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The Swedish Perspective

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Posted: 4:08PM September 10th, 2013 | Comments

Originally posted on the Swedish American Green Alliance website. You can read all of Sonja's blog posts here

My first week here in Madison has been intense, getting to know Sustain Dane. During these first days, many things have focused on biking. When I first got here, my host lent me a bike so that I could explore the city and get to and from Sustain Dane's office every day. Throughout the week, I kept learning about several things related to biking here -

Madison has been well known as a bike friendly city in the US for a long time, since a large part of the country's bicycle industry has been based here. Madison also aims to be the best city in the US for bicycles, with a vision to “make bicycling an integral part of daily life in Madison, thereby making Madison a model for health promotion, environmental sustainability, and quality of life.” The Bike Madison Program within the city works towards transforming the vision into a reality.

Madison has got several bike paths that are quite busy all day, but especially just before and after work hours. At first, it was a little bit confusing with different kinds of bicycle infrastructure on the roads, such as bike paths, bike lanes and bike boulevards. Sometimes bicyclists are supposed to behave like pedestrians at crosswalks and sometimes as cars, which was a bit confusing the first days. Luckily I got to learn more about local bike culture from Tom Klein from Wisconsin Bike Fed, a statewide nonprofit organization that looks out for the interests of bike riders. With all different kinds of bike infrastructure, different educational initiatives are really helpful. I've seen information about bike commuting workshops around the city and things like that are perfect to help people make sustainable changes in their lives!

On Thursday 6th, there was an event called Bike Fest, hosted by Wisconsin Bike Fed. It was a good opportunity to talk to locals and get their opinion on biking in Madison. Some people were asking for better bike infrastructure on roads and also more protected bike lanes. I would agree on this, since biking in a new city with different rules sometimes made me feel like a beginner and I thought more about safety than at home. Others thought that the car drivers were very accepting of bikes in Madison compared to other cities, so on-street routes do not have to be a safety issue as long as the awareness among car drivers is good.

I also heard some comments about the bike boulevards not being as successful as they could have been, since there are a lot of stop signs along the boulevard, instead of making the traffic from crossing streets stop. The bike boulevards are low speed streets, designated for use primarily by bicyclists. Motor vehicles are welcome on bicycle boulevards, but need to pay attention to bicyclists. Though there seems to be room for improvement, I think this is a good initiative of transforming already existing streets into more bike-friendly alternatives that also promote sustainable transport.

I also sat in on a meeting with the Bicycle Committee, a sub group to the business improvement district Downtown Madison Inc. This was an opportunity for them to get updates on bicycling news from city government employees and different organizations, and it was good to see how bike infrastructure downtown is seen as an interest for businesses. One discussion during the meeting was that Madison now has so many bike paths that it would make sense to number them instead of using names, which shows how far the city has come.

Several local businesses also support bicycling as a sustainable and healthy transport alternative. You can find a small ”Bicycle Benefits” logo in a lot of shops and cafés around the city, where you get a discount if you show your helmet with a Bicycle Benefits sticker. I went to get an ice tea the other day and the coffee shop employee greeted me with a “thank you for biking!”

One last comment is that the road signs here in Madison show a person riding their bike (and using a helmet!) compared to the signs back home in Sweden that only show a bike. This little detail made me think a lot about the use of symbols and how that can change your attitude. Speaking for myself, that sign makes me think that I could be that person who rides a bike to work. Hopefully it also makes the car drivers more aware of safety, remembering that they have to look out for a human and not only another vehicle.

About Sonja 

In September 2013, Sonja Pettersson is spending three weeks with Sustain Dane and the City of Madison to learn about sustainable development in Madison. She's here thanks to a scholarship called Research on Environmental Action and Clean Tech in U.S. Cities (REACT U.S), which is part of a partnership between the U.S. Embassy in Sweden and the Government of Sweden called Swedish American Green Alliance (SAGA).

Sonja recently graduated from a master's degree in Spatial Planning and Development at Umeå University in Sweden and sees this scholarship as a great opportunity to learn more about sustainable development in other parts of the world and to be inspired by Madison's unique community.

Sonja's blog posts about her experience will also appear on www.swedishamericangreenalliance.org.

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