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Biking in Milwaukee has a New Face …and his name is Dave

Dave Schlabowske has been Bike and Pedestrian Coordinator for the City of Milwaukee since September, 2005, after working for the Bike Federation of Wisconsin and serving on the city’s Bike Task Force. He recently took some time to address Riverwest residents’ biking questions and concerns with Staff Writer Belle Bergner.

RWC: What are some of your job duties?

DS: It’s interesting because when I was at the Bike Fed, we were hired as consultants on city projects. Now I’m just doing different parts of the same projects. We were asked to produce an informational website and map for the city at the Bike Fed, which I worked on, and now I’m in charge of maintaining these things (www. city.milwaukee.gov/display/ router.asp?docid=1989). Now I work on making sure the bike lanes get striped and maintained. A new item I have now is pedestrian issues, which I work on extensively. These include safety improvements, in-street signs, bump outs like on Brady Street – that are often called street scaping projects. I’m working on a number of those across the city.

RWC: In a recent survey of Riverwesters, many expressed frustration with the lack of car and bus driver’s awareness and respect of bicyclists. What is being done to fix that?

D.S. We often talk about the four “E’s” in regards to safety and other bike and pedestrian problems: engineering, education, enforcement, and encouragement.

Engineering means we shorten crosswalk times by making the distance from one side of the street to the other shorter with bump outs. We educate motorists about bike and pedestrian rights of way, we encourage people to do what they are supposed to do, and the police departments help us enforce these safety concerns. I’m working with other city departments like the police to coordinate better enforcement in problem areas.

Part of the problem is that when you take the driver’s test, you can get the bike questions wrong and still pass the test. We are addressing this problem by working with the DOT on a new education campaign that will be launched in late spring or early summer called “Streetshare.”

We need the help of motorists to influence the quality of life of everyone in the city – especially for bicyclists and pedestrians. Our new education program will be used in other communities around the state too.

RWC: In the same Riverwest survey, residents gave our neighborhood a 5.5 out of 10 and Milwaukee a 4 out of 10 for the quality of bike lanes, which is not that great. What is being done to improve this rating?

DS: We have to educate people. Riverwest has a much higher crash rate than the rest of the city. Compared to the east side of the river, there is a dramatic difference – there are much fewer crashes over there, but I’m not sure why that is. Overall, I’ve seen dramatic improvement over the years. Having ridden in a lot of other cities that are more bike friendly, I would give Milwaukee a 6 or 7 rather than 4 because we are moving in the direction of these other places.

Personally, I’ve ridden my bike for lots of years and was dissatisfied with Milwaukee for much of that time. Ten years ago, I would have agreed that Milwaukee was not friendly to bikes and I would also give Riverwest a 5 out of 10 from a facilities standpoint right now. But at least in Riverwest you have a lot of quiet streets compared to other urban neighborhoods, and its mixed development allows you to bike to the co-op, great restaurants, and other amenities. From that perspective, I’d actually give Riverwest an 8.

Also, if a lot of people responding to the survey don’t bike a lot, it might be a perception issue – if they aren’t used to riding around with cars, they might perceive a danger that isn’t there. Statistically, it’s actually safer to ride your bike than drive a car. I’ve ridden for 13 years in the city without a problem.

RWC: Where can people learn good bike safety skills?

DS: The Bike Fed offers classes (www.bfw. org; 271-9685). I’d encourage people to take a class – even experienced cyclists will learn a lot. Cream City Cycle Club also teaches classes once or twice a year (www. creamcitycycleclub.com).

An example of something that inexperienced cyclists often do is ride as close as they can to parked cars because they are afraid of a car approaching them from the rear. But in doing this, they are actually encouraging drivers to drive too close. It’s counterintuitive but you should ride farther away from parked cars to give yourself the room you need.

RWC: What can we expect to see in the short term that will improve biking in Milwaukee?

DS: In case any folks haven’t seen it yet, we built the marsupial bridge underneath Holton Street to connect Brewer’s Hill with the Brady Street Neighborhood. We did that even though Holton Street had bike lanes because the business district wanted a more attractive connection. We have the Hank Aaron State Trail running through the Menomonee Valley that will be 95 % finished this year. We have a new Mapquest-based bike map system which puts us on par with Portland, Oregon.

We currently have 45 miles of bike lanes and many of these will be re-striped this year. This year, we have a new grant to paint a little more and we’ll use a longer lasting paint this time. We also have a new plan that looked at all of our city roads and identified all possible streets that could be striped with bike lanes. From this plan, we identified 250 miles of road that could be painted, but some of these are wide parkways such as the Estabrook Parkway where few cars are driving and there is a reduced need for a bike lane there compared to, say, North Avenue. We prioritized these into ‘A’ ‘B’ and ‘C’ rankings through public meetings and the bike/pedestrian task force.

From these meetings, we whittled the 250 miles of road into 140 miles in the “A” category and now we have a network map identifying these as prioritized future bike lanes. I work in the planning and development group of the infrastructure services section of the Department of Public Works, so anytime a road is repaved, DPW looks at our network map to determine if that same road will get striped. The various chunks of bike lanes will get connected over the years.

If you look at the improvements we’ve been doing and compare us to other cities of same size, we’re as good as Minneapolis or Cleveland or Cincinnati. We’re not Madison, but Milwaukee is much more bike friendly than it was 10 years ago.

RWC: Other suggestions from residents are to add bike racks to buses, more bike parking everywhere, and a downtown bike station like Chicago. What is happening in these areas?

DS: [On bus bike racks] Bike racks on buses is a County issue because the buses are run by the Milwaukee County Transit Service (MCTS). It was proposed that bike racks be allowed on board buses but a handicap accessibility organization objected because on-board bikes might obstruct handicap seats. MCTS claimed that there is no room in the bus garages, but I think these problems are not insurmountable. How did other cities do it? So many other cities have the bike racks including small ones like Duluth and Superior, so it seems like an obvious thing for Milwaukee to do. This type of project is paid for with a federal grant up to 95%, which is an incredible value in the grant world where you often get much less.

The Bike Fed has started a new petition. Folks can go to the Bike Fed website (www. bfw.org), download the petition, get 10 friends to sign it, and send the petition back to the Bike Fed. Congresswomen Gwen Moore and County Supervisor Dan Devine are very interested in this, but they need residents to request directly to their County Supervisors that MCTS look into this.

I think the increased ridership on public transit that other cities have experienced after installing bike racks on buses clearly shows that it will increase transit use here too. I personally might be more willing to ride the bus if I am able to ride my bike for part of the way – especially on routes where I would have to transfer.

[On the bike station] UWM applied for a grant to create a bike station on their campus like Chicago’s downtown station but the grant was not funded. One of the issues that Chicago has that Milwaukee doesn’t is that Chicago has greater density of people so it is much harder to drive and to park there. We don’t have the volume of cars that Chicago has – like 40,000 cars on arterial streets each day. They also have transit (Metra) that provides more options like bikes being allowed on them. Milwaukee doesn’t necessarily have the demand that will fill the capacity of a downtown bike station. It would have to be researched and placed in the right spot.

[On bike racks] We just set up a contract to install 750 more bike racks this year. We have nearly 800 already installed. Residents can contact me directly and tell me where they work or shop and that they would like a bike rack there. You don’t have to be the owner of a business to request this – it can be someone who works there, or a customer. This is the #1 priority on my list. We have multiple styles of bike racks to accommodate different needs depending on the size of the business, and you can even put one inside a parking structure. You can contact me to request one by phone at 286-3144 or email:

RWC: Is there anything else you would like to let Riverwest and other City residents know about biking in Milwaukee?

DS: I just want to say that getting around Milwaukee on bike is the best way to get around the city, to experience the nuances of the city that you can’t do in a car. It’s safe, it’s fun, and it’s healthy.

Riverwest Currents online edition – May, 2006