Thursday, December 16, 2010

Bicyclists and car drivers are not (usually) separate groups

An email arrived today from a colleague in another part of the country. She was posting a questionnaire her bicycle advocacy group had sent to candidates for office. Like many groups around the country, they wanted to see the candidates' feelings and attitudes towards certain issues in the community. The answers would be sent to members and shared with the public.

By the way, this is one way for a 501(c)3 organization, which are generally thought to be prohibited from political activity, to be involved with elections. Sending a questionnaire and sharing/publishing the results is fine, as long as you send the questionnaire to all candidates and don't endorse.

However, the first sentence on this questionnaire was, "We believe great places to live provide transportation independence for those who do not drive motor vehicles."

This bothered me a bit, and below is the response email I wrote.

You start off with the the statement, "We believe great places to live provide transportation independence for those who do not drive motor vehicles."
I think this is a bit of a disservice to your/our cause, and also to those of us use bicycling and walking as everyday transportation modes. I own a car and drive. But I also bike and walk more frequently, and obviously believe strongly in the necessity of having these options for all in the community. 
It is not just those that "do not drive motor vehicles" that need these options. It is all of us! We all know why, so I won't go into that.
But we need to think about how we portray ourselves, and making a sharp dividing line between "pedestrians and bicyclist" on one side, and "drivers" on the other is not going to help both our image and our cause. We are everyone. We are you. We are your neighbors, friends, colleagues, doctors, lawyers, teachers, city officials, store owners, and the rest of the people you see every day. We are normal. 
Not driving is seen as something for the poor, the very young and very old, and people with disabilities. Or worse, people who have had their license taken away (although that seems to stop few in Wisconsin, the only state where a first OWI is a civil forfeiture, like a parking ticket, and you have to have 4 OWIs in 5 years to make it a felony.) In very large cities, obviously not driving is more normal for middle class and professional people, but there are few of these places [where you live] and most states.
We know that this is not the case, but we need to point out that everyone needs good access to non-motorized transportation, not just the non-drivers. 
I see this in news articles, community discussions, and policy documents. We talk about bicyclists as if they are not also drivers. I would venture to say that 95% of the people on this list own a car and drive. When we are told, "Bicyclists don't pay for the roads," - because people think we don't pay gas taxes - we have to point out again and again that we pay gas taxes, car registration, and licensing fees, because we are also drivers. And we are also property owners, and in Wisconsin property taxes pay almost 100% of the costs of local roads, the ones that most of us use for biking. 
We also hear, "Bicyclists don't obey the law." Of course, drivers don't obey the law either - speed limits, yielding to pedestrians, full stops before entering the crosswalk, etc. But it is much easier to say, "Most bicyclists are also drivers, They probably don't obey the law when driving either." It personalizes the violation, so it's not the vehicle that causes the law-breaking, it's the person. And it points out that bicyclists and drivers are not separate, segregated elements of the community, but simply the same people making a separate choice for that trip, like running shoes, dress shoes or loafers on your feet. 

Monday, December 13, 2010

Why aren't the bike lanes plowed?

Because our Governor-elect seems to have finally managed to kill Wisconsin's opportunity for the expansion of intercity rail, at least for the next decade or so, I'm going to move back to writing about some other transportation issues, or whatever happens to pop into my mind.

Even though non-bicyclists and transplants from warmer climates find this hard to believe, many of us actually continue to bike in the winter. In my case, I'm not likely to be going out on recreational rides, but I do still use my bike to get around town.

It's not as hard as most people think, but more on that in another post.

Today I'm going to address a question that comes up every year on a local listserv: "How come the bike lanes are in such bad condition?" After all, this is Madison. The paths get plowed, often before side streets. So why, when the plows are running down the street anyway, do the bike lanes end up with snow, ice, salt piles, dirt, and combinations of the above?

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Boneheaded politics means loss of rail money

Mayor Dave didn't pull any punches today when he held a press conference today in reaction to Governor-elect Scott Walker finally and definitely losing $810 million of federal investment in passenger rail service extending the Hiawatha line from Milwaukee to Madison.

The Mayor also points out that he repeatedly tried to talk to Walker, but was "met with a blank wall." Not even returning the calls from the mayor of the second largest city in the state, and the person you are likely to see frequently, since your offices are within two blocks of each other? What sort of bizarre politics is that? Is this what we can expect from our future governor: the cold shoulder and avoidance of anyone with whom he doesn't agree?

I have to agree with the harsh words of the Mayor, when he said, "the day can't come soon enough when Walker can be referred to as 'the former governor.'"

And right after the decision became final, Talgo made a definitive announcement of its own: They are leaving Milwaukee. Nice going, Walker. Not only did you lose the jobs building the rail line, but you have now turned away a business that would have manufactured trains in Milwaukee and shipped them all over the US. Manufacturing jobs in a depressed city, aren't those exactly the types of jobs we should be trying to attract?

One restaurateur has also decided that his plan to revamp and reopen his current eatery is not a good idea, now that there will be no train passengers coming and going across the street. This same decision will be repeated in other parts of Madison, around an abandoned grocery store in Watertown, and in any community that might have been along the line to the Twin Cities.

Good-bye to construction jobs, redevelopment in downtown areas, manufacturing in a depressed neighborhood in Milwaukee, and better rail lines for freight and the businesses it serves. All so communities in other states can reap those benefits. Wisconsin taxpayers aren't getting a refund on the money they have sent to Washington, DC, they are just sending the money elsewhere. And Wisconsin taxpayers will still have to pay to upgrade freight infrastructure and signaling that is mandated by the federal government. We could have paid for all this while also building the passenger service, but now it is all gone.

I am just sick to my stomach about this. Right after the election, I felt the same way, and then felt for awhile that maybe we had a chance to still make the situation right. Maybe, just maybe Walker would come to his senses and realize that he couldn't afford to throw away thousands of jobs and hundreds of millions of dollars, maybe billions, of additional dollars circulating in the state economy. Has he never heard of the multiplier effect?

When you are stuck in the snow on the way to Milwaukee, Chicago, or the Twin Cities, think about how the trains can get through all sorts of weather will virtually no delays. When you are creeping your way through rush hour traffic, or on your way to the Brewers on I-94, or want to get to downtown Chicago, but end up driving slower than I can bicycle, thank Scott Walker for ruining any chance to getting to those destinations more quickly and efficiently. When people who can't drive or shouldn't drive have no way to come to Madison to visit, imagine what it would be like to have the elderly, people with disabilities, or people who like to drink in our bars to have another transportation option.

The rail haters say, "What about the buses? Can't we just use those?" Sure, if you don't mind the buses moving the same speed as the rest of the traffic. See, trains get their own right of way, so they can bypass all the traffic. And buses hold maybe 50-60 people, while trains can carry hundreds. That means that to carry the same capacity, you would have to put 60-70 buses on the road and that also means 60-70 drivers for those buses, and that's expensive. Buses are just not a solution for a corridor where passengers want fast, reliable, and high capacity service.

I'm not going to write more, because what more is there to say? Maybe I'll be inspired tomorrow.  I don't suppose I'll wake up tomorrow and find out this was all a bad dream, right? No, I thought not.

Friday, December 3, 2010

What ever happened to the Red Bikes program?

After I wrote a post about bike sharing, someone mentioned the famous Red Bikes in Madison. Once or twice a year, someone asks me, or posts a question on the Bikies list, about the Red Bikes that Madison has/had. So here is the story:

The original Red Bikes program was indeed a bike sharing program - you could borrow a bike for a short time - a few minutes up to an hour or so - then use another Red Bike when you next needed one. The idea was that Red Bikes were put out by Budget Bicycles in the spring, and people could use them if they needed to get somewhere. You weren't supposed to lock them up, but just leave them somewhere unlocked, so someone else could use the bike.

As opposed to bike sharing programs that are being run formally around the country/world (see previous post), you couldn't rely on a Red Bike being available when you needed it. They were few and far between, and people who didn't understand the program, or were looking to cause trouble, would either "steal" the bikes (although I'm not sure how you "steal" something that is free), or would trash the bikes, strip them, or ride/throw them into the lake.

Roger Charley, the owner of Budget Bicycles, and a great supporter of bicycling in general, transportation bicycling in particular, and also a wonderful patron of advocacy efforts, decided that the program just wasn't really working. So it was changed to what exists now.

The current Red Bikes program is more like a cheap/free, long-term bike rental. You go to Budget, put down a deposit, get a basic bike and a lock, and use the bike as long as you need it -days to months. This is great for people visiting Madison for a few weeks or th summer. The program is also popular with new arrivals, especially grad students or international students, that may not have the money to buy a bike right away, but want basic transportation.

When you return the bike, you get your deposit back. You are responsible for keeping the bike safe/locked up, and you can bring the bike in for basic repairs like fixing a flat or having the brakes adjusted. (Please check with Budget for the details, I haven't checked all the fine print recently.)

So there is no Red Bikes as "pick one up for an hour to run an errand" anymore, which is the niche of a bike sharing program. However, the Red Bikes are a very useful, and very generous program run by Budget that fills a different sort of niche.

Hope that helps explain the past and current program.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Economic Development Commission (in)action on rail last night

My email to the EDC today. Thought I'd pass it on.

Dear members of the EDC,

Today I saw an article in The Daily Reporter, and had a few comments.

Bike sharing - why not Madison?

One of the questions I get, as a bike advocate in one of the most bike-friendly cities in the US, is, "Why doesn't Madison have a bike sharing program?"

I'm not really sure of the answer, but I have a good guess. Here's what I tell people about the situation in Madison: There's no space for the racks that would hold the bikes.

Wisc-Minn hearings on possible rail routes between Milw and Twin Cities

Dates for meetings at the end of this post. Also note the change of venue for the Madison hearing.

Photo courtesy of Environmental Law and Policy Center
No, rail is not totally dead in Wisconsin. Even though Gov-elect Walker is determined to throw away $810 million of federal investment and thousands of jobs to stop the extension of the Hiawatha service between Milwaukee and Madison, Wisconsin and Minnesota DOT officials are moving forward with a series of meetings to study routes through Wisconsin to Minnesota.

Coming up this week and next these meetings that give us a great chance to show support for rail in Wisconsin. Unfortunately, the info about the meetings is hard to come by and confusing for anyone not already deep in the rail debate. There isn't even any information on the WisDOT web site, and they are running the meetings!

This is my effort to put all the info in one place.

Apart from the $810 million in ARRA money granted to Wisconsin to extend the popular and successful Hiawatha line west from Milwaukee to Madison, there was another project funded - a study of the best route between Milwaukee and the Twin Cities. This was a joint study between the Wisconsin DOT and the Minnesota DOT, but Minnesota is taking the lead. Each state put in $300,000, and the federal government kicked in $600,000, so the study has $1.2 million total.

If the Hiawatha extension moves forward, that is, if Walker allows the Milwaukee-Madison piece to be built, it would seem logical for the MN-Milw route to go through Madison. But there are actually 14 routes being studied, and three of them do not pass through Madison. However, according to today's Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel:
Wisconsin transportation officials don't believe any alignment that excludes Madison would be economically feasible, but the study has to consider all options, said Cari Anne Renlund, executive assistant to Wisconsin Transportation Secretary Frank Busalacchi.
That is why we need to attend these meetings and say that we want rail in Madison. Also, one of the routes being studied is the current Empire Builder route that goes through Columbus, not exactly convenient to Madison, and certainly not likely to bring business or tourists to downtown for Badger games, Taste of Madison, Farmers Market, Art Far on the Square, etc. It's also not going to help business people that want to access the Capitol or campus area by bus, foot or bike. They are looking for a quick, easy way to avoid driving, and a Columbus stop really isn't much help.

However, the Walker has said he might consider using the federal stimulus funds for the Empire Builder. I guess he's willing to hang on to that money, as long as it is for a project that is guaranteed to fail and won't benefit those meddlesome liberals in Madison.

So let's get out to the meetings and show our support for rail in Wisconsin. This is about more than the much-debated Milwaukee-Madison piece. It's about economic development in western Wisconsin and connections to the entire region. Eau Claire and LaCrosse are both eager to have a connection to Madison and the Twin Cities. They know that this will bring investment in their communities and crucial connections to business and people across the Midwest. Minnesota wants a connection to Chicago, and they will push for it, even if they have to go through Iowa instead of Wisconsin. Illinois officials are already looking at that possibility.

Do we really want Wisconsin to be bypassed? Are we going to be the backwater of the upper Midwest, doomed to be off the map as modern transportation moves through other states, loaded with business deals, tourists, and investments? Are we willing to be left off the new interstate system?

Attend one of these meetings, and RSVP via the WISPIRG web site so you can get more information on how we can move rail forward in Wisconsin:
  • Tuesday, Nov. 30,  5-7pm: Best Western Riverfront Hotel, LaCrosse
  • Wednesday, Dec. 1,  5-7pm: Best Western Trail Lodge, Eau Claire
  • Thursday, Dec. 2,  5-7pm: University of Wisconsin, Fond du Lac
  • Tuesday, Dec. 7,  5-7pm: WisDOT Southwest Region Office, 2101 Wright Street, Crowne Plaza Hotel, 4402 East Washington Ave, Madison
If you can't make the meetings, but want to submit comments, you can do so until December 29 by sending them to the MN DOT:

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Bicycle-motor vehicle crash types in adults vs. kids

I got an email a bit ago from a friend that got hit by a car while riding his bike to work. A left-turning motorist failed to yield at an intersection as Steven was going straight, and he was hit, thrown up over the hood of the car, and cracked the windshield with his helmet.

Fortunately, he is OK, except for some major bruises, soreness and stiffness, but it makes me think about bicycle crashes. (And another pitch to wear a helmet. Note the part about cracking the windshield with his helmet, instead of his head.)

One of the little statistics that I have learned from being a bicycle safety educator and advocate for over a decade, is that this type of crash - motorists failing to yield and turning left into a bicyclist - is the most common type of motor vehicle-bicycle crash for bicyclists over 16 years old. (See below for why I worded that exactly that way.)

It also happens to be the most common crash type for motorcycle-auto crashes. Probably for the same reason: bicycles and motorcycles are narrower vehicles and easier to overlook when looking for a gap to make a left turn. This is why I am especially cautious when I see a motorist waiting to make a left.

Now, a slightly longer explanation, if you are interested in crash types.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Doyle's response letter on rail

This arrived in my email a bit ago. I suspect it was written several weeks ago, despite today's date in the header.

Thought others would like to see what is being sent as a response to calls of concern to Doyle's office.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Bike Parking Fail: Wave/ribbon racks poorly placed

Bike Parking Fail is going to be an occasional post topic here. I often see bad bike parking situations:

  • Bad racks
  • No rack
  • Not enough racks
  • Right rack, wrong place
  • Bad access
  • etc.

Today's pics are racks that are marginal design, but placed where people can't really use them properly. Wave and ribbon racks are much better than "fence racks," - those racks that only hold the front wheel, unless you put your bike frame over the top - but they have issues.

Wisconsinites don’t want to pay anything for transportation, neither rail nor roads

While an article in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel indicates that Wisconsinites oppose rail, I think the results merit a little further reflection.

Friday, November 12, 2010

What does Minnesota think of losing their frequent rail connections?

Although many anti-rail folks seem to forget this fact, the Madison-Milwaukee rail project, that Gov-elect Walker is determined to stop, is but one piece of a larger system, one that would run Chicago<-->Milwaukee<-->Madison<-->Twin Cities. If this piece doesn't go through, there is no future link between Madison and Minnesota, or from the Twin Cities to Milwaukee or Chicago, except for the once-a-day Empire Builder, which runs at a relatively slow speed and is often delayed on its way from Seattle.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Trains vs. buses

Short post, because I'm running off to a meeting. Sorry, not my best writing work.

Several people have suggested we don't need the Madison-Milwaukee train because "You can take the bus."

I have a few comments about this. Obviously this completely ignores the fact that the train also goes to Chicago and would be extended to the Twin Cities, not to mention the connections to points in between and cities throughout the Midwest network. And as you see below, there are distinct advantages to trains over buses, both for the individual, the state, and the operator of the service.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

My letter to Scott Walker on rail

Although lots of people are calling and emailing Doyle and Walker to support the Madison-Milwaukee extension of rail service, I thought a person, hard copy, snail letter might be a good idea. Below you can see my letter Walker.

Friday, November 5, 2010

Two similar crashes. Two media reports. Can you spot the difference?

Crash # 1: Two vehicles collide on Mineral Point Road, one eastbound, and one westbound. Westbound vehicle operator turns left, failing to yield to eastbound vehicle operator.

Crash # 2: Two vehicles collide on University Ave, one eastbound, and one westbound. Westbound vehicle operator turns left, failing to yield to eastbound vehicle operator.

Can you spot the differences in the way the incidents were reported? Same reporter, although many times the newspaper reports are a verbatim repeat of the police reports, so it may not be the reporter's fault.

Stopping the train: bluff, political maneuver or reality?

This is a rapidly evolving story, so by the time I finishing typing, things may have changed, but here's what we know so far.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

"...only had two beers and a shot."

Bradley Erickson, who was allegedly driving drunk when he crashed into a parked car killing three people early Thursday, said he didn't see the car and had only two beers and a shot of liquor hours earlier while watching a baseball game.
This makes me so angry. The quote above is from the guy that killed three people on the Interstate last week. He was in Marshfield for work, watched a baseball game, then left at 10 PM to drive back to Madison. Before he left, he had two beer and a shot of Jagger (or at least that's what he says.)

The crash happened at 2:35 AM, and his blood alcohol content at that time was 0.158, more than twice the legal limit. So, he's been driving for four hours, and his BAC is still twice the legal limit? What makes me think he either drank along the way, or was so smashed when he left that he's lucky he didn't go off the road within the first fifteen minutes?

Thinking that "only two beers and a shot" is nothing when leaving on a long, late night drive is bad enough, but I'm just not sure it's physically possible for his BAC to be that high after four hours if that is all he had.

Really, if you knew you weren't going to drive for 4 1/2 hours at night, not getting home until 2:30 AM, would you have a few drinks before leaving? How stupid and careless do you have to be to think that's OK? Or do we just assume that both alcohol and driving are rights, instead of responsibilities?

We have to do something about the idea that drinking and driving are an acceptable combination. Make a choice: either drink and don't drive, or drive, but don't drink. Maybe we need every car to have an ignition lockout as standard equipment. Certainly, we need to change the laws to make first time OWI a criminal offense, like every other state. And we all need to tell our friends, family, and work colleagues, "No" when they want another one, if they are going to drive home.

This has to stop. The price is too high to continue to cave to the Tavern League and the auto industry.

Friday, October 1, 2010

A personal victory in a recycling sign

The sign to the right I consider a personal victory. It's at a downtown chain restaurant (Cosi) that I occasionally patronize. For a couple of years, it bugged me that there was no place to put my recyclable bottle or can. Madison ordinance requires that there be a place to recycle containers, and both Dane County landfill rules and state law prohibit placing recyclable materials in the landfill.

Design for new Madison train station

Today Jonathan Zarov interviewed me on WORT about the new train station design that was unveiled Wednesday at the Urban Design Commission (UDC.) He also asked me about whether the new governor could stop the station, and whether there was any chance that the location of the station was still up in the air. (That's a "no" to both questions.)

But when he asked me where people could view the draft design of the station, I realized that digging through the city's web site to find it is pretty tough. So it is linked above for easy reference.

Thursday, September 30, 2010

Big roads act as barriers for those not driving

Whenever I hear transportation planners say that they are going to make "improvements" to a road, my first thought is, "improvement for whom?" Something that might make it easier or less congested for drivers on that road might make it much more difficult, or actually impossible for someone to cross that road, especially if that someone is walking or bicycling.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Connecting people and food - Madison has it good

During my conference in Chattanooga, I participated in a mobile workshop - a chance to get out and see the city and discuss issues - called Connecting People and Food. Since I have been interested in food politics for awhile, I thought I'd see what the folks in Chattanooga felt were their local issues.

Stimulus money at work in Illinois

Today's Wisconsin State Journal (or the letters at ran a letter from a couple that wrote about all the projects, funded by (American Recovery and Reinvestment Act) ARRA money, they noticed on their road trip out west. They complained that the right has been claiming that the stimulus has done nothing, and none of the "shovel ready" projects have been started.

I know how they feel. While on my road trip to Chattanooga, my first two days of driving through Illinois were marked by constant detours and slow downs due to road projects, most of which had signs noting that they had been funded through ARRA. Everywhere I went, there were orange barrels.

At the same time, as I crawled along interstates and two-lane rural roads, I listened to the talking heads of the right complaining that the President had lied to the American public about getting people back to work. They said over and over again that the stimulus money had funded almost no projects to date.

Can I suggest that these mouthpieces try driving the route I took? When they have yet again been detoured by an ARRA funded project on their way to the next town, we can interview them about the "nonexistent" stimulus projects, and how no one has been put to work.

Friday, September 24, 2010

Catching up after Chattanooga Road trip

I've been remiss in posting, in part because I've been out of town on a road trip/business trip. I'm going to write a few short posts to comment on the trip, but here's the outline of what I did:

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Good question: Where's the outrage over the proposed I-39 expansion cost?

Note: I had this published, and somehow tried to edit it, and never put it back up, so ignore any dates that look odd, such as referring to "today's Cap Time" below. This post was actually written and posted on Aug 19. 

From today's Cap Times comes a question I've asked quite a bit: "Where are the fiscal conservatives - the ones screaming about the cost of the Madison-Milwaukee rail project - when it comes to road costs?"

Chris Murphy did the research on numbers that I've been meaning to do.
But I am always struck by the opposition to rail based on its price tag when we spend far, far more on roads each year. According to state Department of Transportation figures (see table TR1 on page Roman numeral x), Wisconsin spent more than $1.1 billion last year just on highway rehabilitation and maintenance. Then there was another $323 million on new highway construction and major upgrades and more than $293 million on debt service, much of it likely for roads. All of those figures are separate, by the way, from aids given to municipalities to help pay for their roads and bridges; that's another $557 million and that doesn't count what counties, cities, villages and towns spend themselves on those projects.
 So... let's start a real conversation about the cost of different types of transportation. And don't give me the, "Most people drive, so we should be spending money on roads." B.S. When people have no other choices but to drive, of course they are going to chose that option. If you want to compare how many people use a certain mode, you have to compare driving vs. train in places where their time, cost, and convenience are similar. Perhaps looking at Metra in the Chicago area vs. how many people drive the same route. Or the NE corridor on Amtrak.

When the Madison-Milwaukee line gets up and running - and it will - I think many people will be amazed how many people chose that option over the I-94 drive.

Monday, August 30, 2010

Reminder: School Zone speed limit is 20 mph in Madison

In the last couple of day, there have been a couple of articles reminding us that school is starting and motorists should drive carefully around schools. The Madison Police Dept. put out a press release, so I assume the articles were generated from that. Some also mention that the MPD will be enforcing speed limits and other traffic laws in school zones.

This is good, because everyone using the roads should be aware of kids going to and from school. And the article mention that we should "slow down." They are even starting to mention that motorists (and bicyclists, too) need to yield to pedestrians in the crosswalk.

But something is missing, and it is bugging me that this little fact is left out. Neither the MPD press release nor any of the articles mention that the speed limit in school zones in Madison is 20 mph. It doesn't matter if that yellow sign is on Midvale Blvd, Milwaukee St, E Washington, or Regent St. No matter what the speed limit is at other times, or how fast the rest of the cars are going, when there are children present, the speed limit is 20 mph.

There are two schools on Midvale Blvd, also two schools on Regent St in a one mile stretch. Milwaukee St has several school zones strung together. And East High School, where two students were killed crossing the street, sits right on East Washington. And I have driven at 20 mph through each of these area, with kids present, and had people tailgate me, pass me unsafely on a 2-lane road, and generally been subjected to the treated as if I was trying to be a public menace.

You think you get dirty looks as a bicyclist riding in the middle of traffic? Try driving the speed limit past a school!

Friday, August 27, 2010

Updates and tidbits on Madison-Milwaukee rail

Last Thursday was the monthly Long Range Transportation Planning Committee meeting. The Wisconsin DOT had promised an update and opportunity to discuss the project at each of our meetings, but they didn't show in July.

Fortunately, the August meeting was much more productive on this front. Paul Trombino, Divisions Operations Director at WisDOT and the point person on the decision to cancel the station in Oconomowoc, came to the meeting a little after 6 PM. He had been delayed by some follow-up work on the Oconomowoc decision. (Was he perhaps being held hostage in his Hill Farms office?) He gave us far more details than we had had in the past, and was very forthcoming in answering questions. This was a great improvement over our disappointment at the no-show in July.

Here's what we learned:

The DOT will own the Madison station. They will also operate the station. This means that the City does not have to budget for the maintenance and operations of the station. This had been a very big question at the July meeting, and neither the DOT nor new mayoral aide Chris Klein - formerly executive assistant to DOT Frank Busalacchi - knew whether the City would be responsible for paying these costs.

Passenger rail runs will not be delayed by freight trains. This is a problem for many Amtrak routes, as freight lines have priority in use of the tracks, and passenger trains often have to wait for freight trains to slowly pass through or maneuver onto sidings before the passenger trains can pass. This will not be the case for the Chicago-Madison trains, and there will be on-time targets that will hold freight lines responsible for making sure the passenger service can get through. This is very important, because freight trains will indeed be using the same tracks as the passenger service.

Corridor construction will start this fall. This won't be happening within the City quite yet, but the work in the more rural segments of the line can be done during the winter. Quite a it of track upgrade and some "land bridges" - crossing of wetlands and other difficult soils - is actually better done in cold weather.

Roll-on/roll-off service will be provided for bicycles. Across the country, this service is being requested on Amtrak and other passenger rail routes. This allows bicycles to be brought onto the train without needing to disassemble the bike or put it in a box. Roll-on/roll-off service allows bicyclists to bike to and from the train easily, which in turn supports the rail service and extends the "passenger shed" - that area of a city where passengers can easily access the train. Generally, there is either an area of the baggage car or an area of each passenger car that has bike racks or hanging hooks where bikes can be secured.

In cities like Madison and Milwaukee, where bicycling is a common and encouraged form of transportation, having a bicycle when you exit the train allows users to get to their final destination or home without needing a car or waiting for the bus. But other communities along the way have been requesting this service so that visitors can access the trails and other recreational destinations directly from the train. This is really great news.

Some amount of "convenient," "reasonably-priced" parking is required for rail passengers in Madison. The reason I put these terms in quotes is because people may have different ideas about what is convenient and what is reasonably priced. I did a little on-line research, and there are lots of Amtrak locations, even on commuter lines, that do not have any overnight parking available. Many others have overnight parking in more remote locations, and the parking closest to the station are fairly pricey hourly spots.

This is a big question still up in the air. Madison's Parking Utility pays all of its costs via user fees - that is, the cost of meters, ramps, staffing of ramps, repair of ramps, and even the capital cost of building new ramps or surface lots is paid for by those that park there. Want more parking? That means the parking rates will likely go up.

The closest ramp to the Madison Station is the Government East ramp, and it is in very bad shape. Regardless of happens with the train, that ramp needs to be rebuilt. Because land in downtown is valuable, and a parking rap is generally not considered a good above-ground use for urban land, the Transit and Parking Commission has stated that it wants to build any new ramp underground, thereby reserving the street front and air rights for retail, residential, hotel, or office uses.

Smart move, but expensive. Going underground is always expensive. Just replacing the existing number of spots - just over 500 - will probably cost well over $50,000 PER SPACE. Yup, the cost of one parking spot is measured in tens of thousands of dollars. I have even heard estimates as high as $75,000 per space. All of that has to be paid for by those parking at meters or in the ramps.

Now the DOT wants cheap, "convenient" parking for train passengers as well. If they expect the City to subsidize parking for train passengers, this undercuts the entire concept of the Parking Utility - that users pay the full cost. So will the DOT chip in some money for those extra spots next door to the station? Or perhaps they will decide that, in order to get less expensive parking, they are willing to have people parking in one of the other, cheaper, less crowded city ramps. That's what other cities do.

A stakeholders group is being set up by the DOT and Mayor to deal with corridor issues within the City. Representatives of neighborhoods along the route, business interests, alders, and other interested parties will be appointed to advise DOT on corridor issues: crossings, safety, noise, aesthetics, lighting, etc. The DOT is not required to follow their recommendations, but they will be very important in providing input and expertise on these issues.

The City and DOT are still considering whether it will be possible to move the railroad tracks that run through Central Park. That would both allow a better use of the land for the park and cut down on the need to cross the tracks between Baldwin and Ingersoll.

The City is applying for a TIGER grant from the federal government in order to build a true multi-modal station, with not just car parking, but also a bike station, transit hub, and public market. TIGER stands for Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery and is part of the Recovery Act. TIGER grants are designed, in the word of the US DOT " spur a national competition for innovative, multi-modal and multi-jurisdictional transportation projects that promise significant economic and environmental benefits to an entire metropolitan area, a region or the nation."

Finally, there will be another Public Information Meeting at the new station, AKA the Dept of Administration Bldg, on Tuesday, August 31, 4:30-7:30 PM.

And I must say, the DOT has gotten a lot better about getting information up on their web site. I've worked with, or at least tried to influence DOT projects and  policy for over a decade, and they are generally not known for being the most transparent organization. But they are now putting up news releases, posters from public meetings, maps, and much more. I think this will both help the public get information and give feedback, as well as help the DOT answer critics that claim everything is happening behind closed doors.

I'll try to continue to update information as it becomes available. It's no secret that I think this project is important to the transportation future of Madison and the entire region. I want the DOT to hear the opinions and concerns of the public, but I also want this project to go forward without delay. I think both can easily be achieved.

Monday, August 23, 2010

It's the most dangerous time of the year....

As I ride around town every August, I have that holiday song, "It's the Most Wonderful Time of the Year" going through my head, but with new words, as noted in the title of this post.

The highest crash rate for bicyclists in Madison is late August and the month of September. This is due in part to all the new bicyclists showing up each year. Many undergraduates have heard that the best way to get around town is by bike. "Don't bring your car!" is written in very large letter - three times - in the materials on transportation given to all new students coming to the UW.

The problem is that many 18 year-olds, and even older bicyclists that are riding around Madison for the first time, haven't learned to do it right. American teenagers often give up riding a bike when they are about 13 - about the age when they can really start to understand how to negotiate traffic safely. It's not cool to ride a bike around town when you are in high school, and you start to have friends with a drivers license. So the Freshmen coming to Madison haven't been on a bike, except maybe on a trail or in a group, since they were truly kids.

And there are also many people moving to Madison that aren't used to a real city. Although Madison is still considered only a mid-sized city in population, our downtown and campus area operates much more like a bigger city because of density, urban design, and traffic congestion. So even if the new bicyclists are used to riding in the street, they may not know how to ride in urban traffic.

These two factors - no adult experience on a bike and no experience in urban riding - cause new Madison bicyclists to make all sorts of mistakes: riding the wrong way, riding without lights, riding on the sidewalk, riding unpredictably, turning without looking for cars or signaling, etc. After awhile, they either learn to ride correctly (more or less) or they give up on biking in Madison. The crash rate goes down either way.

But there is another factor that may contribute to the crash rate. And it certainly makes biking harder and more stressful for those of us used to Madison's patterns: There are a whole bunch of new drivers in town.

Parents are dropping off the kids at the dorms, trying to find a parking spot or just generally lost. Late summer tourists looking for the Farmers Market or Monona Terrace are confused by the one-way streets and inner and outer loops of the Capitol. New faculty, graduate students, or staff trying to find their way around their new home. And then those new students: young, excited to be on their own, impulsive, and completely clueless that driving is sort of a pain in the ass in Madison. None of these groups are used to the many bicyclists, pedestrians, moped drivers, buses, and general confusion and congestion of our downtown and campus.

We veterans of the Isthmus know that W. Dayton ends at both Camp Randall and the Overture Center, that you can't drive a private car on State St, that there is both a King St and Martin Luther King, Jr. Blvd, that the diagonal streets to the Square are one way, that bicyclists are likely to be sneaking up on the right side where there is a bike lane and riding on the sidewalk everywhere, and when traveling west on E Johnson from First St, the name of the street changes to Gorham -> University Ave -> Campus Dr -> University Ave.

We also know that there is construction everywhere, and the Isthmus makes both driving and parking a dicey and slow process.

But many of the newbies and visitors don't know any of these things, and they are lost, confused, stressed out and distracted by all the activity. That makes for lots of mistakes on their part, and a dangerous situation for those of us using less protected modes of travel.

To the veteran bicyclists and walkers, I urge patience and caution. You can tell when a driver is not a local. There's car "body language" as surely as there is human body language. Be especially careful when someone is going slow, drifting about in their lane, or the car is filled with furniture and luggage. These people are about to make a sudden turn without signaling or turn the wrong way on a one-way street. Try to wave with all your fingers and smile instead of yelling.

The visitors are probably not going to see this post, but in case it gets passed along to new residents, my advice is to park the car as soon as you can and walk. Really, it's faster than looking for a parking spot. Please remember that you must yield to pedestrian in the crosswalk, and bicyclists both have a right to the road and also are likely going as fast as you are in traffic. No matter where you lived before, Madison has a different traffic rhythm, and a different mix of road users. It's slow going in the car, and it's sort of confusing as well. Did I mention that walking might be easier?

Friday, August 20, 2010

Madison families out on bikes - at night!

Last night, as I rode home from a city meeting on a beautiful, warm summer night, I noticed how many families were out on bikes in downtown. It was already dark, and yet here were kids and parents biking around in the middle of the city.  (Most of the kids were in the 9-13 year old range I'm guessing: old enough to ride their own bikes, but still willing to be seen with mom or dad.)

What a great scene, on so many levels.

Families feel comfortable in downtown and want to be there. That is not true of all American cities, but Madison has a thriving nightlife, not just for college students, young professionals, or the Overture crowd, but also for parents with kids.

Madison is a safe place for kids to ride a bike, and parents are riding too. Sure, I'm not going to send a six-year old out alone, and the downtown can have some pretty confusing traffic situations, so older kids need to be supervised, but biking is a normal and safe way to get around as a family.

That's due to not just engineering - paths, bike lanes, painted markings, etc - but also the entire culture of biking in Madison. In many parts of the city bikes are a normal part of the street scene. That means that a bicyclist sees others out there and doesn't feel like a freak. Drivers are used to seeing bicyclists and understand how to share the road. New bicyclists or the timid know that there are others that bike and can ask advice.

Biking at night is even considered normal and safe. Lots of people bike during the day and in warm weather. But a large number of people won't venture out after dark or in less than ideal weather. But last night the downtown was buzzing with people getting around by bike at night. The families are likely to have lights, because parents that take their kids to downtown by bike tend to be experienced bicyclists. That means they know how important lights are. We wouldn't drive at night without lights. Why would we bike at night without lights?

Now, if we could only convince the 18-30 year old crowd to use lights as well. But that's another blog post.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Good question: Where's the outrage over the proposed I-39 expansion cost?

From today's Cap Times comes a question I've asked quite a bit: "Where are the fiscal conservatives - the ones screaming about the cost of the Madison-Milwaukee rail project - when it comes to road costs?"

Chris Murphy did the research on numbers that I've been meaning to do.
But I am always struck by the opposition to rail based on its price tag when we spend far, far more on roads each year. According to state Department of Transportation figures (see table TR1 on page Roman numeral x), Wisconsin spent more than $1.1 billion last year just on highway rehabilitation and maintenance. Then there was another $323 million on new highway construction and major upgrades and more than $293 million on debt service, much of it likely for roads. All of those figures are separate, by the way, from aids given to municipalities to help pay for their roads and bridges; that's another $557 million and that doesn't count what counties, cities, villages and towns spend themselves on those projects.
 So... let's start a real conversation about the cost of different types of transportation. And don't give me the, "Most people drive, so we should be spending money on roads." B.S. When people have no other choices but to drive, of course they are going to chose that option. If you want to compare how many people use a certain mode, you have to compare driving vs. train in places where their time, cost, and convenience are similar. Perhaps looking at Metra in the Chicago area vs. how many people drive the same route. Or the NE corridor on Amtrak.

When the Madison-Milwaukee line gets up and running - and it will - I think many people will be amazed how many people chose that option over the I-94 drive.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Myths about Madison-Milwaukee rail service - station and train ridership

I've been meaning to write this for some time. It just drives me nuts to see the same myths and misleading information perpetuated in articles and letters to the editor. So this is the first in what will likely be a series of posts about rail, transit, the RTA, and transportation in general.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

TIF Review Board: Edgewater, James Madison Park, blight, etc.

OK, I'm going to pull a Brenda and talk about a public meeting. The following may be a bit disjointed, but I don't have time and patience to straighten it out.

First a question: How is TIF going to make landlords maintain their property?

Saturday, August 7, 2010

Traveling: Fancy hotels? Eh, but yes, I'm a food snob

When I travel, for adventure, business, or just to get out of town for the weekend, I'm not particular about the sleeping accommodations. I don't spend a great deal of time in my room, so what do I care how pretty the room is, or who designed the lobby? I'm just going to go to sleep, take a shower, and leave the next day. If there is a TV I might watch the news or some drama. Wifi is a bonus, so I can check email and get info for the trip the next day, but not really necessary. Other than that, I just don't care.

I'm much pickier about my food and beverages, however.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Zoning to discourage fast food

As part of the Wisconsin State Health Plan, among a long list of actions to encourage better nutrition and more physical activity is a little suggestion that communities consider not allowing fast food outlets in low-income neighborhoods.

Of course, as soon as the story hit the papers, the comments section exploded with outrage. I just happened to be at a meeting at the Department of Health Service - a meeting for the Wisconsin Partnership on Activity and Nutrition - and heard some of the folks involved with the state report bemoaning the fact that this little provision was singled out.

My first thought was that zoning to prohibit certain types of food is pretty tough. But then I came up with a bit of an end-run to the issue. Below is an email I sent out to the statewide coalition working on overweight and obesity issues.

Of course, in true urban areas like Madison and Milwaukee, and the older downtowns of other municipalities, this might not work, and our largest cities are often also locations of large low-income populations, but it's a start.

Not sure about other areas of the state, but the suggestion in the state health plan to consider zoning to restrict fast food outlets in low income areas certainly created a stir on our local media outlets' forums.
Zoning against a certain type of menu is pretty tough, but I know something that will almost guarantee to keep away the big chains. As a bonus, it will improve safety for bicyclists and pedestrians, improve air quality, and might even encourage physical activity. What is this magic action?
Prohibit drive-through windows and aisles.
Almost no major fast food chain will build without one (except in heavily urbanized area), so you might be able to nip them in the bud with that alone. Drive-through windows and aisles also add "car space" to your landscape, making the remaining sidewalk and roadway more dangerous for walkers and bicyclists. They also contribute to car idling, which leads to bad air quality in the immediate area. And allowing people to stay in their cars, instead of asking them to walk a few dozen feet discourages physical activity.
Prohibiting drive-through windows and aisles is much easier to zone than the type of food they serve.
Just a hint for those looking for a tool.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Mayor Dave - stop using Edgewater as an example

Note: I wrote this entry back in mid-June, right after the Mayor's State of the City address, and his announcement that he wanted to "fix the development process." I never posted it, because I wanted to add some links, and never got around to looking them up. 

Now Bob Dunn has threatened a counter suit to the one questioning the approval process. He's acting like a spoiled kid (again), and that just brought all this Edgewater stuff back. The Cap Times ran an editorial titled, "Coming to a neighborhood near you: less influence."  And Marsha Rummel has organized a neighborhood summit this Saturday to talk about the proposals to "fix the process."

So once again, the Edgewater rears its ugly head as example one of "what's wrong with the development process." Well, I think that should stop. Read what I initially wrote back on June 16. I was mad, and still am. 

The Mayor wants to "fix the development process." He said this immediately after the Landmarks Commission rejected the Edgewater plan for the first time, and now he has brought it back up in his State of the City speech and at the Economic Development Commission.

He should stop using the Edgewater as an example of a typical Madison process for a development, because it isn't typical, and it just reminds people how that project split the city. The Edgewater process was long and painful for two reasons. It was an expensive, controversial project that had some very good arguments against it (principally breaking just about every TIF rule and rejection twice by the Landmarks Commission), and the process was bungled by the developer and many of his allies.

And let me say right up front that I had no strong feelings about the Edgewater development as a building. My main objection was the TIF process, which violated almost every rule the Council and the Planning Department had put in place to safeguard the Madison taxpayers and make the TIF allocations fair to all applicants. It took a lot of bad faith and arrogance to anger me to the point of disgust about how the public process was being handled.

In my six years as alder and the time since, I have never seen a development handled so poorly. The list of missteps is far too long to enumerate here, but starts with the public involvement. It was clear from the start that the developer had no respect for public opinion, and he resorted to astroturf support when people spoke out against him. When the developer presented his plans to the public, he was sure that he would prevail, because he had lined up all the correct supporters behind the scenes, as is common in large cities where he is accustomed to operating.

The problem is that most of the Madison decision makers actually have respect for the public process, and they rebelled at the back room dealings that were going on. The citizens that volunteer their time on city commissions, city staff, and the immediate neighbors were disrespected and dismissed. City staff won't complain in public, because they have too much professionalism, but I was appalled by what I heard "off the record."

The Edgewater process amounted to dragging an unhappy, sick kid, kicking and screaming, to a folk or classical concert you want to see. You got the kid to the physical location you wanted, and you are there to see the concert, but  the kid is going to disturb everyone else at the event, make them sick, make them hate you for bringing the kid, and piss off the kid as well. Then you complain that you didn't enjoy the concert, and the sound wasn't very good.

At some point you have to say, "Is this really a good idea?" Perhaps the Edgewater had so many problems, not because the Madison development process is broken, but because it isn't a good project, and the developers screwed up the process themselves.

Mayor Dave - stop using the Edgewater as an example. How about looking at how smoothly the Target and the moderate-income housing next to it created barely a ripple. What about all the projects that were passed in your first six years? Even in this economy, there is construction almost everywhere you look (except the periphery, and I don't mind seeing sprawl stall a bit.)

If you want to reform the development process, look a bit beyond the last time someone stood up and said, "No." Look at all the times they said, "Yes," and see what made those projects so easy.

Friday, July 23, 2010

Free food on Fridays - delivered by bike

Yummy fresh produce, courtesy of the folks at the F.H. King Student Farm, is delivered by bike and given away each Friday at 1 PM on Library Mall.

I think I heard about this, and then forgot until today. There I was, enjoying a little lunch from the food kiosks, and here comes a woman on a bike, with a long bed trailer and eight 18-gallon plastic totes full of fresh produce.

Within a couple of minutes, more people come by with more veggies, a table and banner.

I had just stopped to take a few photos of how much stuff can be carried by bike, and asked what was up. "Oh, we give away produce every Friday."

I grabbed some great big bulbs of garlic, since mine's not ready yet. And fennel, which in now making my backpack smell like anise.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Of course you can bike with luggage!

On my neighborhood listserv, there has been a debate raging about the best location for the new intercity rail station. (This despite the fact that that decision has already been made.)

One person said she was very happy with the downtown location, because she could easily get there by bike. Another person scoffed at the idea of people carrying their suitcase to the train via bike.

That's when I had to jump in.

I wrote:
OK, I have to defend getting to other modes of travel via bike.

I have biked to the airport with a small backpack or set of panniers. You know, about the size of an airline carry-on. No sweat. I have also taken the bus to the airport many times with a suitcase. Ditto for taking the bus to downtown to catch the Van Galder (to O'Hare.)

Carrying the stuff by bike is really not a big deal, especially if you have a trailer or rack on the back of your bike. However, the bus or bike to the airport is a lesson in inconvenience. Two buses to get from campus to the airport, less than 10 miles away? Insanity! And biking there takes self-confidence on the roads and a knowledge of the back ways that most bicyclists don't have. (Cabs from my house are well over $20 with tip, and for that price, I might as well take the bus to Chicago and avoid one connection.)

However, getting to downtown by bike or bus is definitely easier and less stressful. Obviously, the farther you get into a car-dependent environment, farther from regular bus routes and nice bike options, the less convenient the downtown looks.

But I will gladly trade a bit longer on the bus or train for being stuck on the Beltline or any major arterial during peak hour. One advantage of rail - either within the city or between cities - is that they don't get stuck in traffic. On one memorable Badger Bus trip, I was walking distance from my destination - 84th St in West Allis - but could reach it because we were stuck in Brewers traffic.

What many people forget is that there are already many people traveling from Milwaukee on a semi-regular basis just for day-trips. You would be amazed at the number of people that commute to or from Milwaukee EVERY DAY. Those people aren't carrying anything more than a shoulder bag or laptop. State workers, lobbyists, researchers at the University, private business people, etc. head both ways 2-5 times per week.

I was fine with the station being either downtown or at Yahara Station. As long as it wasn't at the airport, we could have made it work. There were advantages and disadvantages to both urban locations. DOT picked downtown, likely because they already owned the property, which obviously makes moving forward faster and easier.

Whether you agree with the location or not, the decision has been made. If you want rail to succeed - and I think most people in this neighborhood do want it to succeed - our energies can best be spent now in making the location chosen as attractive and accessible as possible.

Go to the public meetings. Ask the DOT questions. Tell them what you think. And keep up with when and how further decisions will be made, because yes, things are going to happen pretty fast. Although I will be the first to criticize the DOT "public input process" in most cases, and I think they could be doing a far better job with this one, I have seen evidence that public input is being considered and incorporated into the plans.

By the way, the Long Range Transportation Plan Committee meets the third Thursday each month, and the DOT has committed to coming and giving us an update on this project each month. This is also an opportunity for public comment, as is true with all city meetings. 5:00 PM in the Municipal Bldg. Rooms may change in the fall, so check the city's web site.

The Council will be getting updates for 1/2 hour before their first meeting of the month: First Tuesday in Aug, Sept, Oct, Nov. At only 1/2 hour, I don't think they are taking public comments, but you can go and listen in. 6:00 PM in the Council Chambers - 2nd floor of the City/County Bldg.

Thanks to John Luton for photos (and for travel advice in Victoria, BC) 

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Women's bike safety class - July 14 & 17

As someone who has been a bicycle advocate and educator for over ten years now, and as a year-round bike commuter, I often talk to people that say some variation on, "I'd ride to work/shopping/downtown, but I don't feel comfortable on the routes I'd have to take." They wish there was a path the whole way, or there is a particular street or intersection that keeps them from feeling safe.

Photo courtesy of the Pedestrian and Bicycle Information Center

I know that I can teach these people to ride in almost any traffic condition or to any destination, because I've been teaching people to do it for years. But I can't get those people into the classes I teach. Or they don't find out about the classes. Or they can't make the dates I've set up.

So they don't bike. Or they only bike on paths or quiet streets, and miss the joy and freedom of feeling confident going anywhere by bike that people driving cars can and do go. 

So here is my plea, in my blog, which I'm going to spread far and wide. If you already feel great biking all over town, please pass this on to a friend, neighbor, family member, or someone you work with. Or maybe you are one of those people yourself. You wish you felt OK about biking to work, or you want to bike to events, but the traffic scares you. Or the cars feel like they are passing so close, it just makes the whole idea less than fun. 

We can fix that! Below is information from an email I sent out a couple weeks ago. This time the class is a women-only class, but if you want to be informed of future classes, let me know. Or if you want me to each a class for your group, neighbors, or work site, we can talk about that too. 

Have you ever wanted to ride you bike somewhere, but didn't feel comfortable on the streets? Want to feel more confident riding to any destination? Want to know the real info on what's both safe and legal? Know someone else who has said, "I would bike to _____, but....?"

Have we got a class for you! And this time, it's women only.

This is a 9-hour class, and will be held Wednesdays, July 14, 6:30-9:30 PM and Saturday, July 17 9:30 AM - 4:30 PM at the Trek Store West, 8108 Mineral Point Rd (next to Target, off junction Rd.)*

Cost is $50/person for the 9-hour class.

Take this nationally-recognized class, and learn to ride anywhere, even if there's no bike lane, path, or quiet street. Feel more comfortable on your bike by making sure that it fits, works correctly, and you know how t ride it efficiently.

From the League of American Bicyclists web site:
"Gives cyclists the confidence they need to ride safely and legally in traffic or on the trail. The course covers bicycle safety checks, fixing a flat, on-bike skills and crash avoidance techniques and includes a student manual. Recommended for adults and children above age fourteen, this fast-paced, nine-hour course prepares cyclists for a full understanding of vehicular cycling.
Please let me know directly if you would like to register, and I will send you the materials.

If you have any questions, or would like more information, feel free to email or call me.

(This class is for adults, but students under 14-15 may take it if taking the class with a parent. Students 16-17 must have parental permission.)

Robbie Webber, League Cycling Instructor # 701
Over 10 years experience as a nationally certified bicycle safety instructor.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Bicycling changed Dave's life. What about yours?

Today I  want to link to another friend's great blog post on how a mountain bike saved his life. Dave Schlabowske is the "bike czar" of Milwaukee, and someone I consider a friend. We worked together back when we were both at Bicycle Federation of Wisconsin, and I always found Dave an interesting guy and fun to be around.

He's one of those people that has had several careers that don't seem linked at all. I'm like that a bit myself, but that's another blog post.

What I love about this his story, laid out in the link above, is that owning and riding a bicycle transformed his life, physically, professionally, and mentally. He found his calling, or maybe his second calling, changed career paths, and made some changes in his life that he feels literally saved his life.

We never know what decision today will take our lives in a different direction or have deep meaning years down the road. Bicycling has certainly led me to where I am now, and I have heard many stories from others about how it has changed their lives as well. That's why I love to help others learn to ride their bikes comfortably, safely, confidently.

Later today or tomorrow I'll have a link to a class I'm teaching in mid-July. It's a class I've taught many times before, but this time it's a women-only class. If you want to feel better riding your bike; if you want to be able to bike around town without worrying if there is a path; if you want to be able to enjoy your bike more, let me know.

But for now, I'm just going to link to Dave's great post. I have a bad cold (how is that possible when the weather is so nice?), and can only manage short bursts of productiveness.

Monday, June 28, 2010

Raising monarchs

Another post to mull the natural world and enjoy urban nature.

I'm raising monarch butterflies again. There is quite a bit of common milkweed in my front yard, and some swamp milkweed in the backyard. I think the common variety just showed up uninvited, but I'm thrilled to have it because I love to have monarchs flitting through the yard, and milkweed is the only plant where the female will lay eggs, and they only plant the caterpillars will eat. The swamp milkweed works too, but the common milkweed is larger, sturdier, and I can pick the leaves and stems without significantly reducing the overall plant population. And the caterpillars eat a lot when they get big.

Friday, June 25, 2010

FAQ on intercity rail - Madison 2001

Hey, lookee here, I found an FAQ page on intercity rail between Madison and Milwaukee - with possible extension to the Twin Cities dating back to January/February, 2001! Looks like many of the same questions were asked, studies, and someone attempted to answer them when the city and state were applying for federal funding nine years ago.

For more studies about the current project, see the Wisconsin DOT web site, where they have finally linked everything on one page. OK, the DOT is not all that great about getting information up on their web site. I've complained to them about this before with regard to the Verona Rd project. But at least we have a place to go to see some of the previous information, so we can see that yes, someone actually tried to answer questions before last year.

Friday, June 18, 2010

Wild visitors to the Walnut St greenhouses

Among of the wonderful things about bicycling are the things you see at slow speed and the ability to stop and enjoy them. It is difficult to stop on a busy street to greet a friend when you are driving,  but it's pretty easy on a bike. You can see the funny, sad, beautiful, and weird things that exist in your community, but are often missed as we rush about encased in our metal boxes.

Biking home along the campus Lakeshore Path I have had many of these special experiences, although they usually involve wildlife of view of the lake instead of other humans. I have seen migrating tundra swans, otters (or some large, weasel-shaped animal that ran in front of me), and nesting great-horned owls. I've been dive-bombed by angry redwing blackbirds, heard those owls calling to their young in the dark, watched the willows sway and bend as a storm rolls in, and laughed at the gulls lined up in rows on the deck of a boat moored in University Bay. The color of the lake and sky just after sunset as I bike west is an entrancing mix of blue, pink, purple, and indigo that paint could never capture. That color draws me in every time, and seems impossibly rich.

But last night my joyous moment happened a bit away from the lake. As I headed south on Walnut, past the greenhouses, I noticed a couple of visitors headed east on Observatory. They strolled along the grass and then peered into the greenhouse windows, walking between the low brick wall and the glass building. One stayed on the grass, and was harassed by a pair of redwing blackbirds that were likely nesting nearby. They seemed much more bothered by the other birds than by me, as I followed them on my bike at a discreet distance.

Aldo Leopold, while a professor here in Madison, on seeing a sandhill crane flying overhead once told a graduate student, "Take a good look at that crane, because you may never see one again." He wrote about the dwindling crane population in Marshland Elegy
Someday, perhaps in the very process of our benefactions, perhaps in the fullness of geologic time, the last crane will trumpet his farewell and spiral skyward from the great marsh. High out of the clouds will fall the sound of hunting horns, the bang of the phantom pack, the tinkle of little bells, and then a silence never to be broken - unless perchance in some far pasture of the Milky Way. 
Fortunately, we stopped many of the practices that were dooming the cranes, and now they are so common that they wander our urban parks and even mowed lawns on the UW campus. We stopped draining the wetlands and marshes, became more careful about the chemicals we put into the environment, and stopped hunting threatened species. But we are still harming the natural world in ways that will doom more species. 

Finally, the visitors left the greenhouses and paused on the grass near the parking lot for a bit. The light was fading, and they seemed perfectly at home wandering the campus, so I went on my way with another memory of the little moments made possible by quiet, clean, healthy, human-powered transportation.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Bird feeder observations

Nothing profound today, just some musings on what I see at my bird feeder while I work on the porch.nice

Working at home and setting my own schedule definitely has some advantages, although it has some drawbacks as well. I draw energy and ideas from talking to people face-to-face, and get some of my best inspiration from random encounters while I'm out in the world.  Being able to wake up and open my laptop doesn't force me to get out and interact with people. But watching birds, butterflies, kids on bikes, and neighbors walk from the front porch is as well.

I have two bird feeders hanging from the gutters of my porch. This allows me to watch the birds while I'm working, and also keeps the squirrels at bay. (Although the squirrels have tried jumping from the railing of the porch and crawling across the screens to reach the feeders, they can't make the transition.)

One of the feeders is filled with sunflower seeds, which is usually touted as the standard "everyone loves it" option. The other is filled with a "woodpecker mix," which has lots of peanuts, corn, dried fruit, as well as shelled sunflower seeds and a few other bits and pieces. The woodpecker feeder is a course mesh so that the larger pieces can be extracted.

So which feeder and mix do the birds prefer? The woodpecker mix/peanuts. They are eating that stuff like nobody's business and more of less ignoring the sunflower seed feeder right next to it.

Here's what has visited my feeder this year:

  • Lots and lots of sparrows. 
  • House finches
  • Chickadees. I love these cute, friendly, social birds.
  • Nuthatches. I think I've had a pair nesting in the tree out front for a couple years now. What is great about nuthatches is the way they hang upside down while feeding. That's a nuthatch in the photo at top.
  • Cardinals.
  • Goldfinches, although I feel bad that I don't have their favorite thistle feeder up and full. 
  • Red wing blackbirds. This seems strange, as they usually are next to water. This is the first year I've had this bird visit my feeder, and he's come a few times. Maybe he's confused.
  • And yes, I also have had a couple of woodpeckers. I think they are downy woodpeckers, although I'm never sure, because hairy woodpeckers look very much like them.

Also visiting in the past were many grackles and starlings. They are bullies and eat too much. I'd rather they didn't visit the feeder, but I can't stop them.

I have lots of other birds in my yard that don't visit the feeders:

  • House wrens. This tiny bird nests in a horizontal pole in my backyard, and you wouldn't believe how loud and persistent he is in singing to find a mate. Unfortunately, he's singing at dawn and right outside my bedroom window. And I'm not a morning person, so his search for a mate feels like the middle of the night to me.
  • Robins. Of course.
  • Cat birds. They really do sound like a little kitten mewing.
  • Baltimore orioles. I think.
  • Cedar waxwings. They come through in big bunches and all hang out in the same tree, then move to another. They usually show up when a tree or bush is in fruit.
  • Crows. Another early morning noisemaker, but far less sweet and friendly as the wren. I have actually closed my window a few times when they get worked up over something. I think they are hanging out in the pine trees a few doors down.
  • And some sort of hawk lives across the street. It's not a red-tail, but either a Cooper's or sharp-shinned hawk, which are found in forests, instead of fields, like a red-tail. These hawks can make sharp 90 degree turns and fly in dense woods. They've picked off a few birds from my neighbors' feeders across the street.

I'm sure I've forgotten a few birds, and don't know what else is calling in the trees and brush in my back yard. I didn't even try to figure out what comes through during migration. I have lots of different habitat in my tiny urban yard. Open grass, vegetable garden, fruiting trees and shrubs (mulberries, wild grapes, rasberries, and currants), perennial beds that seed, and a whole lot of trees and shrubs that I don't trim in the back. Lots of places to hide, nest, feed, and hang out.

If you would like to look up any birds, or figure out what call you are hearing in the morning, I suggest a great web page by the Cornell Lab or Ornithology.  It's got as much information as you could possibly want, plus sound files of the various calls, songs, an other noises birds make.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Residential parking - contradictions abound

Yet again, my neighborhood is having a discussion about parking in a newly proposed residential building. People seem to want parking to be included in the rent (or purchase price) of each unit. This is because they think that if parking is not included with the rent, the residents will park on the already crowded streets. Living in a pre-WII neighborhood, close to the UW campus and hospitals, with a high school up the street, and lots of apartments, it is sometimes it can be a challenge to find parking. So people don't want more people parking in the same crowded area.

At the same time, people don't want lots of extra traffic on their streets and in the neighborhood. What they fail to realize is that, if you include parking in the rent, you will only attract residents that have cars. And people with cars tend to drive them. Trust me, I am one of those people, despite trying to drive as little as possible.

If you sell parking separately, the apartments become financially attractive for people that don't won cars, or only own one car for two people. That means less cars, less traffic, and less parking problems for everyone.

The same type of contradiction comes up when the UW is building on campus, or a new office or apartment is proposed. Half the people in my neighborhood argue for less parking on campus, or keeping the number of spots the same, because they don't want more people driving through the neighborhood to get to that parking. The other half ask for more parking on campus, so people won't park in the neighborhood. I swear, sometimes the same people say different things on different days.

My neighborhood only allows two hours of parking during the day unless you have a residential permit. These permits are only available to people that live in the area, and many apartments dwellers are not allowed to get them anyway.

People who complain about the parking in the area are generally homeowners. They chose to buy a house without enough parking for their needs. Whose fault is that? For the record, I did not own a car myself when I bought my house, and now own one car. I also have one off-street parking spot, so my parking demand exactly matches what I own. If you own more cars than you have space to park them off-street, not on ly shouldn't you be complaining, you are part of the problem.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

PGA-only interchange on I-43 - your money at work

When people complain about things like bike and pedestrian facilities, or the cost of building or maintaining transit systems - including local and intercity rail - I shake my head. These people rarely have any idea how much of their tax dollars are spent to build and maintain the roads they drive on every day.

Even worse are people who say, "I'll never use that [path, bus line, train, station, etc.], so I shouldn't have to pay for it."

Well, here's something I can guarantee you I will never use, and yet my tax dollars are paying for it. The PGA tournament and Whistling Straits course in Kohler apparently has enough political pull to get their own private interchange, open only a few weeks of the year, and only every five year. Seriously?! This is what the Wisconsin DOT has as a priority? The Zoo Interchange is falling apart, the bridge between MN and WI at Winona has new cracks [although that's MNDOT's problem], Mike Sheridan wants a bigger I-39/90 to Beloit, and they are building an interchange for the golf fans?

Cost, shared by the Kohler Co. and you, the Wisconsin taxpayer: $671,000. How much is your share?

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

The assumption of driving everywhere

Boy, I hate being up at 8:00 AM. I am not a morning person, and now I don't feel so bad about it. A recent study found that there really are “morning people” and “night people.” And the same study found out that night people were alert and productive more hours of the day, regardless of what time they actually got up and started working. So there. I may sleep late every day, but I'm getting plenty of work done.

Why am I bringing up this gripe about being up early? Because I am at a conference on campus at 8:00 AM this morning, and it's making me grumpy. But this conference is the lead-in to my topic today: Even groups that promote physical activity as an important part of preventing obesity and its accompanying health problems assume everyone will be driving everywhere.

For a number of years, I have been working with a statewide group on overweight and obesity issues. The Wisconsin Partnership on Activity and Nutrition (WIPAN) is a CDC-funded effort to address these issues. Today this coalition is meeting on campus with a UW group with a similar mission, WIPOD.

For the first few years I felt like my role in WIPAN was to show up and say, "How you construct your community affects physical activity!" Most of the people initially involved were public health professional and health researchers. They all knew that increased physical activity can prevent all sorts of health problems, but few seemed to connect our transportation choices and built environment with whether people were getting the recommended amount of physical activity. At the national level, the CDC and Surgeon General were just beginning to talk about the role of the built environment in facilitating or deterring physical activity.

I clearly remember the first time I heard a CDC researcher say that we needed to make our communities more walking and bicycling-friendly. It was at a national conference on walking and bicycling, and I wanted to shout, "Hallelujah!" During the Q&A period, I urged the speaker to take this message to policy makers, because, as I said at the time, "We can say that we need better walking and biking environments, but policy makers think, 'Oh, that's those lycra-clad, environmental, tree-hugging, freaks that want people to drive less.' Which is true, that's who we are, but it doesn't mean we are wrong. But when a respected public health professional or researcher says the same thing, more people are likely to listen."

Eventually, this message got through at both the national and state level, and because I had been pushing for the inclusion of this aspect of policy, they made me the Chair of the Community Design and Physical Activity Committee for WIPAN. We've worked on writing walking points and briefing papers for the local coalitions around the state on such issues as:

  • What is an MPO, and why should you care what they are doing?
  • How's your local MPO doing with regard to policies to improve physical activity?
  • How can you get involved with Safe Routes to School?
  • What is Complete Streets, and how do you get your local community to adopt this policy?
  • etc.

So, today I was asked to attend this conference to represent WIPAN in a breakout session on the built environment. Because I registered late, the woman who confirmed my registration emailed me to say that, "All the parking permits have been issued, so you'll have to find parking on your own." I emailed back that not only was I not worried about finding a place to park my bike, but I lived within 1/2 mile of the conference site.

I suppose that my answer was unnecessarily snarky - she didn't know that transportation within the campus area really isn't an issue for me - but what struck me was that there is an assumption that everyone at this conference will be arriving car. Here I was about to talk about getting people to be more physically active via walking, biking, and transit, and there is no thought at all about giving participants information on getting to the conference without driving.

Yes, obviously, many people were coming from out of town, so I don't expect them to bike from Green Bay or Milwaukee, but there was NO information for anyone about alternatives to driving to campus. There could have been information on parking off-site and taking the many buses that pass within 1/4 mile of the site. Or even how to walk from the recommended hotel - which is also a short walk from the conference.

This lack of any "directions," except driving directions, to destinations is unbelievably common. On a number of occasions I have asked for transit or biking directions to a destination, both in Madison and other cities, and been met with a blank stare or dead silence.

This is not just a health issue, but also a social and economic justice issue, because people without cars may be trying to access destinations, events, and resources. I hope that more organizers, business owners, and convention and visitors bureaus will make an effort to provide transportation information for people not driving to the destination.