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Wisconsin history professor on the 'Bike Battles' that shaped today's routes & challenges

man with bike
Courtesy of James Longhurst
UW-La Crosse history professor James Longhurst

We're starting to see more bicyclists on streets and trails as the weather slowly gets better.

What the U.S. has in the way of safe places to ride a bike is the product of more than 125 years of policy debates over how to share common resources like roads, says University of Wisconsin-La Crosse history professor James Longhurst.

His book Bike Battles: A History of Sharing the American Road looks at some early victories for bicycles, like being declared legal vehicles.

But Longhurst tells WUWM's Chuck Quirmbach that bike riders have also had to put up with a lot of bumpy decisions, especially when cars came along. The growth of side paths built for bicycles along roads came along in the 1890s, and he says that movement ended when the Good Roads Movement came along and then cars took over the newly-paved roads.

The decision to create parking spaces for cars along many streets also hindered bicycling, Longhurst says. He also points to the development of interstate highways that spread out communities and left automobiles "as really the only way for many people to get around."

But Longhurst sees hope for biking as communities, like Milwaukee and Madison taking steps to develop safer streets for biking as well as regional trails. He says car and truck drivers would benefit if they help "just a small percentage of travelers, say just 2-5% of travelers who need to get to work, to have other options" such as safe routes for walking or biking, and convenient mass transit.

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