In yesterday’s post I discussed how our currently incomplete network of bicycle facilities and transit routes are a huge barrier that keep average people, (not “cyclists”) from using bicycles for transportation and taking transit instead of driving. Don’t get me wrong, Milwaukee and many other communities are slowly building more bicycle facilities and filling in the gaps in the network of “complete streets.” But as it stands right now, it takes a leap of faith, a bit of research and an intrepid personality to try riding a bicycle or the bus. Until it becomes obvious, attractive and convenient for people to use alternative modes of transportation, it will never be mainstream.
Lets imagine a person wants to try biking to work. The person has heard a lot about the Hank Aaron State Trail, takes the trouble to get a trail map to find out where the trail is. Looking at the map it appears that the trail is really close to this person’s office and home, perfect! It looks like the trail might be just the thing for a new bike commuter: a convenient and pleasant route away from busy traffic.
The photographs included here illustrate what that new bicycle commuter might experience. As you can see in the photo above, someone has plowed the trail. The clear path is only about 4ft wide, but given 20 inches of snow just dumped on Milwaukee, it is pretty great that there is a path cleared on the trail at all. After all, even the major roads are a lot narrower these days since the snow has piled up along the curbs.
When lots of snow falls on a city, finding a place to put it is a real problem. In any major snow clearing operation, the first priority in most US cities is to clear a path for cars on the major arterials. This typically means pushing the snow toward the curb, making it even more difficult for pedestrians. Prioritizing cars over pedestrians (and even people with disabilities) is a conscious choice we have made as a society. In many european cities, they prioritize snow clearing for the most vulnerable road users first: walkways are cleared for pedestrians, then trails and cycletracks for bicyclists, and finally the roads for motor vehicles. There is some overlap because different equipment is used for different operations, but in general, people come before cars.
The Hank Aaron State Trail functions as a sidewalk for much of the length in the Menomonee Valley. As a sidewalk, it is he responsibility of adjoining property owners to clear the snow, just like it is for homeowners on neighborhood streets. But a trail is a continuous path and trail users need the whole thing to be clear of snow. If 90 percent is clear, but even 10% of the trail is still snow-covered, the entire system breaks down and it ceases to be a useful transportation corridor.
Plowing snow from the streets to the curb leaves hard-packed piles of snow at all the curb ramps, which are a transition zone from the sidewalk or trail to the crosswalks in the roadway. Even when crews in small plows come back to bust open the curb ramps, the frozen and compacted snow is difficult to clear from the ramp area. This is again a result of our conscious choice as a society to prioritize cars over people. The plow operators don’t care if they are plowing streets, sidewalks of trails. They get paid to plow snow and just do what we tell them to do.
All along the Hank Aaron State Trail there are low spots where water ponds. This is not a big deal in the warmer months, but it causes a problem in the winter. The puddles freeze and are real hazards to people riding bicycles. In fact, for the last three years running I have taken a spill on the Hank Aaron Trail because of these patches of black ice. I have not been hurt because I am wary of a fall. I actually use my annual early winter fall as my personal warning to switch to studded tires. These low spots would never be tolerated on a road project. A few of the worst spots have been repaired on the trail, but many still exist.
The biggest problem with expecting the various businesses and land owners along the trail to keep it clear of snow is that as a society we have a high degree of tolerance for those who fail to comply with their responsibility. In the same way many homeowners don’t clear their sidewalks or do a poor job of it, some land owners along the trail never clear the snow and some others do a crummy job. Although in the end it is the responsibility of the WDNR to maintain the trail, we can’t blame them if we as taxpayers fail to allocate a snow clearing budget or provide them any equipment to do the job with salaried staff. I am sure the trail manager would love to have the money to pay the City or County to clear the trail. Or better yet, to have a pick-up with a plow and a staff person to do the work. But we have cut their budget to the point they can barely pull weeds.
In the end, this is what you get. Somebody stops plowing at their property line and the rest of the trail remains impassable. How can we expect to get more people biking to work or even experienced bicycle commuters to use the trail if it is not usable? I’m using snow clearing on the Hank Aaron State Trail to make the point about how important these little connections are, but it is in no way unique. I could have just as easily made my point by looking at someone trying to ride across the City of Milwaukee’s bike lane network during the spring or Milwaukee County’s Oak Leaf Trail system. Again, the answer is not to blame the WDNR, the City, the County or even the land owners. The answer is to change our priorities as a society. Until we make a conscious choice to priorities getting around on foot, by bicycle or in transit, those will always remain “alternative” forms of transportation.
Right now all we can do is tell our elected representatives that these things are important to us. The more politicians hear about such things, the more likely they will be to allocate resources toward them. Until those of us who care about such things get organized and speak with a unified voice, our auto-centric world will remain the status quo. As I said in yesterday’s post, I am going to take a look at this issue from a number of angles over the next week or two. I plan on comparing cities that have instituted change. I want to look at the existing advocacy groups like the League of American Bicyclists to the Bicycle Federation of Wisconsin down to the fledgling local coalitions like the Bicycle Alliance of Waukesha. Do we need a new coalition to advocate for a more balanced transportation system in Milwaukee? My hope is that through our discussions here and the Over the Bars Ride Series beginning this spring, like minded people will be able to make meaningful and lasting connections and a coalition for change will evolve organically.