Interview: Bicycle Federation of WI

This will the be the last interview in my series to frame a discussion about starting a new bicycle advocacy group specific to the metropolitan Milwauee area. Tomorrow I will publish a piece in which I synthesize the ideas presented over the last three days and present my idea for next steps.  Today we hear from Kevin Hardman, the Executive Director for the Bicycle Federation of WI. Under Kevin’s has leadership over the last two year, the Bike Fed has continued to grow and evolve. It now has two well-staffed offices, one in Madison and one in Milwaukee. 

No matter what we decide to do as far as a new local advocacy group  in Milwaukee, I cannot imagine any Wisconsin bicycle organization that did not have some connection to the Bicycle Federatin of WI.  In our conversations before and after he responded to my written questions, Kevin repeatedly stressed that the Bike Fed really wants what is best for bicycling in Wisconsin, not what is best for their organization. 


OTB:Based on other conversations we have had, it is my understanding that the BFW recently completed a strategic planning effort to better define its statewide mission statement and its role as a statewide organization. Can you tell me a bit more about that?
Kevin: Within the last year, we have spent quite a bit of time on strategic planning and I’m very proud of what we’ve accomplished. We first focussed on clarifying our vision for Wisconsin bicycling and defining the unique role the Bike Fed plays in realizing this vision.
The Bike Fed vision is of a Wisconsin where millions of people, on a daily basis, are choosing to jump on a bike for transportation and recreation. We all know there is a precedent, in other parts of the world, for such high percentages of bicycle usage. We think Wisconsin can get there too!  It may take decades to bring our mode share up to 10, 20 and 30%. Still we have great confidence in this vision because of the tremendous bicycling assets that already exist in our state. We have an extensive trail network, we have the best paved rural-road network in the country, we have a bicycling industry (manufacturers, events, rides and bicycle tourism) that generates over $1.5 B and over 13,000 jobs to Wisconsin’s economy, and we have a beautiful state with very bike-able terrain.
We are working to leverage these assets and we take the pursuit of the above vision very seriously. Yet in order for the Bike Fed to be effective as an organization we needed to understand the unique role our organization plays in realizing this vision. We believe we are the only organization that can join together bicycle enthusiasts, politicians, business and civic leaders and motorists from across Wisconsin to create a more bicycle friendly state. Operating within this mission is both exciting and a little daunting. Wisconsin is a big state: we’ve got 72 counties, 7 congressional districts, 33 state senate districts and 99 state assembly districts. We (anyone who cares about Wisconsin bicycling) will never dramatically transform our state (and realize our vision) without becoming an extremely well organized constituency across these political cross sections. We will also never realize our vision if we are not incredibly well organized within our own villages, towns and cities.
We need to become organized from the capitol in Madison down to the city or village hall. I still feel very new to my role and to bicycle advocacy though in the two years in my job I have become convinced that no one nationally has yet created a replicable top down and bottom up organizational model for bicycle advocacy. The good news is that models do exist within other movements that we can learn from (for instance, the NRA and AARP sure do fire up their grassroots extremely well and wield strong political power). The other good news is that many people who care about bicycling are trying to figure out how we can all become more effective. We are builder deeper partnerships and having fruitful conversations with groups across Wisconsin (the newly formed Milwaukee Business by Bike, the Waukesha Bicycle Alliance, Fox Cities Greenways, the Driftless Region Bicycle Coalition, Human Powered Trails, and WORBA to name a few) and we are connected with the national groups (IMBA, the Alliance for Biking and Walking, Bike Belong and the League of American Bicyclists) to figure out how we can collectively “build a better mouse trap.”
Defining our vision and mission has allowed us to build great plans for 2011 and beyond. Here are a few of the programs you’ll see this year:
  • Wisconsin’s first-ever statewide safety education campaign. We are building a grassroots network of Safety Ambassadors that will educate both motorists and bicyclists on how to effectively share the road. The Ambassadors will also work closely with our law enforcement community to build better awareness and enforcement of our laws.
  • A statewide bicycle commuter challenge that will run from May – September. This easy-to-use online challenge will provide a fun and effective way to encourage many more thousands of people to ride their bikes to work.
  • The 2011 Wisconsin Bike Summit will host more programs and connect people with even more ways to get involved. Our advocacy and lobbying will be even be more effective; the Bike Fed recently hired the lobbying firm of Hubbard Wilson & Zelenkova to represent the interests of Wisconsin bicyclists in the state capitol. This firm is working closely with our legislators to protect the important investment in the state budget for bicycle infrastructure and education. They are also working with the Bike Fed to push forward Vulnerable User legislation, a law that will strengthen the penalties for striking a bicyclist on our roadways.
OTB: Perhaps because of all the work the BFW has done, there is a greater awareness among people who ride bicycles that they need a voice at the local planning table. There are a number of local bicycle advocacy organizations evolving around the state now. Some of these organizations are even working towards 501c3 status. How do you see the relationship between the BFW and these local bicycle coalitions?
Kevin: We have made great strides within the last year to forge closer partnerships with all types of organizations. In early 2010, the Bike Fed has 20-30 organizational members. We ended last year with over 170!
It’s a very good sign that more people and more organizations are advocating for equitable funding, consistent and knowledgeable enforcement of our laws, and better bicycle infrastructure. What’s most critical to define is how the Bike Fed most effectively and consistently works together with these many organizations (not just advocacy organizations but racing teams, event organizers, riding clubs, mountain bike clubs, retailers, and manufacturers). I think the Bike Summit has shown us great potential. The 2009 Wisconsin Bike Summit delivered the biggest legislative accomplishments in Wisconsin bicycling history. It’s important though that we see these successes as only a modest beginning. Imagine what we could accomplish if we gathered together all of our voices effectively.
OTB: Imba and Worba appear to be developing chapter models in an effort to work within their national mission and still be effective at the local level.  What are the advantages and disadvantages of a chapter system v. a bunch of independent 501c3s?
Kevin: We need to create a system that allows people to effectively advocate for better bicycling without bogging them down with processes, procedures and paperwork. My gut tells me that a well conceived chapter program is the path for us to become better organized across Wisconsin. A great chapter system would provide back-end support (membership, finance, legal structure), deliver technical expertise (best practices, safety education, advocacy toolkits) and provide integrated communication so we can call upon the troops when necessary.
The disadvantage of a chapter program is that it needs to be “well conceived” in order to work. This will take time, money and resources to put together. If it is not “well conceived” and replicable then we risk slowing down our progress and frustrating committed people.
OTB: In Milwaukee we have a growing, but still very small number of people who ride bicycles for transportation. Because the numbers are still relatively small, I think that many times people who ride bicycles for transportation feel alone.  At the workplace they are often categorized as “that crazy person” who rides a bike to work.
Given that the BFW has a prominent position in Milwaukee because of the office and staff here, does it still make sense to have a separate Milwaukee Bicycle Coalition or some other organized local group advocating for a more balanced transportation system?
Kevin: Milwaukee is hugely important to the Bike Fed. We have over 500 members in Milwaukee County, half of our staff lives here (including me!) and Milwaukee is Wisconsin’s largest city. We cannot realize our vision of world-class bicycling in Wisconsin without Milwaukee also being world class. We’re very proud of the work we have done in Milwaukee over the last 6-7 years. The Bike Fed was instrumental in getting bike racks on all county busses. We educate 1000s of Milwaukee Public School children every year on how to operate bicycles safely. We also spent nearly 2 years as the city’s consultant on the updated bicycle plan (a plan that was quickly adopted by council!).
The Bike Fed would relish the opportunity to work with a cross section of leaders to build a replicable chapter model here in Milwaukee.
OTB: We find ourselves in with a wonderful dilemma, pockets of local people organically organizing in support of cycling and a well-run statewide bicycle advocacy organization. Do you envision a special session on this at a future Wisconsin Bike Summit or perhaps a series of “town hall” meetings around the state to discuss the ideas?
Kevin: You’re very right Dave, all of this is a “wonderful dilemma.” You are asking these questions and this dialogue is taking place because more and more people are seeing the joy and the freedom of hoping on a bicycle.
The Wisconsin Bike Summit is on April 19th and yes this topic will be one of our important focuses. Please encourage all of your readers to attend this event. Their voices are especially important this year. We need to tell many new legislators and a new leadership that bicycling is a very wise investment for Wisconsin. It delivers jobs, generates a large economic impact, improves our heath and helps make Wisconsin a unique, wonderful place to live, work and play.
The Bike Fed now has 10 full-time staffers who work day in and day out to make Wisconsin bicycling great, however we can’t do it without YOU. Please join us.
Kevin Hardman
Executive Director
Bicycle Federation of Wisconsin
Cell: (414) 412-1397
The Bike Fed’s Vision
Millions of Wisconsin residents and visitors of all backgrounds
choose bicycling as an integral and convenient part of their daily life.
Wisconsin is one of the world’s best places to ride a bicycle.
The Bike Fed’s Mission

To inspire, motivate, and unite a strong community of
civic, business and political leaders, motorists and bicyclists
to move bicycling forward in Wisconsin.
We can’t do it without YOU. Please join us here.

About daveschlabowske

Cyclechic advocate from Milwaukee
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