Madison: A Bike City

From urban paths and rural trails to industry leaders and renowned competitions, Madison is one of America's bicycling capitals

By Katie Vaughn

It should have safe paths and lanes, plus scenic trails for recreational rides. It ought to be a place where riders can pedal to work, the grocery store and schools to drop off their kids. But what if it were a place where residents also rode to the Dane County Farmers' Market, Concerts on the Square and Badger football games? If it attracted bicycle industry leaders and international competitions?

You may not have noticed that Madison's become a haven for bicyclists of all stripes. As with many notable aspects of our city, we tend to take a humble outlook and assume other places have what we have. They don't.

One hundred and six miles of bike lanes cross the city, and Madison boasts forty-six miles of paved bike paths, some of which see more than three thousand cyclists a day. Recreational cycling brings in $1.5 billion annually to the state economy and supports more than $924 million in tourism and related spending. Ironman Wisconsin alone generates roughly $2.3 million in economic impact each year. And some of the biggest biking companies in the world are headquartered here.

Madison's right up there with other major bicycling centers in the United States. Davis, California, enjoys the highest rate of ridership, with twenty-two percent of its residents regularly using bicycling as a mode of transportation. Boulder, Colorado, has reached fifteen percent. Yet Madison's rate of six percent is significant, especially compared to the national average of .6 percent of trips to work made by bike, says Amanda White, associate director of the Bicycle Federation of Wisconsin.

"Everyone looks to Portland as a mecca for biking," she says. "They're at six percent. We're at six percent—and they have much milder winters."

The wheels start turning
Mayor Paul Soglin traces Madison's evolution as a bike capital back to the 1970s, when he first held office. A member of the city council was an avid bicyclist and pushed the city to develop a bike system.

In 1975, a bicycle path around Lake Monona opened—an accomplishment Soglin ranks among his proudest to date. Bicycling continued as a priority in the following decades as the city planned the State Street mall, began converting abandoned rail beds into recreational paths and worked on developments.

The city also took note of citizens' habits. "One of the things we noticed in the '70s was the number of individuals who
participate in activities that were lifelong and for which they didn't need a team," Soglin says. "At that point, we made a conscious decision to encourage sports and athletic opportunities which were lifelong—swimming, ice skating, running and bicycling."

Bicyclists in the area responded, forming bike clubs, co-ops, races and events, as well as an environment where an international competition such as the Ironman would feel at home. "You just can't land something like that overnight," Soglin says. "You have to have a local base."

Of course, another mayor has played a role in Madison's biking scene. Dave Cieslewicz was a passionate bike advocate while in office over most of the past decade, and he points to industry heavyweights headquartered in the city— and in particular their local leaders, John Burke at Trek Bicycle and Chris Fortune at Saris Cycling Group—as pushing bicycling into the mainstream and raising the city's reputation as a strong spot for it.

The combination of Trek, one of the world's leading bike manufacturers, Saris, which makes bike racks, Pacific Cycle, the company behind such popular brands as Schwinn, bike accessories company Planet Bike and nearly a dozen independent bike shops across the city creates a thriving bike industry not found in other cities.

International inspiration
To fully understand biking in Madison, one must look to Europe—specifically, to a trip twenty-one city leaders took in 2010.

Saris' Fortune secured a grant to take a group, including Cieslewicz, then-county executive Kathleen Falk, Downtown Madison Inc. president Susan Schmitz, Bicycle Federation executive director Kevin Hardman, downtown business owners and city engineers, to visit five European cities to study their biking systems, infrastructure and amenities.
The group saw not only how Münster, Amsterdam and other cities approached bicycling, but also how readily citizens incorporated it into their lives. In some places, more than half of residents include bicycling in their regular modes of transportation. "The reason so many people in Europe bike is it's the easiest way to get around," Cieslewicz says. "You can't make a lot of progress based on altruism."

Back in Madison, the group created a vision for biking in the city and began implementing changes, such as adding a dedicated bike path and traffic sign for bicycles at the intersection of Regent and Monroe streets. Many other projects on the city's wish list hail from concepts witnessed on that trip.

On a roll
The underlying assumption is that bicycling is good for a city: Bikes are relatively inexpensive, easy on roads and the environment and smaller to store than cars. And biking makes for healthier citizens and active neighborhoods full of shops, offices and restaurants. "I'd rather have those on our streets than parking lots," says Schmitz.

An avid bike commuter herself, Schmitz believes biking is a natural alternative to driving in the city's center. "It's a land-use issue," she says. "You've got to give people other options for coming downtown."

However, experts agree that biking must be one of several convenient modes of transportation, which may also include mass transit, cars and walking.

"We try to provide a variety of facility types," says Arthur Ross, pedestrian and bicycle coordinator in the city's Traffic Engineering Division. "People need to have different ways to access A to B."

The key to increasing biking as a regular means of transportation is making it easy for people to incorporate into their routines. "Our focus is on just regular people bicycling day to day," Ross says.

"It's got to be part of life," Cieslewicz agrees. "It can't be something where you feel like you have to put on your Lycra."

Bikability is a factor some people weigh in deciding whether to move to Madison. "It's one of those markers that people look at in deciding where to live," Cieslewicz says. "It's a sign of a progressive and forward-thinking community."

It matters to visitors, too. Deb Archer, president and CEO of the Greater Madison Convention & Visitors Bureau, hears about business travelers using the city's bike sharing program, vacationers coming for the area's recreational trails and, certainly, athletes flocking to the area for Ironman and other biking competitions. "Word has gotten out," she says. "We're an authentic biking center. It's integrated into our culture. It's not just a student thing, not just an extreme athlete thing."

And it's not just the city's downtown that gives Madison its reputation; some of the best biking in the world is located just outside the city.

Head west of Madison into Verona, Blue Mounds and Black Earth, and you reach the challenging, hilly terrain that attracts triathletes, road bikers and one of the most revered Ironman courses. And Middleton and Fitchburg have created and improved their own networks of trails, bringing in recreational riders and mountain bikers.

The road ahead
The concept shaping the future of biking in Madison is 20x2020. Created by the Bicycle Federation, the plan seeks to increase bicycle ridership to twenty percent over the next eight years. The group has watched bike commuting increase by one percent every year for the past three years and believes the goal can be achieved.

"As we work toward 20x2020, thevision is that bicycling to work, bicycling to the grocery store, bicycling in general is very common," White says. "It's just a viable choice."

A crucial step will be making riders feel safe. The Bicycle Federation is advocating for more buffered bike lanes and other plans that give bikers, walkers and drivers distinct areas. "The future of Madison's biking is all about separation— bikes from cars from pedestrians," White says.

This summer, the city begins work on a transportation master plan, which will examine biking and other modes of transportation, as well as the connectivity between systems. The 20x2020 plan is a goal they'll consider, says Steve Cover, director of the Department of Planning and Community and Economic Development. "We're going to do our best to at least accommodate it," he says. "There's a big emphasis on that."

Also this summer, the city will add bike lanes on University Avenue, Monona Drive and County Highway M, install bike racks in some shopping areas and continue work on several bike paths. Downtown, city leaders are exploring options for enhanced bike parking. Schmitz points to the Judge Doyle Square Project, a two-block redeveopment near the Capitol. "We're advocating a true covered bike space underground with facilities," she says.

Another idea in the mix is for park-and-bike facilities on the outskirts of the city. People could drive or bus to points in Sun Prairie or Stoughton, or Hilldale or Yahara, and then ride their bikes downtown.

Looking even further out are concepts like the Nolen Centennial Project, which grocery store owner and bike enthusiast Tim Metcalfe announced last year as a way to reinvigorate Olin Park. A bike trail would connect the park and Alliant Energy Center to the path along John Nolen Drive, and the project could also feature a lake center and outdoor amphitheater. Metcalfe may present plans to the Parks Commission late this summer.

Ross says policies, politics and funding will all be considerations for an ambitious project such as Nolen Centennial. But he believes bold visions are needed if Madison is going to continue as a biking capital.

"You have to dream," he says. "If all we ever thought of was what is feasible, we'd have a pretty boring city."

Katie Vaughn is managing editor of Madison Magazine. 

Latest Health News

Photo Galleries

E-News Registration

This Week's Circulars