The Road to Bike City

What does a bike city look like?

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People on bikes in Madison

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.Bikers on State Street in Madison

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.”

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