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50,000 Reclaim the Streets in Madison

9/7/2010 4:59:49 AM

Tags: Ride the Drive, ciclovia, Bicycle Federation of Wisconsin, Lance Armstrong, Carolyn Szczepanski

RideTheDriveThe first time was impressive. The second time was gigantic.

The third time? Off the charts.

In June 2009, the City of Madison hosted the inaugural Ride the Drive. Closing off major roads for car-free fun, the open streets extravaganza drew 10,000 participants. A year later, in June 2010, the second event turned out nearly 25,000 bicyclists and pedestrians.

So what happens when you add Lance Armstrong to the mix? An eye-popping crowd of more than 50,000 riders.

“Every time we hold it, it doubles or triples,” says Amanda White, the Ride the Drive coordinator for the Bicycle Federation of Wisconsin.

The idea behind Ride the Drive originated, not in Wisconsin or even the United States, but in South America. In Colombia they call the concept a ciclovia. Directly translated from Spanish, the term simply means “bike path.” But the expression has grown to mean something much larger.

In major Colombian cities — like Bogota, Cali and Medelin — government officials got the bright idea to switch the street paradigm every Sunday morning. During this ciclovia, major thoroughfares would be closed off to cars and opened up to cyclists and pedestrians.

And guess what happened? As many of 2 million folks ditched their cars, emerged from their houses and reveled in the public space reclaimed from speeding metal boxes. Suddenly, the pavement became the perfect venue for one gigantic, free, all-ages party.

Now ciclovias are making their way into the American vocabulary. It may not be native, but the idea definitely speaks our language.

Unlike our European counterparts, many U.S. residents aren’t comfortable sharing the streets with automobiles — and their often texting, sometimes even TV-watching drivers. Because of that perceived peril, bicycling for transportation is largely confined to men. Be honest: When was the last time you saw a family pedaling to the grocery store or the movie theater? You probably more readily remember the last lunar eclipse. So getting cars out of the equation, even for one afternoon, adds up to a lot more people pedaling.

But ciclovias make an even more important statement: Our streets are made for riding — not just driving. As cyclists and pedestrians, we have the right to feel welcome and safe on our public roads, too.

Wisconsin isn’t the only state to embrace the Colombian tradition, either. From Portland to El Paso to New York City, so-called open streets events are beginning to attract thousands of participants. Madison Mayor Dave Cieslewicz sure loves it. “Last August's Ride the Drive was one of the most popular new events in Madison,” he wrote on his blog in June. And Mayor Dave didn’t just promote the event; he got on his bike to prove a point. “The message for cyclists is simple: riding a bike should be fun, and it should be for everybody,” he wrote.

Well, Lance Armstrong apparently got Cieslewicz’s memo. For the August event, the cycling celebrity showed up in gym clothes and led a slow loop on the six-mile course through the heart of Madison. After he addressed his adoring fans, he mingled with the little people — literally. “I led a bike parade after the big ride with Lance and he stopped by and signed our Feet in the Street, where kids were stenciling their feet with sidewalk chalk,” the Bike Fed’s Amanda White said.

Yes, the Tour de France champion and cancer-fighting superstar was a big draw for Ride the Drive, but White sees another reason for the incredible success. The event isn’t targeted to the Lance Armstrong wannabes. It’s doesn’t just appeal to the guys who feel comfortable wearing spandex and jockeying for street space with an SUV. “The messaging for the event is very inclusive: ’Come out with your kids, with your friends. Whether you want to wear spandex or blue jeans, come out and enjoy the day,” White said.

“And we’re very focused on a more mainstream crowd,” she added. “We have a lot of unique activities along the route. We have kite flying. We have a bike parade. We have the wheelmen group with huge old bikes, and an art bike group with all these beautifully decorated bikes. And there are different areas along the route, like the Family Drive area, which is a little festival in itself directed at families.”

A well-chosen course has also enticed participants. “The roads we have closed off — or, as the mayor says, have opened up — for bicyclists are six-lane streets with very heavy traffic volumes,” White said. “They’re streets most people would never think to bike on, so to be able to bike on those streets is such an amazing thing.”

Kathryn Kingsbury, the Bike Fed’s communications director, told me something even more amazing. Madison wasn’t the only town having a grand old time on August 29. ”It turns out that Fargo-Moorhead had a similar event the same day with 5,000 to 7,000 participants,” Kingsbury said. “I think that's just fantastic.”

7,000 people? In North Dakota?

We’re not rivaling Bogota quite yet, but this ciclovia idea has definitely found a home in the USA.

Photo: Thousands participated in Madison's Ride the Drive late last month. Photo courtesy of the Bicycle Federation of Wisconsin.

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