Near the end of my ride on Monday, I traveled south through downtown West Bend on the Eisenbahn State Trail. Arriving at Water Street, I could see a big group of pedestrians ahead. I chose—not for the first time—to leave the trail rather than run a gauntlet of inattentive parents, reckless kids and unleashed dogs. Long experience has taught me that, on average, they were going to be more trouble than any motorists I would encounter on our “mean streets.”
Moments later I arrived at the intersection of Indiana and Kilbourn, a four-way stop. A car traveling east on Kilbourn reached the intersection first. The driver stopped, waited for me as I approached the intersection from the north, then motioned from his open window for me to continue. I stopped. The law required me to do so. If I take a few liberties on remote Washington County farm roads, I am conspicuously law-abiding in town. The driver continued through the intersection at my verbal request, then I took my turn.
I completed my ride without incident, which is only as it should be. I’m a safe and courteous rider and I was operating my bike in accordance with the same state vehicle code that applies to the motorists with whom I shared the roads. As a safe and courteous rider I chose Indiana instead of Main, two streets that are roughly parallel and equally close to home. Of course, they are not equally traveled by motor vehicles, so I chose the one with less traffic. I didn’t choose Main just to make the point that I have the right to be there. I didn’t need a bike route or a bike lane, and the dedicated non-motorized infrastructure of the Eisenbahn State Trail was, in this case, not the best choice for me.
Having choices is a good thing. But if only one road leads to your destination, then special accommodations for cyclists may make sense. I am not opposed to them universally, but they are not the panacea anticipated by many cycling advocates.
The League of American Bicyclists—a nationwide advocacy group—released its 2015 Bicycle Friendly State rankings on Monday and Wisconsin fell from 3rd to 9th. Why the drop? “Governor Walker has proposed a repeal of the Wisconsin Complete Streets law, cuts to state funding for bicycling and walking, and the elimination of the Knowles-Nelson Stewardship Program, which often provides matching funds for trail projects.” So, based on a proposal that is still being debated in the state’s budget cycle, Wisconsin slipped down the list. Things haven’t gotten measurably worse, but the League thinks they will.
The League bases its state rankings on five broad categories:
- Legislation and Enforcement
- Policies and Programs
- Infrastructure and Funding
- Education and Encouragement
- Evaluation and Planning
But there’s an even easier way to summarize the League’s priorities:
Plainly stated, the League wants governments to spend more on cycling. You can’t have legislation, enforcement, policies, programs, infrastructure, education, encouragement (by government), evaluation or planning without funding.
Don’t look so surprised. After all, the League of American Bicyclists is a Washington DC-based lobbyist group. Like any corporate entity, its first priority is its own perpetuation. The oil and tobacco special interest groups are funded by sales of oil and tobacco products. The League is funded by ordinary cyclists, and the product is the perception of safety. For as little as $40 a year, you too can be persuaded to abandon millions of miles of roads to which you have a legal right so that you may confine yourself to a handful of protected lanes for urban commuters.
To the League of American Bicyclists, all cycling infrastructure is good cycling infrastructure, but a quick Internet search will provide many examples of bike lanes that are impractical or unsafe. To the League of American Bicyclists, all cyclists are good cyclists, but dumbing down the definition is a poor substitute for achievement. Everyone who rides has a responsibility for his/her own safety and conduct. Dedicated cycling infrastructure can retard the process by which good cyclists develop, creating a dependency on special accommodations. It’s better to master the skills—they are not many—to understand the law, and to treat other road users with respect. Doing those things will allow you to ride almost anywhere.
West Bend is still a great place to ride … even the Eisenbahn State Trail when it's not littered with pedestrians who probably should have their own protected walking infrastructure. (I kid, I kid.) Washington County is still a great place to ride. And if Wisconsin as a whole is somehow worse for cycling than it was a year ago, then the difference is not apparent to me.