The citys cycling Czar

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March 9, 2012
By: Drew Kerr
Drew Kerr

Shaun Murphy talks about his new role as the city's bicycling and pedestrian coordinator

Shaun Murphy has combated invasive species, worked on an organic farm in Iowa and spent time as a substitute teacher.

His new job: helping Minneapolis build on its reputation as one of the country’s top havens for bicyclists.

An Iowa native with a degree in elementary education, Murphy acknowledges he took a circuitous route to becoming the city’s bicycling and pedestrian coordinator, a position city officials created last year and that he took just two months ago.

But it’s a role he says he is eager to fulfill.

“It’s something I feel really passionate about,” Murphy said in a recent interview at the city’s Department of Public Works offices. “I’m one of those people who always wanted to improve their community and see government work better. This is a chance to do that.”

A year-round biker who pedals four miles each direction to work on a rusted mountain bike, Murphy takes the lead at what biking advocates call a crucial moment for the city’s biking and pedestrian communities.

After years of momentum building, Minneapolis is reaching the end of a five-year, $10 million federal pilot program designed to improve the city’s biking and pedestrian infrastructure.

The infusion helped the city grow the number of onstreet bikeways by 40 percent between 2010 and 2011, and showed an immediate impact.

A city-commissioned report released in January showed a 25 percent increase in the number of bikers between 2010 and 2011. The number of bikers on Minneapolis streets is up 47 percent from 2007, and the hopes to see a 60 percent jump between 2007 and 2014.

Bicycling advocates say continuing what’s been started in the absence of federal funding will be among Murphy’s biggest challenges.

“This [post-federal grant] transition is going to be essential,” said Ethan Fawley, the president of the Minneapolis Bicycle Coalition. “The question is will we stick with this commitment when this money goes away and I think all the evidence shows that we should.”

Murphy, 34, said he recognizes that he is entering a resource-challenged environment. But he and his supporters say the obstacle can be overcome by incorporating plans for bikers and pedestrians at the beginning of a project, rather than trying to add it in at the end.

Not everything has to have a large cost, either. Adding bikeways or crosswalks when a road is repaved, or making policy changes, are both seen as ways to improve accommodations for bikers and pedestrians with relatively little expense.

“Because so many people are interested in taking trips by bike or by foot, the question becomes, ‘How do you integrate them in a way that doesn’t bust budgets?’” Murphy said.

For biking and pedestrian advocates, having someone with that kind of focus provides comfort and hope that long-term plans will become more of a day-to-day focus.

“If you don’t have someone overseeing the big picture it’s going to be really hard to get ahead,” said Nick Mason, the chair of the Minneapolis Bicycle Advisory Committee.

Not everything has to do with paint and asphalt, however. Murphy said he also wants to improve the dialogue between bikers, pedestrians and motorists, so that each group respects each other’s right to be on the road.

He also wants to work the city’s Pedestrian Advisory Committee to bring their issues to the forefront. The committee’s goals include improving sidewalk snow clearance and investigating crosswalk marking practices and pedestrian-related traffic crash trends.

Figures for 2011 are not complete, but city officials say there were 244 pedestrian-vehicle crashes and 273 bicycle-vehicle crashes in 2010. Four of those crashes resulted in fatalities.  

And while those numbers have improved — there were 298 bicyclist-motorist crashes in 1993, with fewer than half the number of bicyclists on the road — Murphy said there is still tension between bikers and cars that needs to be addressed.

“There’s an impression that things are getting worse, and they’re not,” he said. “But we still get complaints from motorists that it’s a major issue that we need to work on if we’re going to keep the conversation positive.”

Education will play a key role in improving dialogue and safety, but Murphy said enforcement will also have to be amplified.

“If we’re just giving people information all the time and never enforcing it, then what’s the point?” Murphy said.

Given the lull in new construction activity, Murphy said this could prove an important year to assess what has been done and whether or not it is working, too.

The city has seen some failures in the past, such as the bike lanes on Hennepin Avenue that were scrapped in 2009. Learning from experiences like that will be important as officials look at ways to incorporate bikers on other high-traffic corridors such as Washington and Central avenues, Murphy said.

“We need to take the coming year to do a lot of evaluation and ask ourselves how these new things are performing,” he said.

There are still some big projects on the docket this year, however.

Bicycle boulevards — low-traffic corridors tailored to bicyclists — are planned for 17th Avenue South, 12th Avenue South and Emerson Avenue North. Two long-planned projects — a new trail linking the University of Minnesota campus to downtown Minneapolis and the addition of bicycle lanes linking North Minneapolis to downtown — are also in the works.

Bicycling advocates say such efforts are steps in the right direction, but that the city still has a long way to go to improve onstreet access for bicyclists, and help less serious riders feel more comfortable riding alongside vehicles.

One hope is that the city will embrace bikeways that are separated from moving traffic, like the one that exists on First Avenue. Such setups are more common abroad.

“We have this wonderful bike culture, but if it’s not inclusive of families, a mother and her children, then we’re not doing everything to we can to make it accessible to everyone,” said Mason, the Bike Advisory Committee chair.

Murphy acknowledged the city still has a long way to go to make sure everyone feels safe riding their bikes in the city. But he is also practical, and says his immediate focus is on making improvements wherever and whenever practical.     

“If you put us up against most European cities it’s not even a comparison,” Murphy said. “Getting there will probably take 30 years, but that doesn’t mean you can’t mimic some of those things right now.”

Reach Drew Kerr at drewbkerr@gmail.com.