|"In Washington, there are workhorses and there are show horses," says Jim Berard, Democratic communications director for the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee. "Oberstar is a workhorse. He's not here to get headlines; he's here to get work done." Son of an iron miner, Oberstar went to Haiti to teach English before there was a Peace Corps. When he returned, he worked in Washington as a staffer for 12 years before winning his seat in the House in 1974. But it wasn't politics that made Oberstar a leading bicycle advocate.
"As a kid I bicycled all the time, but I left bicycling for many years," says the 61-year-old Congressman. "Then, in 1984, my wife got breast cancer. She had chemotherapy, radiation, everything. The doctor suggested bicycling as a way for her to regain her strength."
Oberstar, a stocky, muscular man, and his wife, Jo, started bicycling together. Several years later, however, the cancer came back. Jo Oberstar passed away in July 1991.
"I was drained and exhausted," Oberstar recalls. "I didn't know what I was going to do with myself, so I went for a bike ride. You see, cycling had become a way of life for me. It's how I regained my energy, my strength, my focus."
That bike ride may have changed the course of history. At the time, Oberstar was a member of the Public Works and Transportation Committee. "After World War II, the federal government started the interstate highway system," says Oberstar. "Forty-five years, 42,000 miles, and $129 billion later, the project was completed. It's ironic. Bicyclists had started the push for paved roads, and in the end, they'd been pushed right off of them. It was time to re-envision transportation in America, and that's what our committee was up to."
In part as a tribute to his wife, Oberstar began to push hard for pro-cycling legislation. In late 1991, President Bush signed into law a new federal transportation program called the Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act (ISTEA, pronounced "ice tea"), which, among its many non-asphalt provisions, stipulated not only that bicycles must be considered in all transportation plans, but that bike paths must be funded. "Because of the enhancement provisions for bicycling in this bill," Oberstar says, "we spent $734 million dollars on bicycle paths in America in six years." In 1995, Oberstar became the ranking Democrat on the Transportation Committee—"a position of real power,"says The Almanac of American Politics, "even in a Republican Congress." In 1998, ISTEA was updated and refunded under the Transportation Equity Act for the 21st Century (TEA-21). Again, Oberstar pressed for and won federal funding for bicycle paths. "There is three to four billion available for bicycling in the next six years," he continues. "It's there; communities just have to come together—bicycle manufacturers, bicycle retailers, city planners, cyclists, everybody—and make a plan and ask for it. Bicycles can become a permanent part of the American transportation culture. The challenge is to make bicycling a serious means of commuting for as many people as possible."
Bicyclists and bicycle coalitions across the country are attempting to do just that. To go back to the future, back to the bicycle.
"We have just won TEA-21 funding to build a 2.5-mile bike path along the river in central LA," says Ron Milam, executive director of the Los Angeles County Bicycle Coalition. "Another 1.8-mile section is on the drawing board. Within two years, people will be able to ride into downtown Los Angeles on bike paths." This in a city that is the urban paradigm for the ills of the car culture. Milam says that his organization's dream is to create a bicycle transportation corridor along the entire 51-mile length of the Los Angeles River. "It only makes sense. People should be bicycling to the video store, bicycling to the park, bicycling to a friend's house."
Philadelphia received $11.7 million from ISTEA and 300 miles of bike lanes were planned. Relentless pressure by the Bicycle Coalition of the Delaware Valley managed to get only 100 of those miles on the ground. "You can never go to sleep and let the city take care of it—they won't," says Sue McNamara, director of the Coalition. "It takes bicycle advocates to make it happen. There's a ton of money out there for bicycling, but you need visionary people to lead. You not only have to get your city to go after the money, but you have to stay on their ass to get the bike facilities actually built."
To reintroduce the bicycle as a legitimate means of transportation, McNamara led the Coalition in getting $424,000 to fund the nation's largest school bicycle education program. "We are creating a whole curriculum that teaches bicycle education," says McNamara. The Coalition will also be installing new bicycle racks at every high school and middle school in Philadelphia. "We talk about how kids don't bike to school anymore, but they need bike racks for their bicycles. Even more important, they need to know that bicycling can change the world."
Idealistic? I think it's realistic. I've been back to Holland a half-dozen times since I lived there as a boy, and the bike racks are still full. The Dutch all own cars; they just don't drive them as much as we do.
Now that we're on the brink of another century and a highly touted new millennium, doomsday preachers, political pundits, and magazine columnists are all laying out monumental New Year's resolutions for mankind. Not me. I say all you have to do is ride your bike.
Just try it. Some frosty morning, wheel to work. Like you did as a child, take the quiet path, the scenic route. Pedal the back roads, slip through the neighborhoods. Suck in the sharp air. Smell the trees. Feel the breeze against your face and the blood in your legs and imagine an America teeming with bicycles.