Kenneth Burns: You can't beat biking to work

Mar. 01, 2014 @ 11:33 PM

You might remember reading in an earlier column that two years ago, I moved back home to Tennessee after 13 years in Madison, Wis.

I’ve been thinking a lot about Wisconsin lately. That’s because Wisconsin, the land of truly rotten winters, has been having an especially brutal one. I don’t miss Wisconsin winters.

Do you know what I miss about Wisconsin, though? The bicycling.

More precisely, I miss not depending on my car so much. There is a fine public transportation system in Madison, and when the weather was lousy, I took the bus to my job downtown. In Madison, lots of people ride the bus.

And when the weather wasn’t lousy, I biked. That was great.

Madison has a robust bicycling infrastructure. Many streets have bike lanes. Dedicated bike paths crisscross the city, and the system is constantly being expanded.

Last year, workers completed a major bike-and-pedestrian bridge over the the Beltline, Madison’s main freeway. It lets people bicycle from southern parts of the city all the way downtown. That’s wonderful. What’s also wonderful is that it’s not the first major bike-and-pedestrian bridge over the Beltline.

For much of the time I lived in Madison, my commute was a 25-minute bike ride, mainly on one of the dedicated paths. I loved it. Compared to driving, biking to work is peaceful and stress-free.

Well, nearly stress-free. Sometimes there were unfriendly interactions. A few of those were with drivers. Madison cyclists and drivers generally get along okay, but there can be hostility.

Part of that owes to drivers who are unwilling to, as the bumper sticker says, share the road – with bicyclists.

But Madison bicyclists bring a lot of trouble on themselves. For reasons I’ve never understood, there is an element of lawlessness to bicycling culture, and not just in Madison.

Bicyclists routinely flout traffic laws. They go the wrong way on one-way streets. Especially, they run stoplights and stop signs.

At their peril. I lived half a block from a street that’s an important Madison bike route, and one day I heard a commotion outside. I learned that a bicyclist ran a stop sign and got hit by a car. He died soon after.

I saw him lying on the street. That was sobering.

Many of my most stressful interactions on the bike paths didn’t involve cars at all. Sometimes a Madison cyclist’s worst enemies are – other Madison cyclists.

That’s because not everyone bicycles for the same reason. There are commuters, recreational bicyclists, fitness enthusiasts.

I was mainly a commuter. A geeky commuter. I had a cheap bike from Target. I attached a milk crate to it for hauling stuff. I strapped my pants cuffs down so they didn’t get caught in the bike chain.

On the path, I rode briskly. I knew the rules of the road, and I followed them.

Recreational bicyclists didn’t always know the rules. Often they were out in family groups, moving slowly down the path, weaving back and forth. Cute kids in bike helmets. That sort of thing.

Then there were the fitness enthusiasts. They wore Lycra and screamed down the bike path. Literally. I literally have seen a grown man in Lycra screaming at a 4-year-old on a bike with training wheels, because she got in his way.

Different kinds of people, different kinds of cycling. Of course there was friction.

It didn’t bother me. I relished the glorious bicycling in Madison – and all over Wisconsin, thanks to the terrific statewide system of bike trails. Mostly converted railroad right-of-ways, these let you pedal along for miles and miles through the countryside. It’s like hiking, but faster.

Now I drive to work. My commute to The Mountain Press takes me down Chapman Highway, and there’s no way I’m biking on that busy road.

I do see cyclists around, though. Especially in Knoxville, where the bike infrastructure actually is pretty good.

I still have my bike from Target. Sometimes I get it out and ride around on side streets.

I hope there is more bike commuting in my future.

Kenneth Burns is Community News Editor of The Mountain Press. Call 428-0748, ext. 212, or send email to Twitter: @KennethBurns.