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Planning, Political Will and Patience Produced Platinum in Madison

Yesterday, Madison joined the elite, attaining Platinum Bicycle Friendly Community status. Madison became one of only five Platinum BFCs in the country, and the first east of the Mississippi. In this guest blog post, Tom Held explains how decades of political leadership and planning led Madison to Platinum, and how the Wisconsin Bike Fed plans to use that model to elevate other communities in the state.

Advocates for bicycling in Wisconsin proved in a big way this week that a cold climate won’t stop them from creating places where people choose to ride bikes and have places to do so safely.

Madison’s rise to Platinum status as a Bicycle Friendly Community solidified the state capital city’s ranking among the best places to ride in America, and rewarded efforts that began four decades ago.

Cyclists in front of the Wisconsin state capitolThe bike paths that now connect Madison’s neighborhoods and its surrounding communities first appeared in the 1970s, during Mayor Paul Soglin’s early terms as mayor. Soglin returned to that position in 2011, and pushed ahead with the Platinum Biking City Planning Committee blueprint created in 2008.

The blueprint included a check list of 100 items that would elevate Madison from Gold to Platinum. A broad coalition of officials, advocates and the Wisconsin Bike Fed worked diligently to make those improvements and evaluate their progress.

“Bicycling in Madison is more than a pastime, it’s a way of life, and it has positive impacts on our environment and our transportation system,” Soglin said, after learning of the Platinum designation. “I am very grateful to the team of bicyclists, the Wisconsin Bike Fed and the city staff that documented our efforts to obtain this elite recognition.”

The Platinum designation serves as the glitter atop the concrete and steel devoted to making Madison a great place to bike.

Since it first received Gold status in 2006, the city added contra-flow lanes on one-way streets, green crossings with bicycle signals, a pedestrian and bicycle bridge over a major highway, floating bike lanes around the Capitol Square two bike fleets for training teachers and students how to ride safely.

The city of 222,000 people now boasts 120 miles of on-street bikeways and a 74-mile network of off-street paths.

Providing safe places to bicycle created better neighborhoods in Madison and in the communities surrounding it, according to Dave Cieslewicz, the executive director of the Wisconsin Bike Fed.

“I love to bicycle myself, but even if I didn’t, I think being a great bicycling community means a city offers an attractive quality of life,” he said. “A good neighborhood to cycle in, is by definition is a good neighborhood to live in. It means that many of the other amenities people care about are present.”

Cieslewicz started the push to BFC Platinum status during his own term as Madison’s mayor, and offered his blueprint for other cities.

“I think the main thing was getting a plan in place, through a broad-based committee to start with and not letting the plan sit on the shelf,” Cieslewicz said. “When I was mayor, the platinum committee would meet and go through those 100 items. I think the key is the civic infrastructure that went into it. The physical infrastructure will follow. We got the recognition for what we did on the ground, but none of that would have happened without that broad-based group that held us accountable.”

The drive to create the great places for biking in the Badger State extends beyond Madison.

Eight Wisconsin communities received awards in this round of BFC honors – the most of any state in the country. Three communities moved into the rankings, three others moved up and another two renewed their designations.

Fitchburg Mayor Steve Arnold took his city’s move to silver status as more challenge than recognition. Fitchburg will be going for gold.

Arnold explained why: “Whenever anyone bikes, the world is a healthier, more sustainable, more fun place. We are working ahead to develop bicycle transportation as a real alternative to motor vehicles, this saves individuals and private companies money while making people healthier and happier.”

Industrial cities like Wausau joined several communities around Madison in making improvements that will allow people to choose bicycling.

“The Wisconsin story is even more exciting to me than Madison getting Platinum,” Cieslewicz said. “We’ve been saying for a couple years now that we have to redouble our efforts at the local level. We hope over time that will bubble up to the state and congressional level.”

Tom Held is the Share and Be Aware Media Ambassador for the Wisconsin Bike Fed.

This article has been corrected. Madison first got Gold in 2006, not Bronze as previously stated.