Mr. Bicycle

Mighk Wilson is the guy who hears all the horrific local bike crash stories, whether he wants to or not. And he doesn't. Bloody bones sticking through spokes, murderous motorists speeding away from hit-and-runs, anarchist two-wheelers crashing on top of car hoods — he's heard it all.

The gentle-natured Wilson has learned to just listen and say he's sorry, because yes, thank you, he is responsible for everything cyclists do on the roads. He's not, of course. But he is more than just a bicycle enthusiast. He's able to put his street "research" to work in his day job as the bicycle and pedestrian coordinator for MetroPlan Orlando, the planning organization for the tri-county area. Not only does he talk bicycles and ride them religiously, he provides data for the planning and analysis that one day may change Orlando's status as one of the most dangerous places for cyclists and pedestrians.

The gentle-natured Wilson has learned to just listen and say he's sorry, because yes, thank you, he is responsible for everything cyclists do on the roads. He's not, of course. But he is more than just a bicycle enthusiast. He's able to put his street "research" to work in his day job as the bicycle and pedestrian coordinator for MetroPlan Orlando, the planning organization for the tri-county area. Not only does he talk bicycles and ride them religiously, he provides data for the planning and analysis that one day may change Orlando's status as one of the most dangerous places for cyclists and pedestrians.

Orlando Weekly: Let's get the obvious out of the way. What's up with the spelling of your name?

Mighk Wilson: That's from a previous life, in my first career in graphic arts, when I was at Ringling school of art. My legal name is "Michael" but I've always gone by "Mighk." You know graphic artists. I had to spice it up a bit.

So that's your tag?

(Laughing) I guess so. I had one before I knew there was such a thing.

a thing.

Describe how you fit into the community.

Well, I hope that I can be seen as somebody who is trying to help everybody move along in the right direction and to understand what the things are and what those elements of that picture are going to look like … with regard to my role as bike and pedestrian planner, as someone who wants to have a more humane transportation system of getting people around on bike and foot, under their own power.

What are the components of a more humane transportation system?

First off is respect for everyone. Regardless of what their role is in the community, having respect for all users of the road.

What does "a road" represent in your life?

The importance of design — the design not of just the street itself, but the buildings around it, all combined. You have to have a good relationship between the buildings and the street in order for the whole thing to work properly. When you push your buildings back behind a huge parking lot, that has a profound effect on what the street experience is, and it's the reason why people fly at such high speeds down our arterial roads, because `those areas` are a no man's land. There's no sense of confinement and so you have the sense of being on a rural road, even though you're in an urban environment. And there are plenty of opportunities for conflict.

What kinds of conflict?

It is the pedestrian who really suffers in that situation, the few of them. There are relatively few pedestrians in that kind of environment, but the ones that are there are at much greater risk because of the speeds, because there aren't very many of them. It's hostile, not in an overt, intentional way, but it is hostile in that everything is designed for higher speed, and drivers are moving at that higher speed. When you almost miss a pedestrian because you're going so fast, stopping is an even more stressing situation, so it all ends up working against the pedestrian.

the pedestrian.

How many years have you been riding a bike as your primary mode of transportation?

All my life, unlike a lot of people. Many of us use bikes for transportation till we're 16 and then we turn to the car and then years later back to the bike. I never got off the bike. I have always had my bike as my primary mode of transportation.

How old are you?

I'm 49, so I was commuting with my first job on a paper route. Before then, bicycling was transportation for visiting friends.

What do you say to skeptics who believe that cycling in this town is not safe, by virtue of the statistics alone?

When you just look at raw numbers, then it is intimidating. … For Orange, Seminole and Osceola counties, there were about 450 bicycling injuries/crashes reported per year, and those are long-form crash reports. That means there was an injury or damage exceeding $500, and it involved a bicyclist and a motorist. Now that is not to say how many there really are. There are other crashes as well but not reported on a police report. … But out of 450, only 8 percent involved a bicyclist riding on the roadway and obeying the rules of the road.

OK, that's somewhat reassuring, but there are a lot of cyclists walking around with pins in their legs and other permanent injuries and you do see accidents more and more frequently.

First off, we tend to see things that are out of the ordinary or things that fit in with our preconceptions. But I also think that, when it comes to bicyclists, behavior is really quite poor. There is a ton of red light—running and stop sign—running among cyclists, and we could blame the cyclist for that, but we could also say, where is law enforcement?

Bicyclists have to be held roughly to the same standards as motorists. If we didn't do any type of enforcement of motorist behaviors, wouldn't it be a lot worse than it is? It's the same rules `for cyclists`. All vehicles obey the same rules. You yield when you enter a roadway, you signal when you change lanes, it's all the same stuff.

Why don't we all know that?

There is a lot of ignorance. … When it comes to cycling … we make our assumptions based on what we see other people doing. How many people who are wondering about the rules actually look up the statues? They take their cues from what is going on around them.

If I suddenly drove into Orlando and I had never been here, I would gather that yielding to pedestrians isn't done here, because that is the norm here. And so people perceive the norm when it comes to cycling — riding on sidewalks, trying to get out of the way of motorists. But really they should be out on the road, doing the same things that all other vehicle drivers do. So there is this perception that rules for bicycles are different and they are not.

What can we do about changing people's perceptions?

That's the really tough part, and it requires training, of course. The thing that is tough about educating cyclists is that you have to break bad habits. With motorists, they know they are not supposed to do this, that and the other thing, but with bicycling they have all kinds of misconceptions and many of them are contrary to what good safety practices are and what the rules actually are.

And what happens when obeying those rules doesn't work, doesn't keep you safe?

They work, and they work for me, if you know how to put them into use. … A bicyclist is much better getting out there in the middle of the lane, taking your place in line — you don't want people to pass you when it's a narrow area. You want to control your access to the road.

That relies on cyclists having the confidence and assertiveness to take their place in the middle of all those big vehicles.

That is the way to go. That's the best way to go because the No. 1 priority is to be seen. If you were on the sidewalk, in most cases, it reduces the motorist's ability to notice you. There are no guarantees in any sort of travel. … The best practice, the one that presents the least risk for the cyclists, is to be in the road behaving like any other vehicle, because that is going to be the most conspicuous. Motorists who can't see you can't avoid you.

There are experienced bike riders who say that there are motorists in Orlando who can be life-threatening, even in those situations. They say that drivers target cyclists and have the scars to prove it.

I would think, more than likely, the cyclists who are having the most trouble with overtaking motorists are hugging the line, who are staying as close as possible to the edge of the road. That invites motorists to come squeezing by, often at an uncomfortably high speed. Once you let go of that and move out significantly toward the middle of the lane, the problem goes away. I used to ride the way everybody else rides, and the way I ride now is far more relaxed and safer; it just presents far less trouble.

For beginners looking to ride in an urban environment, what's your best advice for getting started?

First off, get a bike you're going to be comfortable with. Go to a bike shop and get something that is going to serve your needs. And hopefully this year, we're going to be able to provide routine cycling courses and traffic cycling courses. We're doing this with the Florida Bicycle Association and we're in the tuning phase. Keri Caffrey `of the CommuteOrlando Blog` will do this new curriculum. Keri's doing most of the work. We're in line to deliver these courses; we just started piloting them.

We're looking to the Florida Safety Council to provide the scheduling and registration. They are already set up with that infrastructure so people know where to call and schedule a course. They do motorcycle safety, driver education and a variety of courses, some are voluntary, some are mandated.

are mandated.

What's the best way to keep up with that type of information?

A good way to get good general information is the CommuteOrlando Blog — Keri Caffrey manages that. There is a blog and forum so if people have questions on how do you handle different sorts of problems, this is a good location for answers.

What groups are you affiliated with besides the FBA?

I've been involved with Get Active Orlando, which is a partnership through the city of Orlando with a variety of different organizations, hospitals and public agencies that are trying to encourage more active living, which includes transportation, walking, biking and community gardening.

Any others?

Something I just am participating in just a little bit for my own learning is the Simple Living Institute. I try to attend their organic growers thing, which is a monthly thing. And I think that there is a potential synergy between bicycling and gardening, particularly if you have community gardens that are serving a community, if you are actually trying to move food and produce around by bike.

I also got started with Green Drinks out of Dandelion café, and they cover a wide range of issues having to do with green building, food and transportation and you name it.

What's coming from MetroPlan Orlando in 2010?

In the shorter term it is a continuation of what we have been doing, building more miles of trail, expanding on that existing trail network, which does provide some transportation but is also a good place for people who are just getting into cycling and want a more comfortable way of doing it.

You'll see more bicycling lanes on the roads as they are widened, better street lighting and some safety projects. There are a lot of things that don't look bike- and pedestrian-specific, but they do benefit cyclists and walkers. For instance, if you put a raised median on a street that doesn't have a median, that is really going to improve pedestrian and bicyclists' safety. And similarly with street lighting, if the street doesn't have lighting and you add lighting, it helps pedestrians and cyclists.

Could you explain what MetroPlan Orlando does?

MetroPlan is technically the metropolitan planning organization for Orange, Osceola and Seminole, and every large metropolitan area has to have an MPO in order to receive federal transportation dollars. One of our primary roles is to prioritize how those federal dollars should be spent: road widening, bike and pedestrian facilities, transit projects.

transit projects.

So what are people going to see as that system develops?

SunRail is probably the biggest change and most notable mission that you're going to see, and MetroPlan played a big role in bringing it. It's a project that includes all three counties and required a lot of coordination on the state and federal level. And so while that is not something you're going to see in the next couple of months, it will be a major step; for the first time, we'll have real transit in this area. Well, I suppose there were trolleys but that was way back when.

How will SunRail impact the road warriors?

I think if you look at the successes in Europe it shows that cycling and rail combination is a powerful. The key is taking advantage of it in a smart way, of trying to improve cycling conditions near rail stations — bicycle parking, bicycle racks on the trains to bring your bike onboard. So it remains to be seen how well we do a job at making that integration happen, making those improvements.


What will be your role in that integration process?

Helping local governments and local departments of transportation to come up with the best solutions as far as bike parking and bike storage and potentially some other services I've been talking to some staff at length about — some kind of station, probably that would be at the main downtown station, where you'd be able to park your bike, hopefully have locker and shower facilities and be able to buy some basic equipment, basic food and drinks. I think I'd kind of like a service station for cyclists.

My job is to be the local expert on these things, to pull in information from other cities around the nation — what they have done, what practices are likely to work — and give that guidance to the local governments.

So you are an expert?


How many of you are there?

In Orlando? Well, I'm the only person who is doing full-time bike and pedestrian planning in the city of Orlando, in the metro area. … There are a number of other bike coordinators also at MPO in the area. All of the major cities have bike and pedestrian coordinators.

Is there any other city in Florida that you'd like to emulate, and are you looking at other city models?

There isn't any place in Florida that I'd like to emulate. I'd say MetroPlan Orlando is doing a lot of good stuff and I can't imagine any cities in Florida that are doing better than we are — I should say "metropolitan areas" that are doing better than we are in our area.

What are you doing that is so good?

For one thing, we have been setting aside more of our federal dollars for pedestrian and bike improvements, since 1994. There are enhancements, funding sources which are limited to some smaller-scale kind of things: bike and pedestrian projects, aesthetic landscaping, historic preservation. All metro areas have access to those funds, but we also took some of our funds that are called "surface transportation program funds" that have historically been used as highway funds, but the feds made them flexible back in the early 1990s. So we first set aside 10 percent and then now it is up to 12 percent to set aside to bike and pedestrian projects. That's in addition to the enhancement funds.

Back to those scary statistics about Orlando. Help temper them with some reality.

Those numbers don't tell you what your own risk is as an individual. … Studies have been done at the national level, looking at the crash experiences of experienced cyclists; they have much lower crash rates than the … people who ride on sidewalks. And it is hard to try to explain succinctly in a newspaper article, without having people's eyes glaze over, to throw out statistics to a lot of people who aren't convinced by statistics. Quite frankly, the best way to convince people is to get them out riding on the road and get them riding the right way, and then they find out that, hey, this works.

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