'Road Diets' & Other Engineering Plans For Milwaukee Streets

Sep 25, 2018

A proposal to try to make Milwaukee streets safer will be introduced to the Common Council on Tuesday, Sept. 25. The so-called "Complete Streets" package is in response to an increase in pedestrian deaths over the last few years and the perception that more people are driving recklessly. Better street engineering is included in the safety package.

State officials say there were about 60 pedestrian deaths in Wisconsin last year — a 20 percent increase from the year before. Nationally, pedestrian deaths have nearly doubled in the last decade.

One of the Milwaukee intersections that worries neighborhood groups is just north of Capitol Drive, where 35th Street, Hope Avenue and Hopkins Street come together. When I visited the intersection, many vehicles seemed to whiz by at well above the posted 30 mph speed limit. 

Many neighbors aren't happy with all the speeding. Kelly Coleman says some drivers don't pay attention to the road. "A lot of time when people go by, they're talking on the telephone. Some people drive and do their eyelashes. Oh yeah, we've seen it all. We've seen it all. So, it's just dangerous all around, especially when you're trying to cross the street," she adds.

Kelly Coleman (far left) takes part in a September Complete Streets rally in Milwaukee.
Credit Chuck Quirmbach

Coleman would like to see a stop sign or traffic light at that 35th street intersection. She's part of the Complete Streets Milwaukee Coalition. The group held a rally in September, promoting the package going before the Common Council that will emphasize education, speed limit enforcement and engineering to try to improve safety.

City Engineer Jeff Polenske says Milwaukee has already put a few streets on a "road diet" to reduce vehicle traffic. One of those projects was 2nd Street, just south of downtown.

He says recently, Roosevelt Drive, a diagonal street just south of Capitol, got a makeover. "We took a lane of driving out. We have a lane in each direction now, instead of four lanes.  And we added a bike lane, a buffer bike lane. So, while it's not a complete roadway reconstruction, we have made an improvement in just how it operates."

Over on Roosevelt, it looks like some drivers get it. Earlier this month, many people seemed to be going the speed limit — even during afternoon rush hour — and staying in the remaining driving lane.

But Jeffrey Sultan, who lives along Roosevelt and often parks his car at the curb, says there's still a problem. "People who are driving slow — people behind them don't like that. So, they always want to go around them. They need to fix it, because one day, somebody's car is going to get clipped." Or a person will get hit, Sultan adds.

Roosevelt Dr., after being put on a so-called "road diet" that aims to keep motorized vehicles in the left lane.
Credit Chuck Quirmbach

Still, the National Complete Streets Coalition supports Milwaukee's effort to engineer safer streets. Emiko Atherton, director of the national group, says about 1, 400 U.S. communities have adopted the Complete Streets principle that the roads are for everyone.

She says successful safety improvement designs vary, depending on local needs. "So, in a bigger city, you might see things like protected bike lanes, wider sidewalks with street trees that provide shade and cues to drivers to slow down, because it narrows their peripheral vision. You might see bus only lanes, wide crosswalks," Atherton said, adding that roads in rural areas might add wider shoulders for bicyclists and other users.

"You know, slow down, you're gonna get there," says Janice S.

Atherton and City of Milwaukee engineer Polenske acknowledge that better designs can only do so much, and that's why they hope educational partners in Complete Streets promote driving safety to school students and to adults.

Janice S., one of the activists at this month's 35th Street rally, says a lot will depend on whether more drivers listen to pleas, such as hers: "You know, slow down, you're gonna get there. You're gonna get there regardless. Slow down, just so you don't hurt nobody. I mean that's not cool."

Support is provided by Dr. Lawrence and Mrs. Hannah Goodman for Innovation reporting.

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