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.
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.