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Paving the Way to a Bike Commuting Culture

Commuting to work by bike may not be a common practice, but it is definitely growing. Every year, advocates around the country serve up coffee by the barrelful and offer free tune-ups in hopes of widening the circle.  Monday is day one of Bike To Work Week in Milwaukee. We hear from local advocates, who practice what they preach.

I’m probably breaking every safety code in the bicycle book – microphone in hand and camera dangling around my neck - as I prepare to trail behind Jessica Binder and her son. They’re heading to school. Four-year-old Everett waits patiently. He’s properly helmeted aboard his scooter.

“ It’s called a skuut. And I can ride a pedal bike down my alley and all the way to school I can bike it,” Everett says.

Along the way, mom and son notice birds darting by, tulips bursting into bloom; they even take time to observe a wild turkey. Everett stops at each corner and correctly answers the question – what’s the name of THIS street?

Her son safely delivered to school, Jessica Binder hops onto the Oak Leaf Trail and heads to work. Biking is central to her life – personally and professionally. Binder says she does 90 percent of her commuting on her two-wheeler, and she works for the Wisconsin Bike Federation. Competing a bit with the wind, Binder reports that the movement is growing.

“In the last decade bike commuting increased 250 percent. That’s really when the city started investing in infrastructure, that’s pretty much when the first bike lane got painted. We’ve had the Oak Leaf Trail for a little bit longer than that, but the City started focusing on it, between the economy and people wanting to be more active and healthy,” Binder says.

Binder tells me more businesses are promoting biking among employees and they’re discovering they don’t have to slip into spandex to enjoy a spin.

“Oh,” she adds, “And bike slow! You don’t have to get sweaty. People think when you bike you’re going to be dripping sweat.”

Binder hopes the weeklong focus opens more eyes.

"For a lot of people there are great routes out there and we just need to help them access them and know about them and give them a try. Like you and I, we’re having a great traffic trip from Riverwest down to the lake and downtown, it’s beautiful,” Binder says.

More connections from streets to trails will soon open in Milwaukee, according to Dave Schlabowske. He’s spokesman for the Bike Fed. One new link will be in the Menomonee Valley.

“The Hank Aaron State Trail has a new park system that’s going to connect the west side of the valley with bunch more connections down into that trail and into a new park that’s going to be down there, that’s going to be done later this summer. Then the Kinnickinnic River bike trail is being paved and the bridge will be built. Milwaukee has a bunch of bike lanes that they’re prepared to stripe. They have the money to stripe them, so there will be a bunch more bike lanes on the street,” Schlabowsk says.

However Schlabowske tells me funds for such projects – could become scarce. He says if the proposed 2013-2015 state budget passes, nearly $13 million dollars in federal funding for bike and pedestrian projects would be reallocated to highway work.

Rather than fret about what might be lost, bicycle advocate Carolyn Weber keeps her eye on what she can accomplish – convincing more people to bike.

“I believe that people can use a bike all year round, especially in an urban area. And for most people in America, our commute is four miles or less usually; and that’s very easy, it’s just a mindset you have to get over and sometimes it’s just finding the right bike,” Weber says.

Weber got an early start.

“I actually was the only kid in high school who road a bike to school and I grew up in Gurnee Illinois which is very bike unfriendly,” Weber says.

The 30-year-old librarian breaks down the barriers into bit-size pieces to make the experience less daunting – especially for women.

“Statistically there are less women than guys on bikes on the road and so I work with woman on mechanics skills so they’re more comfortable with their bicycles and I also work with woman on group rides so that way they get more comfortable on the streets as well,” Weber says.

Weber’s passion led to a professional leap. She and her partner moved into the Walker’s Point neighborhood last month and opened a bicycle shop there.

Susan Bence entered broadcasting in an untraditional way. After years of avid public radio listening, Susan returned to school and earned a bachelor's degree in Journalism from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. She interned for WUWM News and worked with the Lake Effect team, before being hired full-time as a WUWM News reporter / producer.