Shaun Murphy moved to Minneapolis in 2004 from western Iowa, where he ran a small organic farm, and now the city’s first bicycle and pedestrian coordinator is headed back to the land.
After eight years with the city, first as a Department of Public Works intern, then as coordinator of the Non-motorized Transportation Pilot Program — which infused the region with $25 million in federal funds for biking and walking projects — and in his current position since December 2011, the 36-year-old is moving with his boyfriend, Aaron Lopez, to southwestern Wisconsin, where Murphy will again manage an organic farm. His last day on the job is Feb. 28.
Murphy recently spoke with the Southwest Journal about his soon-to-be-former job, biking and walking in Minneapolis and his future plans. There was just one topic off-limits: While still in the city’s employ, he declined to discuss on the record his reasoned but still controversial decision to bicycle without a helmet.
SWJ: Let’s go to 2011, which is when you would’ve started in your current position. There was some controversy when you were hired because it happened around the time there were all these Fire Department layoffs. Do people now still question the need for a bike and pedestrian coordinator?
Murphy: Well, it’s a big city, so of course there are going to be some people who question it still. I think it’s a minority, is my feel for it, who question my position.
I think it’s a little bit harder to understand it when it’s not easy to bike or walk for any of your trips. If you have to live in your car to get around places, I can understand where those people are coming from. But, no, I don’t think a lot of people question it. You know, [creating the position] passed on an 11–2 [City Council] vote when it came up. That was about five months before I got the job, so I wasn’t in that role when they were making that decision.
I think most people in Minneapolis really see that there’s a lot of need for better street life, better walking environments for pedestrians, a more safe way to get around if you’re on foot, and the same thing if you’re on a bike.
What are the big challenges out there for improving biking and walking in the city?
I think one challenge is probably land use. When you think about walking across all of downtown from one end to the other right now, you’ve got to hit all those surface parking lots. There are a lot of efforts to get rid of those and add in grocery stores and add places to walk to, and I think that’s a huge challenge. …
I think another challenge is: Does it feel comfortable when you’re doing it? Can you take your mom from out of town — or in town, wherever she lives — or your grandma, and can you get on a NiceRide bike or can you go for a walk a few blocks away? Does it feel comfortable?
I think the reason why it’s hard to feel comfortable is because there is so much space devoted to cars.
We’re talking a little bit about challenges, but what are the big successes during your time as bike and pedestrian coordinator?
One of the best parts of the job has been going around telling other people about our city, because there are so many people who are recognizing us and who want to know about [Minneapolis] — especially with biking, not walking so much, but especially with biking. Tour groups wanting to come here and take rides around the city. People from all over the country and from Canada calling us and saying: how do you do this, how do you do that?
That’s been such a fun part of my job: kind of selling Minneapolis, because it is such a great place for these things.
The city is going to hire someone to replace you, they said, so what’s the job going to be for the next bicycle and pedestrian coordinator? What needs to be done for the city to take the next step?
How about I’ll pick out two top issues that they could tackle.
I think for the pedestrian side of things, I think snow removal in the winter is going to be the top thing to tackle. It’s not just the property owners who sometimes don’t clear it; it’s the corners that don’t get cleared. People in wheelchairs or with strollers can’t get over those [snow piles].
It’s also the transit stops that oftentimes don’t get cleared. You see people — they look like mountain goats up on 4-foot piles of snow trying to get on buses. That’s clearly one of the biggest challenges. …
I think on the bike side of it it’s going to be: How can we build bike lanes that make people feel comfortable on busy streets? The painted white lines that we focused a lot on with the pilot program, they’re just not going to cut it on busy streets. We’ve heard that from multiple people. …
We have to figure out how to do more protected bike lanes. That’d be the thing I’d say to the next person.
You spent the last three years working on improving an urban environment in a major city, and you’re going back to a rural area to live. Where does your heart lie, in the city or in the country?
I think that’s a tough thing for a lot of people to answer, and it’s the same for me. There are things to love about each place. Urban areas are so vibrant. They’ve got so much going on. They’ve got things to do. And rural areas have more peaceful tranquility, and it’s easier to get in touch with the natural rhythm of the seasons and life. …
I did this [job] because one of the first places I lived in Minneapolis was at Park & 28th, at the corner, at the intersection of a four-lane street with a three-lane street. It’s hard to live at an intersection like that where it’s so loud all the time and it feels sort of unsafe.
So, I have a very strong passion for making sure that people have different ways to get around on those streets, that not everyone has to get in a car, because it’s causing a lot of problems for us.