This is a guest post by Jim Lorman. Jim is Professor Emeritus at Edgewood College, and he represents the Greenbush Neighborhood Association on the Vilas Park Master Plan Resident Resource Group. We asked Jim to provide an update on the Vilas Park Master plan ahead of the public input on meeting on Nov 16 (see end of the post for details). Jim also started a petition to continue keeping Vilas Park Drive as a shared street closed to motor vehicles.
There is a lot for bicycle advocates to like about the final draft of the Vilas Park Master Plan, including a major reconstruction of Vilas Park Drive into a largely multi-use path, and an improved bike and pedestrian entrance on Drake Street. On the down side for motorless motion advocates, expanded parking lots are proposed near the entrance to the zoo and near Vilas Beach.
Community input to the plan has been underway since the first public meeting in June of 2019, and is expected to wrap up with approval of a final plan by the Board of Park Commissioners early next year. There are many issues at play in the draft plan – what I’ve selected here are what I believe to be of most interest to the Madison Bikes community.
The final draft design proposes to replace the main vehicle entrance at Drake and Randall with a separate pedestrian and bicycle gateway (“G” in graphic above, at a mysteriously-proposed new possible location of Annie Stewart Fountain). Car access would be relocated to a new entrance/exit on Drake opposite Campbell (lefthand “G”).
The parking lots in this area (“P”) would be greatly expanded. This has been a source of continuing contention among those who greatly value the green space that would be lost along South Randall, particularly nearby homeowners. The current drive and diagonal parking that exits to the Drake/Grant intersection (upper left corner above) to the west would be converted to a path with more adjacent green space.
For those of us who feel that motor vehicles have become overly dominant in our transportation planning and public spaces, perhaps the most positive aspect of the draft master plan is the proposal to reconstruct much of Vilas Park Drive into a multi-use path (“N” in the graphic below). This design option, which has received overwhelming community support, will restrict motor traffic from using a large segment of the shoreline, allowing motor vehicle access to the beach and the main park shelter only from the east.
The strong support for this design can be seen as one of the few good things to come out of the horrific Covid-19 pandemic. Prior to the motor vehicle restriction associated with the City’s Shared Streets program, 96% of all motor vehicle traffic along Vilas Park Drive was commuter and other pass-through traffic, amounting to more than 200 cars per hour during the afternoon commute. Over half of those vehicles were recorded as exceeding the speed limit of 25 mph, much too fast for a lane shared by walkers, runners, and bikers traveling in two directions.
The exclusion of pass-through motor vehicles resulted in a major transformation of this Vilas Park lakeshore area to a vibrant multi-generational public space for people with many interests and all abilities. There has been a dramatic increase in its use by pedestrians, bicyclists, and other park users, including small children riding scooters and bikes with training wheels; adults with walkers and canes; people with wheelchairs; and people hammocking, picnicking, and fishing along the Lake Wingra shoreline.
Although the final draft of the Vilas Park Master Plan proposes to permanently restrict motor vehicles from driving through the entirety of Vilas Park Drive, it will be at least 2024 until that design is implemented. Meanwhile, however, the Shared Streets program has been terminated for the year; and the City is considering opening up Vilas Park Drive to commuter and other through traffic this winter. The Board of Parks Commissioners will likely be taking this issue up at its December meeting, after it was referred to them by the Transportation Commission on Oct 28.
In response to this, many of us are advocating for keeping the current restriction on drive-through traffic until the proposed reconstruction can occur. Separate from the public input associated with the Master Plan process itself, we are distributing a petition asking the Parks Department to keep the current motor vehicle restriction on pass-through traffic on Vilas Park Drive during the upcoming winter months and until the Master Plan is eventually implemented.
Key points in support for this are:
- The pre-pandemic motor vehicle situation along Vilas Park Drive was untenable, endangering the safety of our community and deterring the use of the drive and adjacent park shoreline by park users. A decision to return to that situation now, after the demonstrated success of the current Shared Streets configuration, would be dangerous and irresponsible.
- It is important to have continuity in the restriction on cut-through motor vehicle traffic. As a result of the current barriers, motor vehicle commuters have found alternative routes; non-motorized park users are able to fully utilize the park and Lake Wingra shoreline area in myriad ways that are comfortable and more enjoyable than ever before.
- While park usage (including bicycle and pedestrian traffic) does drop significantly in winter weather, many people continue to use the area in a variety of ways, especially on nicer winter days and in early spring. Younger children, older people, and people with disabilities will be the first to stop using the drive and adjacent shoreline if commuter and other pass-through motor vehicles are allowed again.
- Motor access to the shoreline and the ice skating shelter can occur without allowing pass-through motor vehicle traffic along Vilas Park Drive. There are alternatives and accommodation options available that could be implemented easily and without great expense. For example, relocating the eastern barrier further west would allow more convenient access to the shelter (to the lot by the boat landing or even to the shelter lot itself).
- While there may be minor challenges in accommodating all of this, these are not serious obstacles that justify allowing cut-through motor vehicles into the park.
With regard to the larger process for finalizing the Master Plan, the Vilas Park Master Plan website, in addition to link to the final draft plan, has useful links to an explanation of the decisions that were made, and answers to questions from an October 15 meeting of the Resident Resource Group and Community Partners Advisory Committee Meeting.
The Parks Division and its consultants will hold a community input meeting via Zoom at 6:00-7:30 pm on Monday, November 16. Here is the agenda for the meeting, and you can register here. (Pre-registration is required.