Route of the Badger: Planning a 500-Mile Trail Network to Connect Wisconsin Communities

Oct 10, 2016

Southeastern Wisconsin has a fairly well-established system of improved bike trails – from the Hank Aaron Trail in Milwaukee to the Oak Leaf Trail and the Ozaukee Interurban Trail.

But if a coalition of national and local organizations has its way, the existing system will be just the tip of the iceberg.  The groundwork is being laid for an ambitious project, called Route of the Badger. The plan would connect the hundreds of miles of trails into one coherent network.

Its proponents, the national Rails-to-Trails Conservancy and the Wisconsin Bike Federation, believe the route will benefit more than just avid cyclists.

"The more connections there are, the greater the usage will be," says Rails-to-Trails Conservancy (RTC) president, Keith Laughlin. "What we're really looking to do is to increase the percentage of the population that is out being active using these trails."

Wisconsin already has existing bike trails, but a majority of them were built as space was made available or as needed - leaving many disconnected pieces. Laughlin believes that through connecting these existing systems, Wisconsin can go from a good bike-friendly state to a great one that can set the national model.

Route of the Badger map
Credit Rails-to-Trails Conservancy

Dave Cieslewicz, executive director of the Wisconsin Bike Federation, notes that a connected route would not only attract more cyclists, but expand an existing industry. "Bicycling is a $1.5 billion industry in WI, with 14,000 jobs," he says. "So if this were to work anywhere in the United States, it's going to work right here in Southeast Wisconsin."

Laughlin says equity is at the heart of the Route of the Badger, making biking something for every person - whether their from small towns, farms, the suburbs or the cities.

"The more the trails are connected, the greater the benefits will be, but it's important that those benefits are as widely shared among the population as we can," says Laughlin. "(Cycling) knits communities together. If you experience your neighborhood on a bicycle, it's a different experience than sitting in a car...you interact with that neighborhood better."