Renee Callaway has come full circle. She first met Arthur Ross in 1991 as a journalism student. She wanted to interview the longtime Madison bike-pedestrian coordinator for a story.
She had a lot of contact with Ross through the years as she pursued a similar career track, working as the bike-ped coordinator at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, the manager of the university’s employee bus pass program, the developer of the state’s Safe Routes to School program and the rideshare coordinator with the Madison Area Transportation Planning Board.
Then when Ross retired, she got his job.
“It does feel a little like a culmination,” she said.
Along the way, Callaway, 49, has organized bike races, served on the boards of several bike groups and was a volunteer publicity coordinator for the Nordic Ski Club.
“Typical Wisconsinite,” she said. “I like the Nordic skiing.”
She wasn’t always a biker. She grew up near Yuba, population 72, on the Vernon-Richland county boarder, attended Hillsborough High School, then became embedded in the biking culture when she came to the UW campus and moved into the Greenbush neighborhood.
She still lives in that neighborhood with her husband, David Bell, also an avid biker.
She pedaled to the Cap Times offices recently on a wet, blustery day to talk bicycles, pedestrians and the new job.
How did you get into biking?
I had some friends who bought these newfangled mountain bikes. They talked me into going to a mountain bike race, where I placed last. But it was still a good experience. That sort of got me into cycling. Then I tried riding to classes. At UW-Richland I rode a few times, and then coming here to Madison it just became a normal way to get around.
Madison is already one of only five platinum biking cities, and the city was recently rated No. 2 for pedestrian safety. Where do we have room to improve?
If we want to increase how many people are biking, how many people are walking, we need to make that an activity that the average person feels comfortable doing. People like myself, who ride a lot and feel confident, are willing to go ride on Fish Hatchery Road in a small bike lane. But the average person will see you riding down that street and say, “Oh my gosh, was that you? You’re so daring.” That’s not going to get people to ride to work, to ride with their kids to school, to ride to go out to dinner. So I think there’s still work to be done on making sure that all parts of the city have routes that people will ride and feel comfortable on with their kids. There’s always work to do.
Are there areas of the city we need to prioritize?
I hear from people on the south side and the north side with concerns that they don’t have the same access. So I wanted to take a look at that and see what we can do to improve access throughout the city. I think there are connections that can be improved in the Park Street area. It seems very circuitous. You have to really know the neighborhood. Some of that can be signage that helps people find those connections, but in other places it’s looking to see where we can build a facility.
You headed the Safe Routes to School program until 2012, the year Scott Walker was first elected governor. He wasn’t real keen on bike advocacy. Did that have anything to do with your decision to leave?
Some might say that was a good time if you work on ped-bike issues. Safe Routes to School went through a lot of changes after that. At the federal level, it had been a standalone program. Then it got merged in with other ped-bike programs. The funding is much less because the feds also allowed the states to have much more flexibility in how much of it they spent in other ways, so there have just been a lot of changes to ped-bike funding programs.
Do you think things look better with the election of Tony Evers?
One feels optimistic.
What kinds of bikes do you own?
So many. I have a commuter bike, a road bike, a mountain bike, a gravel bike and a cyclocross bike. In this town it’s not uncommon to have a lot of bikes. I do try to limit myself.
This town has a very engaged biking community. Do you think pedestrians get forgotten?
I think that doesn’t get talked about as much. There’s not as many pedestrian advocates out there. Sometimes what’s best for a pedestrian and what’s best for a bicyclist, it’s not always the same thing, so you try to look at trade-offs. But if you think about cities that you like to visit, they’re ones that are walkable, where it feels comfortable walking places. The cities you want to go back to are the ones where you feel like there are other people out, you can walk to these different destinations and there are logical connections. Hopefully we’re getting improved bus rapid transit in the future and those pedestrian connections are going to be super important as well.
There are times when Madison feels like a biker’s paradise, and other times you have to weave through heavy traffic and jump a curb to get where you’re going. Do you think the city deserved its platinum status?
It’s a tough question. There are days when I have my frustrations, but I think that we do. And I think part of that is we stand up against the other communities. I have people who come here from other platinum cities and find things about our city they think are better, and I think it’s easy to go to one of those cities and feel that there are things that are better than our city. I think we do deserve to be platinum, but we can be a better platinum that we are right now.
No one’s ever won diamond status. Can we be a diamond?
Well, a girl likes to dream.