Editor’s note: this piece originally ran on metropolismag.com on June 30, 2011.
Earlier this month, I spent a week in Madison, Wisconsin, where I sat through lectures by some of the world’s leading authorities on ways to make cities more appealing, functional, and sustainable. But the most valuable takeaways came not from inside the Madison Convention Center, but from the city itself; more specifically, from the helmeted, benevolent army that pedaled its way quietly and efficiently through the streets.
I’d heard about Madison being a bike-friendly city, but wasn’t sure what that meant exactly, never having been to Portland or Minneapolis or Davis, California, or any of those other places that usually get the highest praise for their bike-oriented principles.
Bicycles, and their trappings, were everywhere in Madison. They filled stalls outside nearly every civic and commercial venue. They whirred past the sidewalk café where I was having dinner. They included the uniform, basket-bearing cherry red variety that make up the city’s new bike share program, and its more utilitarian predecessor, doused unevenly in red paint and rentable from the local library. They appeared in stickers affixed to windows of restaurants and shops, advertising cyclist discounts, and in racks fixed to the back of the city’s hybrid taxi fleet. They glinted, haloed by an exuberant streetlight, in a row lining the parking lot at a popular bar as I pulled up on my rent-a-bike late on a Saturday night, making conspicuous the lone car at a venue that was packed with people.
It’s hard to quantify just how many people actually get around by bike in Madison. According to the most recent American Community Survey, about 4 percent of city residents counted the bicycle as their primary means of getting to work in 2009. It’s an impressive statistic when you consider that the national bike commuter rate stands at around 0.6 percent. Still, after spending a few days in Madison (admittedly, during one of the warmer months), that figure seems to only hint at the city’s cycling enthusiasm.
In one of the final sessions of the conference that brought me to Madison, the newly-minted mayor stepped onto the stage to address the crowd of 1,000 or so participants. His short trip to the podium revealed a slightly awkward waddle, the consequence of bicycle clips attached to the end of his shorts-clad stride. He’d stopped in, he announced matter-of-factly, in the middle of a bike ride. Not to suggest that the scene was more stunt than sincere, but this mayor knew his unconventional style would play well in this audience of committed urbanists, and perhaps more importantly, among the local crowd.
Paul Soglin, now in his third stint as mayor, previously held the post from 1979 to 1986 and from 1989 to 1997 before ousting the incumbent widely known as Mayor Dave in April of this year. But Madison’s vintage chief administrator, whose political career was built on anti-war activism and his embrace of left-leaning causes, has lately caused some consternation among constituents where his bike-friendly bona fides are concerned. His most recent indiscretion: succumbing to the complaints of business owners and putting the brakes on plans to expand a wildly popular event that closes several downtown streets to auto traffic for the better part of a day. This decision was greeted in the way New Orleanians might react to the cancellation of a Mardi Gras parade out of concern for commercial interests. That’s to say, it didn’t go over well.
Back in 2007, when I was on staff at a New Orleans business magazine, I decided to look into a little-advertised plan to install new bike lanes on roads set for reconstruction with post-Katrina recovery dollars. Bike lanes had been the rallying cry of a committed group of cycling advocates for years, but their cause had been largely ignored by the public and the politicians. So I went in search of a bicycle commuter, intending to use his or her experience to illustrate the difficulties encountered in our car-centric city in the absence of much meaningful cycling infrastructure. Usually, finding a source to discuss any manner of esoteric topics is relatively easy in this closely-connected city. Finding a bicycle commuter, however, required some leg work.
In Madison, cycling has become second nature. Madisonians pick up their U locks and helmets (yes, cyclists here actually wear helmets) the way most Americans would grab their car keys before heading out the door. But it’s easy to think of the city – a place that has had a tradition of cycling stamped into its collective consciousness for decades — as an aberration, a novel example with little chance of spreading among the general populace. Yet while habits get a reputation as tough things to crack, in spending a few days steeped in place with a serious bike habit, I got to thinking about just how malleable even seemingly intractable behavior can actually be.
Despite its paltry representation just a few years ago, cycling is now flourishing in certain sections of New Orleans. These days, if I were in need of a bicycle commuter to talk to, I would only have to step outside my door. The bike boom is especially pronounced in the Marigny and Bywater neighborhoods, where cyclists, more than a few of them atop bikes of the head-scratching double-decker variety, can be found swarming all hours of day and night. According to one rough estimate, close to 10 percent of residents of these downriver districts get around by bike. That’s around the same bicycle mode share said to exist in downtown Madison.
Much has been made of the success of bike lanes installed a couple years ago in the vicinity of Marigny and Bywater in stoking the trend, and it’s hard not to appreciate the difference this relatively simple striping has made both in promoting cycling and helping revive a decaying one-time commercial corridor. Tulane University researchers found bicycle ridership along St. Claude Avenue, which edges the Marigny and Bywater and ultimately runs into the Lower 9th Ward, had risen by more than 50 percent just six months after the city’s first bike lane was installed there in 2008.
But perhaps even more important than the infrastructure itself is the shifting culture of these neighborhoods. The extent of this shift rang clear at a barbecue I went to a few weeks ago along the tree-line neutral ground that runs along Esplanade Avenue between the French Quarter and the Marigny. As I got ready to leave, surveying the near one-to-one ratio of cyclers and people populating the scene, I felt a twinge of self-consciousness as I pulled my car keys from my bag. I wondered why I hadn’t ridden my bike.
Emilie Bahr is a freelance writer, urban planning graduate student at the University of New Orleans, and part-time bicycle commuter.