Among the legal notices in the March 11 Portage County Gazette (p. 27), I saw one with the following title: Public Safety Ordinance – Use of Town of Hull Roads by Bicyclists and Pedestrians. The statement of the lengthy ordinance – it spans six columns of the Gazette classified ads – ends with a note that this ordinance was approved by the Hull Board of Supervisors on February 1, 2016.
The agenda for the February 1 Hull Board Meeting does include an item with a title almost identical to that of the ordinance (agenda item 14). The minutes of this meeting are not currently posted on the Hull website, so I do not have any record of what took place at this board meeting. Since this ordinance appears as a legal notice, I presume that it was passed at that February 1 meeting.
The history of this ordinance is notable. Almost five years ago, Hull formed a Public Safety Task Force that met a handful of times in the second half of 2011. Although discussions among task force members spanned several topics related to public safety, the only draft of an ordinance created by this task force addressed the use of town roads by people bicycling and walking. After the Stevens Point Journal reported in October 2011 on the first draft presented to the task force, the inevitable release to social media quickly sparked negative reaction from bicycle advocates from all over the United States.
The reaction was largely in response to news first reported in the Journal that Hull was considering banning bicycles from certain town roadways and requiring biking, running, and walking groups to register their travel plans. I cannot locate the original article from the Journal online, but the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel published an article online a day or two later – available here – summarizing the Stevens Point Journal report.
For those unfamiliar with the Town of Hull, it is primarily rural in character, north of and abutting the City of Stevens Point. Fewer than 6000 people live in the township. As is the case with many small towns in Wisconsin, it rarely gets attention about much of anything. Thus, it is understandable that Hull officials were astonished to suddenly be bombarded with e-mails from all over the country criticizing their draft ordinance presented to their Public Safety Task Force.
After the news of all this unwanted national attention made the rounds, Dave Schlabowske of the Wisconsin Bike Fed phoned Town of Hull Chair John Holdridge, who was also a member of the Public Safety Task Force, and had a long conversation with him. Schlabowske’s excellent write-up summarizing the situation and the content of his talk with Holdridge can be found here on the Bike Fed blog.
His blog post starts:
By now, almost every person who rides a bicycle from Portland to NYC has heard of the little Town of Hull, WI, population 5,597, and their local ordinance that could ban cyclists from the roads.
But Schlabowske’s post goes on to discuss how this entire episode got blown out of proportion. Here is another excerpt from the post:
While they fully intend to proceed with their local ordinance, I think the good news that came from that conversation [between Schlabowske and Holdridge] is that at this time the Town of Hull safety committee has no interest in banning bicycles or demanding permits for small group rides or runs. The Chairman told me the primary purpose of their draft local ordinance is to improve safety and increase compliance with the laws for all road users.
I attended the subsequent meetings of the Hull Public Safety Task Force. The draft ordinance went through some substantial revisions, and a final revision was available for the task force meeting scheduled for November 17, 2011. I have a print version of that final revision and am unaware of any online link to it. However, that final revision appears to be nearly identical to the ordinance published in the March 11, 2016 Portage County Gazette.
As I recall, the task force did not have a quorum for that November 17, 2011 meeting and so could not officially convene. I am unaware of any subsequent meeting of the Public Safety Task Force after that date. Thus, to my knowledge, this draft ordinance was never confirmed by the Public Safety Task Force for further consideration because there was never a vote scheduled.
As far as I am aware, there was legislative silence from Hull regarding this draft ordinance for over four years. I do not review Hull meeting agendas, so I did not see the February 1, 2016 agenda item mentioning consideration of an ordinance on the use of Hull roads by people bicycling and walking. Seeing the ordinance as a legal notice in the current issue of the Portage County Gazette was quite a surprise to me.
I agree with Schlabowske from the Bike Fed that the episode in 2011 got blown far out of proportion. That being said, I also want to note that once word of what the Stevens Point Journal was reporting hit social media – I recall seeing a Tweet from BikePortland about it within a couple of days after the printed Stevens Point Journal story – I knew immediately that Hull would soon hear reaction to it from all over the place.
To those who don’t use bicycles much, casual talk of banning bicycles from certain roads for safety reasons seems a suitable topic for polite conversation among reasonable people. To many who bicycle regularly, casual talk of banning bicycles from certain roads for safety reasons is the transportation policy equivalent of a hate crime. Interactions exacerbating this cultural gap typically don’t go well.
As with issues that arise from most cultural gaps, improved communication is the best way to move forward. This is the key takeaway from Schlabowske’s blog post. I highly recommend that those interested in this matter read his full post. I also recommend reading the comments that follow it, which include further commentary from Schlabowske.
In the hours since I read the ordinance in the Gazette, I have been debating how to present it on my PPSP blog. In large part, the Hull ordinance simply restates existing state laws that pertain to bicycling and walking. For those who ride bicycles on Town of Hull roads, nothing has changed from a legal perspective due to the new Hull Public Safety Ordinance.
Considering the history of this ordinance, though, I feel it is important to make the public aware of Hull’s action.
I want to believe, as Schlabowske wrote in 2011, that Hull has no intention to ban bicycles from any town roads. That being said, I am also aware that Hull’s Public Safety Task Force did raise the question about whether bicycles could be banned from certain town roads for safety reasons. Here is an excerpt from p. 34 of the minutes of the July 21, 2011 meeting of the Hull Public Safety Task Force:
Holdridge: Dan, do you know, can we ban bicycles and pedestrians from certain roads based on safety? I’m thinking of North Reserve.
[Dan Kontos of the Portage County Sheriff’s Department]: Only on certain types of arteries and the Town of Hull doesn’t have any of those type of arteries.
Holdridge: North Reserve; that’s a narrow road and we don’t have hardly any shoulder and it’s dangerous with so much traffic. I’m saying making a case for safety on that.
Kontos: Only controlled, limited access highways and Hull doesn’t have any.
Taking everything into consideration, I feel it best to inform readers of the entire history of this Hull ordinance. I also feel that Hull leaders deserve the chance to let their future actions demonstrate their intent in passing this ordinance, especially since over four years have passed since the events that triggered Hull’s discomforting rise to national prominence.
Had the minutes from the February 1, 2016 Hull Board of Supervisors meeting been available, I might have been able to get a better idea of the current thoughts of Hull leaders on this issue. When I obtain a copy, I hope to post a follow-up on the discussion among the Hull board members that led to the approval of this ordinance. (Or, rather, the apparent approval – I’ll also be able to confirm the actual action the Hull Board took on this ordinance from those minutes.)
Update Mar 11: This morning I received a comment on this post from B.C. Kowalski, the author of the Stevens Point Journal article from October 2011 that sparked the nationwide attention that Hull received.
I cannot find the original article online – the Stevens Point Journal doesn’t make its online archives freely available – but this Milwaukee Journal Sentinel online post mentions the key point from that story: “The Stevens Point Journal reports that the proposed law would require biking, running or walking groups to register their travel plans with the town or bans them from using roads outright.”
The Bike Fed post by Dave Schlabowske that I mention in my post includes a mildly dismissive tone regarding the content of that original article. Kowalski’s comment to me takes issue with the Bike Fed post and defends the content of his story:
As the reporter who wrote the original Stevens Point Journal story, I can attest that it was in no way blown out of proportion. Banning bikes on certain roads was something the town of Hull was absolutely considering. By the time Schlabowske called Holdridge, Holdridge had been receiving calls from all over the country and by then had backed off his position. That’s a big distinction and one that stuck in my craw for quite some time. Make no mistake: Holdridge told me flat out during a conversation in his office that he was considering banning bikes on certain roads, and had told me Chief Deputy Dan Kontos said he could. (As your quote illustrates and as Kontos himself told me, there is no way to enforce such a ban as Hull doesn’t contain any of those types of roads.) What we had there is an example of a public official backing away from an unpopular position. It happens all the time. Had Schlabowske bothered to call me, he could have learned the truth.
I feel Kowalski’s comment contributes to the collection of perspectives on the history of the Town of Hull ordinance. This is why I have chosen to include it here.
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