La Crosse is a “a bicycling jewel.” Its natural geography, city layout and trail system contribute to one of the highest bike and pedestrian commuting rates in the state.
But do those numbers ease the Coulee Region’s worst traffic congestion?
“That’s the million dollar question,” Jackie Eastwood, a transportation planner with the Metropolitan Planning Organization said.
For all their benefits, “Bike and ped is not going to reduce congestion on north-south roads,” she said. Transportation experts estimate most bike users won’t ride farther than 5-7 miles.
Alternative transportation advocates question that statement, but one thing is certain, says UW-La Crosse history professor James Longhurst, an expert in historical bicycling policy.
“La Crosse is definitely punching above its weight.”
According to data gathered by the Census Bureau between 2007 and 2011, 2.4 percent of La Crosse residents biked to work and 7.6 percent walked.
“You’ll never get cars off roads,” said Jack Zabrowski, a former La Crosse County bicycle and pedestrian coordinator. But he doesn’t see why they can’t be shared.
“Mixed-use development really promotes people being more active,” Zabrowski said. “The more people you get biking and walking, the fewer accidents there are. It can really decrease the amount of money you need to fix roads.”
Focusing on north-south, auto-centric roads and entryways into La Crosse only discourages alternative transportation, he says.
“Do we want to dedicate millions and millions of dollars so people can zoom out to where they live in the suburbs?” Zabrowski asked. “How does that benefit people that live in the city?”
It hasn’t always been this way. Late 1800s road improvements were made with bikes in mind, and La Crosse was home to a chapter of the League of American Wheelman, a national bicycle advocacy group.
Advocates were wealthy with business interests and wanted better transportation infrastructure for customer access. But they weren’t the only cyclists.
“Part of the impulse there is to give more people mobility in urban areas,” said Jesse Gant, a co-author of “Wheel Fever,” a history of cycling in Wisconsin to be released in September. Bikes were the “poor man’s horse.”
The era also serves as an example of how transportation plans can flipped on their head. The car emerged as the dominant transportation model, and the bike was largely forgotten until the bicycling boom of the 1970s.
“It’s not just an If you build it, they will come,” Longhurst said. Economic and population factors can outpace the planners.
Denser populations with more nearby amenities promote mixed use, and interest in city revitalization is growing. A depressed economy, combined with high gas prices, drives interest in cheap transportation.
National trends show that bicycle commuting took off again during the recession.
That casts light on the division between two types of bicycle commuters; those who can, and those who must.
Much of the debate surrounding shared-use revolves around recruiting more people who have the means to drive to work. The later group can get lost in the shuffle.
“It’s very important not to forget those who have to. They’re also bicyclists,” Longhurst said, and they depend on shared-use policy regardless of larger public interest.
Economic means have also filtered into the decision making of that “choice” group, especially as gas prices continue to hover above $3.50 per gallon.
Longhurst says overall public interest is at a peak just as transportation infrastructure is being re-examined.
“Now is a really important time,” he said. “This might be a very narrow window.”