By Mrinal Gokhale
May is National Bike Month, but Wisconsin’s Bike to Work Week is in the first week of June due to weather conditions.
With the many bike trails and paths such as Hank Aaron, Oak Leaf and Beerline, The League of American Bicyclists ranked Wisconsin in the top ten bike friendly states last year. Contrary to popular belief, it’s not just hipsters, college students or suburban and rural dwellers riding bikes.
The Wisconsin Bike Federation has been working to break barriers to promote bike riding among Milwaukee’s marginalized communities. The Federation’s Connect 53212 program began in May 2015 through a grant from the City of Milwaukee designed to reduce carbon dioxide emissions. The program targets Milwaukee’s 53212 zip code and its three neighborhoods: Riverwest, Harambee and Brewers Hills.
Tony Giron, who manages Connect 53212, said the Federation chose the area because it has many bike shops and bus routes. His job is managing a team of canvassers who would go door to door in the three neighborhoods, asking residents how they get around.
“The Census data shows that very few people of color ride bikes to work compared to their white counterparts,” he began.“But being out on the streets, I saw many children, elderly and young people riding bikes to nearby places.”
He went on to say that if residents were interested in biking, the Federation would provide free resources.
“We delivered 1, 800 tool kits in all last year, complete with bike safety tips, bus routes and trails.” The results of their door-to-door efforts surprised Giron. He said many people already used bikes in Riverwest, and therefore showed the lowest response rate.
Harambee, a predominantly African American area, showed the best response rate in Giron’s opinion.
“The response was overwhelmingly positive in Harambee. People were so open to having conversations with us on biking and walking,” Giron said.
But he also said the reasons for bike riding tend to differ between neighborhoods.
“Many people biking in the black community do so because it’s convenient and cheap to get to nearby places without a car,” he said.
According to Dave Schlabowske, deputy director at the Wisconsin Bike Federation, marginalized communities may see bike riding as a symbol of poverty rather than a healthy lifestyle.
“Milwaukee is hyper-segregated and biking is no different here,” he said. “There is a dramatic difference in how many people ride to work in Riverwest versus Harambee.” Giron recalled seeing people hanging out in their cars when doing canvassing work in Harambee.
He also identified safety as a barrier, saying that although he feels Milwaukee is bike friendly, people want separation from traffic.
“One percent of Milwaukeeans bike to work, which is 300 percent higher than 20 years ago, before we had bike lanes. But in Madison, it is 5.3 percent and in Minnesota, it is 4.4 percent,” Schlabowske said.
He also added that both cities have more off-road bike lanes, protected bike lanes and bicycle boulevards.
In fact, Giron said that through a pre-survey done for Connect 53212, 25 percent of survey participants said they would bike more if more drivers obeyed traffic laws.
Furthermore, 45 percent of participants said they’d walk outside more if they felt safe. To combat these barriers, the Connect 53212 team started four social walking groups last year, and one of these groups in Harambee still meets. Giron feels that Connect 53212’s most memorable event is their Unity Ride, a family friendly bike ride where residents take the Beerline trail through the entire 53212 zip code.
“The Unity Ride attracted hundreds last year, and it will be July 30 this year. We tune up people’s bikes, and play music through the ride,” said Giron.
Connect 53212’s season began last week and will last throughout October.
Additionally, the Federation has planned to have Ayesha McGowan, an African American cyclist visit and lead Ride Across Wisconsin from the Mississippi River to Lake Michigan. The date is to be decided.
Visit wisconsinbikefed.org for a full calendar of events.