Bus bike rack usage gains popularity

The Milwaukee County Transit System has added far more bike racks to buses.

Along with the annual shedding of Ugg boots and North Face jackets, people riding bikes are a sure sign of spring’s arrival in Milwaukee. Now the Milwaukee County Transit System is trying to establish another indication of the warmer weather — bikes riding buses.

Since last August, when bike racks were installed on every bus in the county fleet, there have been 9,407 bike boardings on county bus routes, according to numbers released from MCTS. Slightly more than 1,800 of these boardings happened last month.

Routes 15 (on Milwaukee’s East Side), 18 (on National Avenue) and 27 (27th Street) were the three most popular routes for bike boardings.

There are two main advantages to having these new racks on county buses, said Dave Schlabowski, the city’s bicycle and pedestrian coordinator.

The first is the racks would eliminate short transfers at the end of bus trips that would take bikers as much time to bike to the final destination as it would take to transfer buses. The second is helping bikers to avoid riding in adverse weather conditions.

“(The bike racks) have made me a lazy rider,” Schlabowski said.

Riders stow the bikes themselves, and an instructional video on using the racks is available on the MCTS Web site.

The new racks also affect the city’s bike plan, which was first developed in 1993 to increase the number of cyclists in the city and help them ride easier and safer in the city.

The Department of Public Works hopes to provide people with attractive and convenient facilities for cycling. The availability of bike racks on county buses does this by allowing for a seamless connection between two modes of transportation, he said.

The bike plan also includes marking bike lanes wherever the space is available. Currently, there are approximately 50 miles worth of bike lanes marked in the city, Schlabowski said.

The increased effort to mark bike lanes started five years ago, and the results have been more than encouraging — bike use has seen a 250 percent increase in Milwaukee and the crash rate is down 75 percent, he said.

Bike racks on buses also allow the county to extend the accessibility of public transit within the county, said Anita Gulotta-Connelly, MCTS managing director, in a statement.

Milwaukee County bus stops are already fairly accessible.  According to MCTS, 85 percent of the population is within walking distance of stops, but the percentage of people within biking distance is even higher, at 99 percent.

“By expanding the area around our bus stops to biking distance, it now increases our service area to a higher percentage of county residents,” Gulotta-Connelly said.

Several other Wisconsin cities, including Madison, La Crosse and Janesville, offer similar bike racking systems on their city buses. These accommodations, among others, led the League of American Bicyclists to rank Wisconsin second in bicycle friendliness in the nation.

The sentiment toward bike racks on buses is different in a smaller town such as Janesville, where driving is easier because there aren’t as many cars on the road. Martha Morehart, a cyclist from Janesville, said bikers might use the racks on Janesville buses to get to a park with trail access, go on a long ride, and use the bus again to get back home.

People without much money would also find it convenient to combine bike and bus trips in Janesville, she said.

Milwaukee earned recognition as a Bronze-Level Bicycle Friendly Community from LAB. Schlabowski said what makes the city good for cyclists are the existing bike lane mileage, the Oak Leaf and Hank Aaron Trails and the city’s street grid layout, which all provide a strong skeleton for an effective bicycle transportation system.

The federal government provided $384,750 to help pay for the racks and installation. MCTS contributed $20,250 for the new bike racks.