Lessons from a Bicycle City

Bicycling is a mobility of choice in Madison, WI.

The City of Madison, Wisconsin was a magnificent host city for the Annual Congress of the CNU, or Congress for the New Urbanism. Although admittedly I visited only a portion of the City that is the most urban, downtown, it had an amazing pedestrian presence. Downtown Madison has the unique advantage of being the center of commerce, education and government for the State of Wisconsin. The nexus of all of these major anchors creates an enlivened district where the reality of a park once and walk situation is easily attained.

With this in mind, it should not be difficult to understand the intense use of the bicycle in Madison. However– I was still blown away by the amount of bicycles in motion and parked at bicycle racks throughout Madison.

Colorado Springs is also a bicycle Mecca in the United States. The use of the bicycle in Colorado Springs though is primarily for exercise and training purposes. As I am often reminded by friends and neighbors, Colorado Springs is the home of the Olympic Training Center and several World Champion bicycle athletes.

Madison hosts an annual event called Bike the Drive where they close John Nolen Drive in favor of bicycles.

I suspect that Madison is different and it appeared that bicycling in Madison is truly a common mode of transportation to get from Point A to Point B.

You may be wondering how the City of Madison became such a bicycle friendly city? My suspicion is that is an effect of multiple policy decisions accompanied by great anchors as previously referenced. I believe that the State Street Pedestrian Mall in Madison is also a product of success for the same reasons.

The following is a brief list of potential causal items that may have made Madison one of the greatest bicycling cities in the United States:

Madison began it's B-Cycle bike sharing program less than one month ago.

1. Proximity and Bicycle ready linkages between downtown Madison and the University of Wisconsin.

2. Miles of lake frontage flanking both sides of downtown Madison.

3. High connectivity of streets, therefore dispersed traffic flow throughout Madison.

4. Available bicycle infrastructure elements including bicycle lanes, trails, storage opportunities & the new bicycle sharing program by B-Cycle.

6 thoughts on “Lessons from a Bicycle City

  1. Madison is not the bike haven you imply. A mere 3% of commutes in Madison are by bike. With students that number goes up as expected, but for the rest of Madison it’s rather dismal.

    I’ve lived in the city for over 30 years and what the numbers are showing is the limitations of the current bike infrastructure. We’ve hit the wall and it’s not going to change until we look at bikes as a legitimate form or transportation. The bike lanes, which are little more then a white line on the right side of the road, have shown their limits as to how far it will take us. What’s needed is a much better infrastructure. This includes protected bike paths that actually go somewhere fast and safe. The current system is only one step removed from vehicular biking.

    Even many of the bike lanes in Madison are very poorly designed with bikes having to choose between riding in the door zone or uncomfortably close to moving traffic. Getting on a bike and trying to actually go somewhere is an exercise in braveity. It certainly doesn’t encourage more folks to get on their bikes.

  2. Thank you for the comment Allan. Yes there is always room for improvement for every city in terms of bicycle infrastructure. Keep up the good work in Madison!

    Wouldn’t it be nice if equal lanes miles of bicycle boulevards were provided for highway lane miles? It would assist in balancing out the options.

  3. I commuted on bicycle in the Springs 40 years ago and the only significant difference is the trails along Monument and Fountain Creeks. Now I live in an area that’s popular for road bikes but there is zero paved shoulder and the bicycle safety zone is the width of the white line. Encounters with oncoming traffic on the left and a bike on the right puts the rider in peril. After several overlay cycles there has been no effort at widening. Bicycles pay no road tax and have little leverage with traffic engineers that write design or paving specs. Greater demand might induce more incentive but doesn’t solve funding. Growth has been more in outlying areas while infill development has withered. The question does not exist for which bicycles are the answer – Yet.

    1. Great points. Gas taxes also don’t come close to covering the costs of the SOV lanes either.
      Bicycle demand can only go up where it is not so easy to drive. Levels of service of A, B, & C for our roads will not only be counter productive for our ability to travel by bicycle, but also incredibly expensive for maintenance of our streets and roads.

      1. Thanks for the reply John. We’ve recently had another overlay cycle and bicycle riding in my area is more popular than ever. The next overlay cycle on these roads, may be as much as another ten years away. If a proposed 2″ overlay over a a 24′ roadway width were instead applied at about 1.8″ over 26′ width the asphalt volume (bid by the ton) would be the same and the result would be an extra 12″ outside of the white line. This additional width is more than enough to give a bicycle some safety margin outside of the traffic lane and reduce the hazard for vehicle traffic as well. The reduction in asphalt depth would have little if any consequence on the quality and durability of the overlay. The additional width could reduce injuries and save lives as well as reduce hazard to vehicles and their occupants. The cost would be zero. It is simply a matter of planning in advance to include the accommodation. Without the intention to improve, progress won’t likely occur. Somebody, somewhere needs to get ahead of this or else we will have no recourse but to continue to commiserate about seemingly unsolvable problems.

  4. Before I moved to Tennessee, I just took it for granted that separate bike paths existed. I used to live in Madison and never rode a bike. I recall thinking it was “different” that one of my colleagues that worked for the state “biked to work” daily. Now I live in an area devoid of bike lanes and even roads with no shoulders, and I now consider my former state as a bicycle paradise, compared to where I live now where many adults DON’T EVEN OWN a bicycle, much less ride one. The ones I know that do, many of them grew up in the North, but still strictly for recreation, not transportation.

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