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.
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.