Sunday, May 18, 2014

Biking to work in the Menomonee Valley

“Do you know each other?” I asked after taking this shot of Bernadette and Jim on the Hank Aaron State Trail. No, they assured me cheerfully. She was traveling west to her job at Melk Music in West Allis. He was on his way downtown to MATC where he taught mechanical design. The chance encounter came about because they’d both stopped for coffee and a bite of pastry at the commuter station set up next to the Trail for Bike to Work Week.

I’d been asking people who were biking to work if they would mind being part of my effort to document the weeklong event. While only a single person shyly declined my request, Bernadette and Jim were the two strangers who symbolized for me the remarkable collegiality amongst the cyclists. For two hours each morning the station buzzed with lively chatter about workplaces, distances traveled, cycling, and of course the (generally bad) weather.

There were regulars, like Kevin (above), who said that he rides 26 miles round trip at least four days a week. And others like Joel (below) who told me that he was “just getting back into” riding to work. In fact, the timing of the annual Bike to Work Week is meant to inspire people to drag their bicycles out of the garage, where they’ve been stored for the (brutal) winter.

In Wisconsin Bike to Work Week was May 12-16. To commemorate the event and cheer on the cycling commuters, volunteers from the Urban Ecology Center and Layton Boulevard West Neighbors set up the refreshment station on the Hank Aaron State Trail next to the Valley Passage that links Pierce and Canal Streets. Coffee, hot chocolate, and fresh pastries were donated by Colectivo Coffee.
This is a strategic location for more than one reason. The Hank Aaron Trail is already a popular commuter route. The Valley Passage is not only centrally located in the Menomonee Valley, the heart of the Milwaukee region, but it is also a cycling crossroads that leads outward in every direction.

 Cyclists came into the Valley from as far away as Bayside, Oak Creek, and Brookfield. After stopping for a rest many of them headed back out to destinations equally distant. Some grabbed a hot beverage or a donut; some just paused to chat with the volunteers who were on hand to provide refreshments and morning cheer.

Not everyone came from far away; some had set out from the adjacent Silver City neighborhood. At least two stopped within sight of their destination at the Derse Company just across the river on Canal Street. Susan (above) was one of them. Many, having embarked from their homes in the western suburbs—West Allis, Wauwatosa, Brookfield—were on their way downtown. But nearly as many—this came as a surprise to me—had come from the East Side, Whitefish Bay, Shorewood, or Bay View on their way to jobs in West Allis, Wauwatosa and Brookfield.

The significance of this prime Trail intersection is not lost on cycling professionals. It is no coincidence that several bike related businesses share the WI Bike Fed building just off the Valley Passage on Pierce Street. (I profiled one of them previously: see Fyxation.) Dave Schlabowske, director of WI Bike Fed has this to say about the week:

"The Wisconsin Bike Fed has been promoting Bike to Work Week for about 25 years now. Over that time, the number of people who bike to work has increased more than 60% statewide, and even more in cities that have added lots of bike lanes, bike racks and trails, like Milwaukee and Madison which have seen increases of 300% and 200% respectively. To encourage people to try riding bicycles for transportation, we coordinate commuter stations at various places in cities and towns around Wisconsin."

While most of the people who stopped were indeed commuters, getting to work was not everyone’s goal. Until he retired, Bob had been biking to his job at Johnson Controls since the 1080s. “I’m the original bike to work guy,” he claimed proudly. His T-shirt confesses his current destinations.

Jeff, below, was another retiree, from the Kenosha Chrysler plant. Comfortably recumbent, he was about halfway around a 50-mile loop from his home in Oak Creek.

Many visitors to our station were of a more serious bent, however. John, clearly garbed for speed, told us he’d retired from the racing circuit two years ago. He was on the final leg of a 25-mile commute to his job in the Third Ward.

Cycling wasn’t providing quite enough exercise for Jim, who I caught up with at the Menomonee River observation deck. He was doing calisthenics as part of his regimen. I’ll gladly grant him the morning commute prize, having ridden to Greenfield Park in West Allis from his home in Whitefish Bay before turning around to get to his job with the Zilber Group downtown.

It rained twice during the week. In those circumstances the station was moved under the shelter of the Valley Passage Bridge. Participation slowed on those days but stalwarts continued to stop by and they seemed particularly grateful for a cup of hot chocolate or coffee.

Friday was the best day of Bike to Work Week. That was the day when bacon was added to the menu! Veterans looked forward to Friday all week and newbies were invariably thrilled.

For my part I enjoyed the camaraderie with commuters and volunteers alike. Glenna, the director of the Valley branch of the Urban Ecology Center (below, with Dan of LBWN) offered the following reflection:

“My favorite part about Bike to Work Week is that the commuter stations create a small but meaningful opportunity for cyclists to build community. Folks that ride the trail often see each other every day but don't really get a chance to pause and just talk to each other, and it's fun to help create the space for them to do that. In fact, a few years ago at a Bike to Work Week station I met a couple who told me that they had first met each other at that station—and now they're married!”

The volunteers kept a running tally of cyclists, with separate columns for those who stopped and those who rode on by. When I left on Friday the totals stood at 118 and 110 respectively. The daily totals made it clear that the weather affected participation. Thursday, with freezing rain, was the low point. The coming week is supposed to be far more pleasant. Maybe I’ll see you out on the trail!

For many more photos from Bike to Work Week go to my flickr album.

This post is one in a series that relates to my Menomonee Valley Artist in Residency. For more information about the residency and links to previous posts and photographs, go to MV AiR.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for the great photos! Check out this video to learn more about the Layton Boulevard West neighborhoods that directly connect to the Valley Passage where the commuter station was located: