As I mentioned in a couple previous posts, I am interested in growing the sense of identity and community among people in Milwaukee who ride bicycles for transportation. If you are a club rider or a racer, you have a built-in identity and social network. If you’re just a person who rides a bike to work or to the café, you can feel isolated and forgotten about in the transportation dialogue. Sometimes you may even be stigmatized as “that crazy person” who bikes to work.
The truth is that over the last handful of years, more and more people in Milwaukee are choosing to ride bicycles to get where they want to go. In fact the number is up at least 200%. Even with that rapid growth, bikes still only make up around 1% of the transportation mix. That percentage is higher in some neighborhoods and lower in others. But whether you bike to work at an east side coffee shop or to a bank on the northwest side, I’ll be dollars to donuts that you are in a distinct minority.
It would be nice if there was at least a semi-formal association among all people who ride bicycles for transportation in Milwaukee. In other cities, counties and regions across Wisconsin, groups of people with similar interests in biking for transportation are forming coalitions, alliances, task forces and committees. I thought it would be helpful to ask a few of them how and why they formed.
I tried several times to contact someone from the Driftless Region Bicycle Coaliton, but have not heard back yet. I hope to hear back soon. Kevin from the Bicycle Federation of WI has said he should be able to respond by later today, so I should have the Bike Fed perspective tomorrow.
Today we begin the series with,Ron Stawicki and Sonia Dubielzig, two early founders of the Bicycle Alliance of Waukesha. Ron works at Wheel and Sprocket and Sonia works as a planner at SEWRPC. They answered these questions via email and I merged some of their individual answers. Almost all of their responses below are verbatim, but I took the liberty to make a few edits so it reads better.
OTB: How long has your group been around?
Sonia: We formed the Waukesha Bicycle Alliance in June of 2010.
OTB: What precipitated the formation of your group? I would really like to know if there was a specific issue that you rallied around, if you met on social rides, or did your group grow out of one person’s efforts to organize area people who have an interest in cycling.
Ron: I came up with the idea when he had the chance to go to the State Bike Summit put on by the Bike Fed last April on behalf of his employer, Wheel & Sprocket. It turned out to be an energizing experience- between meeting other cycling advocates and hearing what they’ve done, lobbying our state officials and then just riding around Madison and seeing what a great city it is to bike in, I came back and said ‘Why can’t we do this in our city?’
I got together with Sonia, who I knew would be interested in doing something. Sonia had tried to contact a local cycling club to organize a bike-to-work week event in 2009 but at that time they weren’t interested. She also has a good understanding of how government works, and we decided to put together a Bike To Work Day in downtown Waukesha with the help of a few others and local businesses. The event was fairly successful and we met many other local cyclists and commuters who were interested in making Waukesha a better place to ride but didn’t know where to start.
So, from there we formed the WBA and started holding monthly meetings, inviting anyone who was interested in making Waukesha more bike friendly.
OTB: What is the background of your main leaders or early organizers?
Ron: I’ve always been an avid cyclist and have worked in the bike industry the past 5 years. I commute by bike as much as I can, which is about 3-4 days a week year round. I also race and enjoy mountain biking. For the past 8 or so years I’ve helped out with the trail crew at the Southern Kettles every spring and have also been attending the Metro Mountain Bike meetings and witnessed all the great progress they’ve made in Milwaukee County. Again, I felt like if these things are happening in other places, why not start doing them here?
Sonia: I grew up in Madison and always biked to school and work, and got involved in the mountain biking scene about 7 years ago. I studied urban planning with a focus on transportation and have always been interested in alternatives to car-based transportation. I currently work as a transportation planner at the Southeastern Wisconsin Regional Planning Commission, mainly working on transit.
OTB: Why did you feel the need to have your own group rather than work through the Bicycle Federation of WI? For instance you could have called yourselves simply members of the Bicycle Federation of Wisconsin or the Waukesha chapter of the Bicycle Federation of WI in the same way the Milwaukee Metro Mountain Bikers are a Worba chapter?
Ron: Actually, we’ve been in discussion with the Bike Fed about a chapter program as it’s something we’d like to see that they currently don’t offer. We certainly intend to talk more to Kevin about the Bike Fed’s perspective. We understand that this is not a simple thing to do and that there are pluses and minuses to a chapter program v. alliances between separate non-profit groups with similar missions.
There is no perfect model yet. Worba is still figuring out what they want to be and Metro is considering going to the IMBA program if IMBA will accept them as a chapter. There are some stipulations to meet with IMBA and they’re only adding a few chapters a year as they fine tune the program.
One of the reasons we call ourselves an alliance is we see our selves working together with other entities, like local government and businesses and other organizations to meet our goals. For instance we’re partnering with Metro on building mountain bike trails in Minooka Park because we’ve seen all the progress they made in Milwaukee and they want another place to ride as well. I really see off road and on road initiatives blending together in the future. My vision is I’d like to ride my bike safely on bike paths and lanes to my local mountainbike trails. I think there’s a lot of cross over between users.
Another idea is to see more grass roots movement. While we’re more Waukesha-centric, I’m hoping down the road there’s inspiration for other groups to form in communities like Brookfield, Mukwonago and Oconomowoc, then we could work together with them on county wide issues and connecting dots in between communities. It might be a stretch now but we’ll just keep doing what we’re doing and see what happens.
Sonia: We approached Kevin Hardman (The Executive Director of the BFW) using IMBA’s new chapter program as a model for the relationship between the BFW and the BAW. Basically, under the IMBA program, IMBA takes care of some of the back-office membership and database management, leaving local clubs to focus on building trails and hosting events. A portion of the chapters’ membership fee goes to IMBA, but the chapters keep all the other money they raise.
We liked this idea for three reasons: 1) We didn’t want to have to go through the hassle of applying for our own non-profit status. 2) We wanted to piggyback on another organization for insurance and 3) We hate having to pay memberships to a gazillion different biking organizations like BFW, WORBA, IMBA, LAB–and we didn’t want to add another organization to that list. The Bike Fed sounds interested in this concept and we think that there will be some discussion of the chapter model at the Bike Summit, but it will take some time. In the meantime we decided to go on our own. We have an EIN and are working to incorporate as a nonprofit.
OTB: What is your relationship with the Bike Fed now?
Ron: The Bike Fed occasionally gives us advice and consultation and they also share information about statewide issues that may affect our area.
Sonia: We have discussed paying “organizational dues” to the BFW once we have enough funds in our bank account.
OTB: How many members do you have?
Ron and Sonia: We don’t have a formal membership program yet, but we have around 80 people on our Google groups list serve. Currently, there’s about 10-12 individuals who consistently come to our meetings and are actively involved in the projects we’re working on.
OTB: How did you first approach local government and do you have a formal relationship with your local government now? By this I mean to ask if they include you on email announcements, invite you to project meetings, etc.
Ron: We do have a formal relationship with our city government now. When we started the Waukesha Bike Rack Project, we didn’t really know where to start. We had to present the idea to the Business Improvement District, the Planning Commission the Public Works Board and we’ve also met with the Mayor directly. They all know who we are now and have been great about communicating with us on bicycling related issues. I have to thank some of the local businesses downtown that support some of our projects and helped direct us on who to talk to when we got started. Downtown Waukesha is a great community when comes to that aspect.
Sonia: It seems like some of the City departments have really embraced our presence. Two of our members were invited to review the proposals from consultants for the City’s bike and pedestrian master plan, which will be conducted this year. And the City’s Parks and Rec department have asked us to help them with a bicycle camp they are running with assistance from the Bike Fed this summer.
We sent the County a letter last year informing them of our existence and describing some of our top priorities in the County. We tried to encourage them to submit a grant for a bike path we want to see built. They also asked us to submit a letter of support for a grant they submitted to the state. We have more work to do to improve our presence at the County level