It has not been a pleasant experience, even though it is only a few blocks of biking on State Street getting onto the Capital Square. It's ironic as State Street is in theory a pedestrian mall. One would have visions of relaxed smiling people strolling about and carefree bike users with the street to themselves.
If only that where true.
I would have to grade State Street as among the worst streets for a bike to be on in the city, at least during rush hour. The problem is city buses. The street is narrow, with just enough room for two buses to slip by one another with no room to spare. It is also the hub of bus activity for the city with more buses using this street then any other area in the city by many times. There is a steady stream of city buses during rush hour. Bike users are nearly always in front of a bus, who have no hesitation on passing a bike no matter where in the lane the biker is, or stuck trolling behind a bus while feeling the heat of a belching diesel engine. That might be welcome on a cold day, but overall I can't recommend it.
No doubt the bus drivers are just as frustrated with the situation. I do have some sympathy for them, even though I have been known to give them a middle digit salute when they pull a particularly bone headed move, which is all to common.
I'm starting to think biking on the beltline, though illegal, would be a more pleasant. I would suggest families with children stay far away as this is an adult only street for bike users. I pity a student showing up on a fine August day, taking a nice bike ride about the city, getting caught in the State Street chaos, parking their bike, and never touching it again. Just another rusted out beater to be collected by the city come the following June.
Like many areas in Madison, and especially the Isthmus, there really isn't a viable alternative. With the mess of high volume arterial streets and one ways running through the downtown area the choices of streets bike users can reasonably use are limited, so State Street it is.
In years past there was talk of getting the buses off State and turning it into a true pedestrian mall. No such luck as the Madison bureaucracy didn't then, and doesn't now, have the vision to see what a huge improvement it would be for the downtown area to have a true pedestrian mall. It seems to be the normal mode of Madison to so compromise an idea until it really doesn't work well for anyone. State Street is a prime example, but there are plenty more.
State street is not the only place where the city has decided that mixing bikes and buses is good idea. The Capital Square, which State Street runs into, is another place where both are pushed into the same lane along with right turning traffic. Picking a place where you think you won't run into conflicts with traffic can be tricky. Yet another place not recommended for families with children.
Other problems with buses are the city planners bad habit of placing bus stops on bike lanes. This is a very common situation and happens throughout the city. The traffic planners appear to have no clue that buses and bikes do not make a good mix. Placing a huge multi-ton vehicle in the same lane as a human powered vehicle weighing 30 some bounds is just not a good mix for anyone.
I don't expect the situation to improve anytime soon. It seems the city planners have it in there DNA that mixing bikes, buses, and whatever else happens to be around is okay. I have a hard time believing the people who plan these things have ridden the streets on a bike outside of a pleasant Sunday afternoon. Or perhaps they have been getting there advice from the lycra, clipless pedal, helmet clad gonzo gangs. It seems they like to live on the edge, and expect every other bike user to follow along.
What a situation like State Street, and all the other bike/bus mixing do, is simply make bike use an unpleasant experience. Only the very dedicated are willing to put up with it. For the rest it is far easier to just take the damn car. With all the dreams that many have in Madison of a massive increase in bike use I don't expect the numbers to get much better outside of a few percentage points. It's really a shame as the people of Madison are all to willing to embrace the bike in a much bigger way, they just don't want to compete for space with massive buses and distracted divers.
I do have to end this by making a bit of a confession. I have simply given up on trying to deal with State Street and now ride the sidewalk for a block on W. Mifflin. No, I'm not a sidewalk biker, but the situation is so bad on State, and the buses so obnoxious, it was that or retire my bike until the library construction was finished. I have 35 years of biking experience in Madison, and a season of biking on State has beat me. I give up. Let the buses have the street to themselves as it's no place for two wheels during the busy time of day.