More than 2.5 million people ride bicycles every year in Wisconsin, so why is it that I have to say this? It is a fact, investments in bicycling are good for you, good for your community and good for the state. It doesn’t matter if we are talking about a trail in Vilas County, a bridge in Ozaukee County, a race in Madison or a charity ride in Kenosha, it’s all good for all of us. Bicycle improvements have such a high return on investment and are so inexpensive compared to the cost of highways, why do people ask “how much does it cost?”
With the economy down, it seems that even many self-described “bicyclists” have begun to question whether or not it is wise to invest in bicycling. After the extension to the Hank Aaron State Trail opened last year, I fielded a number of calls from people asking if it was open, how to get on it, did it connect to the Casino, how to get to the lakefront, etc. After I happily answered the questions, quite a few callers thanked me, told me they looked forward to riding on the trail, and then felt compelled to say that given the current economy, that money would have been better spent elsewhere.
I heard similar penny wise and dollar foolish comments about the bridge over I-43 on the Ozaukee Interurban Trail, and lately during the discussions about including a bicycle path in the redecking project for the I-794 Hoan Bridge in Milwaukee. People completely ignore the $300 million dollar price tag for the bridge project, but balk at the idea of a $3 million path. People ask why bicyclists can’t just take the surface streets, but don’t ask why cars need a special bridge. Before we even get into this obvious double standard, let’s take a look at the return on investment we get for bicycle facilities.
I am a pretty frugal guy. I buy most of my clothes at thrift stores. I buy used bikes and even used bike parts at swap meets rather than pop for new. So if we were using our transportation dollars to fix what we have and patch pot holes rather than expanding freeways and highways across the state to the tune of billions of dollars, I might agree with these seemingly budget-conscious comments. But when nobody questions the $2 billion expansion of the Marquette Interchange, the automatic expansion of I-94, etc., etc., then I have to speak up and defend the less than 1% of our transportation budget that we spend on bicycle projects.
Wisconsin began investing in bicycling in 1967 when we built the country’s first rail trail from Elroy to Sparta under then (Republican) Governor Warren Knowles. Since we built that first trail, we have continued to invest in bicycle facilities and as a result are consistently rated the second or third best state in the country to ride a bike. What did it cost us to get those high marks? If you count every penny invested in bicycle facilities in Wisconsin from 1967 until the present, it adds up to about $240 million.
Today bicycling pumps $1.5 billion dollars into our state’s economy annually. Bicycling brings in as much money in tourism and recreation as deer hunting and snowmobiling. Between manufacturing and retail, bicycling employs more than 13,000 people in communities large and small across Wisconsin. Other than buying into Berkshire Hathaway for $35 a share in 1967, I think you would be hard pressed to find a stock on Wall Street with as high of a return on initial investment as that first bicycle trail or those we have built since. From an ROI standpoint, investing in bicycling is a no-brainer even if you don’t ride a bicycle.
Anything that adds more than a billion dollars to our economy and creates thousands of jobs is good for everyone, no matter where you live or why you ride. The trails in Vilas County benefit the residents of Kenosha and vice versa. A new bike lane in La Crosse and a new trail in Green Lake both fill important gaps in the state network of bikeways, attract more tourists, create more jobs and make Wisconsin a better place to live and do business. Bicycling helps thousands of people save money at the pump while it pumps money into local economies and raises millions of dollars for charities. Trails get people active, reducing overall healthcare costs for everyone.
People ride bikes for lots of different reasons in many different locations. Of the 2.5 million people who get on bicycles each year in Wisconsin, some ride for transportation and others for recreation; some ride on roads while others stick to trails. People commute to work in cities, while others commune with nature in forests. Wisconsin has racing of all kinds: road, cyclocross, track, triathlons and mountain bike. While this incredible diversity is one of the things that makes Wisconsin such a great place to ride a bicycle, it also creates a fractured community. It is easy to get caught up in a personal training program, organizing a specific ride or building a local trail and forget that we are all part of the greater Wisconsin bicycling community.
If we want to move bicycling forward in Wisconsin, we need to stop questioning ourselves and work together. Bicycling is a great investment, even in difficult economic times. If Boulder Junction sees value in extending their trail system north to Presque Isle, we should speak with one loud voice to support them rather than second guess their local decision-making process. If an event organizer wants to put together a new charity ride or race, we should support it rather than criticize the route. If people in Stevens Point feel a highway will create a barrier, and needs a bridge to provide local access, the state’s bicycling community should join with them and support the local request for a bridge. If thousands of Milwaukee residents sign a petition to add a bicycle path to the Hoan Bridge to connect their two most heavily used trails along the lakefront, cyclists across the rest of the state should stand with them.
The Bicycle Federation of Wisconsin is a statewide organization with 3,500 members, but we represent the interests of 2.5 million people who enjoy bicycling every year in Wisconsin. We need to trust and support each other to make Wisconsin an even better place to ride a bicycle. On the count of three, let’s all say this together, bicycling is a good investment for Wisconsin.