Episode 93: Making Milwaukee a Bike City

Doug Gordon: Hey there. A quick reminder before we start this episode: our live show at Caveat in New York is coming up on Tuesday, November 1. Tickets are going fast, so get yours now. We’ll put a link in the show notes. Thanks.

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Doug: This is The War on Cars. I’m Doug Gordon. In late summer, I was headed to Milwaukee, Wisconsin, to see family. And as I sometimes do when I travel, I reached out to a few people on social media to see if there were any bike-y things happening. As luck would have it, a kids’ ride organized by some local advocates was scheduled for the same weekend I was gonna be there.

Doug: So you’ve heard of a pub crawl, right? Well, this was a playground crawl. It took parents, caregivers and kids from one park to another using a combination of city streets and separated trails. This wasn’t your boisterous, Critical Mass ride with protest signs and chants—although those can be a lot of fun. This was more like Kidical Mass. Just cute kids riding bikes on their own power or sitting in a cargo bike.

Doug: The ride finished at a frozen custard stand, and a good time was had by all. Milwaukee, like a lot of American cities, has a long way to go before it can become truly bike and pedestrian friendly. It has big, wide streets that lead to a lot of speeding and a lot of crashes. The city has a difficult legacy of segregation, to say the least, and that’s exacerbated in part by highways that cut through and cut off communities of color.

Doug: But Milwaukee also has a lot going for it, including the 135-mile Oak Leaf Trail that crisscrosses the city, and the 14-mile Hank Aaron Trail, which connects the western edge of Milwaukee to the shores of Lake Michigan. And those same wide, dangerous streets means there’s a lot of room to install infrastructure that protects people who aren’t in cars. And sure, Wisconsin winters can be tough, but Milwaukee is mostly flat. It’s very compact, and there’s a fun culture of getting outdoors whenever possible.

Doug: A kid’s ride may not be flashy. It’s not geared toward advancing a specific piece of legislation or street design, but it is where the rubber meets the road—literally and figuratively—when it comes to building the kinds of connections and culture that leads to positive change. On The War on Cars, Aaron, Sarah and I often talk to media figures, elected officials and experts in the world of transportation. But this time around, we wanted you to hear from regular people: the parents, the volunteers, the other advocates, the kind of folks who get involved in the fight for safe streets just because they care. As for the kids on this kid’s ride, well, they weren’t all that interested in talking to a strange middle-aged man with a microphone, so we just let them enjoy the ride.

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Anna Bailliekova: Hey, everybody! Thank you so much for coming out to my first of hopefully very many Urban Spaceship Milwaukee Playground Crawls. I’m so excited to see all of you here, sharing bike joy and having some fun on a remarkably pleasant Saturday for late August in Milwaukee. If you don’t have a bike bell, you will have one by the end of this ride. And you should really get it now, because it’s just more joyful to ride around ringing it. Let’s roll. I’ll be leading the pack, and follow the people in yellow and orange vests. All right, let’s roll!]

Anna Bailliekova: My name is Anna Bailliekova. I live in Cooper Park in Milwaukee.

Doug: And you are one of the organizers of this ride. Tell me about how it came to be.

Anna Bailliekova: Well, we—I’m always looking to build community. I think when you’re living in sort of, what, feel like apocalyptic times, there’s, like, the individualist urge. Like, I’m gonna go, you know, become a survivalist or whatever and just take care of myself. And then there’s also the opposite urge, which is I’m just gonna lean further into, like, trying to build relationships with other people and build community with other people. So we organized, like, a bar crawl on bikes for adults during Wisconsin’s bike week back in June. And then a friend of mine said, “Hey, why don’t we do this with the kids?” Because both of us have small kids who like to ride their bikes. And there’s so much joy and safety in riding in a huge group like this. And why shouldn’t kids get to experience that? So that’s how it started. And yeah, now we have whatever it is, 40 people here, which is great.

Doug: And was it challenging to get people out? Or do you find that there’s like a lot of responsiveness to your requests for people to come out to rides like this?

Anna Bailliekova: Oh, yeah. People love it. There’s—there’s—people want things like this. You know, even where I live, I live pretty far from downtown, and I’m pretty close to, like, a multi-use trail, but it’s not a great area for biking, for transportation in general. And you still see people out and about. Like, people want to be riding their bikes. So when you tell them—you know, as soon as—every single person I talked to about it was like, “Oh, that’s so exciting! I wish I could come.” Or, “I’ll be there. Just tell me when. Tell me what you need.” Yeah. People are so excited to be given this opportunity. And especially for kids, because there’s a lot of great biking in Wisconsin, but most of it is aimed at adults. So yeah, I just had a tremendous response. I was worried people would say, “Is it gonna be safe?” You know, we are riding on streets. I was really worried about safety concerns, but no, didn’t hear anything about that. And yeah, people are just excited to get the chance to ride.

Doug: Can you tell me your name and where you live?

Monte Vishon: Monte Vishon. I’m here in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

Doug: So you don’t have kids, but you’re here just helping out. How did you get involved with this kind of stuff?

Monte Vishon: So I’m part of the Urban Spaceship team. Urban Spaceship is a local advocacy group. We’re kind of amorphous right now, but our—our goal is to support and educate and promote better urbanism in Milwaukee. And part of that is better biking infrastructure, raising awareness about bikers and the dangerous streets that we have here in Milwaukee. And I’ve been around this work for around, I don’t know, 10 years now, just trying to get better streets. I’m a lifelong biker and, you know, I want to support where people are also doing the work.

Doug: What do you think the biggest challenges are in a city like Milwaukee to making the streets safer?

Monte Vishon: We lack the political will to become better. I feel like we are at a time and place where people are very comfortable with the status quo, and the status quo are cars zooming down the street, pedestrians and bikers being second class citizens. And that works for a lot of people. And to push against that really pushes against really the ethos of the city at this point. So when we come out here, we’re asking for better biking infrastructure, we’re asking for better pedestrian accommodations.

Monte Vishon: We’re getting a lot of pushback because if we could fill the room with 10 bikers and pedestrian advocates, there’s gonna be 50 people who just want parking in front of their house and, you know, wide lanes and slip lanes so they can get to their destination, you know, 0.25 seconds faster. So that’s really what we’re—we’re up against right now. Again, we know all the solutions already. We know what works, what doesn’t work. We know the fact that—we know where in the city people are getting killed, pedestrians are getting mowed down in the street. It’s always in Black and brown neighborhoods.

Monte Vishon: So we know all this, but it’s not advantageous to a certain group of people in Milwaukee to do anything about that. So that’s what we’re fighting against right now. And, you know, we’re getting slow wins here in the city but, you know, again, it’s slow. And we don’t have time for slow. Like, people are getting mowed down on the street all the time here. And it’s top of people’s mind, reckless driving here in the city. So we gotta get this stuff done now.

Charlie McGuinty: I’m Charlie McGuinty and I live in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

Doug: So what brought you out here today?

Charlie McGuinty: Just to have an opportunity to have our kids experience the joy of biking places, and not having to rely on cars to get around.

Doug: How old are your kids?

Charlie McGuinty: I have one son who’s four years old.

Doug: Great. What do you think the biggest challenge is in a city like Milwaukee, as a parent, as a cyclist, as someone who values getting around without a car?

Charlie McGuinty: In short, Milwaukee has pretty bad car brain. So drivers tend to, you know, assume that they always have the priority. The—the roads are built in a way that, even if there is a bike lane, drivers just kind of take license and assume that that is space for them. We recently had an incident where, while my son was crossing the street in a large group of adult bikers during one of the largest bike events in Milwaukee of the year, the Riverwest 24, a car did what we call the “Milwaukee slide” of just slipping into the unprotected bike lane while he was trying to cross an admittedly pretty narrow street, like one lane each way. Pretty low speed limit, it’s surrounded by a daycare and two playgrounds on either sides. So just, like, those experiences can make it difficult to do this kind of thing, but I think we have some strength in numbers with events like this today.

Doug: Tell me your name and where you live.

Jeremy Foyett: Jeremy Foyett, Milwaukee, Wisconsin, in the Bayview neighborhood.

Doug: So what do you think the biggest challenge is in a city like Milwaukee when it comes to advocacy, safer streets, pedestrian and cyclist issues?

Jeremy Foyett: I think the biggest challenge we have is older person leadership. Like, people are scared to take the risk because they hear the backlash of neighbors saying, “I want this. I want parking. I want this.” And they’re afraid. We need someone to actually just be a little bit bolder and step up and say, “No, this is actually what—” you know, there’s more people that are at the town meetings than people advocating for the bike lanes, and that’s hopefully what we’re changing.

Doug: How do you activate people to come to meetings when that is such a challenge?

Jeremy Foyett: Well, we’ve been—we just started this Urban Spaceship thing to really bring people together, to start with friendship and relationships. And then so people know each other and build this kind of community. And, you know, then start showing up and making sure we’re all aware of what’s going on. You know, the hardest thing with any city is when are the meetings? Where are they? How can you be there? Oh, it’s at five o’clock? Well, someone has to pick up their kids or something, you know? So it’s making sure that people in this community can—one or two people or four people or five people can show up no matter where it is, at what time it is. And so I think it was about building the community first to get people to activate and go to them.

Doug: And what do you think the value is of a kids’ ride like this?

Jeremy Foyett: That—well, that anybody can do it. I think the value of the kids’ ride is—I mean, the people seeing it that, you know, I think it brings them back to their childhood. When you bring people back to their childhood, they realize, you know, when they were probably—when people see this they probably say, “Well, I was in the street when I was a kid without my parents, and now you can’t—no one does that anymore.” Which is kind of crazy. So I think people see that and it brings them back to their childhood. And yes, streets should be for kids too.

Nicholas: I’m Nicholas. I’m from the Washington Heights neighborhood in Milwaukee.

Doug: Okay. And what brought you out here today?

Nicholas: I somehow this summer stumbled onto, like, Milwaukee bike Twitter, and there’s, like, all these people, you know, talking about biking that I have never met in person. And now I’m, like, slowly starting to meet them. And there’s this big thing and I was like, “Well, that’ll be a really fun way to just get out for the day, go to some parks, do some things in a way that in a big group is a lot safer probably than just biking all around by myself—which I’ll do. But I gotta—I gotta think twice about it. So today, we had a huge group and it feels really good.

Doug: When you are out there biking by yourself, are you commuting, what are you doing?

Nicholas: Usually just going places for fun. I’ll—I’ll do kind of through the neighborhood to drop my son off at daycare or at school, but we’ll do a lot. I mean, goodness, especially in, like, 2020, 2021, when there was nothing else to do, a lot of just riding down to the lakefront and different parks further throughout the city than we might normally just walk to. So it’s a nice way of stuff that we don’t have to hop in the car and, like, you know, drive for five minutes. That—that feels kind of excessive. But it’s something that for a couple of miles, we’re not gonna walk that with a three or four or five year old, but the biking makes it really easy to get somewhere to just spend the afternoon.

Doug: I’ve been asking people what challenges there are in a city like Milwaukee, but I’d love to hear a different perspective. What advantages does a city like Milwaukee have over other places?

Nicholas: Well, I have always lived in Southeastern Wisconsin, so I don’t know if I have a lot to compare it to, but I can tell you what I do enjoy, you know, kind of without comparison, is that obviously Wisconsin has the whole winter thing, right? [laughs] But I feel like we absolutely get our money’s worth out of summer, out of the warm weather, out of, “Oh, it’s February and it’s 60 degrees outside. Let’s go!” All of that. I think there’s always something going on, whether it’s a festival. I mean, I biked through two, like, block parties on my way here. I don’t even know what they were for. It’s just a bunch of streets shut down, some tents, music, all sorts of things going on. It’s just a random Saturday, and it’s like there’s always something to go do. My neighborhood once a month has a night market where they shut down a main street for two blocks. We had another random—Bastille Day West, they called it, of just shutting down a few blocks and having a lot of vendors and music and food. So that’s what’s so great, that in the midst of all the, like, yeah, cars kind of take over the road and it’s hard to get around, but we also find a lot of excuses to shut down the roads and have people just hang out.

April Cleveland: April Cleveland, and I live in Riverside Park, Milwaukee.

Doug: And I’ll ask you a similar question. Like, what are the great amenities, the great advantages that a city like Milwaukee has over other, maybe bigger cities like Chicago, which is not far?

April Cleveland: Sure. Well, I like the smallness of our city because I can take my children out on their bikes, and we can actually get to places with them on their own bikes. So—and we very luckily lived right on the Oak Leaf Trail, so we can take that all the way to the Summerfest Grounds where there’s this amazing playground now. Or we can go to Culver’s for dinner, and she gets to ride to dinner all by herself. And having those trails and the smallness of the big city that has everything we need in it is a huge advantage.

Doug: And I think I saw you on the big e-bike over there. How do you like it?

April Cleveland: My only regret with the e-bike is not buying it sooner. [laughs] We love that bike. We only have one car. That’s our second car, if you would say so. We use it for everything. And because it’s so fun, we don’t want to use the car. We’re like, “We gotta go somewhere? Let’s pull out that e-bike.”

Doug: And then to flip the question around, what do you think—what are the challenges biking around the city with kids?

April Cleveland: Not enough protected bike lanes. Absolutely. There’s—there’s bike lanes, but they’re not protected. There’s—I know there’s some in Bayview, and I wish they continue to build those out. And I think that’s in the plans, but I wish there was more of that around.

Derek Blauser: Yeah, it’s Derek. Last name is Blauser.

Doug: Okay. You just moved here from Brooklyn.

Derek Blauser: Yeah.

Doug: Which is where The War on Cars is based. What brought you to Milwaukee?

Derek Blauser: I was ready for a different experience. Lived in New York a long time, and grew up in Jersey, so wanted something new. And just made a list of what might be what I want in a city and Milwaukee checked a bunch of boxes, one being bikeable.

Doug: All right, let’s talk about biking. You are very familiar with the rough and tumble streets of New York.

Derek Blauser: Oh yeah!

Doug: Even though it’s gotten better in recent years. How does Milwaukee compare?

Derek Blauser: Milwaukee feels a little like biking in—at times it feels a little like biking in Brooklyn. I think biking in Brooklyn and biking in Manhattan are very different. I always say biking in Manhattan is easier to me because the average speed is so much slower. Besides the people.

Doug: The average speed of cars, yeah.

Derek Blauser: The average speed of cars. Yeah, yeah, yeah. Brooklyn feels a little more wild. Milwaukee drivers also feel a little wild, but the infrastructure that’s in place is so nice. And so the Oak Leaf Trail, which is just like 100 miles of trail that goes throughout the city, the map of it looks like New York’s subway system. It’s—it’s such a wonderful place to bike. And also the county—the parks, the upkeep of them, it’ll snow six inches and the next day I can take my street bike out and ride through the parks because they’ve paved all the pedestrian or plowed all the pedestrian paths. That just doesn’t happen in New York. If it—if it snows in New York, unless you’ve got snow tires, the number of times I’ve had to walk my bike home, you know?

Doug: I think the sanitation strategy in New York is wait for it to melt.

Derek Blauser: Yes, exactly. Yes. Turn into gray mush, jump over puddles for a while and then, you know, get back on your bike. But …

Doug: So you have a bit of a grass is always greener sort of perspective because you’ve been in a larger city and now you’re here. What do—what would you like to see improved in this city?

Derek Blauser: I think this city and in general, just the idea of a sharrow needs to go away. The shared arrow, the lanes with just—that doesn’t—it’s not gonna solve the problems. So I think more dedicated separated bike infrastructure. But again, I think that’s a thing you can say for anywhere. And I think—oh! No, you know what my big thing is? Get rid of right on red. I hate cars that can turn right on red. It’s—I’ll censor myself. It’s the worst! I hate it! I hate it so much! [laughs] I hate it!

Doug: That is a big advantage New York has over almost any other city.

Derek Blauser: Oh, man. Yeah, because it’s—I think I’ve heard it referred to as “The Milwaukee slide.” Like, you don’t really stop, you just cut through on the red light, and it’s—your head has to be on such a swivel at every intersection. So that’s my biggest gripe.

Delaney Dersh: My name is Delaney Dersh, and I live in Walker’s Point, Milwaukee.

Doug: How long have you lived here?

Delaney Dersh: Five, six years.

Doug: Where were you before Milwaukee?

Delaney Dersh: I was in Neenah, Wisconsin, which is in the Fox Valley about an hour and a half north.

Doug: And so what do you like about cycling in the city?

Delaney Dersh: Yeah. So I started cycling here on the east side when I came to university. Would bike to get to campus, and just found it faster than a bus. Yeah, faster than a bus, and just easier than getting on a bus and doing all that. And now it’s been interesting moving to Walker’s Point, because the—it’s just a different experience. It’s kind of a different—it’s a little quieter up on the east side, easier to get around. And the drivers aren’t as crazy, I would say. In Walker’s Point, it’s a little different. I now get to bike to work, which is a really—you know, a huge thing for me. It changes your day because, you know, you get a little buffer before you get to work and you get a little buffer after you leave work. So it’s been very beneficial, I think, for me.

Doug: Do you have a car?

Delaney Dersh: We do, but we’re very heavily considering getting rid of it. So yeah, we’ll see. It’s been car theft and car break-ins and catalytic converters getting stolen. It’s really kind of put us over the edge with our car. And Milwaukee has a really big problem with that too. And yeah, so it’s been a big discussion, and the most heated I’ve ever seen my partner is over a car, over either driving and reckless drivers and just people who—yeah, we can’t anticipate what they’re gonna do but then also yeah, have had our window broken, have had a catalytic converter stolen in a Prius. So just things like that that we can’t really do anything about. It’s a pretty sad situation that people can—people need to do things like that to provide for their family or get whatever income they need. So yeah, that’s, that’s kind of where we’re at.

Doug: Infrastructure-wise, like, what—what would you like to see in the city?

Delaney Dersh: Well, ideally protected bike lanes would be great. And yeah, generally just more money put into public transportation, I think generally. Really now when biking, that’s kind of the option. I wish I could take a bike and bus, a bike and train, you know? Just more options I think would be awesome and more—I mean, there is quite a big bike community in Milwaukee, but not a lot of movement. Yeah, movement that you can see as far as movement forward for biking.

Doug: So a lot of social rides like this one, but not necessarily a lot of more politically-based stuff?

Delaney Dersh: Yeah, for sure. At least from what I’ve witnessed, that’s kind of—yeah what I’m seeing.

Doug: What do you think it’ll take to change that?

Delaney Dersh: I don’t know. I think we have the numbers, which is really, like, impressive and a good start. And so I think all the voices are—can be loud and can make change, I just don’t—yeah, I don’t necessarily know what that would take or what that would look like.

Doug: Okay. For the record, tell me your name and where you live.

Mary Beth McGinnis: Mary Beth McGinnis, Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

Doug: Okay. I should tell our listeners you’re wearing a War on Cars shirt, but you’re not a plant. But so you might be a little biased. Tell me about how you got involved in advocacy here in Milwaukee.

Mary Beth McGinnis: Oh, well, I moved to Milwaukee six months ago, so I really got involved in Madison, where I was living before, which is a much safer place for walking and biking, but isn’t safe enough. So I was involved in biking advocacy out there, and then since I moved to Milwaukee, since I was involved in Madison, I’ve thrown myself in the deep end here because we have some really, really dangerous roads and not enough bike access.

Doug: Okay. So you’ve been here for six months. Do you ever get to, like, go back to Madison or anything like that when you attend a meeting?

Mary Beth McGinnis: Not yet. [laughs] Milwaukee is thrilled to have people moving here because we do not have enough people to keep up our services that we need. So people here in Milwaukee are thrilled to have transplants. That’s a shout out for New Yorkers to come and move here and advocate.

Doug: What do you think the biggest challenge is in a city like Milwaukee of its size?

Mary Beth McGinnis: Our biggest challenge is the State Department of Transportation. They manage all of the roads that are the most dangerous, that kill the most people at much higher levels for our Black and brown communities, and they don’t listen to what our cities need. So that to me is our number one problem, is the political will at that level. And all other levels too.

Doug: How do you change that political will at a state transportation department?

Mary Beth McGinnis: If I knew the answer to that question, I probably wouldn’t be richer, but I’d be a lot happier. I think it just comes to building the community up, and I think we’re getting there. You can already see it today with all the folks out here. It just takes the numbers to keep the pressure up.

Doug: Tell me your name.

Erin McGannity: Erin McGannity.

Doug: And what neighborhood do you live in?

Erin McGannity: I live in downtown Milwaukee.

Doug: Oh, great. Okay. I can leave this out if you want. I see that you’re pregnant.

Erin McGannity: Yeah. Hugely pregnant. [laughs]

Doug: How many months?

Erin McGannity: My due date is on Tuesday.

Doug: Oh, my gosh! And you rode your bike.

Erin McGannity: Yeah.

Doug: You rode your bike here. You’re riding it all around.

Erin McGannity: I might give birth on the beach tonight. I can’t make any promises.

Doug: How’s it all going?

Erin McGannity: It’s good. Yeah, being able to—like, living where we live and being able to just not drive and, like, we—we scoot a lot, too. We have matching scooters. So being able to, like, scoot and bike everywhere has helped me stay super active this pregnancy that I just wouldn’t otherwise if I had to, like, make an effort to go exercise.

Doug: So our listeners are probably familiar with people in pictures in places like Copenhagen or Denmark of pregnant women cycling. But here that’s unusual. Do you get a lot of comments?

Erin McGannity: Mostly positive. Like, a lot of my friends are just like, you know, impressed and like, “How are you still biking?” Like, you know? And mainly it’s because walking is too difficult right now. But a lot of doctors here will specifically tell you not to bike when you’re pregnant, and I just don’t care. [laughs]

Doug: What do you look forward to for your child, for Milwaukee? And how would you like those things to happen?

Erin McGannity: I mean, I look forward to continuing to do what I do with my son now, and just being able to get around and not being so beholden to a car to get around everywhere. Which is kind of how I grew up because I live—I lived about 30 minutes north of here growing up, and there was just no way to get anywhere without a car. So I’m looking forward to, like, teaching him how to bike too, and getting to that point where my son is now, where he can bike really far. And I hope that the city continues to improve things. It’s really frustrating to watch every time they redo a road, they just put in the same unprotected bike lanes that don’t do anything. But I’m hoping that we’ll see some change in the next couple of years, because it is a really great small city. It’s easy to get around. I mean, in terms of how close things are, it is very walkable and bikeable. It’s just that there’s not really, like, safe places to do it and the actual experience is not great.

Doug: All right. Well, I hope it all goes well. And if you do start to go into labor here, we’ll put you on an e-bike and get you to the nearest hospital.

Erin McGannity: Oh, I won’t be going to the hospital. [laughs]

Doug: All right. Well, good luck.

Erin McGannity: Thank you.

Doug: That’s it for this episode of The War on Cars. Many thanks to Anna Bailliekova and the other organizers and participants for letting me tag along. By the way, Erin, the person you heard from last there, six days after the ride, she gave birth to a very healthy baby. So on behalf of the entire War on Cars crew, mazel tov!

Doug: If you want to support The War on Cars, go to TheWaronCars.org, click “Support Us” and join today starting at just $3 per month. You’ll get access to exclusive bonus content, and we’ll send you stickers. Thanks to our top supporters: the law office of Vaccaro and White in New York City, Charley Gee of Human Powered Law in Portland, Oregon, Virginia Baker, James Doyle and Martin Mignon.

Doug: Thanks also to our good friends at Cleverhood. For 20 percent off the best and most stylish rain gear for walking and cycling, head on over to Cleverhood.com/waroncars, and use code BIKETOSCHOOL—that’s all one word—at checkout.

Doug: This episode was recorded and edited by me. Our music is by Nathaniel Goodyear. Our logo is by Dani Finkel of Crucial D Designs. I’m Doug Gordon, and on behalf of Aaron Naparstek and Sarah Goodyear, this is The War on Cars.

Doug: Are you ready? Can you tell me your name?

Lincoln: Lincoln.

Doug: How old are you, Lincoln?

Lincoln: Three.

Doug: Oh, you’re three years old! You’re a big kid. Did you ride on a bicycle here? You did?

Lincoln: Yeah.