(disclaimer: this is a personal blog and not an official position of Madison Bikes)
On 12/5/2023 the Common Council approved the most bike-friendly version of the tree-friendly plans before it. The final path will be 10′ wide for about ⅔ of its length, and 8′ wide for the rest. There will initially be a section of 5′ sidewalk by Nautilus Park (across from Oakwood Village), but the City promises to address that in the next few years.
The path will still be a “camel”, changing width and zig-zagging dozens of times, and with several sections where path and road are uncomfortably close. But it will be a glorious camel that will come to be loved by all! And, at 2.5 miles long it will also be, by far, the longest continuous off-street side path that Madison has ever retrofitted into an existing corridor.
In 1966, the Capital Community Citizens lobbied for a bicycle way on Mineral Point Rd to serve Memorial High School, then under construction. The idea of a “bike lane” or “bike way” was such a foreign concept that one member thought it might be a series of wood planks in the ditch next to the road. Opposition was fierce. “I’ve got problems with bikes on any main thoroughfare in the City of Madison,” the police chief testified. The highway commissioner and public works director were also opposed. One Alder offered a facetious amendment to study lanes for other schools, pointing out the Pandora’s Box they risked opening.
Nearly 60 years later, Mineral Point Rd is on the verge of finally getting an off-street bike facility. Sort of.
Like the proverbial camel being “a horse designed by committee”, the City’s proposed widened sidewalk (meeting Oct 24, 2023) is unlikely to satisfy any of the interests fighting over it. The route will zig and zag, but still require cutting down plenty of trees. Its width will change seemingly at random from 10′ to 8′ to 5′, with the narrowest and most convoluted points being near intersections and danger spots like the heavily-trafficked Kwik-Trip driveway. Depending on how it’s built, the sidewalk may have a seam down the middle, leading to unevenness from frost heaves. There has also been no reduction in the number of driveways, despite a weak pledge that the City would explore doing that.
The new sidewalk will serve local needs and the High School, and for that I’m grateful. But it’s no transportation corridor and it certainly won’t tempt drivers from their cars. I’m not even sure it would have saved Taylor Dunn, the bicyclist killed last year in the final stretch of an 8-mile commute to his baking job on an e-bike he’d just purchased to save on bus fare.
How did we come to this and how can we prevent this in the future?
Bus Rapid Transit or Bust
The City’s haste to roll out Bus Rapid Transit is understandable. After decades of analysis paralysis – transportation studies, debates, and failed initiatives – it was imperative that we finally commit to mass transportation able to help Madison’s surging population. We knew the roll-out would not be perfect and that stakeholders would need to make concessions. What we didn’t expect was that those concessions would fall entirely on the shoulders of bicyclists, pedestrians, bus riders, neighborhood groups, and urban forestry. Those interests are now pitted against each other over scraps of pavement while single-occupant vehicles (SOV’s), arguably the root of most of our transportation woes, were virtually unscathed.
No one got the shaft more than the bicycling community. Despite the City painting a deceptively rosy picture of how BRT and bicycling were complimentary, bicycles have essentially been evicted from 2½ miles of East Washington Ave, 2½ miles of Mineral Point Rd, and ½ mile of University Avenue. These were high-stress routes, to be sure, but they were efficient and intuitive, and dedicated lanes helped bikers reach the many businesses that lined them (even during rush hour). As a replacement, the City offered sidepaths and widened sidewalks for Mineral Point Rd and University Avenue, and an uncommitted mish-mash of paths, widened sidewalks, bike boulevards and intersection improvements for East Washington. In the case of Mineral Point Rd, the original promise of a 10′ path soon morphed into an “8-10′ widened sidewalk”, and now it’s in danger of being crooked and having 600′ of normal 5′ sidewalk. For the 2700-3200 blocks of University Avenue, the forthcoming widened sidewalk will be technically illegal to bike on because it abuts businesses like Century House, Bagels Forever and IHOP, violating ordinance 12.76(1).
Pedestrians didn’t fare much better. Since 2021, the near-Capitol section of East Washington Ave has seen twelve pedestrian injuries and one fatality, easily crowning it the City’s most dangerous road for pedestrians to cross. Despite that, BRT required the removal of curb bumpouts, a pedestrian safety feature installed a decade earlier. BRT’s center-loading stations will also bring many more pedestrians into the traffic lanes, with some choosing to do it “Frogger” style.
In contrast, motor vehicles feel virtually none of the pain. With the exception of Whitney Way’s road diet (which pre-dated BRT), not a single traffic lane, driveway, or intersection is being shrunk, closed or restricted. The only changes I’m aware of are to turn lanes and traffic signal phases.
In Praise of Trees
The emotional pull of saving trees is undeniable. E.g., anyone taking a ride this fall along Devil’s Lake’s South Shore Drive will feel gut-punched by how many trees were cleared with that road’s recent reconstruction:
But there’s a tremendous difference between quality trees like the glorious oak at Homestead Shoppes or the large stands in Garner Park, and the terrace trees planted over the last five decades. These terrace trees are intended to compliment the road and they’re often on or near sanitary sewers, stormwater drains, and utility lines. They’re limited to species that won’t shower debris onto the roads and whose roots won’t damage curbs or the underground utilities. They are as natural as trees on a golf course or at Disneyland. These trees are indeed infrastructure and, like any other infrastructure, the City must be allowed to make improvements to them.
When thinking about climate and climate action, it’s important to maintain perspective about the real villains and solutions. For example, consider that it takes 80 mature trees to offset the carbon footprint of one electric car, and 250 trees for one gas car1. This means about 200 square miles of forest is needed to absorb the CO2 from drivers who use Mineral Point Rd each day. Meanwhile, a single bicyclist or e-bicyclist with a 12-mile round-trip commute is annually offset by just 3 mature trees.
If quality bike infrastructure helps convince just one driver to take up bicycling, that’s an instant savings of 77 – 247 trees for CO2 absorption alone. Add to that reductions in pollution, the heat islands due to roads and parking spaces, the construction costs, and the daily danger vehicles pose to bikers, peds, and each other, and one can’t help but conclude that quality bicycle infrastructure is part of the climate solution and it deserves everyone’s support.
Where do we go from here?
The City is now focused on North-South BRT, with public input meetings in November 2023. Prepare and SHOW UP. Just as with the East-West BRT meetings in 2021, many of the most critical choices have already been decided and public input will be brushed aside due to the tight timeline. For example, with talk so far focused on the much-needed South Park St redevelopment, I fully expect bicycles to be quietly evicted from 1½ miles of South Fish Hatchery Rd and 1½ miles of Northport Drive. This cannot be allowed to happen.
Similarly, the rollout of North-South BRT would be a fantastic opportunity to create new bike and ped facilities along Packers Avenue and the eastern part of Northport drive. These would serve the Oscar Mayer redevelopment, the airport, Madison College, the area around the shuttered South Transfer Point, and the neglected north side. So far, there has been little discussion and no budget for any of this.
Speaking of … isn’t it absolutely bonkers that BRT will pass within ½ mile of the airport but not stop? And, if if BRT is so smart with jump queues, connected signaling, and 15-minute intervals, why can’t both directions of BRT use the same lane between stops? (like how trains at Detroit and Minneapolis airports work) I digress…
Independent of BRT, here are a few concrete things I plan to keep front-of-mind at future City meetings:
- Get the City to stop widening sidewalks or building side paths without also reducing the number of driveways and crossings. The current approach is reckless and endangers bicyclists, as studies show that sidewalk riding is over twice as dangerous as road riding2. With Mineral Point Rd’s north-side widened sidewalk, over half the driveways could be removed without limiting business access. Of particular benefit would be the removal of driveways at Kwik Trip (2x), Capitol Petro, and Culvers.
- We need an ordinance stating that all major streets get bike lanes regardless of the existence of a nearby path or widened sidewalk, even if that means sacrificing car lanes or on-street parking. It’s tragic how major reconstructions like Monroe St, 2700-3200 University Ave, and Atwood Ave did not get bike lanes while Mineral Point Rd is losing the bike lanes it had. This trend must be stopped.
- There’s a fine line between protected lanes and Death Star trenches. E.g., the Bassett St protected lane is a both a success and a nightmare. The City really needs to do another protected lane experiment, this time with terraces on both sides. This is very relevant to South Park St.
- Single-occupancy vehicles (SOV’s) and cross-town traffic on the isthmus are the twin root causes of most of Madison’s transportation headaches. The City should work to increase travel times for cross-town traffic. Brussels did this and within just one year saw a traffic drop of 27% in the city center, plus an “astonishing 36 percent jump in the number of cyclists.” Some ideas to achieve this:
- High Occupancy Vehicle (HOV) lane restrictions.
- Stoplight timing to slow traffic without lowering volume.
- Asymmetric roads with more outbound capacity than inbound.
- Turn restrictions to limit shortcuts.
Lastly, it is important that we continue to support Bus Rapid Transit! Despite maybe feeling like we’ve been run over by one, BRT will provide tens of thousands of people a viable alternative to their SOV’s, and that benefits us all.