Friends and regular readers know I am a big booster for Wisconsin and a proud life-long resident of Milwaukee. I am usually the first one to say what a great place this is to live and ride a bicycle. The Bicycle Federation has even been criticized for being an institutionalized booster for anything cycling related in Wisconsin. That said, in recent years, I feel we are falling behind other places that have moved quickly to adopt things like protected bike lanes that have been proven to get a lot more butts on bikes. Why is it that in the state that built the nation’s first rail trail, cities have been so slow to add these innovative bicycle facilities?
Conversations about the icons of bicycle friendly cities historically have started with Boulder, Davis and Portland, now must include mention of cities as diverse as Indianapolis, Chicago, and Minneapolis. Even New York City, once a virtual bicycle desert, is installing leading edge bicycle facilities as fast as they can build them. The video below from Indianapolis provides a succinct explanation of the reasons behind the building boom for innovative bicycle facilities.
Wisconsin used to be a leader in innovative bicycle facilities. In 1967 we built the Elroy-Sparta trail, the first rail to trail conversion and led the nation in rail trail construction for years. So how could it be that in 2011 even some local cyclists felt compelled to tell me the money spent on the Hank Aaron State Trail would have been better spent on freeways? Madison built the University Avenue contra-flow bike lane decades ago, but hasn’t added a protected bike lane since. Chicago built two protected bike lanes this year alone and has plans for 25 additional miles.
The video below shows how New York has been transformed its traffic choked arterial streets into places where people of all ages and abilities feel safe to ride a bicycle. In the process of doing that, a side benefit of the protected bike lanes are a more livable city with less speeding, fewer crashes and more revenue for storefront businesses.
Milwaukee did just build the first raised bike lane east of the state of Oregon, and Madison has leading bicycle commute rates as well as has some innovative treatments like bike boxes and the start to a bicycle boulevard, but I just don’t feel the excitement or momentum that so many of these other cities have. Given our early lead in facilities, our state’s important bicycle manufacturing industry and the huge economic impact bicycle tourism has here, I would expect we would be leading the charge not fighting tooth and nail for a path on the Hoan Bridge.
Don’t get me wrong, Wisconsin and our cities are still great places to ride, but we are no longer mentioned when people discuss innovation in bicycle facility design. In the last couple years I have had the pleasure of riding on many of these innovative new bicycle facilities from the cycle tracks in Washington, D.C. and NYC to the bicycle boulevard networks prominent on the west coast. It is not an exaggeration to say that in every case, they have proven to get lots more people riding, reduce crashes for all vehicles and make cities more livable.
Why don’t we seem to want some of that action? What has been holding cities in Wisconsin back? What happened? Are we content to rest on our laurels? Are we living off our reputation? Did we start out too fast in a marathon race? Do we lack champions? Am I too critical and missing something? I’d like to hear what you think in the comments below.