You’ll be hard-pressed to find someone who knows more about biking infrastructure in the United States than Stephen Clark. The longtime bicycle advocate has a deep résumé:
• Founder of Minnesota Coalition of Bicyclists (now Bicycle Alliance of Minnesota) more than three decades ago.
• First bike coordinator for the city of Boulder, Colo.
• Program manager for Transit for Livable Communities. He helped implement the federally supported Nonmotorized Transportation Pilot Program in Minneapolis, one of four cities to receive $25 million to demonstrate how walking and biking infrastructure can increase the activities in its city.
• Helped plan much of Wisconsin’s Ice Age Trail, which was established in 1980.
• Served as the president of the League of American Bicyclists.
Splitting his time between Minneapolis and his farm in Cushing, Wis., north of St. Croix Falls, Clark, 58, is now the bicycle-friendly community program specialist for the League of American Bicyclists. He visits nearly 80 cities for the nonprofit each year to help communities become more bikeable and walkable.
Clark is someone who practices what he preaches. Traveling extensively for his job, he makes the 75-mile ride from his farm to Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport via a foldable bike that fits into a case, that doubles as a bike trailer for his luggage. In the winter, he rides 100 miles to the American Birkebeiner in Cable, Wis., with a homemade bicycle ski rack. After racing the ski marathon, he packs up his skinny skis and pedals home.
In a recent interview, Clark shared his passion for cycling and the mode of transport’s influence in the world.
On his inspiration to ride
The bicycle is such an incredible invention. When I was younger, it was all about how far could I go. I’d try to make things as light as possible, so I’d cut my toothbrush in half to save weight. Then I started building bike trailers and found I could pull 1,500 pounds in my trailer on my bike — that’s seven adults. Now, it’s about what can I endure in terms of adverse conditions — I’ve biked when it feels like it’s 50 below zero. I think my major motivation in life is the curiosity of whether I can do certain things.
On his advocacy roots
I have a hard time discerning whether my love for the environment came from enjoying the environment around me on a bicycle and starting to feel frustrated by cars and pollution, or if I became a bicyclist because of my concerns for the environment to begin with. Being a bicyclist at a young age, I saw cycling as a truly simple solution to a lot of complex problems early on — health issues, environmental issues, stress.
On helping cities become more bicycle-friendly
A lot of it starts with infrastructure. It’s about having a balanced transportation system where people have choices. Most of my guidance is about how can we take this public space that’s already there and make it more inviting for people who choose not to be in a car — from signal timing, to intersections, to eliminating some of the travel lanes and making the bike lanes wider so people feel safer and more comfortable.
On the Minneapolis biking infrastructure
Minneapolis is a great example of a city that had the foresight to turn an abandoned rail line into a multipurpose trail. The Midtown Greenway is a premier bikeway in this country — probably the best urban bikeway in the nation. In terms of large cities, Minneapolis is one of the best. I was part of the Nonmotorized Transportation Pilot Program and we had this wonderful opportunity and responsibility to the congressional act being one of four pilot communities in the country where we had $25 million to invest in walking and bicycling. We were able to do a number of things that had never been done, like bicycle boulevards, where you take a street that isn’t heavily traveled and optimize it for walking and biking.
On the city’s bike culture
When I started this job, the first trip I made was to Phoenix. From home I biked to the light rail station and it was 15 degrees and had just snowed 2 inches the night before. I saw more bicyclists in Minneapolis getting to the airport than when I got off the plane and biked to my hotel in downtown Phoenix, where it was 70 degrees and a beautiful, sunny day. It was just unbelievable to me. It struck me that it’s not just about infrastructure, it’s also about this incredible bike culture we have in Minneapolis with people who just want to be outdoors and active.
On the importance of bicycling in his own life
Every time you’re on a bicycle, it really is a new experience. You never get bored on a bicycle. The other thing is, I can honestly say I’ve never been in better physical condition than I am today. It truly allows you to celebrate life when you’re using your own power to move, and that’s what we are all about as human beings.
Mackenzie Lobby Havey is a freelance writer. She lives in Minneapolis.