Reporter's Notebook: Tom Becker Interview
The former Minneapolis assistant system director of transportation gives a historical take on bicycling infrastructure. Don't question his knowledge on this subject...he helped install the first bike lane.
-Well, it was back in the 1970s when we first started working on bike stuff. We actually did a bike line on Park and Portland. But it was on the 70s and it was ill conceived. It wasn’t done with enough research. We took out parking spots and put in the bike lane. It caused uproar with property owners and had to be taken out. That was our first effort. And that didn’t work.
-It took many years and a number of bike advisory committees to get anything going. Back then, people viewed bicycles as toys and thought they were not a realistic mode of transportation. And it continued a bit into the 80s until we got a new group of folks on a bike advisory committee.
-I guess it was the end of the 80s; the federal government came up with money to implement some of these projects. Now people actually had a money source to apply for and then we got a little more serious about and it culminated in the cedar lake trail. That was the first major trail that came through a federal fund that was administered by Met council. That was the start of the bike lanes.
-Ultimately you want the latter, the cyclists who bikes just as a general form of transportation. But in the early stages, we thought bicycles needed a different way of getting around. Now again, that was 20 years ago.
-I think now we need to try to add the on-street lanes and try to make connections to various communities and neighborhoods. You can sign a route as a bike friendly street and that is what the current people today are doing today.
-We have reached a point where; yes, we can try to accommodate and encourage bikes for all purposes. To be honest, with gas prices the way they are and insurance rates climbing that is going to become easier to sell.
-The left side lane thing was something I came up with in talking with a number of people. The main reason for it is it is not realistic to remove parking to accommodate a bike lane. Secondly, there is a high number of bus traffic on downtown roads. Right turn vehicles tend to not look on their right side when making that turn. And people look at their drivers-side mirror more. And so they are more likely to see a cyclist on their left side.
-We felt there needed to be a bike lane on Hennepin. But it just didn’t appear to work to put a bike lane on either side of the road. So we felt if they put it between the cars and bus lane and made it wide enough, it would be safe. So that is what we did. But not everybody liked it. Not everybody would use it. If you are not used to riding a bike, safety wise you might not feel really safe between them. Well, then so be it. We needed a something for bikes on Hennepin.
-I think the reality is that if there wasn’t any buss traffic on Hennepin there wouldn’t be as many accidents. Most cars are looking at the bus coming at you. If you look for bicycles at all… it’s second or third in your thought process. It’s an issue… always was.
-I’m not up to date on what’s up now but I think we need to try and install signs when vehicles are infringing on bike lanes. Get them to look. That’s one idea we tried in the past.
-But you also have to watch the statistics from year to year. The I-35W should be improved with the new bridge. Or I just hope it would have been improved.
-I understand the benefit of a standardized approach for downtown. If drivers are confused… that is not going to be a positive. We need to make things safe, secure and comfortable for new riders.
- What would it take to make you feel comfortable taking a bike as a serious commuting option? 20 years ago people felt they had to have showers or they wouldn’t ride. But your safety is more important. You learn the proper thing to wear.
-Back when I started in the 1970s, I knew a number of people who rode bikes and asked me if the engineering and transportation departments could accommodate them. But we ran into a great deal of resistance, an old school idea of engineering, and government officials and workers who felt that a bike was a toy. And it’s taken 30 years from that point to get where we are today.