They Like Bikes
Our political analyst finds many in Madison and Milwaukee are embracing bikes over cars.
Tom Klein, 28, of Madison, and his wife recently flew to Washington, D.C., as tourists. But they didn’t use a cab, bus or subway to see landmarks. After landing at Reagan National Airport, they walked a few blocks and rented Capitol Bike Share bicycles.
We then took those bikes into the city, making stops along the way to check out things that interested us,” Klein said last week.
The Kleins are also going carless, selling their 2009 Saab that has 38,000 miles.
Sure, Tom Klein’s life-by-bicycle is part of his job; he’s Dane County coordinator for the Wisconsin Bike Federation. But there are signs it may be a trend.
Carl Schroedl, 23, also of Madison, commutes by bike 13 miles round-trip to his information technology job.
A New York Times column in June that found a decline of the “car culture” nationally prompted this question: Is it happening in Wisconsin?
In a WisconsinEye Newsmakers show, Klein, Schroedl and Rob Kennedy, a UW-Madison transportation planner whose family of four adults rarely uses its minivan, listed many are many reasons why more Wisconsin residents are going carless.
They said vehicles are costly to buy, maintain, park and operate; AAA Wisconsin estimated last week that gas cost a statewide average of $3.65 per gallon. Wisconsin’s two largest cities, Milwaukee and Madison, have seen return-to-downtown renaissances that invite more residents to go carless. Kennedy sees more and more of coworkers commuting by bus. Instead of being derided for their carless lifestyles, Klein, Schroedl and Kennedy say they are increasingly being asked for advice on how to live that way.
Personal anecdotes from three Madison professionals are interesting, but some statistics also suggest a “car culture” decline in Cheesheadland:
- The number of Wisconsin 16-year-olds who have their driver’s license dropped 20% between 2002 and 2012. Maybe, “getting my license” is not the rite of passage to freedom and adulthood that it was for generations.
- Wisconsin Department of Transportation figures show that the number of cars, SUVs, light trucks registered in the two last years grew by only 0.01% – one-tenth of 1%. That lagged the growth in Wisconsin’s population in that period.
- WisDOT also reports that the total number of vehicle miles traveled (VMT) miles in Wisconsin peaked in 2004. VMT dropped 1.4% between 2010 and 2011.
- Fuel consumption statewide peaked in the 2003-04 budget year, and has fallen in six of the last nine years.
If there is a “car culture” decline in Wisconsin, it raises major questions about how the state will pay to build and maintain highways — including rebuilding the Zoo Freeway and Hoan Bridge in Milwaukee, and widening the I-90/39 corridor between Madison and Illinois — and rebuilding the Minnesota-Wisconsin bridge in Stillwater.
Carless drivers like Klein and Schroedl balk at paying to upgrade Interstate highways their bikes can’t use, for example.
This year, instead of raising taxes or delaying major highway construction plans, Gov. Scott Walker and Republican legislators kept state highway spending on track by borrowing $1 billion.
Craig Thompson, executive director of the Transportation Development Association, the special-interest umbrella of transportation groups, thinks no trend has emerged yet.
“It is too soon to tell,” said Thompson.
“There is always a dip in vehicle miles traveled, both for business and personal uses, when the economy slows,” Thompson added. “Younger people have been hit particularly hard by the Great Recession. It will be a while before we have any statistically reliable information beyond anecdotal stories.”
Thompson cited a recent Reason Foundation column by Bob Poole, who noted that more workers telecommute now and young adults drive less if they can’t find a job and move back home.
“The just-so story about Millennials losing interest in driving appears to be mostly an artifact of the recession’s severe impact on younger people – not a fundamental change in their choices of where to live or how to travel,” Poole said.
Steven Walters is a senior producer for the nonprofit public affairs channel WisconsinEye. This column reflects his personal perspective. Email firstname.lastname@example.org