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On track with two wheels: Perham stakeholders look at ways to make the area more bikeable

Laura Nyhus (left), Jade Berube and Emily Smoak, a planner for the Minnesota Department of Health, enjoy a 5-mile bike Wednesday around Perham's bike paths. Michael Johnson/Focus1 / 5
MnDOT's Eric DeVoe (wearing orange), talks about safety aspects of Perham's bike paths Wednesday near Heart of the Lakes Elementary School in Perham. Bike MN's Natalie Gille (in high-vis yellow) shares her thoughts as well. Michael Johnson/Focus2 / 5
City engineer Jade Berube shows paths within the city of Perham during a workshop on making Perham more bike friendly Wednesday at Perham Health. Michael Johnson/Focus3 / 5
A group of riders toured Perham's bike trails and routes throughout town Wednesday as part of a workshop looking to make Perham a more bike friendly place. Michael Johnson/Focus4 / 5
Eric DeVoe (right) talks about safety aspects of Perham's current biking areas like this one near Prairie Wind Elementary School. Next to him is Natalie Gille of Bike MN. Michael Johnson/Focus5 / 5

A diverse group of stakeholders strapped on their bike helmets and pledged to strengthen the bikeability of Perham and surrounding communities last week at Perham Health.

Presenters from Bike MN, the Minnesota Department of Health and MnDOT all shared statistics and ideas from other bike friendly communities and even gave a lesson on bike safety. In the audience were engineers, law enforcement, parks and rec, planners, public health officials, business and tourism professionals and advocates—about 20 in all.

Some, like Perham city engineer Jade Berube, shared that he was interested in the infrastructure side of things. Hoping to make biking routes an important part of the continued growth of Perham.

Others like Maggie Fresonke and Laura Nyhus were interested in the health benefits that great biking can provide to a community. Fresonke helped make the event happen, which is one of eight workshops the group hosts per year.

"I would like to see our wide streets used more effectively," Fresonke said of ways to improve bikeability in Perham.

Others like Economic Development director Chuck Johnson and Otter Tail County tourism director Nick Leonard were excited to see the tourism opportunities added trails can provide to the community. Johnson told the group in introductions that he biked for 21 years, 365 days a year, and it's been his hope to add connections throughout Perham. While there are great routes to the north and south, it's the connecting of the two that needs some work. But that requires going through major developments, roadways and a railroad, a costly venture.

Others still just wanted to see biking become safer and more enjoyable in the community.

Emily Smoak with the Minnesota Department of Health (MDH) addressed all aspects of biking and why it made sense to improve biking options in any community. She noted the quality of life, benefits to the environment, benefits to health, practicality of transportation and boosts to the economy.

One subject that came up during the conversation was that some bike projects in Perham have come with some push back by people that say "not in my backyard!"

Smoak said that's not uncommon, but she counters that home buyers want to live in communities that make it easy to bike and walk. And agencies that rate the top places to live note that bicycle friendliness is usually a main feature of the top 10 towns. She suggested that a big part of making biking a priority in the community is through community engagement.

Berube said bike routes are a part of the Capital Improvement Plans in Perham. He added that those plans will be reviewed this summer.

"I see that as a huge opportunity," Smoak said.

Making them a priority is one of the things holding the projects from making ground.

Eric DeVoe, a planner with MnDOT and Natalie Gille of Bike MN echoed that keys to successful biking routes involve having a plan in place. They went over some little things that can make biking better in a community including changes to lights, more paint and different ways that a bike lane could be added. DeVoe said in parts of his initial ride around Perham he noted having about 12 feet between him and drivers, way too much he said. And a lack of markings likely made drivers anxious, not sure where they should be.

"The state law says 3-feet," he said.

Midway through the day, in a break in the rain, participants took a lesson in bike safety and got a refresher in rules of the road. They then toured about 5 miles of the city bike routes on bike, making stops along the way to identify positives and ways they could improve the safety of the route, in many cases by adding some paint.

Having heard some of the ideas coming from the group, Frazee Police Chief Tyler Trieglaff said he planned to go back to Frazee to make their bike paths better as well, perhaps even pulling some of the biking tourists that he said love traveling to Perham for biking.

Action plan

The group went away from the workshop energized and with plans in hand to improve the biking atmosphere in the short term and long term. Their action plan for the short term included taking steps to make a vision for biking on Main Street in Perham; attending a city council meeting to back biking projects; work with employers to get bike racks, bike parking; and publicize the bike routes. Long-term plans included creating a networking group of bikers; installing at least one bike lane; having an adult bike rodeo; install bike fix-it station in a central location; creating more bike paths; and work on bike friendly businesses.

Fresonke was pleased at the outcome of the event.

"I think it went very well," she said. "Everyone was really engaged."

If you would like to find out more about being a part of biking in the community, contact Maggie Fresonke at Maggie.Fresonke@perhamhealth.org or 218-347-1887.

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Biking by the numbers

Minnesota Department of Health official Emily Smoak shared interesting figures about biking benefits.

50 percent- Nearly half of all air pollution in Minnesota comes from vehicles.

26.1 percent- the obesity rate in Minnesota. Physical activity was a contributor to Minnesota having lower rates than neighboring states.

31 percent- Lower your odds of obesity this much by commuting by bike three times a week.

46 percent - Lower your odds of metabolic syndrome this much by commuting by bike three times a week.

$100-$500 million is saved by bicycle commuting annually as it prevents 12-61 deaths per year.

93.4 percent of bike tour participants dine out while attending events.

48 percent of U.S. residents want more safe places to bike.