By now, almost every person who rides a bicycle from Portland to NYC has heard of the little Town of Hull, WI Population 5,597 and their local ordinance that could ban cyclists from the roads. Just outside of Stevens Point, Hull, like many other small towns near larger cities in our state, is blessed with miles of low traffic, scenic paved roads, ideal for riding bicycles, jogging or even walking the dog.
Nearby Stevens Point is a very active community with a great running and bicycling culture. The University of Wisconsin, Stevens Point has a history of fielding national caliber runners. Home to the Hostel Shop, a nationally recognized leader in recumbent bicycle sales, Stevens Point actually has the highest percentage of people who bike to work of any city in the state, nearly 8% according the last census data. Add in Heartland Bike and Ski Club and all the regular folks who just enjoy going for an occasional bike ride and you have a prime example of why the League of American Bicyclists ranks Wisconsin as the 3rd best state in which to ride in the country.
This only becomes a problem when enough people don’t behave well and their failure to obey the rules of the road draws the attention of the good people of Hull. Residents of Hull are annoyed by motorists who ignore speed limit signs as they zoom through their quiet town. They are angered when bicyclists don’t even slow down for stop signs. They are inconvenienced regularly when groups of runners take up a whole lane of their narrow town roads. Those problems are then compounded by a lack of communication and the annoyance grows. Before you know it, the town has created a public safety committee with few ways to solve the problems other than enforcement. Whether you think it is misguided or not, they decide it will add clarity and make it easier to enforce the state laws if they adopt those same laws in a specific local ordinance.
Before they could write such an ordinance, the committee directs the town attorney to research all the state statutes relative to bicycling and report back to them so they have a better understanding of the laws. When they read the report, they discover that the same existing state statutes that allow them to designate bike lanes and bike routes also allow cities, towns and villages to prohibit bicycles, pedestrians and even people on roller skis (take note Birkie trainers). So they insert that language into their early draft of the ordinance.
Enter a reporter from the local paper who, in keeping with all the principles of journalism, writes a story that highlights a news angle of a possible ban on bicycles. Like most papers, the story is also published on their digital version with all the options to share it through the usual social media. Before any bicyclist actually talks to anyone from the committee, the headline “Town of Hull Proposes Ban on Bicycling” has gone viral and the inbox for the town chairman is jammed with emails from angry bicyclists from all corners of the country.
Now you may call me old, a Luddite or a technophobe, but I remain a firm believer in the power of a good old-fashioned conversation to clear up problems. My office is in Milwaukee, and while I prefer a face-to-face meeting, a phone call saves a lot of time and gas. Earlier this morning I was able to spend an hour or so on the phone talking with and listening to John Holdridge, Chairman of the Town of Hull.
While they fully intend to proceed with their local ordinance, I think the good news that came from that conversation is that at this time the Town of Hull safety committee has no interest in banning bicycles or demanding permits for small group rides or runs. The Chairman told me the primary purpose of their draft local ordinance is to improve safety and increase compliance with the laws for all road users. That begins with reducing speeding by motorists (they are looking at traffic calming), getting pedestrians to walk opposite the direction of traffic and expecting bicyclists to obey stop signs, ride single or double file, etc. He emphasized that their local ordinance will be in complete compliance with all state laws.
John told me his wife rides her bike most every day on the roads in the Town of Hull, and they both take daily walks on those roads as well as on the Green Circle Trail. They are clearly not “anti-bike” or “anti-pedestrian.” The safety committee members are attempting to address complaints and concerns about scofflaws in cars, on bike and on foot while maintaining the quality of life in their community. To that end, I offered the assistance of the Bicycle Federation of Wisconsin. Through our state ambassadors, our partnerships with event organizers and the WisDOT funded Share & Be Aware program that we manage, we are now capable of doing quite a bit of education and encouragement.
Further, we are always working to expand our membership, and that is the very best way to build a community of people who ride bicycles in a responsible manner. As long as the Stevens Point area must live with the “curse” of being a great place to ride bicycles, the Bike Fed will be there to help in any way we can. I ended my conversation with Chairman Holdridge feeling that we had a mutual understanding and would be working respectfully together in the near future.
Thursday night the Town of Hull Safety Committee will be meeting to discuss their draft ordinance, and I know many people from the Stevens Point area intend to attend. I would encourage all who attend to go into the meeting with a cooperative attitude. At this point, I think it will be more productive to offer assistance dealing with any real safety or public relations concerns rather than argue that the ordinance is not needed. As a cycling community, I think we are all interested in policing ourselves and setting good examples. As long as the ordinance simply reiterates state law, I see no reason why the Bike Fed would not want to work with the town to increase the rate of compliance with those laws among our members in the area, even if that means additional enforcement.
Towns do have the legal right to ban bicycles, roller skiers and pedestrians on their town roads according to Wisconsin statutes. That statute is bothersome to many of our members and many in the running, roller skiing and bicycling community in general, but it does us little good to fight that issue at this local level. If we agree that is an issue we want to take up, it can be most effectively dealt with at the state level through new legislation. But as I said before, after my conversation with Chairman Holdridge, I am not worried about that issue in Hull at this point.
Moving forward with better communication and policing our own ranks is the real answer to bans on bicycles. While the Town of Hull roads are clearly under their jurisdiction, they are part of a larger wonderful network of paved town roads across the state (thank you dairy industry) that help make Wisconsin one of the best places in the country to ride a bicycle. With your help, I am confident that we can share the message that bicycling is as good for the residents of the Town of Hull as it is for Wisconsin’s economy and our individual health. As long as we can make that message heard, the residents and visitors across Wisconsin will be able to continue to enjoy their rides, runs and walks on our wonderful local road system.
If any of you have specific concerns or questions, please comment below and I will be happy to respond. I have posted the relevant Wisconsin Statutes below for reference. You can find other statutes on our post What is the Law Anyway and an analysis of who breaks the law more often, people in cars on bikes or on foot in Scorchers and Scofflaws, Just the Facts Please.
Please also consider joining the Bicycle Federation of Wisconsin. While our entire staff cares deeply about keeping our roads open to bicycles, the only way we can afford to spend time on important issues like these is through the funds generated by donations and our general membership. Help keep Wisconsin a safe and enjoyable place to ride a bicycle.