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In Living

Dave Schlabowske is Milwaukee's first bicycle and pedestrian coordinator.

City cycling with Dave Schlabowske


When it comes to construction it is important to select the right tools to solve the right problems -- a nail requires a hammer, not the blunt end of a screwdriver. When it comes to license plate graphics it is important to hire designers to design them, not the metal company that is providing the plates (See College Humor vs. Nebraska).

When it comes to complete city streets, it is important to represent motorists, pedestrians and everybody in between. Up until recently only one form of transportation, (the largest, most pollutant, most inefficient form of transportation), was truly represented and questions about cyclists and pedestrians were largely answered with the wrong tools.

Then the Bicycle Federation of Wisconsin got involved. OnMilwaukee.com concludes this year's Bike to Work Week with an interview with Milwaukee's bicycle and pedestrian coordinator.

OnMilwaukee.com: So, Dave, how long have you been a bicycle and pedestrian coordinator?

Dave Schlabowske: I am the first bicycle and pedestrian coordinator in the City of Milwaukee. I have been in that position for four years. Most major cities have at least one person in my position. Some, such as Chicago, Portland, Seattle, Austin and others have several people for bike programming and several for pedestrian programming.

OMC:What do you do as a bicycle and pedestrian coordinator?

DS: I divide my time between bicycle facility planning (where bike lanes go, designing bike trails, updating the City Bicycle Master Plan, supplying and locating bike parking racks). I also work on pedestrian safety issues, such as pedestrian safety week, the StreetShare program (www.streetshare.org), safe routes to school projects, general school drop off safety reviews, respond to complaints about motorists who fail to yield to pedestrians in a crosswalk, and more. I work on streetscaping designs for business districts. I also manage the city traffic calming program.

OMC: What has been your greatest success as far as making the streets more friendly for everyone?

DS: We now add bike lanes on all roadway reconstruction projects where there is room. We currently have about 45 miles of bike lanes and should have about 145 miles in two years. Over the last four to six years we have installed about 2,000 bike parking racks. We now do traffic calming in Milwaukee through our Neighborhood Traffic Management Program. And we started the StreetShare program and Pedestrian Safety Week.

OMC: What has been your greatest challenge or disappointment?

DS: I work in a very supportive environment here at the City of Milwaukee DPW, so I cannot complain in that regard. Our greatest challenge to date has been maintaining the bike lanes we paint. But have similar problems with our entire long line program (center lines, edge lines, etc.) But we are getting a new pavement marking machine that will allow us to maintain that whole program at a higher standard and more cost effectively.

OMC: What new developments would you like to see? You mentioned implementing some European style set ups.

DS: The exciting new ideas we are talking about are bicycle boulevards, raised bike lanes and a short term bike sharing program. Once these were just European ideas, but now they can be found in places like Bend, Ore.; Minneapolis, Portland, Ore., Berkley, Calif., New York City and other places in the U.S.

Bicycle boulevards are a series of traffic calming devices on a local street that give priority to bicycles, encourage motorists to drive the speed limit and discourage cut-through motor vehicle traffic. Raised bike lanes are just like the bike lanes now, but raised two or three inches from the motor vehicle lane and have a gentle sloped transition curb. Bike sharing is the hottest thing to get non-cyclists riding.

These systems started in Europe, the most famous of which is in Paris, and have been hugely successful at reducing motor vehicle congestion, pollution and getting more people active. Washington, D.C. has one, Chicago has request for proposals out for one and Minneapolis will have their underway soon. None of these items are finalized for Milwaukee yet, nor have the details been worked out. But they are under serious consideration in the City's Bicycle Master Plan we are updating right now. For more info on those facilites and the update of the plan, go here.

OMC: What about these single car lanes in the Netherlands? I could easily see some of these applying to some small, low-traffic neighborhood side streets.

DS: That is a pretty rare instance and probably not something that applies to our city. We don't really have streets like that, but we do try to make all streets as narrow as possible when we reconstruct them.

OMC: Milwaukee is talking about dropping the required registration. Why?

DS: Why does Shorewood charge $10 for registration, while Milwaukee's is free? Reasons to change the ordinance:

  • There are about 17,000 bicycles sold every year in the City of Milwaukee at bike shops and stores like Target. The ordinance says bike licenses are available at these dealers, but they are not. The City does not send licenses to bicycle dealers and it might be difficult to do so or to require all stores that sell bicycles to get licenses and distribute them. I am only aware of two shops that distribute the licenses, Cory the Bike Fixer and Crank Daddy's. Cory was emphatic that his customers like the bike licenses he provides at the point of sale. He also registers the bikes online when he sells them. He would be fine with making it optional. Andrew at Crank Daddy's said he would begin distributing the stickers and see how customers like them, but he is just doing it because I asked him to. The other shops don't distribute licenses at all and some bike shop owners have said their customers don't want the stickers on their bikes. The big box stores are a whole different matter and we would have to deal with their corporate headquarters to get them to do anything like this.
  • Many cyclists report that neither police district stations nor the library branches have bike licenses when they go to get them. And even the license office in City Hall only had 100 left recently, though they are getting 10,000 printed now.
  • We know that 49 percent of Milwaukee residents 16 or older own bicycles. That means we should have at least 250,000 (if you count bikes for kids under 16 bicycles licensed in Milwaukee). That is a lot of bikes to license and stickers to print if we are going to really enforce this.
  • Many people will not put stickers on their bikes, similar to people who won't put bumper stickers on their cars. People don't want to put stickers on their nice bikes with fancy paint.
  • It is unclear that the bicycle licenses actually help in the recovery of stolen or lost bicycles. About 800 bicycles are recovered each year by MPD and about 100 are returned to owners, but according to a verbal report I got there is no connection between the bicycles returned and those that are licensed. It has more to do with people who call and go to look at all the bicycles and find theirs.

OMC: Where has Milwaukee's cycling scene come from? What was it like 10 years ago? Where would you like to see it in the future?

DS: Ten years ago if I saw another person biking to work in January, I either already knew that person or if I didn't, I e-mailed or called all my friends to tell them because it was such a rare thing. Now lots of people riding all year, even in the coldest and snowiest weather. We have bike polo, alley cats, tall bikes, but still there is a mindset among the majority of people around Milwaukee that you can't bike all year round here and that it is really not a serious transportation option. Since about 50 percent of all trips are less than five miles and 25 percent are less than a mile from home, my vision for the future is a city where the walking, bicycling and transit are Milwaukeean's fist transportation choices for those short trips. The automobile will be the last choice.

OMC: Why have Chicago, Minneapolis and Madison become national cycling hubs whereas Milwaukee, right in the middle, not made as much progress?

DS: I believe Milwaukee is already a great place to ride a bike for transportation or recreation. The League of American Bicyclists rated us a Bronze Bicycle Friendly Community. With the new bike racks on buses and the new bike lanes next year, we should be silver or gold.

If you look closely, and compare a giant city to a medium city, Milwaukee is pretty much on par with Chicago, or will be after we get the rest of our bike lanes painted and the racks go on the buses. We have 45 miles of bike lanes now and a plan to have about triple that by next year. We have 2,000 bike racks, helped build the Hank Aaron State Trail, are building more trails, have the marsupial bridge (under the Holton Avenue viaduct) and many other great cycling facilities.

Minneapolis recently got a $25 million federal earmark to make bicycle improvements. That goes a long way to getting things done.

Madison is a smaller community that has a large proportion of its population focused around the University of Wisconsin and state government, making the bicycle a more accepted means of transportation. Madison is also one of the leaders in providing facilities for bicyclists and have been involved in such efforts for many more years than most other communities. I'm not sure that Madison would be a fair comparison.

OMC: If the Olympics come to Chicago (and with the cycling events placed in Madison), do you see cycling infrastructure improving around here?

DS: I think we have a number of good long and short range plans to improve bicycle infrastructure in Milwaukee. I don't think the Olympics will change that.

It is kind of funny you ask that, because most of my friends from Minneapolis, Chicago and Madison love cycling in Milwaukee and often ask me why Milwaukee cyclists seem so cool. Our bike messengers are some of the coolest in the country; our bike polo teams are national champions; we have our own Milwaukee Bicycle Company, the Tour de Farce, Biketoberfest, the Fat Tire Tour, international racing, great mtb trails right in town and on and on. Maybe we are just more low key about things than other cities, but Milwaukee is a great place to ride.

OMC: What kind of bikes do you ride?

DS: I have a number of bikes that I use for different things, like tools in a tool box. I road race on an older Trek U.S. Postal Service carbon fiber bike. I tour on either a custom Waterford or an older Trek 620. I commute on an old Koga Miyata "Excercisor" I fixed out (with a brake though). I go to the coffee shop, movies, run my dogs, out to eat, etc., on an Electra Amsterdam three-speed "step-through" model. I grocery shop with a Burley trailer behind one of my touring bikes, or on the Amsterdam with really big panniers.

I have a custom single speed mountain bike built by a friend of mine for the trails near my house. I have a Dahon folding bike which goes free on airlines and can be taken on other transit. I use this for work trips out of town, short vacations, or when someone with a car is picking me up after work to go out. I can toss it in their trunk. I have a handful of other bikes that fill in the spaces in between.

Most of these bikes I bought used. My wife, daughter and I share one car for longer trips, but all of us bike to work, errands and to go out or we take transit if that is more convenient.

Talkbacks

3151 | June 14, 2009 at 1:44 p.m. (report)

I want to thank Dave, Bike Fed and I am sure others for helping to make biking great in Milwaukee. I returned to Milwaukee after 3 years and what a difference. There is a bike path available nearly everywhere I ride and I have noticed motor traffic is more considerate. And, what a great increase in the number of cyclists. Dave, thanks to you and Milwaukee for your efforts and good work. Dave F

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