Floods: how they impact bike/pedestrian infrastructure
BY KIERSTIN KLOECKNER
Before I begin my article, I want to show my sorrow and concern for anyone who experienced loss in the floods that hit Wisconsin in 2018. Nothing I can say can take away the sorrow from the loss of homes, memories and family or life savings. With each sandbag I filled, please know I thought of you.
What does a community do when up to 15 inches of rain falls within 12 hours and more rain comes in the following days? When the skies open up, the sheets of rain refuse to end and both roads and trails are washed away. Is one form of transportation more important than another?
Sadly, in late August, Middleton, Madison and the communities between La Crosse and Madison were put to the test. No one could have predicted the deluge which occurred. Living close to the epicenter, I can say it resembled an apocalyptic scene. My normal bike route to work was completely washed out (something I witnessed at dawn while trying to ride to work the following day). My second route was also washed out, and as I began to move like a rat in a maze, I knew there was a lot of trouble ahead. But no one, at that time, could have guessed the monetary and physical damage the communities would sustain.
At first, narcissistic thoughts darted through my head. I was embarrassed because all I could think of was “my safe routes to work are gone” when people were being airlifted out of their homes. On the other hand, I knew the city and county would kowtow to drivers of automobiles over cyclists and pedestrians. As a sinkhole opened just blocks from my house on a busy car road, I watched the county rush to fill it while they completely ignored bike/pedestrian paths and sidewalks sliding into creeks and lakes – ones used heavily by children commuting to school. I won’t lie, tears were shed. I essentially felt like, I, along with others, was stuck on a car island. A car island full of agitated drivers with very little sympathy for those on bikes or on foot.
Flooding isn’t new. Communities throughout the Midwest have been experiencing them more frequently now than ever before thanks to climate change. Talk to anyone in Grand Rapids, Michigan, and they will tell you how several monumental floods over the past few years have changed everyone’s way of thought. After the 2013 flood, the city spent over $15 million updating their infrastructure to deal with floods. The term “100-year flood” is now a joke and those who have their eyes open, know 100-year floods occur every 10 years or less. These extremes are expected to increase exponentially as our climate continues to change. But with the lack of funds, most communities have for an ailing infrastructure, only a few communities have allocated funds for bike/pedestrian transit and the even larger lack of smart growth in the outskirts of cities, we are looking at a very grim future.
Although no community can go unscathed with 12-15 inches of rain, where I live there was one large and ugly culprit – the filling in of wetlands by developers. Everything has a trickle effect. With our wetlands filled (because our city leaders allowed the developers to do so) and paved over with a concrete jungle, the water had no place to go except into what is normally a fairly lazy creek. This creek looked more like a raging mountain river during snowmelt to me the morning after the downpour. It not only destroyed a several mile bike/pedestrian path allowing kids to reach several schools safely but lifted six bridges off their foundations, destroyed boardwalk and washed out all of the gravel trails. It then dumped into our largest city lake, filled it to its brim, had to be emptied into the next waterway through lock and dam and then flooded the lower large city lake. All while flooding several roads, bike paths and communities in downtown Madison, making it an absolute nightmare for drivers of cars and extremely dangerous for those on bikes trying to get through our isthmus to school or work.
Three weeks later, drivers of cars are mostly back on track 100 percent. Meanwhile, paths and bike lanes throughout the entire county are still not usable (many being blocked off for what may be years). Yes, some of these are recreational trails, but many are used by daily commuters who now have to navigate dangerous roads with traffic moving up to 50 miles per hour. In my opinion, this isn’t right. This isn’t the first time community leaders have rushed to repair auto routes and have left those on foot or two wheels to fend for themselves. In a way, it’s like throwing us to the wolves. Most politicians and city staff see us as second-class citizens. And there is always the argument that we don’t pay as much in taxes, so we shouldn’t get priority. The truth is, most cyclists and pedestrians do own a car as well, and we not pay only property taxes but automobile taxes and a gas tax when we drive. Since we do not need the hefty load-bearing roads while we are cycling or walking, and since we need a much smaller space than a car, it is only fair that we have the same rights and priority as those in cars.
No one can deny in the near future we will all have to rely on mass transit, biking and walking more for transportation, and yet communities are still planning and hoping for a never-ending supply of oil. And so the questions are: When will we make the switch and start implementing smart and sustainable design? Will we choose to continue to bow to automobiles, digging a deeper grave each year? When will we put a priority on repairing bike/pedestrian infrastructure post-natural disaster?
With each flood or natural disaster, our communities will most certainly go into greater debt trying to maintain or repair auto roads – the same roads destroyed just a few years prior. To be a truly responsible community, we must look from the root up. By putting more funding into mass transit and bike/pedestrian infrastructure, we are killing several birds with one stone. First, we are lowering pollution levels, which in turn will slow climate change. Next, we will be forced to build sustainable communities closer to work and schools vs. expanding into wetlands and marsh, which will protect our natural “sponges” and “filters” and slow flooding. Finally, we will be prepared for our shrinking fossil fuel stores and will be able to transition into a fossil-fuel-free world a bit easier.
My hope is community leaders see the light sooner rather than later and really think about how they can not only prevent mass destruction but also how they can best serve their constituents post-disaster.