Plan & Fund

When we make our communities more bicycle friendly, we make them better places to live. People on bikes tend to be an indicator of livable and economically healthy communities. Places where you see lots of people on bikes tend to be great places to live, work, visit and do business. Even though bicycling is such a simple, low-cost solution to so many modern problems, finding the political will and funds to construct a new trail, paint a bike lane or just put up a sign can be a real challenge. Given those challenges, we often get asked, “How can I get a bike lane (or trail) on my street (or in my community)?”


Before we get into the hows or action plans, let’s make sure we are all using the same terms:

  • Bike Route: A bike route is merely a street that has been designated with a green sign as having conditions good for cycling. It may have low speeds and low traffic volumes, paved shoulders or travel lanes wide enough for a bike and car to travel safely side by side.
  • Bike Lane: A bike lane is a street with painted white lines and symbols denoting a bicycle-only travel lane installed next to parked cars or next to the curb where there is no on-street parking. Bike lanes are typically 4ft-6ft wide, motor vehicle travel lanes are 10ft-12ft wide, and parking lanes are 7ft-9ft wide. So the minimum typical urban cross section needed for a bike lane to fit on a typical urban two-way street is (11+8+5) x 2 = 48 feet.
  • Protected Bike Lane: A protected bike land is an on-street lane for bicycles separated from the motor vehicle travel lane in some manner, typically with a buffer zone, a buffer zone with flexible bollards, a raised curb or even a motor vehicle parking lane. Buffer zones are typically 2ft-4ft wide, so protected bike lanes generally cannot be installed on streets narrower than 52ft wide. Protected bike lanes have proven extremely effective at getting more people riding in urban areas with heavy traffic.
  • Bike Trail: A bike trail is a path completely separated from the roadway. A side path can be located in the sidewalk area, but most often trails are located in empty right of way, such as former railroad corridors. Trails are most often meant as multiuse paths and can be paved or crushed limestone. The minimum width for a multiuse trail is 10ft, plus a 3ft graded shoulder.
  • MTB Trail: An MTB trail is made of dirt or other natural substance, most often designed to be used by mountain bikes for recreation, but it can sometimes serve as a transportation route.
  • Bikeway: This is a generic term that can apply to any of the facilities above.

How to Get Bike Facilities Installed

First, look online or call your public works department or a locally elected representative to see whether your community has a bike plan. Many plans include maps or project schedules. Your community may already be planning on improving the street or building the trail you are interested in. If your community does not have a bike plan, consider recommending one to your elected representative.

Wisconsin’s Complete Streets law, or Tran 75, now requires that roads provide accommodations for people walking and riding bicycles. Since the Bike Fed got the Complete Streets law enacted, the easiest and most cost-effective way to improve a street for bicycling is during a resurfacing or reconstruction project. It is much less expensive to get bike lanes and signs added as part of a larger project than to retrofit to an existing road. Planning and designs for road projects often begin as many as six years before construction. Most communities have long-range paving plan schedules, which can be reviewed to see if a road you are concerned about is due for construction and will include bike lanes.

Most trails and other stand-alone bikeway projects have been built using state or federal transportation grants from the Transportation Enhancements (TE), Congestion Mitigation Air Quality Improvement (CMAQ), Recreational Trails or Stewardship programs. These application cycles and eligibility criteria for these grants vary, and only governmental bodies can apply for them.

While these grant programs are still options for municipalities looking to fund bicycle projects, the 2012 federal transportation bill gutted these programs, so seeking future federal funding for bicycling and walking projects will be much more difficult to get. Given the current bill, it may be more fruitful for local municipalities to fund their own projects with local dollars.

Getting Started

Since virtually all bike lanes and trails are constructed on public streets or within the publicly owned right of way, with public money, the process to get a bike lane or trail constructed involves a public process. We have outlined a typical scenario below:

  1. A group of people get an idea for a bike project, and they organize themselves into some sort of action committee or task.
  2. Group takes the idea for the project to their elected officials.
  3. Elected officials agree the project is worthwhile and develop a plan and initial cost estimates (including possible grant sources) for any real estate acquisition, engineering and construction.
  4. Municipality approves the plan and applies for a grant to do the project.
  5. Assuming the grant is actually approved, the municipality works with Wisconsin Department of Transportation to refine the plans and estimates, approve a bid package, and negotiate and award a construction contract. The process from grant application to project construction takes a minimum of two years, often four to six years, and sometimes longer. Such are speeds at which the wheels of bureaucracy spin.