As I pulled onto the block where Jessica Binder lives I caught the flash of a helmet being removed to expose a dark head of hair, dampened by exertion. The young woman locked her bike to the porch rail as I finished parking and fixed me with a wide-eyed stare as I exited the car.
“I’m Jessica,” she called to me.
“I’m Ellen,” I responded aloud while silently thinking, “Of course you are! You just got off a bicycle.”
Meet Jessica Binder, Program Director for the Bike Federation of Wisconsin. She had just ridden eight miles from her office on West Pierce and South 36th Streets to her home on Townsend Street in Riverwest, a round trip she completes most weekdays, year round.
“I don’t ride when the temperature is under 15 degrees,” she said, “and I don’t feel guilty about that. I think it’s good for people to make up their own rules.”
Realism and moderation temper Jessica’s approach to her goal of increasing the number of people riding bicycles. She suggests that new riders begin with the idea, “I’m only going to bike for trips that are a mile away from my house. And think of everywhere you go that’s only a mile. Start there. After a while of that, start thinking, ‘Okay, now I’ll go places that are two miles away.’ Have itty bitty steps and keep growing.”
The Wisconsin Bike Federation is a twenty-five-year-old member-based organization with offices in Madison and Milwaukee, as well as staff in several other cities. “We work to make biking better through advocacy and encouragement,” Jessica said. Presently there are 3,500 members statewide, but in reality, she explained, “We represent the three million people in Wisconsin who get on a bike every year.”
The yearly Bike to Work Week is organized statewide, by the BFW. “We also do a lot of local programs in Milwaukee. We have a large and successful ‘Safe Routes to School’ program where we work with many of the schools in Riverwest to try to get more students walking and biking to school, and to get them the skills they need to bike in the street.”
Next year they will launch a similar program geared toward adults called Smart Trips. “Targeted in Riverwest and Harambee,” said Jessica, “we’ll be working with people to say, ‘Hey, would you like to maybe walk, bike or take transit somewhere that you go? And can we help you figure out your route, and be more comfortable, and give you the skills you’ll need?’ So, we’ll be having classes and outreach activities to try to help people ditch the car and hop on a bike or walk or transit a little more in the neighborhood.”
Smart Trips is funded by a Pollution Control Grant. “That’s kind of exciting,” Jessica said. “We’ll be measuring how many trips in cars we are avoiding by having people walk or bike or take transit.” Of the Wisconsin Department of Transportation’s yearly budget only 0.2% goes to walking and biking, which actually makes up 10% of all trips.
“We just want people to have a choice,” Jessica concluded.
Also on the Federation’s agenda are Bike Boulevards or Quiet Streets, in collaboration with the City of Milwaukee. These would be special routes designed to slow or exclude car traffic, making them particularly bike and pedestrian safe. Fratney Street, with its three schools, or Wright Street are prime possibilities.
“I would love if anyone wants to form a subcommittee of the Riverwest Neighborhood Association to help support bike boulevards in the neighborhood,” Jessica suggested. “I would be happy to be a part of that.”
A native of Chicago, Jessica arrived here by way of Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota, and then Portland, Oregon. In both places her main forms of locomotion were her bike and her feet. After a short return to Chicago she relocated to Milwaukee (“All the good things of Chicago but none of the hassle!”) to take the Bike Federation position.
A resident of Riverwest for ten years, Jessica met her husband, Christian, at a backyard party. He works for the Urban Ecology Center. Together they live with their five-year-old son, Everett, in a beautiful home they purchased as a foreclosure and spent a few years renovating.
Both Jessica and Christian will participate in the Riverwest24. Christian, who is also an avid biker, was kept out due to a back problem until this year. It will be Jessica’s third time. They are on the “Beerliners” team.
“The Bike Fed is doing a bonus check point for the Riverwest24. So we’re hoping to have everybody pitch in a little bit to make biking better for the neighborhood. We have a secret surprise project for the riders to get to participate in,” Jessica said. She’s not supposed to talk about the project but looks forward to seeing it come together “one brick at a time.”
“I think Riverwest is one of the best neighborhoods for biking in the country. I mean we definitely are in Milwaukee or Wisconsin. You think about the Riverwest24 and how committed people are…there’s Truly Spoken, a great independent bike shop…we have so many trails. We have ready access to the Oakleaf, two parts of the Beerline, great bike lanes.”
Why is Jessica most happy to have landed in Riverwest? “The river. Going to walk on those trails, that’s my favorite part of this neighborhood. We’re in a lively city with restaurants and neighbors and people and lots of friends and always things to do, but you can get away and enjoy the river, have a calm walk. That contrast is my favorite thing about this neighborhood.
See article on Smart Trips