He's king of Minneapolis roads

  • Article by: SHARYN JACKSON , Star Tribune
  • Updated: August 7, 2012 - 7:51 AM

Minneapolis Bicycle and Pedestrian Coordinator Shaun Murphy gets around - without a helmet. He could use one to block the shots that critics lob his way.

Minneapolis bike and pedestrian coordinator Shaun Murphy, right, took traffic engineer Allan Klugman for a ride along the Greenway bicycle/pedestrian path.

Photo: Elizabeth Flores, Star Tribune

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Shaun Murphy counts every step as he walks along Portland Avenue S. near Minnehaha Parkway on a 90-degree day. From turn lane to hydrant, he concentrates on every pace, like a gymnast on the balance beam.

"88, 89, 90."

Sweat drizzles onto his red T-shirt, already damp with an outline of his messenger bag strap slashing across his back.

"I really like getting out of the office," says Minneapolis' bicycle and pedestrian coordinator, devoid of sarcasm.

Murphy does quick math, multiplying his 3-foot gait, dividing by 20 feet (the average length of a car) to come up roughly with the number 13. That's how many parking spaces this stretch of Portland accommodates, and how many could disappear when bike lanes are added after a resurfacing project later this year.

Murphy knows 13 is too many. As the city's head of foot-powered transit, he walks a diplomatic fine line between the needs of bicyclists and the interests of motorists, and he's quick to consider the latter before making recommendations favoring the former.

Otherwise, there could be complaints -- and insults --thrown his way. But then, Murphy is used to it.

'This bicycling thing'

By appointing a bicycle and pedestrian coordinator in January, Minneapolis joined a growing number of cities nationwide (Portland, Ore., Washington, D.C., and Madison, Wis.) that are investing money and brainpower into nonmotorized transportation. As cities become more bikeable, the heads of these programs are attracting as many critics as fans. New York City's head of transportation, Janette Sadik-Khan, has been called names for doubling the number of city bike lanes in five years. In D.C. and Boston, the phrase "war on cars" is uttered almost as often as "on your left."

In Minneapolis, the job came with its own controversy. The city announced the new position last August, just as firefighters were being laid off. People questioned whether the city needed -- or could afford -- a coordinator, at a salary of $62,000. City Council President Barb Johnson even proposed eliminating the hire.

However, Mayor R.T. Rybak said a coordinator is essential if Minneapolis is to solidify its reputation as one of the nation's best biking cities.

"With the increase in bicycle traffic ... it's critically important that we focus closely on the interactions between motorists and bicyclists in order to make our streets safer for everyone," Rybak wrote in an e-mail.

A target for anger

From the moment Murphy got the job, which includes advising traffic engineers and city officials, he became a target for people angry about any number of things -- the loss of other public jobs, the spending of taxpayer money, the sharing of roads. He's been yelled at in public meetings, insulted on Internet forums and barraged with e-mail complaints.

"It's like I'm attacked because of my job, because I'm representing this bicycling thing," Murphy said. "We're a car-centric people and to some people, it's a values thing. It's tied to people's livelihoods, going to their jobs every day. It's tied to their traditions," he said. "But people in our culture like a sense of fairness, too. They don't want to see someone blowing a stoplight on a bike, and a bicyclist doesn't want someone to run them into the sidewalk or yell at them to get off the road."

That philosophy extends to Murphy's own transportation habits. Although he represents bicycling, he's also a proud car and truck owner. He takes buses and trains, walks wherever he can. When he does bike, he doesn't wear a helmet because he doesn't want the activity to appear dangerous or scary.

"I just want it to be seen as something that a normal person can do," said Murphy. "You don't need special gear. You just get on a bike and you just go."

From intern to coordinator

Murphy, 35, grew up in small towns in Iowa and Missouri where the car was king. It wasn't until he moved to Iowa City to study elementary education that he discovered other modes of transit. When he moved to the Twin Cities, he realized he had an interest in government efficiency, which he links to growing up without means.

"I grew up in a very poor family, so I've always been careful with money," Murphy said. "It's very wasteful to build a road and then realize that you should have put in a sidewalk or a bike lane, or the curb should have been in a different spot because it affects the storm drains or where the stoplights are placed."

About six years ago, Murphy saw a sign about a public meeting on the city's transportation plan. He wanted to know when Nicollet Mall would finally be rid of buses, and he wanted to share his ideas on how to make the city more bike-friendly. His concerns weren't addressed, but he was determined to be heard. He e-mailed the head of traffic and parking, John Wertjes, who hired Murphy as an intern to the bicycle and pedestrian project managers.

"Once I got the job, I started biking and walking everywhere, and my personal habits started feeding into my job," said Murphy. "I took the city's master-plan bicycle map and I just rode the city."

Murphy carried a Canon point-and-shoot and photographed broken crosswalk buttons, disappearing bike lanes and confusing street signs, and sent the pictures to the right departments.

"That's how I get a lot of my work done," said Murphy. "Looking, noticing things."

After two years as an intern, he was hired to coordinate biking and walking projects using federal funds. When the bicycle and pedestrian coordinator job was posted, Murphy went for it.

In his position, which is paid for by the city's general fund, capital projects and federal aid, Murphy manages four staffers, administers the bicycle and pedestrian advisory committees, and oversees almost two dozen transportation projects and 166 miles of bike paths in tandem with traffic engineers from the city, county and state.

Helping everyone understand

In his new role, Murphy has already won over some of his early critics.

"He's very respectful of the community and their feelings," said Council Member Johnson. "Sometimes these bike routes aren't unanimously embraced, so he does a good job of addressing their concerns, and he can calm their fears."

At a recent panel discussion about upcoming bike projects, Nick Heille, who said his interest in biking extends to putting the air in his wife's tires, gave Murphy credit for being articulate on the issues. But Heille remains skeptical about investing in bike lanes.

"This is a cause du jour," he said. "Ten years from now, who's going to maintain it? We don't have the tax dollars now to maintain it."

Sharyn Jackson • 612-673-4260

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  • Minneapolis bike and pedestrian coordinator Shaun Murphy, right, took traffic engineer Allan Klugman for a ride along the Greenway.

  • GET TO KNOW SHAUN MURPHY

    Age: 35.

    Title: Minneapolis bicycle and pedestrian coordinator.

    Quote: "Every little town I go to, I'll look at the curbs and the signs and the stoplights. It has turned into sort of an obsession, this job, because you get ideas from all over the place. So everywhere I've gone, I take pictures. And I'm like, 'What about this? Can we do this here?' I get a lot of good ideas from the most unexpected places sometimes."

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