Wisconsin Drops To #6! Why are we moving backwards?

Click to see a larger version of our Bicycle Friendly State report card.

This morning, the League of American Bicyclists released their 5th annual rating of the bicycle friendly states and Wisconsin slipped to #6 from #3 last year. The other Bike Fed staff members and I were very disappointed, but hardly surprised by the announcement. This year’s drop represents the continuation of a backwards slide that started two years ago when we fell from our position as the 2nd most bicycle friendly state in the nation. While other states are increasing the money they spend on cycling, in our last biennial budget, Wisconsin cut the state funds it allocates to bicycling and continues to rank near the bottom of states on the amount of federal money we spend on bicycling.

When I called Matt Wempe, the League’s state and local coordinator, to ask what precipitated this year’s drop, he was quick to respond with a short answer, “Wisconsin cut $3 million dollars for bicycling from its state budget.” At the same time we cut the bike funds, Wisconsin increased the transportation budget overall. So although three million dollars is a tiny fraction of our huge $6.5 billion transportation budget, when it is pretty much the only state money we ante up towards bicycling, cutting it has a big impact on how we compare to other states.

Matt also pointed out that of the total money the feds give us that Wisconsin could spend on bicycle and pedestrian projects, we only spend 1.17%. By comparison, since 2007, Washington (at #1) has spent 2.96% of their eligible federal-aid highway obligations and the national average is 1.74%. In real dollar terms, from 2007 to 2011, the state has actually only spent $50, 445, 992 on bike ped projects of the $4.3 billion the feds obligated for those types of projects. Note that this pattern of low spending on bike and pedestrian projects predates the current political leadership.

Click to see a larger version of how all 50 states rank.

If you click on the chart to the left, you can see how all 50 states rate. Washington held their place as the most bicycle friendly state. Minnesota edged us out to score the 2nd best, up from #4, and Colorado jumped from #12 to the #3 slot. Our neighbors across the cheddar curtain to the south in Illinois failed to break into the top ten again at #11, despite the big improvements going on in Chicago. This year Arkansas dropped from #48 to #50 to carry the lantern rouge.

As an early leader in building trails and the epicenter of the nations ‘s bicycle industry, it is critical that we not lose ground to other states if we are going to continue to reap the huge returns on our relatively tiny annual investment of $1.5 million in bicycling. Remember, cycling pumps in more than $1.5 billion into our state economy each year and provides more than 13,000 jobs in the cities, towns and villages across the state.

Bicycling means more tourism dollars added to the economies of our small towns at a time when every penny counts. Bicycling provides jobs at bike retail stores located on main streets across the state. Those employees then spend their money at nearby, keeping local dollars in the local economies. Great bicycling makes it easier for our growing bicycle industry and other large businesses to attract and retain a talented workers and keep family supporting jobs for engineers, designers, sales associates, welders, etc. here in Wisconsin.

Chris Fortune, president of Saris Cycling Group and chair of the Governor’s Bicycle Coordinating Council has this perspective about our downward slide:

“Our research shows that 60% of our population is interested in riding bicycles more often, but they don’t because they are concerned for their safety. This is really all about providing safe, attractive places for people to ride.

Look at the value proposition bicycling provides in improvements to quality of life, in the increased mobility for our children and our seniors, the improved ability of employers to attract the best employees.  I look at the other states and cities we compete against making big investments in bicycling, and I think we have so many great things going in Wisconsin, we just can’t afford to lose our momentum and reputation as a great place for bicycling.”

Despite the disappointing drop to #6, the staff at the Bike Fed feels Wisconsin is still a great place to ride a bike, live, visit and do business. The Wisconsin Bike Fed remains as committed as ever to work cooperatively with our elected officials, with our members and with our bicycle industry to keep Wisconsin moving forward.

For an overview of how Wisconsin pays for bicycle facilities read this here. For more blog posts on federal and state funding for bicycling, select the “Bicycle Funding” category to the right.

Please consider joining as a member or making a $35 donation today to help us protect your bicycling rights and to build an even more bicycle-friendly Wisconsin. Through member dues and donations, we are able to fund our work with Wisconsin’s political leaders to increase bicycling funding and pass critical legislation like a Vulnerable Users’ law. Only together, will we make Wisconsin #1!

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About Dave Schlabowske, Deputy Director

Dave was the first full-time staff member hired to open the Bike Fed's Milwaukee office 15 years ago. A former professional photographer and life-long Milwaukee resident, Dave likes wool, long rides, sour beer, and a good polar vortex once in a while.

10 thoughts on “Wisconsin Drops To #6! Why are we moving backwards?

  1. Are we really moving backwards? Or are we spending less to achieve the same or better outcome? With complete streets; planners, designers and builders are now having to look at bike / ped accomadations more than ever before. One might argue that these costs are now getting built into projects rather than shown separately. Eitherway, I’m glad I live in WI as it has some of the best roads and trails in the nation. Just ask anyone who comes from MN, IL, CO, or anyother state to experence what we have and you can bet they are all jealous of our accomodations… (Existing).

    • Josh,

      It is true that some of our state investments in bicycling are hidden in road projects when bicycle accommodations are included. The problem is that other states are doing that as well, AND they are increasing the amount of money spent on bicycle projects. Wisconsin is falling behind in the race and it would cost us very little to keep our lead. Like in a bike race, the difference separating the top finishers is small, but nobody remembers anyone not on the podium. The other racers in the pack are all still good, perhaps great, but as Chris Fortune mentioned, we are competing against other states for tourism dollars, for the most talented workers, etc. If a tiny investment can keep us on the podium, we at the Bike Fed think it is worth while to spend that money.

      As for people being jealous of us, it all depends on who you ask and where they live. I can promise you that you would be hard pressed to find anyone from Boulder, CO who is jealous of any Wisconsin city bicycle facilities. The same can likely be said for Minneapolis and Chicago, both of which cities are making tremendous investments in cutting edge bicycle facilities, which have earned them very percentages of people who ride bikes, and repeated write-ups as premiere bicycle cities. Madison certainly has had some of that same praise, so we are not without our own star city. Our network of paved town roads remain a tremendous asset, to be sure.

      As for trails, we have some great ones, but we are slowly losing our lead in this department as well. Our trails are still great, but other states are building them faster than we are and promoting them better. Again, in the world of $50 million dollars per mile highway projects, trails are so inexpensive and give us such a huge return on our investment, it seems penny wise and dollar foolish to cut funding for them.

      We at the Bike Fed all do agree with you though, and I said it in the blog, Wisconsin remains a great place to ride a bike, to live and to do business. We just want to make it better.

  2. Josh, it’s not about how great Wisconsin is for cycling, it’s only about how much money is spent. It’s all about the money. Just look at Wempe’s response when asked why we fell in the rankings. Pathetic.

    It’s sad that the great work (and RESULTS) produced by organizations like Bike Fed are not even factored into the equation. So, you could have a state with awesome cycling supported by activities of cycling-friendly organizations and cycling-friendly construction projects, and you will still fall in the LAB rankings if you don’t spend enough state money. I’m not saying money makes no difference. But to drop a state in the rankings merely because of a drop in funding is like giving an A student a B merely because she is financially-disadvantaged.

    It’s too bad that organizations like LAB focus so much on spending money and not on producing results that matter to cyclists. I commend organizations like Bike Fed for leading the charge.

    • Kevin,

      Thanks for the props to the Bike Fed! We are only as good as our members, so pat yourself on the back a bit too. As an FYI, the LAB is looking at a few other metrics for next year’s ranking.

      To be fair to the LAB, they look at much more than the money. If you enlarge our report card (the first image) they look at more you can see how we score in all the categories, a number of which have nothing to do with money. I have pasted the categories and Wisconsin’s scores below:

      3 Legislation and Enforcement
      5 Policies and Programs
      2 Infrastructure and Funding
      4 Education and Encouragement
      3 Evaluation and Planning

      Few people love Wisconsin as much as I do. As a deer hunter, I can’t imagine living anywhere else. As a cyclist, I am proud to say I live in Wisconsin. Drilling down, I love how I can ride great mountain bike trails past people fly fishing for trout 15 minutes ride from my door in Milwaukee, the state’s largest urban center. And don’t even get me started on custard, beer or bakery…

      State and local pride aside, it remains a fact that other states (and cities in other states) have seen the value proposition of investments in bicycling and as a result, Wisconsin has been passed by, and other states are sitting on our wheel. The separation is close though, and it will not take much to get us back on top the podium.

      Keep your Wisco Pride, but let’s not rest on our laurels (or other parts). If we all work together, we can make Wisconsin an even better place to bike, and in so doing, we will make it a better place to live, create more jobs, improve our health, save money, and even make it easier for employers to compete against cities like Minneapolis, Seattle, Austin, Portland, Chicago, etc. for the best and the brightest employees. And since bicycling is such a cheap date, it won’t cost but a drop in the transportation funding bucket.

  3. Just curious if the cuts have anything to do with Walker? At least Barrett attempted to join the Bike to Work Week crowd. Not to turn this into a political war but I feel Barrett is more bike friendly and it would do good for us all to get him back in office.

    • L,

      The Bike Fed is not a 501(c)4, so we cannot legally lobby directly for candidates. That said, the $3 million dollar cut did happen while Walker was governor, but the legislature has an much to do with the biennial budget as the governor does. And remember, as the blog post mentions, the low score for spending federal money on bikes long predates Walker and the current majority in the legislature.

  4. Although rankings such as this one from LAB are far from perfect, they indeed carry a great deal of weight. Denial (“we’re really better than the rankings say”) is a perilous attitude to adopt, even if there is some justification for it. I expect LAB’s goal in these rankings is to encourage good behavior regarding bicycling infrastructure/safety/ridership/etc. from elected officials at all governmental levels. I suspect LAB can improve their process – and I bet they work on doing so with each yearly ranking – but that doesn’t mean we can ignore “bad” news just because we don’t like it.

    To make this more concrete: if another state (such as Minnesota) gains widespread acceptance over many years as a better place than Wisconsin for bicycling, and therefore bicycle business, might a company like Trek eventually consider moving their operations? I hope that never happens!! In fact I hope Wisconsin is a place that other companies decide to newly expand to. But the possibility that a downward spiral could eventually lead to such a shocking (economic-based) decision from a major bicycle business should be enough to keep us focused on turning the tide and reestablishing our reputation as an elite location for bicycling.

    Also, don’t forget that LAB wasn’t ranking only Madison or Milwaukee but the entire state. Things may be going well in those two cities (both moving up one notch in Bicycling Magazine’s recent ranking of Bike-Friendly Cities), but many of us in cities dotted across Wisconsin are working to improve our local environments for bicycling as well. We need all the help we can get, and any momentum generated by good rankings such as those from LAB gives us a great tool to make local leaders believe that they are _expected_ to improve the local environment for those choosing to use a bicycle to get around.

    Finally, let us all remember that from a world perspective, being the best state in the USA is simply winning the Little League crown. To REALLY have quality bicycle facilities a la Amsterdam and Copenhagen, current efforts pale compared to what has to happen to actually compete in the Major Leagues and compete for the bicycle equivalent of the World Series.

    So let’s all lick our wounds, learn from our successes and failures, and get back to work on getting more patooties on bicycles.

    • Well said Bob. There is a very important reason the Wisconsin Bike Fed has “Wisconsin” in our name. We are a state bicycle advocacy organization. We certainly can be rightly accused of spending too much time in the cities where we have full-time staff and not enough time on the rest of the state. While that remains a challenge, we have made big efforts to focus our projects and programs so they are aligned to our statewide mission. The Share & Be Aware program, with our part-time Bike Fed ambassadors working around state are perhaps the best example of that. Our work at the state capitol, while in Madison, often has a legislative impact that effects cities, towns and villages across the state. We are committed to doing an even better job representing bicycists from every corner of Wisconsin as we move forward.

      That said, this is a big state and the Bike Fed will never be large enough to have an ambassador or an office in every town. We will always need to rely on folks like you, our members, to move bicycling forward at the local level. I know that you and the other cyclists in Stevens Point are already on that same page. I was particularly pleased to see your new Poky Pedaling Stevens Point blog. It is exactly through similar efforts by other individuals and local groups across scattered around Wisconsin that we can put our state back on the podium. Thanks for the comment, and for the good work going on in Stevens Point.

  5. MN Town Roads = Gravel
    WI Town Roads = Paved
    Driftless Region = Epic (on all surfaces)! – (Around 85% of the Driftless Area lies within Wisconsin)

  6. My feeling is that this fall in rankings reflects reality. Mainly due to other states becoming much more aggressive in supporting bicycling so that what was cutting edge ten years ago is no longer that. And cutting funding is certainly a step backwards.

    One thing that has surprised me about the Great Recession is that politicians seem to forgotten the lesson of the Great Depression: the way to assure the economic declines will stretch on is to cut back on spending. Herbert Hoover did it and FDR repeated his mistake in 1937. States are constrained by their balanced budget requirements, so if we are serious about rebuilding the economy we should be agitating for more federal support for bicycle infrastructure.

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