Occasionally I get questions from people asking what they can do to help make Milwaukee a better place for bicycling. I thought I would use this recent email to create a general answer to that FAQ.
Dear Mr. Schlabowske:
My name is Barry W and I am a Milwaukee teacher who relies exclusively on my bicycle for all commuting and transportation. I have been a part of the list serv for a while and always enjoy its posts. I recently had a conversation with Melissa Cook of the DNR about the Hank Aaron Trail extensions. Like you and so many of us, I desperately want Milwaukee to become a better city for biking and I asked Melissa what I can do to help this process. She referred me to you.
Here’s an additional scoop: my local alderman is Michael Murphy and my local representative is Tamara Grigsby. Both are, to my knowledge, very much in favor of biking transportation. So…other than voting for them, what can I do to help our city become more bike friendly? My students build bicycles every year at the Milwaukee Bicycle Collective and then ride them on the Hank Aaron and Oak Leaf trails during a school bike ride. Maybe there is something we can do as a school to help promote Milwaukee’s bike future? Please let me know what I can do, as a citizen and an educator, to help make Milwaukee an even better city for bicycling!
Wow, if everyone who rides bicycles did all the things that Barry is already doing, Milwaukee would be like Copenhagen. Let me deconstruct this email into a list of things for people to consider to make any city a better place for bicycling.
Do it Yourself Bicycle Friendly Community
1. Ride your bike a lot: This is the fun part and where every personal effort to make a city more bicycle friendly begins. Riding your bike does a lot of things to improve a city. The more people out there on bikes, the safer a city becomes. The old safety in numbers thing is really true because the more people riding bikes motorists see, the more likely they are to look for them when driving. By riding your bike more, you are improving the safety for yourself and everyone else who rides a bike.
2. Obey the traffic laws when you ride your bike: Be an ambassador and set a proper example, even when all around you are breaking the laws. Most motorists speed, fail to yield to pedestrians, drive after drinking, etc., but all they seem to see is bicycles running red lights and stop signs. Why not do the right thing and be a poster child for law abiding citizenship?
3. Get involved: Join some sort of local communication network for people riding bikes. Barry is already on the local bike to work listserv. Yahoo, Google, Ning, Facebook, etc. are great venues for people to learn about what is happening, to share ideas, and more importantly build a community of people who ride. These are the places to find out about rides, discuss route options, learn about new bike products, and connect with other bike commuters. Usually the local advocacy group, like the Bicycle Federation of Wisconsin, uses these lists to send out requests for volunteers and announce important advocacy opportunities like crucial times to call elected officials when legislation is up for a vote. Other ways to get involved are to join a local bike club. The local clubs usually are connected to advocacy in some way and sometimes a club can speak with a louder voice than an individual and get the attention of media or local officials.
4. Call your elected official and say “BICYCLE.” Learning who your elected representatives are and just calling or emailing them to say something about bicycles is extremely powerful. I often hear from the elected officials I work with that they just don’t hear from many constituents about bicycle issues. Perhaps people who ride bikes are more reserved by nature, but I can tell you that there are lots of people who drive cars calling their representatives every day about parking problems, plowing in driveways, pot holes, speeding, etc. If elected officials are going to support bicycle projects and programs, they have to know it is important to the people who vote for them. They have to make very difficult decisions about funding for police, fire, libraries, roads, water, etc. They need to know they have support if they are going to fund bicycle infrastructure and programs.
So just make a call or send an email to talk about bicycle issues. You can just let them know that you ride and you appreciate their support for bicycle projects. You can talk about how bicycles make people and communities healthier, safer and more pleasant places to live. You can complain about a road that does not have a bike lane. You can say pretty much whatever you want, as long as you say bicycle a few times.
5. Work with kids: Teaching kids how to use their bike to get places rather than just as a toy is a lesson they will never forget. Learning the rules of the road and how to ride safely in traffic will benefit them as children and make them better drivers when they become old enough to get behind the wheel of an automobile. Maybe it is just your own kids, or maybe you help with a bike rodeo at a school, or better yet, teach the rules of the road on an actual bike ride to an ice cream shop or park. If you are lucky enough to have community cycling centers like the Milwaukee Bicycle Collective, those are wonderful places to volunteer.
6. Join your local and national advocacy group: Barry did not mention that he is a member of the Bicycle Federation of Wisconsin and the League of American Bicyclists, but I am going to assume he is. This is an absolutely essential step in building a bicycle friendly community. It may be a statewide group, a city group, a mountain bike group like WORBA or IMBA. Your national and local advocacy groups need members to increase their strength. They work tirelessly at every level to make your city and country a better place to ride, but they can’t do it without you. They need you to increase their numbers, and they need your membership fees to pay their staff. I used to work for the BFW, so I know how hard they work. I typically worked 60 hours a week and I know the people at the BFW and the LAB are still working those kind of hours for relatively meager wages.
When you join your local and national advocacy group, you will get the most important information about key times to call or write elected officials. You will be asked to volunteer for events like bike to work week. And you may be asked for some additional money at times throughout the year. Give what you can even if it is only just your annual membership, but know that is the best investment you can make in a bicycle friendly community.
There are probably a few other key things I am not thinking of here. If you have an idea about something I forgot, let me know via the comments below and I will add it.