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Making a mountain out of Madison

Bike-friendly Madison still isn’t world class, but off-road biking offers growth potential.

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From the pages of In Business magazine.

When it comes to bicycle-friendly cities, Madison is among elite company.

Madison came in No. 9 in the latest Best U.S. Cities for Biking report from PlacesForBikes, a top-10 ranking for the second straight year in the survey of 510 U.S. cities. That comes on the heels of the city taking the top spot on a list of Eight Surprisingly Bike-Friendly Cities from in August 2018.

The city is home to more than 240 miles of bikeways that support an active outdoor community, and bike-share programs like Madison BCycle are also widely available.

Cycling isn’t just for recreation or exercise, either. Madison ranks second to only Portland, Oregon nationally among large cities with the highest percentage of those biking to work (5.1 percent).

This shouldn’t come as much of a shock. As a state, Wisconsin ranks 26th nationally for bike friendliness (though, as recently as 2011, the Badger State ranked third), according to the League of American Bicyclists Bicycle Friendly Community Program, with 18 bike-friendly communities, 44 bike-friendly businesses, and five bike-friendly colleges.

According to data from Destination Madison [formerly the Greater Madison Convention and Visitors Bureau], since 2010, a total of 26,490 people have attended cycling events held in and around Greater Madison, including a number of USA Cycling races, contributing roughly $4.3 million to the local economy.

Additionally, other events since 2010 associated with cycling or having a cycling component, such as Ironman Wisconsin, have been attended by 301,840 people and contributed nearly $40 million to the local economy.

The Wisconsin Bike Fed also notes that the city of Madison strategically placed bike racks outside many of its businesses in the downtown area and saw a 3 percent overall increase in sales tax revenues in the areas where the new bike racks were installed.

With no fewer than 31 bicycle shops located throughout the Greater Madison area, and major bicycle and bike accessories manufacturers like Madison-based Pacific Cycle and Saris, and Waterloo-based Trek, cycling is big business locally.

However, none of that means Madison doesn’t still have ample room for improvement when it comes to bicycling infrastructure, says Robbie Webber, a board member with Madison Bikes, a local advocacy group that focuses on transportation bicycling.

Webber should know what she’s talking about. Now 60, she spent 10 years as a program manager at the Bicycle Federation of Wisconsin [now Wisconsin Bike Fed]; two years as a steering committee member for BikeWalk Madison, a local bicycle/pedestrian advocacy organization aimed at improving the walking and bicycling environment in the city of Madison and the Madison area; has put in 12 years and counting as a bicycle representative on the Governor’s State Trails Council; and worked for the past seven-plus years as a transportation policy analyst with State Smart Transportation Initiative. She also served from 2003–2009 as the District 5 alder in Madison.

“It all depends on whom you’re comparing us to,” notes Webber. “Compared to other places in the U.S., I think we’re doing a fantastic job. We are in that top tier of cities that is really making an effort to build the network so that everyone of all abilities can feel comfortable on their bikes.

“However, if you look worldwide, we’re nowhere near good,” she continues. “We still have gaps in some places, places where bicyclists are expected to ride with heavy traffic, and you’re just not going to get a family with a 12-year-old biking on that street. I’ll bike on anything, but somebody new to biking of my age is not going to bike on that. We need to fill those gaps and in many cases we still have problems filling those gaps because we’re prioritizing either parking on the street or car throughput.”

Webber says other U.S. cities are making the hard decisions and saying storing cars on the street is not really the best use of the public right of way, but Madison remains at a crossroads when it comes to fully embracing bicycling as transportation.

“Whether it’s connecting cul-de-sacs, removing parking from a street and making that into a protected bike lane, or installing improved bicycle parking, it’s sometimes hard to make the argument [for improved bicycling infrastructure] because the decision-makers and influencers don’t see it in their neighborhood,” Webber explains. “But, as I always like to say, you don’t build a pool based on who’s standing around with a bathing suit and a towel. However, if you build the pool there will be a lot of people swimming there. If you build the bicycle infrastructure, people will use it.”

Webber says growth in Madison, particularly downtown, isn’t stopping, so something needs to be done to address transportation.

“[As the city grows] there is no physical way to have everybody driving into the downtown,” she states. “It just is not possible unless you level a whole bunch of buildings, and we’re not going to do that. So, we have to start moving around in other ways. That means transit, walking, and biking. It’s a toolkit; no one method is perfect for every trip, but we have to start prioritizing those things if the city is going to thrive.”

That’s going to require some hard choices, Webber notes, things like prioritizing the speed of bus rapid transit or the ability of somebody to bicycle over the speed of personal motor vehicle traffic. Or, does the city want to continue to allow people to park for free on the street and essentially store their cars on the street over the ability of people to move around in other ways.

“Those are some hard choices that a lot of cities all over the country are making,” says Webber. “If you look at cities that have thriving downtowns and thriving business districts, the places that millennials want to live are places where you can move around by different methods of transportation. We have made those choices in the past, but we’ve picked the low-hanging fruit and now Madison is going to have to make those harder choices.”

Off the beaten path

If hard decisions loom for the future of more utilitarian bicycling in and around downtown Madison, one aspect of the sport that seems to be enjoying a local renaissance is one you might not think of when you picture the isthmus and rolling hills — mountain biking.

Slow Roll Cycles, owned by Dan Dacko, right, is Madison’s newest bike shop. While Slow Roll accommodates road cyclists, Dacko says the shop specializes in mountain bikes and accessories. Photos courtesy: Modern Form Photography

Madison’s newest bike shop owner, Dan Dacko of Slow Roll Cycles at 4118 Monona Drive, is an influential local mountain biking advocate. He’s called Madison home for the past 20 years, but he spent much of that time traveling the globe, biking in Europe and Asia, as well as across North America, and getting a firsthand perspective on what makes Greater Madison such a unique cycling hotspot.

“There are so many opportunities in Greater Madison, it’s amazing,” he says. “There’s a mountain bike trail system out in Cambridge at CamRock County Park, and when I started mountain biking here it was like four miles, and today it’s 13-plus miles. I used to be a coach for a youth group of six-year-olds to 16-year-olds and we had upwards of 60–80 kids out there every Wednesday night. There are thousands of visitors out there.”

Indeed, if cycling’s future is the next generation, that generation likes its mountain biking.

“Mountain biking is more exciting for kids than road biking,” says Kelley Linnan, program director for youth mountain bike lessons at Madison’s Blackhawk Ski Club, bluntly. “Road biking is a social sport, but let’s face it, you’re riding in a straight line most of the time. Kids want to roll, jump, and bump their way through the forest and occasionally take a tumble in the dirt. That’s what kids should do.”

Biking on the road, unless you’re experienced and careful, can be also be particularly dangerous, explains Linnan. Kids can be taught how to reduce the risks of riding on the road, but there’s nothing better than a grassy field to teach them how to technically ride a bike.

The appeal of mountain biking for beginners of all ages is that every trail is a new adventure. “We tell the kids every lesson to expand their comfort zone and try new things,” says Linnan. “We want the kids to feel excitement in every class. The trails at Blackhawk are designed to allow a beginner to ride at a slow pace — staying at the bottom of banked turns and rolling over the jumps — while also allowing more advanced riders to rip around the banked turns and gap the jumps.

“We’re essentially allowing kids to come in on day one and dunk on a 10-foot rim,” she continues. “They will have as much fun on the trails on day one as they will on day 900. Additionally, they can go anywhere in the world for the rest of their lives and find mountain bike trails that will be completely different than anything they’ve experienced so far. Tell me how many basketball players can do that?”


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