Resistance From NW Side Residents Threatens Milwaukee Safety Overhaul

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Current conditions at Milwaukee and Manila.

Speaking at an Active Transportation Alliance gala back in 2011, founding director Randy Neufeld predicted that we’d see some major backlash to the mayor’s plan to build 100 miles of protected bike lanes. He asked the audience to see things from the perspective of residents whose streets would be reconfigured, using the metaphor of a stranger coming in and rehabbing your kitchen. “You’d ask, ‘Why is this happening, what are you going to do?’” he said. “Change is very hard.”

That resistance to change was evident at a rowdy community meeting last night on the Chicago Department of Transportation’s proposal for a road diet and protected bike lanes on two miles of Milwaukee between Lawrence and Elston on the Far Northwest Side. Explanations by CDOT engineers about how the five lane-to-three lane conversion could reduce crashes, make the street safer for walking and biking, and boost retail, were loudly ridiculed and booed by attendees, according to DNAinfo’s Heather Cherone. 45th Ward Alderman John Arena was forced to repeatedly call for order during the presentation, held at St. Tarcicuss Catholic School in Gladstone Park.

Milwaukee north of the Jefferson Park Transit Center is generally a five-lane speedway, with four travel lanes and a turn lane, plus conventional bike lanes or sharrows. According to CDOT, in the last five years there have been 970 crashes on this stretch, including one fatality and 17 serious injuries. The road diet would change the street to two travel lanes and a turn lane, plus PBLs, which could reduce crashes by 30 percent, CDOT’s Nate Roseberry said at the meeting.

Riding on Vincennes near 99th Street. Photo: John Greenfield

Similar road diets on Chicago Streets have already proven successful in reducing speeding. For example, last year the transportation department installed protected lanes on a broad stretch of Vincennes between 103rd and 84th, which often functioned as a de-facto four-lane street and was plagued by dangerous driving and crashes. The project reconfigured the street as two narrow, clearly defined travel lanes and a turn lane, plus the PBLs. After installation, average motor vehicle speeds between 7 and 8 a.m. dropped from 38 mph to 32 mph, the number of speeders was reduced from 624 to 390, and the number of vehicles going over 40 mph dropped from 192 to 54.

However, many people at the Milwaukee meeting said they want to maintain the car-centric status quo. “I like the neighborhood the way it is,” said longtime resident Susan Belcastro, drawing cheers and applause from the crowd, Cherone reported. “I like the way Milwaukee opens up after [the transit center.]”

“Traffic flows just fine in this area, and we love it,” said Rose Niedorezo, whose family runs Artorium, a private arts center for children in Jefferson Park. “One lane in each direction? I just don’t see how that can work.”

Residents check out a map of the project area. Photo: Heather Cherone, DNAinfo.

It’s understandable that neighbors might have concerns about a major change to a local thoroughfare, but the track record of similar redesigns doesn’t bear out their fears. Studies have shown that traffic moves just fine on two-lane streets with center turn lanes that see 20,000 or fewer motor vehicles per day, which is consistently the case on this stretch of Milwaukee. The road diet will likely have no negative impact on traffic flow. However, because there is currently too much capacity on Milwaukee north of Lawrence, speeding is encouraged, which results in the high crash rate.

As the engineers pointed out, by calming traffic, the road diet won’t just benefit people on bikes, but also pedestrians, transit users and drivers. The protected lanes will shorten crossing distances for peds, and the project will also include high-visibility, zebra-striped crosswalks, and possibly pedestrian refuge islands. At the meeting, local father Ryan Richter said he supports the reconfiguration because the many travel lanes and high-speed traffic make it dangerous for him to cross from his home to a nearby park with his young daughters.

By making walking and biking safer and more pleasant, the project is also likely to encourage more foot traffic. In other cities where travel lanes were converted to protected bike lanes, retail sales have increased after implementation For example, in 2007 a protected bike lane and pedestrian islands were installed, and a travel lane removed, on Ninth Avenue in Manhattan’s Chelsea neighborhood. Sales increased 49 percent over three years, outpacing both neighboring retail streets and the rest of the borough. However, when Roseberry mentioned this potential benefit, attendees shouted their disbelief and jeered at him.

The Ninth Avenue PBL in Chelsea. Photo: Streetsblog New York

Residents and merchants also objected to the possible removal of parking spots to improve sight lines for the protected lanes. However, as Richter pointed out in the comments section of the DNA piece, city parking counts show that the vast majority of spaces on this stretch Milwaukee are used less than 50 percent of the time, and no spaces are used more than 85 percent of the time.

Other features of the project could include new pavement, traffic signal coordination to facilitate vehicle flow, and redesigned bus stops that will make it easier to pick up passengers without blocking traffic. An additional community meeting will be held this spring, with construction starting in late 2014 or early 2015, Roseberry said.

As Neufeld said, change can be scary. However, this project to improve safety, livability and commerce along the corridor, which will benefit locals as well as others who travel on Milwaukee, shouldn’t be deep-sixed in order to the maintain current conditions, which are dangerous for all road users.

  • duppie

    Clark in Andersonville (that’s your ward) got restriped this summer without any other street improvements.

  • duppie

    No kidding. I am waiting for the announcement that that store will be closed.

    But that has nothing to do with the road diet. it has been a dump since I moved into the neighborhood 15 years ago.
    Got any examples related to the road diet?

  • Brian

    Yes, if it’s safe to proceed, and there are no cops or cameras around, I’m going to go. I’m not going to get stuck behind a bunch of non-synchronized lights when there is very little (if any) traffic. A good example would be downtown at 2 am.

  • Brian

    The article mentioned they “could” be a part of the design. “Could” and “Will” have two different meanings.

  • tooter turtle

    As a long-distance car commuter who travels on lots of roads like Milwaukee, I have learned that high speeds and more lanes do not improve travel times. My average driving speed is only about 15 mph, even though the speed limit on much of my route is 40 mph or more. We go fast (which is dangerous) between traffic signals, then sit forever at each red light (which is boring, and encourages drivers to play with phones, etc., rather than watching the road). It would be much safer (for drivers, bikers and pedestrians), and less boring, to drive more steadily at a lower speed – and I would get home just as quickly. That’s what a road diet means to me.

  • Wewilliewinkleman

    So nearly hitting a reckless biker, should that be considered violence on the part of the biker?

    Last week I come to a full stop at a stop sign going west bound. Another car comes to a full stop on my right going southbound at the same intersection shortly after my car. The other car came to a full stop and yielded. I begin to proceed thru the intersection. A biker rides up along side of the southbound car on it’s right side which I could not see and blows thru the intersection without stopping. I hit my brakes and controlled my car. If this guy had come flying thru my windshield, would you call this violence on the part of the biker? Or just stupidity?

    There are plenty of reckless bikers in this city. And people are tired of it. And they do not see these so called transit advocacy groups doing anything to encourage safe and lawful biking. But they are quick to tar drivers as violent.

  • Adam Herstein

    Your example is simply an anecdote and does not reflect actual data. For every “reckless biker” out there, there are 50 safe bikers. There are also just as many if not more reckless drivers in this city.

    The consequences of reckless driving are far more dire than reckless biking. I’m not defending people who choose to ride a bike in a reckless manner, but those who do likely are only putting themselves in danger. People who drive recklessly are putting themselves and innocent bystanders in danger. Look at the data and compare how many people are injured and killed by people driving cars with people riding bikes. The numbers tip far in the car side – in fact ZERO people were killed by “reckless bikers” last year in Chicago. How many people were killed by “reckless drivers”?

    One way to get people riding bikes to not be reckless is to build out cycle-specific infrastructure. The data show that when you give people riding bikes their own space, they are far more likely to obey traffic signals. They also help get people out of the line of fire, so to speak, and reduce conflicts between bike and car traffic.

  • Wewilliewinkleman

    Take a ride down Ashland Avenue to Fullerton. Probably 80% of the cross walk striping is missing. Yes there are some intersectons that are fully striped. The majority, even at light controlled intersections are gone. CDOT knows this. And if CDOT doesn’t, their idiots. The intersection at Ashland and Barry is hardly there, and there is a public school on the corner.

    I drive all over the city. The state of the cross walks is awful.

  • Adam Herstein

    Agreed that there are too many faded crosswalks in this city. This is something that CDOT needs to get on top of.

  • Wewilliewinkleman

    It may be an anecdote, but it scared the bejebbers out of me. The stupid things I see bikers do far exceed the what I see autos do. With the auto traffic in this city, if one in 5000 cars were doing the things I see bikers do, there would be pile ups at every intersection.

    Sometimes I wonder only thru the grace of god there are their not more bike vs car accidents. And that’s because the majority of drivers are not violent and are are cautious. You can build all the infrastructure you want. However when bike riders choose to flaunt basic traffic laws calling for them to come to a complete stop or not riding on the wrong side of the street its the auto driver that will be blamed.

    I’m more than willing to share the road and be cautious and so are the majority of drivers. However, when a biker that has little or no protection takes huge risks so they can save a few minutes on their ride should stop and consider the consequences.

  • Wewilliewinkleman

    Ahh, beautiful Andersonville. A good deal of the 48th ward’s money gets spent there on beautification and pet projects up in A’ville. But do you think we could get the intersection of Broadway and Berwyn (at the Red Line) get restriped?

    It took 5 years of carping and complaining to both Smith and Osterman to get a traffic light installed at Balmoral and Broadway (instigated by the block clubs and neighborhood associations not out of the largess of the aldermens’ offices). The northwest corner of Balmoral and Broadway has a playlot on it. Oh by the way, Gabe Kaplan came out and took a bow with Osterman when the traffic light was finally up running. But no one from the block club who fought the hardest for the light was invited to the ceremony. Guess that’s how things work.

  • duppie

    I agree that John’s assessment of Peterman is overly optimistic. Osterman talks a good talk, but I have seen very little in regards to sustainable transportation.

  • Really, the star of “Welcome Back Kotter” showed up?

  • kastigar

    How can you synchronize the lights in both directions? You can only do it in one direction.
    At one time (maybe still) the lights on LaSalle St. from North Ave to downtown were synchronized going south in the morning and changed to going north in the evening. If you were going the other way it was a real buzz-saw trying to drive against the sync.

  • Brian S.

    So, how many people per year do reckless bikers kill, in comparison to reckless drivers?

  • Brian S.

    Even if the temperament of a driver isn’t violent, when that same driver kills or critically injures someone with his her car, it is still violence.

    An act of violence caused not by a violent temperament, but because of carelessness.

  • Bike 45th Ward

    Please sign this petition showing your support of improving safety for all roadway users in the Northwest side!

  • FG

    I’m actually surprised – back when we had the CTA Doomsday I was one of his constituents and I remember nary a word on it nor did he, at the time, have a website to share that information.


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