We can win the trails race if we all work together

Our legal name is The Bicycle Federation of Wisconsin Educational Foundation, Inc. That doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue or fit well on a website home page, so these days we call ourselves The Wisconsin Bike Fed or just The Bike Fed. Today our staff sometimes wish our founders gave us a shorter name. Branding aside, the word federation in our legal name might just be the key to stopping Wisconsin from falling behind in the trails race and moving bicycle advocacy forward again in Wisconsin.

In 2006 Wisconsin had more miles of trails than any other state. Today we are in third place (soon fourth) as other states invest all of their federal funds for trails on trails.

For many years, The Bike Fed focused on growing our membership. Our board of directors, past executive directors and industry partners tried various ways to get new members because they felt a larger organization would have more legislative pull. We had about 2,500 members when I started at the Bike Fed 18 years ago. Today we count 7,500 members, including our Tandem level for two member families. Not bad, but the Association of Wisconsin Snowmobile Clubs (AWSC) has more than 40,000 members. That means they carry a lot of clout in Madison.

To put that in perspective, there are fewer than 300,000 snowmobiles registered in Wisconsin and around four million people have bicycles.

Cyclists can learn from the success of the AWSC. The Bike Fed, as a statewide organization, would have a lot more members and that membership would be more geographically diverse if we became a true federation of the hundreds of local clubs, teams and advocacy organizations doing great work in their local communities. There are lots of local groups having great success advocating for bicycling in their communities, from relative newcomers like the Green Bay Bicycle Coalition and Bicycle Friendly West Bend to long-established clubs like the KR Bike Club in Racine and Kenosha, the Janesville Velo Club to the Chequamegon Area Mountain Bike Association.

These groups and many more have great reputations with their locally elected leaders and they are making bicycling easier, safer, and more fun in their communities. We believe the Wisconsin Bike Fed would be a lot more effective and influential if we could harness the energy of local advocates and direct it to our elected representatives in Madison when important state legislative issues arise.

Wisconsin used to be ranked 2nd best state in the nation for cycling. Now we are 26th. Click to read the report card.

So rather than try to get all those people to join the Bike Fed and become a giant statewide organization, we are asking one or two people from each of those local organizations to volunteer to be our designated Wisconsin Bike Fed Representative. Then, rather than only sending out action alerts to our 7,500 members, or even our 14,000 person email list and asking people to contact their elected representatives in Madison, we will also be able to contact specific Bike Fed Representatives at hundreds of clubs, teams, and local advocacy groups who effectively have a much larger and geographically diverse population across the state.

Ideally, like the AWSC county directors, we would have Wisconsin Bike Fed Representatives for each of the 72 counties. Some more populated counties like those in southeastern Wisconsin might have more Bike Fed Reps than less populated counties, but at least we would someone representing every county in Wisconsin.

Minnesota is now ranked 2nd best state in the US for bicycling. Click to read the report card.

To be successful, this relationship would need to be reciprocal and have benefits for the local organizations. Of course, we would hope that local advocates would understand the importance and impact that state budgets and state statutes have in their communities and that the Bike Fed should be the umbrella organization to advocate for the local clubs at the state level. But the Bike Fed can do more than represent their interests in Madison.

We can provide safety education resources, we have years of experience teaching safe bicycling and all the resources to help local groups do the same. We can help promote local successes and events so others around state and country know what great riding you have in your area. We can help local advocates network and learn from each other by turning our annual Wisconsin Bike Summit into ore of a yearly meeting for all the local representatives.

Better communication between the Wisconsin Bike Fed and local advocates would also help us create a shared vision for what a more bicycle friendly Wisconsin looks like. If we can all rally around and articulate a clear vision by January when our state legislature is back in session, the next biennial budget might include more money for bicycling. If not, we should expect further cuts.

Our neighbors spend all their federal trail funds on trails while we divert half of ours for highways, but the roads in Minnesota and Michigan are still in better condition.

Our neighbors to our left in Minnesota and to the right in Michigan both spend millions of dollars more than we do on bicycling, and they are reaping the benefits of those investments in terms of hundreds of miles more trails than Wisconsin has, better safety education for bicycling and walking, and economic health benefits that come from bicycle tourism and more citizens riding.

We can’t develop that vision or convince our state legislators of the value of bicycling unless we put the federation back in The Bike Fed. We need to become a true federation of local advocates from every county in Wisconsin. We already have a dozen or so people from local advocacy organizations, clubs, and teams who have volunteered to be Bike Fed Representatives, but we need more. If you are interested, you can sign up online below.

I want to be a Bike Fed Rep for my area or organization» 

Ideally, we would like each of the Bike Fed Reps to be members of the Wisconsin Bike Fed, that is not a requirement. All we ask is that you be our official point of contact. We also want to create a Bicycle Business Council, so we have a similar group of representatives who are business leaders. Wisconsin Bicycle Business Council made up mostly of business leaders from outside the bike industry but include bicycle industry and shop owners as well. Any business leader who understands how being located in a bicycle friendly community attracts customers as well as provides employee benefits that help retain a healthy, talented workforce.

I am interested in joining the Bicycle Business Council» 

Few people have as much influence with state legislators as locally elected officials like mayors, county executives, town chairs, etc. To leverage that influence, the Bike Fed is organizing a caucus of elected and municipal leaders who already support bicycling and walking in their communities. Minnesota has just such an organized group of mayors who are already embracing bicycling in The Minnesota Mayoral Active Transportation Caucus. Because Wisconsin has supportive county executives, mayors, village administrators, town chairs, and council members, we would not limit our caucus to mayors.

I am interested in joining the Local Bike Walk Caucus» 

Here again, we already have a handful of locally elected officials who have volunteered to join our Wisconsin Bicycle Caucus, but we need more!

Hopefully we will be able to identify at least one or two Wisconsin Bike Fed Representatives, one Bicycle Business Council Member and one Wisconsin Bike Caucus member for each of our 72 counties by the time our next legislative session begins in January of 2019.

Wisconsin may have fallen off the front in the race for trails compared to other states, but we are not far behind. We can retake the lead if we regroup and work together and Wisconin and our local communities will be the better for it. We are excited to hear your thoughts about this approach to organizing and harnessing the energy of the thousands of bicycle loving local advocates, elected officials and business leaders across our great state.

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.

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