Remembering Rep. James Oberstar

Remembering Rep. James Oberstar

I have a deep-seated suspicion that in civilized countries where rail isn’t derided as a “wasteful subsidy” and the bicycle is considered an ordinary and valid form of transportation, a government official cut from cloth similar to that worn by James Oberstar would be run-of-the-mill. Such a suggestion is a kind of insult, that in some parallel universe Oberstar might not be all that special. But that’s the thing, why he deserves to be remembered by a cycling site that doesn’t really devote its efforts to politics and infrastructure. Jim Oberstar was special; he was one-of-a-kind and the news of his passing last Saturday is a tragedy for more than just his family. It’s a loss that will reverberate through the cycling community in the U.S., touching even those who never heard his name.

It’s okay for us, as Americans, to admit that we have a love affair with the car. Cars are pretty amazing. They’ve made our world smaller, given us freedom, another definition of fun, and allowed us to chase careers that might not otherwise have existed without the mobility they permit. But along the way the U.S. doubled-down on the car when we should have hedged those bets. Finding elected officials who understood the need to change our transportation strategy, to diversify it, to make cities more livable without the aid of a car, has not been easy. But Oberstar was a flashlight in the bleakest night. Educated in Europe and a devoted cyclist who frequently toured by bike, Oberstar was that rarest of politicians—someone you could identify with.

Oberstarbike When we speak of landmark policy, legislation that changed how we fund infrastructure beyond just for cars, ISTEA and TEA-21 were the big changes that helped cities begin to devote meager resources to bike paths, bike lanes and more. Those funds would never have been allocated without Oberstar’s efforts. The Safe Routes to School program simply would not exist without his efforts. It was his ability to put a human face on cyclists and show how more cyclists meant better, more livable cities that permitted such legislation to pass. Sure, as a population, we’ve gotten smarter and do a better job of lobbying Washington with the help of organizations like People for Bikes, but Oberstar truly was the pointy bit at the end of the spear. He was able to open doors that would have otherwise remained shut.

Back in 2010 Adventure Cycling published 10 Reasons to Give Thanks for Jim Oberstar, and it remains a great reminder of all he has done for cyclists in the U.S. In 2011, Bicycle Retailer and Industry News gave him a BRAINy Award as “Friend to the Industry.” It was a terrific nod that barely acknowledges our debt to him.

I met Oberstar only once, at Interbike. I made sure to approach him and thank him for his efforts on behalf of cyclists. His smile was real, his handshake warm and he looked me in the eye, taking the time to connect in a way that so few politicians ever do. As he was a representative from Minnesota, I never had the opportunity to vote for him, but I spoke highly of him whenever I could; I felt it important to serve as a witness to his efforts to make cycling better, safer, more possible. When he left congress in 2010, my heart sank. He continued to lobby on behalf of cyclists, and in that showed his real love for the activity. There’s a void in Washington, one we’re challenged to fill. To find someone who loves cycling enough to enter that den of snakes will require … man, I can’t think what it will take.

Oberstar did us a lifetime of solids. Next time you ride in a dedicated bike lane or down some bike path, I hope you’ll tip your helmet to him.

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  1. K Kavanagh

    What a nice reminder of Oberstar’s good sense and political courage. There are others who also contribute, and it’s well worth the time to write to the local representative who sponsored an anti-dooring bill or 3 foot passing law. Let your local reps know what is important and that you support and vote for candidates that address what is important.

  2. Kate

    Definitely a relentless shining star for sane and healthy transportation. Thank you Senator Oberstar for sharing and spreading your pedal passion!

  3. Alan Cote

    Thanks for the tribute to Oberstar. RKP and BRAIN have acknowledged his passing and massive efforts for cycling — showing which cycling sites know what’s going on.

  4. Me

    I also tip my hat to Mr Oberstar and all of his efforts. I do take opposition to some forms of rail transportation, such as the proposed Tampa to Orlando system. In a nutshell, it goes from Tampa airport to service hotels and theme parks in Orlando. It was clearly not designed for day to day transportation of locals. Tax benefits and tourism dollars aside, not worth it.

  5. John Kopp

    Thank you for your kind words acknowledging Congressman Jim Oberstar’s career and efforts. I had not heard of his passing until I saw your tribute here. I lived in Minnesota from the mid 70’s until the mid 90’s and appreciated the work that he did for us. At that time, the Twin Cities had an extensive bike path system in place and an active biking community, as did much of Minnesota. Mr. Oberstar was an important part of this.

    The group I rode with had a few fanatics who believed that the bicycle would be the primary means of transportation in the near future, so group rides were training for that future. Being a mining engineer, I had to agree with them, but didn’t expect it to occur until early in the 21st century. I appear to have been right. I see our best transportation options being high speed and commuter rail, and bicycles for local travel. And we need to be well on our way to this by the end of the decade. We should have payed more attention to Congressman Oberstar.

  6. Les.B.

    “Cars are pretty amazing.”
    Well, I agree and I’ve had my share of cars.
    But they are also amazingly dangerous, a fact that we’ve made ourselves quite numb to, and just accept as a part of modern life.

    I lost my buddy from high school to a car accident. I see the loss of him in my life as the price I paid for having cars in my life.
    Not a fair trade.

    And that’s worth considering for anyone: People you’ve known who were killed by cars: Having cars in your life is the price you paid.

    A well-deserved tribute, he is saving lives every day.

  7. Pingback: Friday Group Ride #217 | RKP

  8. khal spencer

    Rep. Oberstar should be remembered and venerated by all cyclists, whether you are a trail rider, urban commuter, or hard core nose to the stem racer. James Oberstar gave legitimacy to the bicycle in a nation where it is often enough treated as toy–even by cyclists.

  9. Natalie

    Not only was he an advocate for active transportation, but he was also a genuine person. I worked in Duluth on biking initiatives and met him only three times, but he always remembered me by name. He will be greatly missed.

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