Steven Walters

They Like Bikes

Our political analyst finds many in Madison and Milwaukee are embracing bikes over cars.

By - Aug 5th, 2013 10:43 am

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.

Schroedel is such a life-by-biker that he personally built his own bike before touring Spain, so he could fix anything  that broke on that Europe tour. And, he went to a wedding in Dodgeville, which the Internet says is about 50 miles from Madison, by bike.

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

7 thoughts on “They Like Bikes”

  1. Dave Steele says:

    If I had a dollar for every coworker, friend, colleague or family member that talked to me about bike commuting because they’re “thinking about doing it,” but who never actually even comes close to doing it, I would probably be able to quit my day job.

  2. Garrick Jannene says:

    More anecdotes of course, but from what I’ve seen, lack of mass transit options is still artificially keeping car ownership up among milennials, as well.

    When you want to live on the East Side but you work on the far North Side at a place like Brady Corp, your choice to ride an MCTS bus for an hour and a half each way or to drive for less than half an hour each way isn’t really a choice at all.

    If you were to take that billion dollars to be spent on interstate capacity and instead expanded bus service in municipalities statewide and build out the Milwaukee streetcar network, my hunch is that you would see car ownership rates drop significantly.

    There are some people out there who like cars, but for most people (not even just milennials), they’re just an increasingly expensive appliance that would be dropped if cheaper and easier alternatives were actually available.

  3. Tyrell Track Master says:

    Good stuff… keep it rolling! We’ve got a long way to go, especially with a the bizarre anti-bike infrastructure government right now, but i’m optimistic about continued progress!

  4. Dave Reid says:

    @Tyrell Yup there are definitely some concerns about policies from the 50s setting Wisconsin backwards, but I see continued progress as well.

  5. Tom D says:

    The article says “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%.”

    One-tenth of 1% is 0.1%; one-hundredth of 1% is 0.01%.

    Which one was it?

  6. Bruce Thompson says:

    I miss your articles in the J-S. Almost the only ones in the opinion section that weren’t making a hard sell. Good to see you here.

  7. @ the Newaukee ” Urban Block Party” last Friday eve, 550, 10% of the 5,000+ in attendance arrived via bicycle, they even had a ” bike valet ” riding your bike was part of the promotion, and one was rewarded with a free beverage, however it was powerful to see, and while Newaukee is a ” young professionals” org and a great place for all the young talent in this fine city, the crowd in general crossed all age and race groups as did those who biked.

    It was a strong message of bike activism that will hopefully resonate w the powers that be as the downtown, east town, 3rd & 5th wards become more dense in population, great organizations like ” Downtown Milwaukee” can’t do it all on their own, thank you for your continued coverage on this forward thinking topic of bicycle transportation in Milwaukee.

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