Citizen Wausau

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Cycling Semantics

by on June 7th, 2010

Every so often cycling pops up as a pretty hot topic in this area. I think that’s great; it’s a mode of transportation worthy of recognition, and that fact that there are debates at all about how to make the experience better around here gives me hope.

After a leisurely lap around Wausau/Schofield/Rothschild this weekend, it occurred to me that the focus of these discussions might be a bit misguided. There’s been a lot of talk and speculation about finishing the River Walk (on the east side of the river), and bike paths in general, and while that’s certainly welcome for the occasional cruise, what I’d like to see our communities focus on are bike lanes.

The thing about “bike” paths (like the one bridging Rib Mountain and Weston near Domtar) is that they’re always going to be mixed-use, and mixed-use is terrible for cyclists actually trying to get somewhere. People on paths are generally not in a hurry regardless of their mode of transport, and often tend to spread out to occupy the entire width of the path without concern for oncoming or overtaking traffic.

That’s where bike lanes come into play: as soon as you move the cycling traffic onto the road and out of the park, those problems dissolve. Obviously you will still have mixed speeds of traffic, but riding in/near the road makes you inherently more alert given that you’re watching not just for other cyclists but for motorized traffic.

The bigger issue is that the bike paths don’t generally get us anywhere we couldn’t already easily get to via the road. It’s faster for me to ride on River Drive (which is well-paved and wide enough for bike traffic) than it is to ride on the River’s Edge walkway, and yet I have to squeeze myself against the edge of the Thomas Street bridge if I want to cross the river in that area. Likewise, Bridge Street, Scott Street, and Stewart Avenue bridges all lack bike lanes.

The worst offender, by far, is Grand Avenue. I live in the neighborhood bordered by Sturgeon Eddy and the Wausau Airport, and there is literally no way to get out of there by (legally) using roads other than Grand Avenue for part of the trip. This automatically assumes you’re going to be riding on the sidewalk, which for reasons stated above is less than ideal, but trying to ride on the road proper is downright dangerous. There are a few detours that can be taken through adjacent neighborhoods, but you’ll always end up back on the sidewalk at some point. Considering that a lot of people travel between Weston and Wausau regularly, the fact that there’s no good way to quickly and safely get from one to the other without detouring through Rib Mountain borders on obscene.

For seasoned commuters, this is a minor yet persistent hurdle. But for people who haven’t yet committed to cycling as a means of transportation, I’d expect that needing to plan an alternate route for all the destinations you usually visit by car could be somewhat overwhelming, especially so if he or she is not already familiar with the area. Bike lanes are obvious, and invite you to use that road, and by pursuing more of them we’d be inviting more people to the experience just how nice using your bike to get somewhere can be.

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