Thursday, February 23, 2017
I ride a lot—you know that—but not even I can claim to be familiar with every road in Washington County. There are some places a bike can’t go, like our limited access highways: Interstate 41 and US Highway 45. I know those roads well enough as a driver, but not as a cyclist. Interstate 41 runs for 28 miles within the county. Sometimes it and US 45 are the same road, but there’s another 20-mile section of US 45 that stands alone. The northernmost 6 miles of US 45 are not limited access, but I don’t ride my bike on them, as there are better and safer routes.
We have 252 miles of state highways within the county and I haven’t seen all of those, regardless of my mode of transportation. Like the freeways, our state highways tend to have too much fast automobile traffic to make them attractive for cycling. Still, there are some sections that are more than accommodating. I have no problem with Highway 28 and not much of one with Highway 144; it’s Highways 33 and 60 that I avoid.
How much farther behind must I be in my experience with our 1,325 miles of local paved roads? Think about it: every residential street, every dead end, every cul-de-sac … it all adds up. If you traveled that many miles in a straight line to the west, you would find yourself in the vicinity of Boise ID. Much of it is wonderful, but some of it is useless for a bike ride. My routes usually take the shape of a big circle. It’s a rare occasion when I go down a dead end road just to see what’s there.
We have a mix of population density and road density that makes Washington County an uncommonly good place for cyclists. Not everyone is so fortunate. If you look around the country, you can find plenty of places with a lot of roads, but in most cases you will also find those roads choked with motor vehicles. You also can find plenty of places with low population density, but in those places you might not have many route options. I got curious about these variables and did a little research. In most states, there’s a clear correlation between population and road density. Physical size matters too, but not as much as population. Alaska is our biggest state by total land area, but it ranks 47th in population and 46th in miles of road. Here’s the full breakdown, showing the states in the order of their physical size:
Texas and California are physically big and heavily populated, so it’s no surprise that they have the most roads. Centrally located states like Kansas and Missouri are punching above their weight as people and things move through them. Maryland, Massachusetts and New Jersey show the effects of highly-urbanized populations in small physical spaces. Arizona and Washington appear to be underserved by their road networks, but that could be a “false positive.” Both states are physically large but their populations are crowded into fairly small regions.
With 1,325 miles of local roads, Washington County ranks 19th among Wisconsin’s 72 counties. Dane County has the highest total: 2,449 miles. That’s another example of physical size plus population. But our most populous county, Milwaukee, ranks just 17th with 1,341 miles. Looking only at the mileage totals, you might conclude that recreational cycling opportunities in Washington County and Milwaukee County are roughly equal. You would be dead wrong. Milwaukee County does have some good places to ride, but Washington County has almost no bad ones. Never lose sight of that. If you didn’t already know how fortunate we are, you do now.
Posted by Dave Hanrahan at 5:00 PM