Wednesday, October 15, 2014

I Bike, I Vote: 2014 Wisconsin Bike Summit

Last Friday I attended the 2014 edition of the annual Wisconsin Bike Summit in Madison. Having just recently relocated to Madison, I figured the summit would be a great opportunity to connect with the local and state-wide bike advocacy scene. The schedule of the summit was packed, with three concurrent tracks. First, however, were the opening remarks by Michael Johnson. Johnson is the highly charismatic CEO of the Dane County Boys & Girls Club—and also an avid cyclist who goes on weekly group rides at 4:30 in the morning!

Dave Cieslewicz in a great outfit: Suit, bike tie, Sidis

The first panel I attended was on increasing the share of women amongst cyclists. The fact that women on average bike less than men (and the larger issue of equity; see below) has received quite a bit of attention lately, and the Bike Fed started a program for Women & Bikes. The panel was introduced by Carolyn Dvorak, the ambassador for the La Crosse group. Krista Crum from the Madison bike share system B-cycle presented data on how bike share in general and the system in Madison in particular can be a tool for increasing the proportion of women cycling. Whereas the overall share amongst cyclists in the US is somewhere between 20 and 30 percent, the Madison B-cycle system is much closer to gender parity. Cassandra Habel, the Madison ambassador of Women & Bikes and the person behind Spokehaven, then presented the wide range of activities that she has started in Madison to offer a variety of ways for women to engage with cycling at any skill level—fix-a-flat clinics, no-drop group rides, support for women racers, ...

The future of car travel

“A Vision for Wisconsin’s Transportation System” was the title of the second panel I attended, and it probably had the least bike-focus. Ashwat Narayanan from the advocacy group 1000 Friends of Wisconsin and Bruce Speight from the Wisconsin Public Interest Research Group presented their research into the misguided transportation policies in Wisconsin: a stagnating or declining number of miles driven in cars is met with costly highway capacity expansions that cost billions. As a regular Streetsblog reader I was quite familiar with their work and would have appreciated it if the speakers had explicitly the role of cycling in the big picture. But maybe that is the conclusion: Highway building is such a behemoth that active transportation investments simply pale in significance.

After a lunch break speech by RT Rybak, the former mayor of Minneapolis, I went to a panel that presented a number of statistics about bike commuting and potential strategies to increase them. I love this kind of research, and the work by Robert Schneider, professor of urban planning at UW–Milwaukee, was very interesting: He analyzed the 100 census tracts with the highest share of bike commuters and tried to distill what distinguished those neighborhoods from ones with lower bike commute shares. While some factors aren't easily changed, for example the proportion of university students that characterizes cities like Davis, CA, I think this kind of work has enormous promise for informing future policy and advocacy.

Image credit: Adventure Cycling Association

Another panel that promised to be very interesting was about the US Bicycle Route (USBR) System and its implementation in Wisconsin. The USBRs are an effort to create a US-wide network of long-distance bike routes. As a volunteer mapper for OpenStreetMap (OSM) I had earlier agreed to help getting the planned Wisconsin routes into the OSM database, but never heard back from the people in charge. At the panel a representative of WisDOT and the Department of Natural Resources presented the three corridors planned for Wisconsin, two going east–west and one going north–south. Somewhat confusingly, there is also a fourth route in the plan, USBR 30 through Madison, but that one is planned not by state agencies but by the Bike Fed and was not mentioned at all during the panel. The second presentation was by the president of Rails-to-Trails.  Their work to convert abandoned rail corridors around the country into trails for active transportation is quite impressive. I was also intrigued by the fact that they have a detailed, volunteer-created database of both rail corridors and trails, including surface information. This seems like a great opportunity for collaboration with OpenStreetMap.

The final panel of the day returned to the topic touched upon in the first panel: Equity. The Milwaukee coordinator of the SmartTrips program, Shea Schachameyer, presented her efforts on data collection about biking and walking in a low-income neighborhood. How many people of color or people with low income already bike? What do they consider to be barriers to biking and walking more? And how can those barriers be overcome? Keith Holt of the Bike Fed addressed the question of equity more generally. How can equity be defined in the world of bike advocacy? How can the momentum around the topic that recently popped up around the topic be translated into effective action? As one can imagine, there are way more questions than answer. One example of equity work done right that Holt presented was the creation of the Underground Railroad bike route. Despite Holt's initial skepticism about the very-white-and-from-Missoula bike touring organization Adventure Cycling Association, he described how the cooperation with the University Pittsburgh's Center of Minority Health ultimately led to a successful project beyond appropriation of Black history.

Eleanor McMahon in front of the Capitol

The summit concluded with a group ride to the State Capitol where Eleanor McMahon, a member of the Canadian legislature and founder of the Share the Road Ontario gave a short speech.

I really enjoyed the summit. The only slight criticism I have is that, as it not uncommon with these types of events, the schedule was so packed that discussion and socializing often came up short. Probably a lot of that happened at the Saris Gala that happened in the evening and that I unfortunately couldn't attend. It also would have been helpful if the name tags had stated the organization or location of the participants. Especially for newcomers to the Wisconsin bike advocacy scene this made it hard to figure out who was who.

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