non-motorized transportation pilot program communities were on hand to discuss the key elements of their respective programs. The four-year pilot study is part of the Safe, Accountable, Flexible, Efficient Transportation Equity Act: A Legacy for Users (SAFETEA-LU) legislation passed by Congress in July 2005.

Lea Schuster, executive director of Transit for Livable Communities, said a key challenge for the Twin Cities’ program is determining the best way to show results for such a large geographical area over a short time. “We want to target those places connected to transit stops and schools and work to increase biking and walking mode share in these places,” she explained. “We will also identify the policy changes required to help keep the program sustainable after the four test years.”

Darwin Hindman, mayor of Columbia, Missouri, said that the city will “beef up” some of its past and current initiatives to make biking and walking accessible and get citizens interested. He described their Cycle Recycle program involving prison inmates refurbishing bikes for free distribution to lower income, minority, and immigrant populations. In addition, the city is hiring a full-time project manager and a consultant to shepherd the project. “In the end,” he said, “we hope to become the ‘Münster of Missouri.’”

Shannon Haydin, planning director for Sheboygan County, Wisconsin, pointed out that the economy of the area, once heavily industrialized, is shifting to tourism. “We cannot accommodate all the people who may want to visit our area by car. Through the pilot program, we will focus on ways tourists can take advantage of our amenities by walking or biking,” she said. “We also want to show the public and elected officials that having biking and walking facilities is not a want; it is a need, especially for citizens who do not have access to cars or other transportation systems.”

Steve Kinsey, a supervisor on the Marin County, California, board of supervisors, said that for the past 15 years, Marin County has been committed to pedestrians and bicyclists. “We have adopted bike and pedestrian master plans that will be the nucleus of ideas for our pilot program,” he continued. “We will build on past successes, focusing investments on existing programs as well as infrastructure improvements that increase mode share, including access to transit to facilitate people who want to bike. We also intend to leverage these [pilot program] dollars with other funds to make them go further.”

Research implications

Participants then heard from Krizek and Forsyth, along with Billy Fields, director of research with the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy, regarding research implications for non-motorized transportation and needs relating to the four pilot programs.

Fields pointed out that the overarching research challenge of the pilot study is scale. “One of the goals of the program is to increase non-motorized transportation use. To do this, we can’t just look from above—we have to zoom in to micro areas in order to see the changes.” Another real difficulty, he added, is the short timeframe. “In the next four years, we have to build the facilities, show the results, and report them to Congress.”

Forsyth stressed the importance of incorporating walking into their pilot evaluations. “If [a community] builds a biking environment, that doesn’t automatically mean it’s good for walking,” she said. “There’s not currently much research on anything other than walking for leisure. But, there are a lot of people who walk for leisure and for transportation to get to work or school or to run errands.”

Krizek suggested more people need to see what’s going on in Europe, and then spread those ideas at home. Oberstar agreed, proposing that the leaders of the pilot programs travel to Münster and to other European cities for inspiration to do the same things in their own communities. “What we are dealing with,” Krizek explained, “is a change of culture.”

Oberstar then reiterated in his closing remarks his hope that we will change attitudes and lifestyles. “Although not every U.S. city will be a ‘Münster,’ there is much for all of us to learn from that city. Already we are seeing a shift in attitudes, and the four pilot communities will provide the strong leadership for continued change as they show other cities how enhanced non-motorized facilities improve the overall quality and livability of their communities.”

A detailed report summarizing this year’s forum (920 KB PDF) is available on this Web site. More information about the James L. Oberstar Forum for Transportation Policy and Technology is available on the Oberstar Forum homepage.