Q&A With: James Oberstar, former U.S. Representative for Minnesota's 8th Congressional District and chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee (2007–2011)

Background

James "Jim" Oberstar served as a member of Congress for 36 years, 1975-2011. As a member of the Minnesota delegation, he shaped the nation's surface transportation policies to support and encourage walking and bicycling as important alternatives to motorized transportation. Mr. Oberstar was a champion of the SRTS program and built bipartisan support to secure its inclusion in the 2005 Federal transportation bill named Safe, Accountable, Flexible, Efficient Transportation Equity Act: A Legacy for Users (SAFETEA-LU). SAFETEA-LU included $612 million over five years for SRTS programs in the 50 States and the District of Columbia.

We were able to catch up with Mr. Oberstar just before he left office in January and are pleased to share an excerpt of the conversation with you.

Q: How do you feel about the growth and reach of the federal Safe Routes to School program in its first five years?

A: It has exceeded my expectations. Safe Routes to School has done everything we envisioned and much, much more. When I say we, I mean the whole bicycling community, school groups, PTA and the students riding bikes. I expected the program would unleash creativity at the community level. In that sense, it has met my expectations, but in the actual doing, it has exceeded them.

We are just seeing an explosion of ideas across the country and engagement by students, particularly, who are just flocking to the bike and enjoying their ride to school, and feeling better about themselves and about the school, their school day. Let's take Boulder, Colo., and the Freiker frequent user idea. Someone got the idea of putting a computer chip in the bike helmets of the children who ride to school, and as they pass through the gate into the school yard, the computer chip records the rider, the time of day, and frequency of ridership during the week and month. At the end of [each] week there were awards, and at the end of [each] month there were awards for those with the most points for frequent user — what a terrific idea.

[This is just one example of the] initiatives that schools have launched. All across the country we have seen new initiatives, new ideas, creativity, excitement, and enthusiasm and now Safe Routes to School is in 10,000 schools. That is really exciting.

Q: Are there any results of the program that you didn't originally foresee?

A: You know, I didn't anticipate as much parental involvement as I have seen across the country and that is really encouraging and fulfilling to me. Parents have come out to join their children or observe them walking and biking to school.

Q: Why do you think the Safe Routes to School program works?

A: My initial inspiration for SRTS came from a presentation by the Center for Disease Control (CDC) on the results of a study about the alarming accelerating growth of obesity rates in our school aged children and the lack of physical activity concurrent with that growth. We clearly had a generation of mobility challenged children and I said 'We've got to change that. We have a health crisis on our door step.'

In launching the initial program [before the federal program was established in 2005], Deb Hubsmith and Marin County came up with the idea to engage parents, teachers and school faculty, local public work facilities and mangers at the county level in the enterprise. And to everyone's great surprise, the children were enthused by it. Nobody was making [the children] do this. They found that when they walked and biked to school, they got to know their classmates and they felt physically invigorated on arriving at school and on arriving at home afterwards.

Q: What future challenges do you see for Safe Routes to School? How can local organizers and supporters help?

A: The program's future challenges are first fiscal. And secondly — because revenues into the highway trust fund have dropped and while congress temporarily plugs the gap — there is $20 billion short fall that will put pressure on SRTS funding.

I intend to remain engaged in Safe Routes, in bicycling, in the overall enhancements quality of life, and livability issues of transportation in the years to come. I think every school district should engage its member of congress on a special SRTS day to expose the new members of congress to a very exciting, successful and popular community supported transportation initiative.

Q: Is there anything you would like to say to State SRTS Coordinators, local organizers, parents or students?

A: First thing I would say to State Coordinators is thank you, and [share] my admiration for the work you have done — you were pioneers. There will be other Safe Routes Coordinators in years to come but, no one [else] will be the first. You got the program off to a great start engaging school administrations, faculty, the parents, the students and safety organizations within each community and each school district. Now the task is to sustain and build on that successful start, and also to track students as they move from elementary school into middle and high school, and to show that we are achieving successful results in all of the areas of endeavor for SRTS.

Q: Reflecting on the time you have served as chairman of the Transportation & Infrastructure Committee, what has been your single greatest challenge and accomplishment?

A: Overall in transportation, there isn't a single greatest challenge. There are lots.

But I have a lot of successful initiatives I can look back on with pride, but none as great as SRTS. You have an opportunity once in a lifetime, certainly once in a career, in public service to have an impact on and to change the habits of an entire generation. That is what SRTS in its greatest achievement will be noted for — changing the habits of an entire generation of Americans.

Q: In 20 years, what will surprise Americans most about how they get around in their communities?

A: I think what will surprise present day Americans 20 years from now is how much less dependent they [will be] on the fossil fuel driven vehicle. We are seeing so many new initiatives using alternative fuels for transportation, particularly in the urban setting.

We are now seeing the rent-a-bike programs in major metropolitan areas: here in Washington [D.C.], Minneapolis, Portland, Chicago, and New York City… Last year more bicycles were sold in America than automobiles. You have Copenhagen, where 38 percent of all travel is by bicycle. The Netherlands where 30 percent of all travel, in the whole country, is by bicycle. We are going to see those types of numbers in America 20 years from now, and much more intercity travel by high speed rail. We will see a real transformation of surface transportation from what we know it to be today.

Q: You've mentioned you plan to continue public service. Do you have any immediate plans?

A: I don't have any immediate plans but a number of options. I have received open invitations from various entities, such as the Center for Transportation studies at University of Minnesota's Humphreys Institute, which would be an opportunity for me to engage a future generation of transportation planners, engineers and activists… in a graduate level education program. I want to engage in the private sector but also in a public way to protect the progress we have made with enhancements with the livability issues in transportation.

Q: Mr. Oberstar, do you have a favorite bike ride?

A: Let's say I have two favorite bike rides. The first was about four or five days after my first wife succumbed to cancer. I was run down, exhausted and I looked up in the garage and saw my bike hanging there. I rode five miles and came back and I really felt good. That was my first memorable bike ride.

My second most memorable or favorite bike ride was with my son Ted in Sacramento, riding to school with his daughters — my two granddaughters. That later became a further inspiration for my SRTS initiative.

Q: Is there anything else you'd like to share Chairman?

I want to encourage the [National] Center… all our State Coordinators and particularly the children. The children are really the object of this program… they're making it a success by riding their bikes and walking to school. They're changing their habits and feeling better about themselves and about their school work. This is a truly exciting initiative for the future of America's heath and for the future of transportation in our country.

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Thank you for taking the time to talk with us, Chairman Oberstar. Although you left the halls of Congress in January, your passion and concern for making transportation options available for all Americans will continue to be heard. We remain grateful for the way you have so positively impacted the lives and livability of all Americans — especially our nation's school children.

If there is an inspirational person or program in your community that you would like us to consider profiling in a future Q&A With column, e-mail Caroline Dickson, dickson@hsrc.unc.edu.