Bike compromise necessary for city (September 2009)

[This originally appeared in the September 1st issue of the Badger Herald.]

I don’t like bikes. I have ridden a bike exactly twice since I got my driver’s license, and both times served to remind that I don’t like riding bikes. I scream in my car when I’m stuck in a line of traffic behind some guy slowly huffing and puffing his way up a hill, and I’m convinced the last thought on Earth is going to be “damn bikers,” right before my head is slammed into the pavement when a biker runs a red light and hits me full speed.

Thankfully, no one is making me ride a bike, and I’m able to walk or use the bus every day. Most days I don’t even touch my car. I’m thankful I live in a part of a city with plenty of transportation options.

Writing a pro-biking column in Madison takes about as much political courage as taking a pro-‘Union Terrace on nice days’ position, so I’ll spare you another missive on all the reasons bicycling is good. Over the past year, a few bike-related projects and proposals have come before the Madison Common Council, and they’ve all passed 19 to 1. Ald. Thuy Pham-Remmele, District 20, has been the lone holdout. If she was voting against these proposals for cost reasons, I might understand, but none of the projects have been that costly, and some of them cost the city nothing. No, instead it seems she just doesn’t like bikes and bikers.

As someone who shares her sentiment, this position completely baffles me. She should be leading the charge for expanded bike infrastructure. Biking is not a choice she or I are going to make, but plenty of others are biking. Why not get them into their own bike lanes, or onto more bike paths? That way we don’t even have to “share the road with bicycles.”

She should also recognize the incredible economic development opportunity that comes with Madison’s commitment to being bike-friendly. Companies can create good jobs and offer good salaries, but quality of life is the city’s responsibility. Selling Madison to potential new hires is tough enough with our winter, so we need to have other things to point to. I’ve been involved with graduate student recruiting in my department the past few years, which is basically the same thing as recruiting new employees. After the quality of UW professors, the single most effective recruiting tool I could use was talking up biking in Madison. Even though we don’t have it yet, just explaining that the city was committed to obtaining a “platinum” rating for bicycling friendliness was a powerful statement.

Adopting the “platinum” report (another 19-1 vote) and its goal of achieving the highest rating from the League of American Bicyclists was an important milestone for the city. One of the most surprising things about moving up one rating from gold to platinum is what we don’t have to do. The reason we’re not platinum isn’t because we need to pave more bike paths or build more bike bridges. Indeed, Madison’s bike infrastructure is the envy of the country. Instead, says former district 5 alder and current bicycling advocate Robbie Webber, we need to have more education, encouragement and coordination. Education and encouragement must be tied together: August and September typically see the most bike crashes in Madison, when thousands of new bike riders hit the streets. We have programs in all of these areas, but expanding their visibility will help when Madison’s status is reviewed next spring.

To be sure, there are some new infrastructure pieces that are eagerly anticipated. The Badger State Trail is just six miles short of connecting downtown Madison all the way to Illinois, and the gap is only four miles between Madison and Waukesha. Madison will also soon be considering designating East Mifflin and Kendall Bluff as “Bike Boulevards.” Bike Boulevards would look and feel like some combination of State-Street-style pedestrian malls and regular city streets. They wouldn’t deny cars the right to drive on a street, but instead would render cars the secondary users of the street. Building such boulevards can be as simple as repainting a few lines and putting up some signs, or adding some traffic calming devices. Madison prides itself on its willingness to innovate. The Bike Boulevards are a chance to do so.

If you’re new to Madison, take some time to check out some of the online resources about biking in the area and how to bike safely in the city. And if you’re like me and have sworn off biking forever, give it another thought. Webber made a pretty persuasive case, so maybe even you’ll see me biking every now and then.

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