Goodbye, Tim Wong: A Madison Radical on a Bike

Tim WongJust after Tim Wong died on June 30, I posted an announcement and added a few words about what Tim meant to the bicycling movement in Madison. Several people asked me to put it up as a blog post. I’ve adapted the original a bit with comments that other people shared with me.

If you didn't know Tim, you really missed a true Madison character, and someone who you can thank for being one of the early leaders of the bike advocacy that continues today.  

I wasn’t around for some his early adventures, like the mass, simultaneous flat tires that a group of bicyclists got at the intersection of John Nolen, Blair, and Willy St. If you think that intersection is bad now, you can thank Tim that it isn't worse. I don't know the whole story, but I know that Tim helped organize a movement to add bicycle accommodations that made it at least somewhat safer for bicyclists and pedestrians at a time when almost no one rode a bike for transportation. Tim was one of the founders of the Bicycle Brigade, the first Madison-focused bike advocacy group. At his memorial, someone had dragged out old copies of the Spoken Word, an early advocacy newsletter. When auto manufacturers claimed that auto emissions were now cleaner than the outside air, Tim co-wrote a letter to the editor at the Wisconsin State Journal introducing the concept of the “dash pipe.” The State Journal never published the letter, but you can read it here.

Tim wrote more letters, showed up at more meetings, and spoke at more city committees than almost anyone I've known. He served as the Chair of the city Bicycle/Pedestrian Sub-Committee (before the Pedestrian/Bicycle/Motor Vehicle Commission that exists today was formed), but was squeezed out when the committee structure was rearranged. In the early and mid-2000s he was back, serving on the Transit and Parking Commission. Putting his professional skills as a data analyst to use, he poured over the quarterly reports and asked detailed questions when others just passed them over. He ended up getting thrown off that committee as well, probably because he asked too many questions about how money was spent and how things were run.

He never owned a car, and was probably the person that first coined the term "death-mobile." He was also fond of calling John Nolen Drive, “John No-Lane,” because when Monona Terrace was being planned, the Lake Monona Path was going to be shut down for two years, and city officials scoffed at the idea that a lane of the existing road should be devoted to the safety of bicyclists and pedestrians. Tim helped organize Friday peak hour rides that took over a lane anyway to demonstrate the need for safe facilities for walking and biking during the construction. The path was shut down for only 6 months instead of two years. I thought about him and those early critical mass rides when that path was being worked on recently, and there was indeed a lane of John No-Lane blocked off for bicyclists.

Tim was not subtle about his distaste for cars and driving, often calling drivers “muderists.” He could be irritating and alienated some people -- including his allies. But you could never say he didn't speak his mind and stand up for what he believed. One person wrote saying, “He always had strong opinions but I can't think of any instances where he was actually wrong, even (or particularly) when we disagreed.”

Betty Chewning, a neighbor of Tim’s and a professor at the UW whose research focused on health, spoke at his memorial, and she said how much she appreciated that Tim put his reputation and time on the line over and over again. He told the inconvenient truth, even when no one wanted to hear it. He convinced her to testify about how important the bike paths were to her. He knew that it couldn’t just be him, or any one person, carrying the message; everyone has to speak up.

Even former City Engineer, Larry Nelson, wrote to say that he appreciated working with Tim:

“Despite the derogatory terms Tim used, such as the ‘great Wasteside of Madison’, I found him actually to be a very gentle person. He was also very frugal, and perhaps large transportation projects, even though they were bike facilities, were in Tim's mind contrary to his own innate frugality.

“On the other hand, I found Tim very helpful pointing out both the need for and the most effective way to maintain bike facilities. The concept that the City should provide winter maintenance for bike facilities isn't that old, folks. But, Tim needed to bike in the winter.”

Tim was 69, and rode his bike everywhere until a month before his death, when he fell (not while riding) and hit his head, leading to complications that ultimately did him in. At his memorial service I heard his family talk about how he refused to give a thumbs up to the doctors trying to determine his physical abilities. Tim said the thumbs up was what Trump did. So his doctor asked him to raise any finger, and sure enough he gave it to them.

If you didn't know him, you have no idea how far back his advocacy for bicycling goes. He wasn't always easy to work with, but he will be deeply missed. 

Rest in peace, Tim.

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