Helmet? Yes. Car? No.

Minneapolis Bicycle and Pedestrian Coordinator Matthew Dyrdahl says he walks the talk

Matthew Dyrdahl is the city's second-ever bicycle and pedestrian coordinator. He started Feb. 23. Credit: Submitted image

Now that Matthew Dyrdahl, hired by the city in February to lead planning for bicycle and pedestrian projects, is settling into his new role, it’s time to ask him the tough questions, like: What do you think about bike helmets?

“I enjoy wearing a helmet,” Dyrdahl responded brusquely midway through Feb. 24 phone interview. “Next question.”

There was a brief pause followed by the sound of hearty laughter pulsing over the phone line. Dyrdahl, 33, only Minneapolis’ second-ever bicycle and pedestrian coordinator, is well aware that his predecessor’s choice to ride bareheaded like a Copenhagener was controversial.

Sure, Dyrdahl continued, there’d been “a time or two” when he’d checked out a bicycle from the Nice Ride bike-sharing system and pedaled off without a helmet. Not everyone carries head protection when a commute blends a bus ride, cycling and walking.

“I think that will stop now, just because of my position,” he said.

But here’s the true test of a bicycle and pedestrian coordinator’s bona fides: What about a car?

Dyrdahl got rid of his almost a year ago.

“Part of the reason I don’t have a car is because I want to make sure I understand the issues I’m working with,” he said. “So, (I) walk the talk in this work.”

“Not owning a car, you have a different perspective, and you can really relate to people who might not have a choice to bike or walk,” he continued. “I value that personally, and professionally I think it’s a good thing, as well.”

When Dyrdahl ditched his car he picked up a new set of wheels. A Brompton folding bike fits in the storage compartment of a Jefferson Lines bus, and that means he doesn’t have to bum rides up north to Nisswa, where his mother lives.

His day-to-day bike is a red and black Trek fx 7.5, a commuter model he sometimes used to ride from his apartment in Northeast to his old job in at the Minnesota Department of Health in St. Paul, where he was the active transportation coordinator in the Physical Activity and Nutrition Unit. That’s a 12-mile commute, one way.

“If you do that both ways, it’s about two hours of physical activity without trying,” he said. “That’s something we try to promote in this work.”

A Minnesota native, Dyrdahl grew up in Coon Rapids, graduated from Blaine High School and attended St. Cloud State University. He earned a bachelor’s degree in community development and went on to receive his master’s in planning from Florida State University.

After his stint in Tallahassee, Fla., Dyrdahl’s first job brought him back to Minnesota, where he worked as a transportation planner for the Headwater Regional Development Commission in Bemidji. He moved to Minneapolis when he started working at the state health department in early 2012.

As the active transportation coordinator, Dyrdahl worked with cities across the state on improvements to encourage more bicycling and walking. During his three years in that role, he said, there was “a fairly dramatic increase in the number of Bike Friendly Communities officially recognized by the League of American Bicyclists” in Minnesota, including the cities of Bemidji, Grand Marais and Litchfield.

He is also a league-certified bicycling instructor.

In an interview after Dyrdahl’s hiring was announced, Director of Public Works Steve Kotke said he was looking for a bicycle and pedestrian coordinator who was at the “cutting-edge” of designing cities for cyclists and walkers. What does that mean to Dyrdahl?

He said he’s excited by the city’s recent push into the area of protected bikeways, designs that physically separate motorized and non-motorized traffic. They should encourage “more people who aren’t currently comfortable riding right next to cars” to choose bikes for day-to-day transportation, he said.

“We have a fantastic, world-class trail system in Minneapolis, and I think if we really connect those trails with places people go on a daily basis — such as grocery stores, parks, (the) library, work — I think Minneapolis will really be in a position to be the best cycling city in the nation,” he said.

On the pedestrian side of things, he continued, a top-priority for Minneapolis continues to be improving snow removal from sidewalks during the winter. But he said encouraging people to walk year-round requires a greater focus on the built environment, on destinations and the experiences of walkers as they move through the city.

“It’s not just looking at infrastructure but making sure people have places to go,” he said.

Dyrdahl will lead a team of three planners dedicated to non-motorized transportation issues. He’s starting in the position almost a full year after his predecessor, Shaun Murphy, left to manage an organic farm in southwestern Wisconsin.

One reason for the hiring delay was a soon-to-be-completed reorganization of public works. The planners who focus on bicycle and pedestrian issues will now work in the same division as planners who design streets for motor vehicles and contribute to major regional projects, like Southwest Light Rail Transit, said Jeni Hager, manager of the Transportation Planning and Programming Division.

But Hager said Dyrdahl’s purview goes beyond just infrastructure projects. He’ll also take on enforcement and educational initiatives, she said.

Dyrdahl said he’s looking forward to “getting to know Minneapolis on a deeper level,” adding the series of Open Streets events planned for this spring, summer and fall would be “an incredible opportunity to get to know people.”

“(Minneapolis) just has a really great vibe around bicycling and walking, and I just wanted to be part of that from a city staff perspective,” he said.