09/30/09

Interview with University of Minnesota Campus Bicycle Coordinator Steve SandersInterview with University of Minnesota Campus Bicycle Coordinator Steve Sanders

How long have you been in your current position?

13 years. At the U for 23 years. My duties are to manage the bicycle program; the bicycle program as it exists now began when I started. The university administration made a commitment to doing more for bicycles, recognizing that bicycles were an important part of the transportation network and decided to devote more resources. That's when I was hired.

I started out with about a third of my time spent on bicycle issues with the remaining time spent as a construction project manager. Steadily more and more of my time is spent on bicycle-related projects, especially lately. It's now over half my time. We also have half time assistance from the Bike Walk Ambassadors. for developing education programming.

 

Is it just for Minneapolis or is it for the Twin Cities campus?

It's for the entire Twin Cities campus. Minneapolis and St. Paul.

 

How do you personally bike and walk?

I've been a year-round bike commuter for 16 years. My commute, round trip, is 18 miles out to Arden Hills, and I bike every day. I'm not a big recreational rider. I've been doing more this summer; I try to get a ride in on the weekend. I do utility biking; I run errands on my bike. It's primarily utilitarian for me.

 

What kind of bike do you have?

I have many different bikes. My main commuter when the weather is nice is a Bianchi. It's got an eight-speed internal hub. My winter commuter is a Surly mountain bike also equipped with an internal hub.

 

What are the current levels of bike/walk commuting to campus?

We do a few things to help us determine that number: we do actual physical counts of bicycles on campus and we also do some survey work. The survey work trends a little high  at about 13.6 percent.  Our actual static bike counts indicate a level of around 10 percent. So I think it's somewhere in between 10 and 13 and a half percent.  In collaboration with the City we also do some corridor counts that indicate the highest concentrations of pedestrians and bicycles in the state.

What patterns and trends have you seen in that?

It has increased every year since I've started, often times double digits per year. Last year I thought we would get a big spike due to gas prices, but when we did our count it was flat from the year before, almost exactly the same. I thought that was really strange, so we went out and did some spot counts afterwards. I think the first count was an anomaly. Because on the spot counts we had some pretty substantial increases from the prior year. Just from looking around on campus so far this year, I would suspect we would have double digit increase this year because it's just absolutely packed with bikes everywhere you go. Even on bike racks which don't historically fill it's just absolutely jammed full. So I suspect we'll see a pretty substantial increase this year. We'll know next week what it's going to be.

 

Does the University have a goal for bike/walk commuting?

We haven't really set a numerical goal where we want to increase it by X number percent. Our goal is to increase the non-motorized mode share and transit mode share, that's always our goal. But we haven't set a numerical goal, like we want to double or we want to increase it 20 percent or 40 percent or 50 percent. We're always looking to increase it and we always are. The single occupancy vehicle mode share is around 30 percent and we're always looking to improve that. We make strides every year; we sell more U-Passes every year.  There's more people walking every year, there's more people biking every year, so I think we're on the right track.

 

How many people on campus think about biking and walking? For example, do the Regents think about biking and walking? Does the president think about biking and walking?

Oh, absolutely. I think the president is very interested in it; he's a cyclist himself. So he's very interested in it. It's gotten to be more a part of the culture.  Since the bike program started we're included in the review process of campus building plans and we advise on campus parking and bike routes and bike access. It's become an established part of the campus review process in both planning and building. Our suggestions don't always make it into the final design, but we have a place at the table and that's important.  As far as I know-and I don't have any personal experience with the Regents-if the president is interested, typically the Regents would be interested too. That's been a big plus. The program has support Up and down the management chain: our executive director is very interested in increasing bike mode share as is our associate vice president and senior vice president. There is a lot of interest. And that's changed over the years. When we first started, bikes were not exactly an afterthought, but it was more of a facility thing: you provided bike racks and that was it; that was the bike program. So we've learned a lot over the years, that it's more than just providing for the physical bicycle itself, it's more about reaching commuters. There's been a lot of buy in support-and from other University departments too. We work closely with University Land Care and talk about where we can put bike parking and where we're having problems and they have a lot of suggestions. We've got a lot of good partnerships with other University departments for improving biking.

 

 

You don't do anything with pedestrians. Who's in charge of pedestrians?

We don't have an as-developed program as we do for bicycling, but part of my duties include street and sidewalk repair, crosswalk marking, the sign maintenance of our system of tunnels and skyways. We hope to build on our pedestrian infrastructure by adding programmatic elements, much as we did with the bicycle program.

 

What would significantly increase biking and walking activity on campus? What would it take to double it?

We're hopeful that once we establish a commuter program with incentives that that is going to make a difference. I'm always a believer in rewarding people for the things you want them to do. And I think with the grant we got from TLC to start the Bike Center and RFID program we're going to be able to do that. I don't think that's enough to double it. I think in order to double mode share there has to be some kind of extraneous event or events, like a fuel dislocation or price shock. It has to be some economic disruption in order to get that kind of immediate leap. In the long run, one of the things that works for us is the increase in student housing that's being built near campus.. That makes a big difference. Part of our increases over the years, especially lately, is driven by how many housing units are within a couple of miles of campus. That's a big factor: why would anybody drive to campus when they live a mile and a half away. And people don't;. They don't drive to campus when they live that close. It's just too easy to walk, bike or take transit. We have 20,000 U-Pass buyers this semester and there's good transit service. So if you live that close you either take the bus or you ride your bike or you walk. The more that that increases, then that will naturally elevate our mode share.. I also think social marketing  efforts have the potential to spark a significant shift. The nice thing is once you get people biking and walking, once you actually get them to try it, people want to continue. They can see how easy it is to make it part of their routines, and that's the biggest thrill for me, when people realize that they can do it too, and enjoy the benefits that derive from biking and walking.

 

The incentives you're talking about are faculty and staff as part of the commuter benefit, right?

To start with, yes. We definitely want to get incentives for students as well. We really need to reward them for doing the right thing too. Initially it's kind of a numbers and delivery problem? There are certain things we can do for staff and faculty that we're not going to be able to do as easily for students. So we're thinking about that and we're working on that. But that's going to take a little more time. The Bike Center will be a great resource for students-that's going to be available to everybody. So I think they'll be able to take advantage of that right away. We'll work on incentivizing bike riding to the whole University community, starting with staff and faculty and build from there and see what works.

 

How do you think the Twin Cities campus compares to other urban campuses in terms of non-motorized commuting?

Statistics are hard to come by. The good ones you can get the statistics easily. Like UC-Davis, that's around 40 percent bike mode share. Big Ten schools, not so easy. I would say most Big Ten schools, with some notable exceptions, don't have a developed bike program. However, if they don't have one now they're interested in starting one. I was at the Big Ten parking and transportation conference earlier this year and there was a lot of interest in starting programs and the host university-the University of Illinois-was in the process of getting a bike program started.  All over, universities are realizing they have to do something, because people are riding their bikes regardless of the facilities provided, and people will start doing things you don't want them to do. And once people start doing those things you don't want them to do, people take negative notice and you can go two ways: you can create amenities for cyclists and pedestrians or you can crack down on them.  Fortunately, most places do the former. More and more institutions are going that route, but there's a long way to go.

 

Our program has invested a fair amount in facilities that should influence some choices on campus. The Bike Station, the RFID program, a lot of connections to campus through all the neighborhoods surrounding it, and then bike sharing. If all those are in place by fall 2010, what do you think campus would look like with all those additional facilities?

I think it would really strengthen the bike culture on campus. With the Bike Center we'll have a focal point for cycling on campus. We'll be able to offer classes where we'll teach people how to fix their bikes, we'll teach people how to plan their routes, we'll teach people what kind of commuter gear they need, we'll teach people how to ride in foul weather, we'll teach people how to ride in the wintertime. And then with the RFID infrastructure we'll have the potential to reward people for doing it, because for the first time we'll be able to validate people's commute trips. That's always been the tripping point in incentivizing bicycle commuters. Institutions and employers are interested in offering incentives, but they're not going to do it unless there is some way of validating the behavior. So I think for the first time on any scale worth talking about, we're going to have the opportunity to do that. Along with  all of the facilities that are being built adjacent to campus that will lead into campus, we'll also have bike sharing, there will be 14 bike share kiosks on campus and so there will always be a bike available to use for short trips to go to Uptown or to go to Downtown or to just get around campus. I think all these things together are really going to raise people's level of consciousness about biking. You can't walk out of a building today and not see bikes everywhere, but with these new initiatives I think we've really got the opportunity to focus people's attention in a more meaningful way. Our work with the Bike Walk Ambassadors to get students more involved through student groups, student bike clubs, and. social networking also has great potential. So we're going to do a lot of things to raise people's awareness, and that awareness is going to be deeper than simply  seeing more people riding around.

 

Talk about the conflict between pedestrians and bicyclists on campus.

It's always been an issue. We have limited space and we have the highest concentration of bikes and peds anywhere in the State. We have places where the space has to be shared and that's difficult. We really hope to make some strides in addressing those issues through our education efforts. Education is key. We also have to do more enforcement of some of the rules that we have. And we just need to make people more aware of the shared aspects of the campus space. The first consideration is everyone's safety. And we simply have to realize, all of us, that we have to be mindful of our surroundings regardless of our mode of transportation. But it's a real, ongoing issue and we struggle with it because we can't create more space. And any space you claim for one group is typically taken from another group, and that is never easy or to be taken lightly.