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.