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City will observe Bike to Work Day later this week

Jason Dougherty hangs a decorated bike outside Lillian's of Willmar as part of the Willmar Design Team's promotional bike decoration contest. The contest is being held in conjunction with Thursday's Bike to Work Day. Tribune photo by Ron Adams

WILLMAR -- A couple of days a week, when the weather is nice, Andrew Bjur rides his bike to work at Engan and Associates in downtown Willmar, where he works as an architect.

"I only have to travel about a mile so it's not that bad," Bjur said. "It only takes 10 minutes or so."

Most of his colleagues -- including the firm's principal and founder, Richard Engan -- bike to work once or twice a week too, parking their bikes in a rack that's right outside the front door of the architecture, engineering and design firm.

It's a habit that local organizers hope will become more widespread, starting this week with a citywide Bike to Work Day on Thursday.

"Awareness -- that's really what we're after. It's for fun as well as health," said Carol Laumer of the Willmar Design Center's connections committee, which has been vigorously promoting the event.

No national organization keeps track of how many Americans commute to work by bicycle, but the trend appears to be growing, spurred by interest in physical activity, eco-friendly transportation and the rising price of gas.

States and communities have begun responding with efforts to develop bike lanes, trails and other initiatives that foster bike transportation and allow bikers to safely share the road with motor vehicles.

The buzz about commuting by bike even has percolated up to top levels of government: Ray LaHood, U.S. Secretary of Transportation, announced last week that he'll bike to work today with a group of Department of Transportation employees.

Locally, the Willmar Design Center is trying to stoke interest in Bike to Work Day with a bicycle-decorating contest.

Several businesses have signed up to decorate and display a bike in honor of the event. A panel will judge the entries on Wednesday. Results will be announced Thursday at the weekly Becker Market, to which shoppers are being encouraged to ride their bike. "That is a destination," Laumer said.

A bike-to-work campaign is a natural fit for the Willmar Design Center. One of the nonprofit organization's goals has been to increase what it calls "connectedness" -- the ability for people to walk or bike to destination points downtown and for the downtown district to connect with a broader system of community paths and trails.

"That's what the connections committee is all about -- getting that connection," said Linda Mathiasen, a member of the committee.

Work has been under way to designate Selvig Park, at Becker Avenue and Fourth Street, as a trailhead for the Glacial Lakes trail system, she said. "That's been one of the long-term goals. It's coming closer to realization."

The committee also is doing a citywide inventory of bike racks. The goal is to collect data on how many bike racks there are, where they're located and where more bike racks might be needed. Grant money could be available to help buy and install more racks if they're needed.

BobbiJo Berg, a health educator with Kandiyohi County Public Health, hopes the awareness and increased ease of bicycle transportation will spark more interest in this form of physical activity.

Berg works with the Minnesota Statewide Health Improvement Plan in Kandiyohi County, part of a state initiative to create policy and environmental change that leads to health-related behavior change. Kandiyohi County SHIP has been one of the organizations helping to promote this week's Bike to Work Day.

"It's a big event that we can use, maybe as a catalyst," Berg said. "I hope it inspires quite a few people to get moving."

Bjur considers himself a casual biker. "It's tough. Changing habits is difficult," he said.

Nevertheless, he has been biking to work during the summer months for the past eight years, and recently acquired a new bicycle.

"It's rewarding. Whenever you think about the gas prices going up, I think about biking more," he said. "We have a bike rack right out in front of the building. There's a shower in the building if we really work up a sweat."

Bjur can commute on low-traffic city streets. But this isn't the case for other bikers, who might be forced to share a busy road with motor vehicle traffic.

This is one of the most serious barriers to commuting by bike, and one that communities need to address if they want to encourage more biking, Bjur said. "What would be helpful for bikers is if there were some dedicated lanes so they could feel safe."

He said he hopes Thursday's event leads to more awareness of the benefits of commuting by bike and the steps city planners can take to create safer routes for bikers. And yes, he has the day circled on his own calendar. "There are no meetings that day so I plan to bike," he said.

Anne Polta

Anne Polta covers health care, business/economic development and general assignment. Her HealthBeat blog can be found at Follow her on Twitter at @AnnePolta.

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