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Darwin Hindman is a man obsessed with ending society's love affair with the car.

The bike-commuting mayor of Columbia, Mo., shared his insights Wednesday with like-minded community leaders and residents keen on turning Columbia, Md., into a mecca for bicyclists and pedestrians.

At age 76, the affable mayor not only talks the talk, he rides the ride, logging 60 miles a week while running errands and commuting on his 20-year-old converted mountain bike.

Yet his first impression of Howard County's planned city colored all of his remarks - Columbia, like the vast majority of American cities, is oriented around the automobile.

"Most cities would kill to have a spectacular trail system like yours," Hindman told a group of 30 biking enthusiasts who had accompanied him on a 90-minute bike tour along seven of the county's 93.3 miles of pathways.

"But it doesn't connect to Town Center, it doesn't work well at night and it's not as direct as riding on streets," summed up the retired attorney. The bike paths should also connect to public transportation stops, he said.

Retrofitting a city to make it less dependent on driving isn't easy, Hindman said, and he ought to know. The five-term mayor is shepherding a four-year, $22.5 million federal pilot program to get his residents moving on two wheels or two legs by upgrading intersections, installing sidewalks and marking bike lanes, among other projects.

Three other locales in Minnesota, California and Wisconsin were offered the same deal by the Federal Highway Administration in September 2006, and all are now less than a year away from completion.

Hindman's visit to Howard County was underwritten by Columbia Tomorrow, a nonprofit group in favor of redeveloping downtown Columbia. Members invited the mayor to assess the planned city's potential for increasing bike commuting and walking, especially as legislation to redevelop Town Center is being considered.

General Growth Properties has proposed a 30-year plan to remake central Columbia into a more urban downtown. Plans call for 5,500 housing units, 4.3 million square feet of office space and 1.25 million square feet of retail space.

"This event was a way to open a dialogue," said Jud Malone, president of Columbia Tomorrow.

While the cities' shared name and like populations of 100,000 were the gimmicky drawing cards for Hindman's visit, beyond those similarities there wasn't a lot of common ground between the two locations.

Columbia, Mo., was founded in 1821 and is home to the University of Missouri and two private colleges, which altogether account for nearly 40 percent of the city's population.

Calling it a "free-standing city," Hindman said his Columbia is 100 miles away from St. Louis and Kansas City, Mo., unlike 42-year-old Columbia, Md., which lies between Baltimore and Washington.

While some of the Missouri city's residents commute to jobs in the nearby state capital of Jefferson City, the majority live and work in Columbia, said Hindman, another way in which the two locales are dissimilar.

But much of what Hindman has learned in his efforts to make his city a leader in the use of nonmotorized transportation still applies, he said.

"You're going to have to connect your circular route [around downtown Columbia] with spokes that go into the densest areas of the city," he said at a morning speech before the bike tour pushed off from Columbia Association headquarters on Wincopin Circle.

That's an objective the mayor said his city is working on as well.

"And if you want to get a lot of people biking, striping the streets is a big part of what you do," he told CA board and staff members along with 30 community residents.

There also are mental barriers to overcome, since residents won't participate in an activity that they don't perceive to be safe or convenient, he said.

Chick Rhodehamel, CA's vice president of open-space management, said in a separate interview that connecting segments of the pathway system into the town center is something his department is willing to do, but those who own the affected land and roads would have to act first.

"Give us a wedge and we'll pave it and connect it," he said.

After the bike tour, two dozen government, business, civic and political leaders came together for a 90-minute "Bike Power Lunch" at the offices of the Horizon Foundation to pick Hindman's brain, a casual get-together that netted a list of ideas.

The mayor said his city makes frequent use of condemnation to obtain land for sidewalks, bike lanes and trails, something County Council Chairwoman Mary Kay Sigaty jotted down.

He described a program called Walking School Bus, in which adult volunteers walk bus routes instead of driving them and then accompany the students to school. Bike Walk and Wheel Week, when residents give up their cars for seven days, and Cycle-Recycle, a program in which old bikes are repaired and donated to low-income residents, also drew attention.

Hindman's observations were not surprising, though, Malone said afterward.

"There are all kinds of reasons in a recession not to do this," he said of investing in efforts to make Columbia more bike-friendly. "Yet everyone agrees across the spectrum that in the long term it's the right thing to do."

Hindman pointed out that his city's representatives "were getting backlash for spending on bikes and cutting other areas," even though they are trustees of federal money.

"We started out with naysayers but just kept going. Every community is suffering in the short term," he pointed out. "Just don't forget where you want to end up."


Is there a noteworthy person or event in your neighborhood? Contact Neighbors columnist Janene Holzberg at jholzberg76@msn.com or 410-461-4150.

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