Madison may boast the 9th highest percentage of bicycle commuters in American cities, according to the League of American Bicyclists, but it’s still an automobile's paradise. And it’s not easy having two wheels in a world with four.
Chuck Strawser, the bicycle coordinator for the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Transportation Services, attributes much of the pushback he and local enthusiasts face when advocating for improved infrastructure to misunderstandings about the logistics of bicycle commuting.
The recent reconstruction of East Washington Avenue is a good example. Strawser said his appeals for a well-defined bicycle amenity were often met with: “Why in the world would anyone want to ride their bike down East Washington Avenue?”
“Most people don't,” Strawser responded. “Most people are going to choose a more pleasant alternative for through travel, but if your destination is on East Washington Avenue, you're going to have to get on the street at some point in order to get to your destination.”
Therefore, Strawser said not providing bicyclists the same access as motorists severely limits the scope of efforts to increase environmentally conscious modes of transportation.
“It would be like saying for people who drive cars: ‘Well that's fine, you can drive a car, but you have to stay on the interstate,’” he said.
Despite such challenges, Madison enjoys a strong bicycling community relative to other parts of the country, according to Strawser. However, when compared to many Northern European towns, Strawser said Madison disappoints.
“They’re appalled that we expect people on bicycles to share the road with semi trailers, 18-wheelers, and coexist,” he said.
To that end, former Madison mayor and current Wisconsin Bicycle Federation Executive Director Dave Cieslewicz said a city’s “bikeability” hinges on safety.
He identified three attitudes an individual can hold toward bicycling.
Approximately 7 percent of Americans are “intrepid cyclists,” and will bike regardless of accommodations, according to Cieslewicz. Thirty-three percent will persistently refuse to bicycle, and he categorizes the 60 percent in between as “interested but concerned.”
“What they're concerned about is their safety,” Cieslewicz said. “And if you create the infrastructure that makes people safe and feel safe, more people will ride, simple as that.”
The number of bicycle crashes reported in Madison increased 17 percent overall between 2007 and 2011, compared to a 1.9 percent overall uptick in automobile collisions, according to a report by the city Traffic Engineering Division. The majority of bicycle crashes occurred when motorists, turning either left or right, struck bicyclists continuing straight through an intersection.
Nearly one third of the individuals on bikes were 19 to 23 years old.
Several factors contribute to a locale’s bicycle safety, according to Cieslewicz, and they intersect where money and politics meet culture.
He said exclusive bicycle routes, running either adjacent or completely removed from roads, provide the best solution.
However, Cieslewicz admitted proposals to fund urban bicycling infrastructure stall in the state Legislature, despite projected economic benefits.
“It's bigger than deer hunting, that’s how big it is,” Cieslewicz said. Therefore, he added, mainstream Republicans line up with Democrats on this issue.
“Our problem is with the Tea Party,” Cieslewicz said. “And for Tea Party Republicans, you can quote all the statistics you want about how many jobs [bikes create], they don't care, the bike is a weapon of culture wars.”
Potential economic benefits transcend the $924 million and 13,139 full-time jobs bicycling supports statewide, as calculated by student researchers in UW-Madison’s Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies in 2010.
According to their report, 49.7 percent of Madison residents fall below the World Health Organization’s recommended activity levels, increasing their risk of ischemic heart disease, stroke, breast cancer and colon cancer. If all Madison residents were to attain the recommended weekly exercise, the report estimates statewide morbidity and healthcare savings of approximately $80.5 million.
Taking into account statistics from the National Household Transportation Survey, which show nearly 40 percent of car trips made in America are shorter than 1.9 miles, the report suggests bicycle commuting as a time-effective alternative to a sedentary lifestyle.
Madison’s average commuter spends 19 minutes traveling both to and from work each day, according to the American Survey Data. Applying the average cycling speed of 13 miles per hour, individuals living within approximately five miles of their work could theoretically bike to work without sacrificing much time (Five miles at a 13 mile per hour pace rounds out at a 23-minute commute).
What’s more, is that if a person living exactly five miles from their work biked even four out of the five weekdays, they would spend approximately 184 minutes bicycling each week, exceeding WHO’s minimum of 150 minutes of moderate physical activity required of “sufficiently active individuals,” according to the report.
B Cycle, Madison’s bike-sharing program, indicates an international trend of emerging business models aimed at achieving these goals.
Having just entered its fourth year of operation, B Cycle’s ridership grew 29 percent from 2012 to 2013, according to the 2013 annual report. Part of that is attributed to a new UW-Madison partnership, which offers discounted memberships to students, faculty and staff.
However, Cieslewicz said B Cycle suffers inadequate revenue streams despite its growing popularity, partly because the government does not regard bicycle subsidies in the same light as subsidies for other modes of transportation, such as driving and transit.
“The very best thing you can do for the campus is biking or walking, because you're taking up less space, you're not imposing a lot of externalities on people, there's no greenhouse emissions, all this great stuff,” Cieslewicz said. “And yet that's the one form of transportation that doesn't get any subsidy.”
Regardless, Cieslewicz said he will continue striving to improve Wisconsin’s bikeability.
“My philosophy is don't worry so much about state government,” he said. “Until the mainstream Republican party takes back their party from the extremists, we're not going to make much progress there, so let's work at the local level.”
And that starts with Madison’s “20 by 2020” campaign, which Cieslewicz explained represents a goal to increase Madison’s bicycle fare number—the percentage of trips completed on bicycle—from approximately 8 to 20 percent by the year 2020.
If accomplished, the Nelson Institute report estimates a 20 percent bicycle fare would reduce annual carbon emissions by 4.2 percent.
Change will not come about overnight, and it will not necessarily come sealed in government wax, according to both Cieslewicz and Strawser. Similar to social perceptions about same-sex marriage, Strawser said time is a byproduct of adapting bicycling into the mainstream.
“It's going to take that same sort of intergenerational change to bring about a different attitude in transportation,” Strawser said.
On the institutional side of it, Cieslewicz looks overseas. He credits European successes to policies adopted decades ago, when places such as Amsterdam and Copenhagen experienced similar bicycle rates as America.
“It isn't just culture,” Cieslewicz said. “They really changed the culture, and they consciously did, so there's no reason why we can't accomplish it here.”