Tour de Madison: How a Midwestern City Smiles Upon Bikes

Capital City Trail, Madison
(All pictures by Lynne Peeples)

Ever since I got "doored" while biking (in a designated bike lane) down a street just outside Boston, Massachusetts, I've implemented a self-ban on city riding. I make an exception for the 6-mile road that loops through Central Park—although I have had some close calls with horse-drawn carriages and a truck hauling port-a-potties (he came out of nowhere). And I decided to add one more, at least temporary, exception recently while in Madison, Wisconsin.

Madison may not be the first place that comes to mind when you think of hot spots for urban biking—maybe Portland, Oregon, or Davis, California. But a city that’s cloaked in snow nearly half the year? Really? Really. "Probably the most bike-friendly cities in the world aren't the ones you would expect," David Byrne, the former frontman of the music group, Talking Heads, and author of a new book, Bicycle Diaries, recently told the New York Times.

True, the Midwest is known for being nice, but I needed to judge for myself if that friendliness really carries over to biking.

So I, along with a dozen or so members of the Society of Environmental Journalists, took part in an urban biking tour as part of our annual conference in Madison this month. Admittedly, I was a little nervous signing up. I like feeling the wind in my face as I spin my wheels—just as long as that wind is not created by a passing car.

In the end, the only thing I really had to be concerned about that October day was frostbite; it had actually snowed that morning. After we rented our bikes—and I purchased some warm bike gloves—we met our tour guide, Mark Clear, a city alderman and avid bike-commuter. He has taken on the mission of maximizing the bike-friendliness of Madison, and showed us the city council's "Making Madison the Best Place in the Country to Bicycle" report drafted in 2007.

A year before, the League of American Bicyclists had awarded Madison gold-level status as a Bicycle Friendly Community. But that wasn't good enough for Clear. "We're going for Platinum status," he said. "Of course, we'd be content just being the best biking city." To that end, Clear and the city are adding bike-only overpasses, plowing the paths after snowstorms, encouraging businesses to cater to bike-commuters and addressing the scarcity of parking. It's currently harder to park a bike on the University of Wisconsin, Madison campus than a car.

Riding a bike in Madison is far different than rolling along the bike lanes of New York City or Boston. A network of 45 miles of isolated bike trails crisscross this small city, plus another 100 or so miles on streets, according to Clear. On the dedicated paths, there's no traffic whizzing past, no car doors spontaneously opening. It's just a blur of trees, rivers, and maybe an old coal plant or factory. (Plans are in the works to turn the two facilities we saw into a huge park and new planned community, respectively.)

Our short tour took us about four miles up the East Isthmus Path, part of Madison's Capitol City Trail system, before we retraced our spins back to the bike shop. That's about the distance to and from my 96th Street Manhattan apartment and Union Square (14th Street)—a ride I’m still far too chicken to take.

Boston and New York City are trying to improve their friendliness, too—for bikers anyway, if not between sports fans. Boston is implementing a new bike-sharing program, as well as installing several more miles of bike lanes and hundreds more bike racks. As David Byrne sees it, New York has improved to the point he doesn't even bother with a helmet much of the time (not, by the way, something we at Audubon endorse—wear your helmet). The New York Times posted a video last week with Byrne biking around Manhattan and offering his advice for making the city's bike system better—from burying the West Side Highway to opening up more bike lanes in additional neighborhoods. "The city has gradually become more accommodating," he told the Times. "But it's little by little, not going to be something overnight."

It’s the little things in Madison, too. As we crossed a major intersection from the trail back to the bike shop, Clear pointed out a "bike box"—a designated safe-zone for bicyclists that allows them to pull in front of waiting traffic and then get a head start when the light turns green.

My safety assured, I found I could relax and relate to Byrne's joy in traversing a city on two wheels: "There's a sense of floating through the landscape and watching as it goes by," he said. "It feels kind of dreamy."

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