Erin Petersen
Pedaling Toward Progress

The Bike Federation of Wisconsin

By - Jun 9th, 2009 11:59 pm
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spaceball2spaceball653px-usdot_highway_sign_bicycle_symbol_-_blacksvgNo discussion about cycling in Milwaukee would be complete without a few words from the Bike Federation of Wisconsin, one of the oldest and largest non-profit biking advocacy groups in the United States. Since 1988, the BFW has worked across the state the make the culture of biking more accessible and safe on Wisconsin’s roads and scenic paths. In Milwaukee, the BFW coordinates education and outreach programs for kids and adults and lobbies to make the city commuter-friendly, reduce our carbon footprint and create an all-inclusive cycling community in and outside of Milwaukee.

The last installment of this series mentioned some of the strides Milwaukee is making in becoming a bike-friendly city, including the installation of long-awaited bike racks on our buses. Though other big cities in Wisconsin managed to install racks on public transportation, in Milwaukee this process has been long and arduous, spanning over five years and thousands of signatures. This week, I had the pleasure of speaking with Shea Schachameyer, Encouragement Manager for the BFW.

shea200pxShea is a busy woman — she coordinates Bike to Work Week, the BFW’s Bike-In Movies and the annual “Love your Bike” party. In her spare time, she’s a member of The Pedal Pusher Society, Milwaukee’s only all-female bicycle gang. A Milwaukee native, Shea realized her love for biking soon after graduating from high school, moving into Riverwest and going on biking adventures throughout the city. In 2004, Shea began working with the BFW as an instructor for  Safe Routes to School, a now federally-funded program to increase the number and safety of kids walking and biking to school in an effort to combat rising obesity rates and reduce traffic congestion in school zones. Shea was able to implement the same program in Sheboygan and later set up a Bike to Work Week program there as well.

Until recently, Shea’s primary focus was on the Bike Racks on Buses campaign. Shea began working the initiative about five years ago when she initially started at the BFW as an instructor with the Safe Routes to School program.

“It was something that I really wanted to see happen in Milwaukee,” she says, “so when the season of teaching ended, I got approval to start working on the campaign and then began to develop it over the next two years.”

Though bike racks had been successfully installed on buses in other Wisconsin cities like Madison and Appleton, the process of implementing them in Milwaukee was slow moving. Records dating back for the last 10-12 years show past attempts by other individuals and organizations,all of which were thwarted by arguments from the Milwaukee County Transit System of high cost, maintenance fees and low bus ridership. Unwilling to accept the current state of affairs, Shea and her cohorts at the BFW took it to the streets, distributing petitions all over the city, collecting signatures and pooling support from city officials and statewide organizations.

“Our first step was to build momentum and support, so we got thousands of signatures and received many letters of support,” she says.

The BFW received letters from Mayor Barrett’s office, Congresswoman Gwen Moore and the Wisconsin Department of Health among many others from the community. Using those as impetus, Shea started attending all of the Transportation, Public Works and Transit committee meetings and wasted no time in putting this issue on the table. From there, Shea and others at the BFW made their presence known at every single committee meeting to have their voices heard and eventually were able to get the Milwaukee County Board of Supervisors to set the campaign as an agenda item.

It was a good start, but the battle was far from over. Once set as an agenda item, MCTS was asked to present their argument against installing the racks. In years past, MCTS was able to avoid installing racks on buses by citing the cost of the program and lack of space in their parking garages as primary arguments. With a stroke of good luck and some good old fashioned flat-footing though, the BFW got wind of MCTS’s report the night before they were due to present and subsequently spent the wee hours preparing and countering each and every one of their arguments.

“We really just clarified that this [program] was possible,” Shea says.

From there, Shea says that the main challenge was trying to figure out how to navigate through the bureaucracy in local government. She quickly found that if this campaign were going to pick up any steam, the BFW’s best bet was to deal directly with the Milwaukee County Board of Supervisors and not MCTS as was once thought . They sought out specific supervisors: Marina Dimitrjevic (4th District), Dan Devine (now mayor of West Allis), Patricia Jursik(8th District), Christopher Larson (14th District)  and Gerry Broderick (3rd District), all of whom were incredibly supportive of the initiative and made time for it at every county board meeting. Behind the scenes, Shea worked diligently to keep this issue at the forefront with round-the-clock phone calls, faxes and action alerts to the board.

Even in the face of opposition — in this case, Scott Walker — Shea’s persistence  paid off.

p3200041“I remember one really, really long night at the office where we found out that, at the final hour, Scott Walker had vetoed the resolution,” she says, “we realized that the county board was meeting the next morning at 9 a.m. and that was the last opportunity to override the veto, so we spent the entire night making phone calls and sending faxes.”

And with that came a stunning victory for grassroots campaigning. After five years of intense work, wading through paperwork and hierarchy, Milwaukee buses had been approved for bike racks. Sure, it may seem like a small triumph, but when the voice of the community is heard by its government, it’s a triumph nonetheless. The installation is expected to be complete by the end of this month, but 70% of buses already have bike racks — check the MCTS website to see which routes have them.

Now that the campaign is over, I had the chance to meet up with Shea at the BFW’s Milwaukee headquarters to chat about what the BFW is doing to create safe cycling communities throughout the state.

TCD: What other programs are you currently working on with BFW?

SS: We have an awesome program for Bike to Work Week this year throughout the state. On the website, we’re encouraging people to take the “Bike to Work Week Pledge” where we ask people how times throughout the next week they plan to bike to work and approximately how many miles that will be. We can multiply that and then find the total miles accumulated across the state and we’ll be able to run stats of how many ounces of carbon dioxide won’t be released into the air and stuff like that. (At the time of this interview,  21,000 miles had been pledged).

TCD: How do you think that BFW has impacted Milwaukee?

SS: The entire essence behind my job as an Encouragement Manager is to realize that we want more people on bikes. Part of that is going to happen through education, but a lot of it for adults happens through just getting involved when there’s a strong biking community and feeling welcomed. In my job, I try to organize events and hook-up with other events that do just that.

At the end of April, we also hosted the Wisconsin Bike Summit. It was our first state bike summit and we got over 450 people to attend. It was a two-day summit in Madison, and on the second day we all went on the hill and lobbied our state legislators. It was really exciting, because one of the things we lobbied for was passed that day. It was Car-Dooring legislation, saying that people getting out their car have to look behind to make sure that no bikes are coming, making it the driver’s responsibility to look. In the event that some gets “doored,” the cyclist is not at fault. So that was one really good thing.

TCD: What else is on your agenda for this year?

3485739801_96b1aea99cSS: One of the things on our advocacy plate for this year is Fair Share for Transportation funding. Right now, the  Department of Transportation recommends that 3% of a state’s transportation budget should be spent on bicycle facilities and maintenance. Currently Wisconsin spends 1.4 %, so we’re asking for the state to spend 3%. It’s not radical, it’s right in line with what the feds say and it would be amazing for Wisconsin because it would double our budget. That would cover things like striping bike lines, building bike paths … everything.

The second thing is passing Complete Streets legislation, which is a policy that the state would adopt stating that anytime a street or roadway is constructed or re-constructed, bicycle and pedestrian accommodations would have to be considered. It doesn’t say that there have to be bike lines on every bit of new construction, because in some places it just doesn’t make sense. But in a lot of places, it does make sense and at that point, it’s the most cost-effective point to put in those facilities while it’s being constructed. It’s legislation that’s been passed recently in Oregon and Illinois, so we’re working to get it passed in Wisconsin as well.

We were also hired by the City of Milwaukee to create the City Bicycle Master Plan. We’ll be finishing that up in fall — it’s been a year-and-a-half long project so far. With that, we’ll survey the state of bicycling in Milwaukee — how many people are biking, how many miles of bike lanes are striped, where the issues are, etc. In that plan, we’ll be giving recommendations of key locations that need improvement, overall policies that need to be put into place, programs that should be run. It will be a framework to give to the city and sort of say “here are our priorities, let’s get this done.” Pretty soon, we’ll have a complete list of what can make Milwaukee great.

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