Commuter Paradise


This pothole and traffic free seven-mile commute is brought to you by your Wisconsin Dept. of Natural Resources and the humble bicycle: The recently paved extension of the Hank Aaron State Trail.

I’m continually amazed that more people who ride bicycles for recreation still don’t take advantage of the awesome stress-free commutes available on our state trail systems. About 49% of Wisconsin residents ride bicycles for recreation, yet only about 1% use them to bike to work. While I understand that trails don’t go everywhere everyone needs to go, but they do offer very pleasant and convenient routes to many places for many more people than use the trails.   The Hank Aaron State Trail is a good example of a trail that connects hundreds of thousands of people to thousands of jobs.

The new westerly extension of the Hank Aaron State Trail from Miller Park to 94th Place puts a bit over 400,000 people within a 10 or 15 minute bike ride of the trail.  The Hank Aaron trail runs nearly the full length of the City of Milwaukee from east to west and serves as a direct link between all those people and thousands of jobs in heavily populated business parks in West Allis and the Menomonee Valley.  I have been commuting on the older section trail through the Menomonee Valley since before the extension was paved, and I have noticed a  definite increase in trail users as a result of the extension, but not the numbers I would expect.

All the points you can get on the Hank Aaron State Trail (click on image to go to larger map)

Bicycle commuting is up about 250% in Milwaukee over the last 5 years.  That rapid growth can be directly tied to the increase in bicycle lanes and trails in the area, especially in the City of Milwaukee.  But even with the rapid growth, the percentages still hover just above or below 1%, depending on if you look at the 2008 or 2009 American Community Survey results.  So three cheers for the rapid growth in cycling, but I can’t help but wonder why even more people don’t give it a try, at least those who live close to wonderful facilities like the Hank Aaron.  No pot holes, no congestion, no exhaust, no traffic light, no stops at the filling station and it’s great fun.  What gives?

Does the trail needs more publicity?  Are people in the Milwaukee Metro area are still stuck in the mindset that bikes are toys? Are driving and parking is still just too darn easy and cheap in Milwaukee? What do you think?

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About daveschlabowske

Cyclechic advocate from Milwaukee
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35 Responses to Commuter Paradise

  1. Markk says:

    I love the extension, but for me, the fact that it is not paved through to 121st makes it pretty useless unless you ride a mountain bike. There is no nice northwestern access onto the trail, as far as I can see, From 94th place I have no way to get to the northwest or north except by riding way out of the way, or riding on the sharp rock (ouch!) and mud filled trail. Even though some streets are awful, they are still better for me. You basically have cut off all the people on the north to northwest side of the metro area. You CAN use it, but since it is harder, well I and I guess others choose different routes.

    I think things will slowly build over a few years. The lack of access at 84th street hurts things a little for me too. All these are just teething pains.

    • daveschlabowske says:

      Mark, I think much of that will change later this summer when they get the rest of the extension done in compacted crushed limestone out to the Oak Leaf Trail near Bluemound and Underwood Creek Parkway. I also agree that the trail needs more access points, and I made that comment when I reviewed the 30 percent plans. The connection at 84th is a bit of a tough one, but it could be made right by the Tommy Thompson Center. This would have the added benefit of making a connection to State Fair Park, right near an existing gate that is staffed during the fair and other events. It would also offer a connection to the great winter farmers market in the center.

      Depending on where you live, the connection to 94th Pl can be made pretty painlessly via Schlinger and Washington Streets. I highlighted this route on the last edition of the Milwaukee by Bike map.

      • Will says:

        Looks like we were typing about that gate ot the youth center at the same time!!

        Since were are on the topic of the HAT, do you have any contacts at DPW that could grind down that big heave on the trail just west of the retention pond?? I saw that they did some grinding on the northeast sidewalk of the 6th St lift bridge, there was a heave of about the same size.

      • daveschlabowske says:

        I know where you mean and do know who to contact about that in the bridge maintenance dept. I asked them to do the work on 6th. I will pass the request on.

  2. Will says:

    Maybe we need one of those “the more you know” public service announcements :) A little publicity might help, tons of people I talk to don’t know that the trail goes west of Miller Park. As for the above post about 84th St access…would it be possible to add a gate from the parking lot of the Tommy Thompson Youth Center, no need to build up a ramp just put a gap in the fence.

    • Bruce Thompson says:

      I also noticed the lack of access from the trail to the state fair park. Nothing between 76th and 84th, even though the trail goes right by the Tommy Thompson Youth Center. It just seems puzzling.

  3. Webs says:

    I think it is definitely a matter of not enough people knowing about the trail. So many people I talk to drive right by it everyday and have no idea it is there. I told someone about it the other day, and he ended up riding his bike to the Brewer game that night. He LOVED it! He said that from his house in Tosa (84th & Bluemound) it took him less time to get there than it did when he drove. Especially on his way home not having to deal with traffic.

    Word of mouth is the best way to make people aware. Get them to try it, and they will be back.

  4. Barry Mainwood says:

    I’ll second the “word of mouth” process. I’ve meet several folks leaving downtown looking for the new section of the Hank. And I’ve helped a few folks find the connection from the New Berlin trail to the Hank just as someone has shown me.

    I love the trail and feel spoiled everyday that I ride it.

  5. Dave Steele says:

    The Hank is perfectly situated to be a “starter” bike trail for those who would be more inclined to take a bike-for-fun transportation ride than a bike to work ride. It’s got direct access to the State Fair and Miller Park. Put your bike on the back of your car, park somewhere for free and ride to the State Fair or Brewers game in a few minutes. Or hang out at Bradford Beach in the morning, then ride over to State Fair or Brewers game and ride back to the beach and go home.

    Once people see that it’s not only possible, but highly desirable, to get to the Brewers game without driving, then maybe they might give biking to work, the store or the barbershop a try.

    The trip to work is a high stakes trip. People are afraid to get to work without driving because they’re afraid something might happen to make them late. Once they see you can get to the Brewers game by first pitch by biking there, they might think about how easy it would be to get work the same way.

    • daveschlabowske says:

      I like that, I imagine a photo of traffic backed on I 94 near the stadium and another like my photo, with the line: “The Hank Aaron State Trail will take you there. Whether you want to park for free and still get to the game in time for first pitch or if you need to the office by eight.”

  6. Dave Reid says:

    @Dave Give it time, this route makes so much sense for commuting.

  7. Tosa Groupie says:

    Patience? No. Word of mouth? Yes. Press release with commuter praises? Yes. Other?!?!?

    Nearly every day I ride the HAT from 94th to 6th street. It is a joyous part of my 15 mile commute for the reasons you mention — quiet, smooth, birds, lovely, noisy birds, families out for strolls on foot or by bike, kids playing, commuters, joy riders….you name it.

    But every day I dream that the HAT would see more traffic. Here is this wonderful spine that ties together the city of Milwaukee with its direct suburbs. Why isn’t it as busy as Portland or the bike routes we saw in Quebec?

    When the HAT finally cleared of snow, I dropped 15 minutes off of my 15 mile commute. No more twists and turns through West Allis’ bumpy streets, no more ups and downs (just the 1% incline from 6th to 94th), and no more stop signs and traffic lights for that 6 mile stretch. Absolute heaven.

    So, why don’t more people use it? I think access is part of it. Some areas, like Tosa and the near south side are direct and easy, but West Allis lacks good north/south routes through much of the city, the Waukesha ‘burbs don’t know how close it is, and the railroad underpass on 103rd and Washington is hard to find if you don’t know it is there. I’ve escorted people several times who have instructions (usually from Google), but just can’t find it.

    The other is perceived “safety” of the route. Several people question my riding it. Now I could go on about bad people live in “good” neighborhoods and that there is no definition of “good”, but I will say this about the trail–the neighborhoods have adopted it. The good people own that trail.

    I know I’ve gushed, but I really believe that the HAT is the best thing that’s happened to Milwaukee County in a long time — a 6 mile stretch of asphalt that ties the county together.

    • Will says:

      I get questioned a lot about riding the HAT and safety…people seem to think there is an angry mob of bums waiting to prey on commuters. I ride the trail to work at about 6pm and home at about 4am and rarely see a soul, except for employees on smoke breaks in the business park and at cargill.

      Today I did question my safety while breathing from 6th till about 16th…holy hell what was that stench!!!!!!!!!

  8. Tom Held says:

    I think one other problem is the difficult connection on the east end. Hopefully that will be improved with the development adjacent to the Harley Museum.

    • daveschlabowske says:

      Perhaps more signs and/or stencils to route people through the Harley Museum campus, onto the SE sidewalk and down Florida would help. I think once you are on Florida and S 2nd you should be able to find your way downtown. But I don’t understand why more people who work in the valley don’t take the trail. Lots of employees at the Casino, Cargill, Palermos, DPW and the tanneries must live close to the trail.

      • TosaGroupie says:

        It might not be the trail, but business infrastructure makes, too. Consider the Cargill plant. Bikes are locked up to the outside of their fence next to the sidewalk.

        I happen to work for an employer with great bike facilities, but if your employee says, “Lock ‘em up outside, down the street, in the unlit back corner of the parking lot”, etc. it makes taking that leap to bike commuting harder.

        Perhaps, working with the businesses along canal is a good first step? A simple, easy perk like secure bike storage removes the hurdle of “Where will I park my bike?”

        Oh, and I found myself on 2nd and Florida the first time and had no idea how to get into downtown. If your exposure to downtown is getting off the freeway and finding your parking lot, the 3rd ward is not as close as you want it to be. More signs/stencils from 6th and Canal into downtown would be a good thing.

  9. Barry Stuart says:

    Last weekend, I took the HAST from 6th St. through the new section to 94th Pl. Then I took Schlinger and Washington to the OLT and the New Berlin Trail. Next, I took the Glacial Drumlin Trail to Hwy. 67 until I got to Ottawa Lake, where I set up camp. Except for a side trip through North Prairie along Cty. ZZ, I took a similar route back.

  10. ajchoren says:

    I suspect this will take some time. It has a lot to do with:

    1) Awareness that these facilities exist
    2) The quality, location, and number of connections to and from the trails
    3) General perceptions about the safety of riding on city streets to a final destination after exiting the trail

    The Hank Aaron Trail extensions are still relatively new. It still amazes me when I talk with long time residents of the east side, Shorewood and Whitefish Bay who don’t know the Oak Leaf Trail exists or where it goes.

    One question people often bring up is, “So the trail ends right on the edge of downtown…what do you do then?”

    I ride a few more blocks via city streets to my destination, but most people are pretty intimidated by the idea of riding alongside cars and want to turn around when the path ends. For many people, even a standard bike lane striped on the street isn’t enough to make them feel comfortable — and that’s OK — each individual has their own definition of what’s comfortable and safe.

  11. CK says:

    When I started commuting to work around ’94, I was surprised how empty the East Side path to DT was…..I think it will just take time for more people to use HAST.

    I also agree with most of the other reasons – access points to the trail, the abrupt end to the trail at 6th, word of mouth, etc.

  12. Matthew S. says:

    People simply aren’t aware of the extension(s). I did consider myself bike-informed but reading this post is the first time I’m aware of the 68th street entrance to the HAT. I’ll be on it tomorrow and many times in the future. A radio and/or TV campaign would help a ton of course. Maybe more of a guerrilla marketing approach would get the word out faster/cheaper: small posters on coffee shop bulletin boards, beermats with HAT maps on the back, Facebook page, WMSE/88.9 donations given for a HAT plug, etc. I agree more people might use the HAT for commuting once the word gets out and the west extensions are completed. Thanks for the highlighted map.

    • daveschlabowske says:

      Thanks for that feedback. I will talk to the Friends of the Hank Aaron State Trail about funding a small advertising campaign.

  13. Dave F says:

    In my quick look at this issue, the Netherlands bicycling increase came as a result of parking and petrol cost increases. While parking/gas costs have gone up here, for most people, these expenses are still within their budget. I guess most people use bicycling to exercise which occurs as a special part of their day. Not having access to their car the rest of the day, makes them feel vulnerable about taking advantage of other events (some will argue emergencies). Given the statistics sited, I would reevaluate the effectiveness of all the the Bike to Work activities. Perhaps it is one reason for the general increase in bicycling. If that is the case, it is a good thing. But, in terms of getting people to bike to work, it seems to have little or no affect.

    • daveschlabowske says:

      We know the bike to work initiatives do work because we survey people and ask if it was the first time they tried it. Many do respond that it is. Perhaps our numbers are just so small that it is hard to see growth. I know personally it looks like more people are riding bicycles wherever I go, but I remain surprised that so few people ride on the Hank Aaron given the density of population. Given the comments here, I think some publicity would help.

      • Markk says:

        I keep track of number of cyclists as I ride around the trails in the area. It has been growing. I saw 135 cyclists the other day riding the “old” Aaron down to the stadium then the south loop of the Oak Leaf on last Friday Morning. 125 walkers and runners. That is a good increase from usual.

  14. Barry Stuart says:

    With the exception of the Hank Aaron Trail, the state trail system requires a daily pass of $5 or an annual pass of$20. I needed my pass when I used the Glacial Drumlin Trail last weekend. How many commuters wish to cough up to the DNR for a trail pass?

  15. Mark G says:

    I think the HAT is great for a lot of the same reasons stated above. I use the H-D, 37th Street, and 68th street access points. I also used the one by the west side of the VA. I also discovered a short bike path in West Allis that allows me to get from the West Allis farmers market to within a few blocks of the HAT and 70th Street. If takes you through the old Allis Chalmers site. While I feel lucky to have such a nice trail as the HAT I don’t use it everyday either. One of the nice things about bikes is that it is easy to take a variety of different routes and see new things. It keeps things from getting boring and is one of the things I enjoy about commuting by bike. When I take my car to work in the winter, I take one route back and forth becasue anything else would be a nuisance. I was unaware of the 2nd street bike route until you mentioned it in one of your earlier posts. That is a very useful route also. Based on my experience at work, I think it is going to be awhile before the HAT is filled with commuters. I’ve been commuting for 8 years and I promote the idea among my coworkers. It seems to take a few years before people people give it a shot. I think they do it on a whim for various reasons. That being said, I think the trend is towards more bike commuters. And as for those worriers that think the HAT is not safe, I agree! Yesterday morning, I surprised a little skunk by the gravel portion near 37th Street.

  16. Is there a google maps / google earth overlay for commuter routes in Milwuakee (including the HAT ). When ever I’m scoping out a new route, it’s my first stop. A link to a .kml file would be a mighty handy way for newcomers to find entry points, and wouldn’t rely on kindness of strangers.

    • daveschlabowske says:

      All of the Milwaukee bikeways, including the Hank Aaron State Trail are on Google Maps. Their routing ap will put you on them if you ask for directions with the bicycle clicked.

      • That is helpful.

        I tried that as a test just now, but of course it won’t always route you to a bikeway automatically. I was thinking of a nice zoomable map that could be browsed for those that want to explore a particular trail specifically. Google’s routing assumes (i think) that you wouldn’t want to go “out of your way” to ride one of the bikeways.

      • daveschlabowske says:

        You can always drag the route Google picks to a particular road or trail you prefer and it will reroute the rest of the directions accordingly, but I know what you mean about a better map with more details. The Bike Fed will be upgrading our website soon. We are going to look into some Google maps mash-up that will allow us to do that for all areas of Wisconsin.

      • In a similar vien (and sorry this is off topic), but is there a decent online resource for determining which Milwaukee neighbourhoods are particularly pedestrian / cycle friendly ?

        I may be moving to the area, and this of high importance to me when shopping for property.

        Any suggestions ?

    • Larry Weingarten says:

      Ben,

      In regard to an on-line resource there is http://www.walkscore.com/

      Here is the Milwaukee profile: http://www.walkscore.com/WI/Milwaukee

      Larry

  17. Larry Weingarten says:

    A couple of thoughts.

    I think Mark G. is on to something about the fact that there are a lot of options. I use the HAT usually once a day on my commute from ‘tosa to Rockwell Automation. The other leg can be any number of routes, some of which are faster, all of which I enjoy immensely.

    I know for a fact that I sold at least one other bike commuter here on using the trail. She lives around 92nd and Morgan, but she likes to take Greenfield Ave. in one direction. Go figure. I told another ‘tosan who works with me about the trail. First, he was highly put off by the gravel behind Harnischfeger. Didn’t work so good with 23mm tires–and he thought the trail was like that the whole way!

    But in reflecting on the route I was proposing for him (http://tiny.cc/sjb39) vs. the route he took through Doyne Park and Piggsville (http://tiny.cc/i44vy), I am not sure the HAT had that much more to offer beyond the chance to time-trial for a few miles. But that’s good news, because it means we really do live in a bicycle commuter’s paradise! I could easily map out another half-dozen-plus variations of the routes I take back and forth. I switch ‘em up to suit my mood, schedule, road construction and “upgrade Tuesdays” at Cold Spoon’s Gelato. (http://tiny.cc/7yzxo)

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