A Plethora of Places to Pedal

from recreational trails to commuter routes, the network of infrastructure for bicyclists is growing

Tom Giffey, photos by Andrea Paulseth

It’s not just your imagination: The amount of bike infrastructure in the Chippewa Valley has been steadily growing in recent years as both bicyclists and public officials have continued to push for dedicated bike trails, bike lanes, and signed bike routes in urban and rural areas.

“The infrastructure and the ways bikes are being treated has gotten better,” said Jeremy Gragert, a longtime local bicycle activist who was elected to the Eau Claire City Council last year. Gragert points to the city’s Bronze designation as a Bicycle Friendly Community and the 13-year history of its Bicycle/Pedestrian Advisory Committee as signs that Eau Claire treats bicycling seriously.

In the City of Eau Claire alone, there are now just more than 39 miles of multi-use trails (nearly 41 miles if you count the trail that bisects Putnam Park). This includes stretches of the well-known Chippewa River and Old Abe state trails, which were created decades ago, as well as a network of newer trail segments that crisscross the urban area.

More are slated for the near future, according the latest version of the city’s nearly 100-page Bicycle and Pedestrian Plan, which was approved in December. For example, over the next two years the city plans on including bike access to the Jeffers Road area as part of the reconstruction of that road. Eventually, bikers will be able to traverse the North Crossing from the northwest part of town to others areas of the city, said Dave Solberg, Eau Claire city engineer.

In addition, the Riverwalk Trail will be under construction this year from Lake Street along to the Chippewa River to the Pablo Center at the Confluence, then from Barstow Street to Dewey Street along the south bank of the Eau Claire River, Solberg said.
As it rebuilds streets the City of Eau Claire has also been working to provide on-street bike lanes and sharrows. As of the end of 2018, there were 11.4 miles of bike lanes and 5.7 miles of sharrows. (What’s the difference? Bike lanes are designated by a painted bicycle icon and separated from motor vehicle lanes by a solid white line. Sharrows have bicycle symbols paired with a chevron shape and are there to remind driver and bicyclists that they are meant to share the lane.)

RECENTLY COMPLETED SECTIONS
OF EAU CLAIRE TRAILS:

  • The former railroad right-of-way from First Street northwest to Folsom Street
  • The north and south sides of Galloway Street, from North Hastings Way west to the Galloway Street railway crossing
  • North of Eddy Lane to the city limits
  • Short Street from the Chippewa River to Highway 37
  • Melby Road from North Hastings east to the city limits
  • The Cannery Redevelopment District Trail (along Madison Street north to the High Bridge)
  • The High Bridge

START SEEING SIGNS

Of course, trails and other bike-oriented infrastructure aren’t much good if people can’t find them. About 2½ years ago, while working on an update of its Bicycle and Pedestrian Plan, the City of Eau Claire’s Bicycle/Pedestrian Advisory Committee decided it wanted to ensure that bike trails and routes didn’t end at the city limits. With the help of the West Central Wisconsin Regional Planning Commission, the city partnered with representatives of Eau Claire and Chippewa counties, the village of Lake Hallie, and the cities of Altoona and Chippewa Falls. Inspired by a similar project in the Wausau area, the local committee identified 20 routes that crisscross both urban and rural parts of the region, from the Dunn County line in the west to rural Fall Creek in the east and from Pleasant Valley in the south to Eagle Point in the north. The routes will be marked by numbered and color-coded signs, and will be useful for recreational bikers, tourists, and commuters alike, said Eric Anderson, a senior planner with the regional planning commission.

“If one has any kind of commute, this will be a great resource for them to look at different routes they can take that have been vetted by user groups,” Anderson said.
Over the coming year, signs will begin to go up to mark the routes. In the City of Eau Claire alone, there will be 400 12-by-18-inch signs, said Pat Ivory, a senior planner with the city. Those signs will start popping up this fall, he added.

GETTING BETTER

The newly designated routes, as well as other bicycle infrastructure, make travel easier and safer for bicyclists, said Gragert, the City Council member who also serves as northwest region ambassador for the Wisconsin Bicycle Federation. “If you get bikes to take specific routes, it makes those routes more visible to motorists,” he said. Drivers are reminded that they are sharing the road with bicyclists and can drive accordingly.

Gragert, who has lived in Eau Claire most of the past 19 years, says during that time the city has overall become a friendlier place for bicyclists. “I would say things have gotten better in terms of political support,” at least on the local level, he said.

In terms of miles of trails within the city limits, Eau Claire is second only to Madison among Wisconsin cities, Gragert said. And the fact the city created a Bicycle/Pedestrian Advisory Committee in 2005 shows its long-standing commitment to bike issues, he added.

Both Eau Claire and Menomonie have received Bronze designation as Bicycle Friendly Communities from the League of American Bicyclists. The rankings are based upon a host of factors, from miles of trails to educational events to the share of people who commute by pedaling. While the local cities’ Bronze ranking is laudable, it indicates Eau Claire and Menomonie have a way to go: La Crosse has a Silver ranking, while Madison has been designated Platinum – one of only five cities of its kind in the nation.

Among the ways Eau Claire could boost its bike-friendly ranking would be by increasing bike education and adding a city staffer to work on bike issues, Gragert said.

And while many of the city’s bike trails and other infrastructure may have been created with recreation in mind, they are also useful for commuters, Gragert said. Consider, for example, the Confluence Crossing Bridge, which was built last year over the Eau Claire River between Phoenix Park and soon-to-be-completed Haymarket Plaza in front of the Pablo Center. While Gragert originally thought the bridge would mainly be used by pedestrians traveling between the Pablo Center and the parking garage on the other side of the river, he’s found that it’s helpful for bicyclists like himself who want to avoid busy downtown streets.

FILLING THE GAPS

The decades-old promise of the Chippewa Valley’s bike trail network – being able to travel on a dedicated bike path all the way from Durand to Cornell – will finally become a reality in 2020. For years, all that has remained to complete the roughly 80-mile route is a 2.5-mile gap in the Old Abe Trail on the north side of the Village of Lake Hallie and the south side of the City of Chippewa Falls. Currently, the Old Abe Trail begins in downtown Eau Claire’s Phoenix Park, stops at 40th Avenue in Lake Hallie, then picks up again a few miles later along Bridge Street near downtown Chippewa Falls.

In the coming month, construction will begin to fill this gap by creating a shared-use path along State Highway 124 in Lake Hallie between 40th and 50th avenues. This work will be completed in 2020, said Rick Rubenzer, director of public works for the City of Chippewa Falls. Inside the city limits, meanwhile, the path will be continued along Park Avenue (between South Avenue and Bridge Street) when that road is rebuilt this year and next, Rubenzer said.

The missing link will complete a circuit that connects the Red Cedar, Chippewa River, and Old Abe trails into one mega-trail crossing the region, something that is sure to please pedalers of all kinds.