They were all there: the young, the old and the in-between, the fit and the not so fit. On a late summer Sunday, all those folks were there to celebrate the opening of the Lower Yahara River Trail, an impressive 2.5-mile addition to our area’s bike trail system. The new trail crosses Lake Waubesa with great views of the lake, the surrounding wetlands and Lake Farm County Park prairie. It connects McFarland to the Capital City Trail. Especially impressive is a mile-long boardwalk and bridge across Lake Waubesa.
The new trail makes commuting from McFarland to downtown Madison and the UW campus very practical as well as affording a scenic opportunity for recreational cycling. Big time kudos for County Executive Joe Parisi and the Dane County staff for seeing a challenging project to a successful completion.
The growing network of trails is good news for public health, our environment and our economy. Bicycling has great benefits to the public at relatively little cost compared to other transportation options. Commuting by bike is kind to the environment, since more biking to work means less smog and less climate-disrupting pollution. Transportation is the biggest source of global warming emissions. If just 10 percent of the population replaced just half of their short car trips with bikes, we would reduce emissions of heat-trapping greenhouse gasses by a staggering 4 trillion tons a year.
And needless to say, biking uses no gasoline. I like to joke that while my Prius gets 50 miles to the gallon, my bike gets 50 miles to a pint (of beer, of course).
Biking contributes to good health. A recent study by Lehigh University found obesity-related costs accounted for $190 billion annually in U.S. health expenditures, nearly 21 percent of the country’s total bill. A review of census data by Governing Magazine of America’s metropolitan areas discovered that people who live in communities where more residents walk or bike to work have significantly healthier weights. Not surprisingly, more people bike to work or school in communities that make it safe and attractive to bicycle. For example, in Minneapolis, bicycling commuting increased by a whopping 89 percent for workers who lived close to newly constructed bike trails.
Biking is a big contributor to the Wisconsin economy. Manufacturing, commerce and tourism attributable to biking are responsible for adding $2 billion annually to the state economy and provide approximately 15,000 jobs. That’s more jobs than the most optimistic (and probably unrealistic) forecasts for Foxconn. In contrast to Foxconn, which will pay virtually no taxes and receive $3 billion in taxpayer handouts, the bike industry pays taxes instead of getting corporate welfare.
Unfortunately, while Dane County and other local governments are encouraging biking, the state government is going in the opposite direction. According to the Wisconsin Bike Fed, a statewide organization that forcefully advocates for cyclists, Gov. Scott Walker has taken direct aim at cycling during his time in office by slashing state funding for bike infrastructure. Walker even eliminated the tiny slice of the massive transportation budget that helped local governments build miles of inexpensive bike paths and lanes. Additionally, he raided the modest amount of federal money provided for bike projects.
Walker’s war on biking doesn’t end there. He repealed the complete streets law that had required that biking be considered in state transportation projects. To add insult to injury, Walker just signed into law a measure that severely handicaps local governments wanting to build bike lanes or paths.
The bottom line: Biking is good for the environment, the economy and public health. Gov. Walker is bad for biking.
Spencer Black represented the 77th Assembly District for 26 years and was chair of the Natural Resources Committee. He currently serves as a director of the national Sierra Club and is an adjunct professor of urban and regional planning at UW-Madison.
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