Milwaukee Streets Extreme Makeover Adds Bike Lanes Across City

Leveraging its High-Impact Paving Program, the City of Milwaukee is rapidly adding new buffered bike lanes and replacing existing worn bike lanes and cross walks on major streets across the city. The program was started in 2013 to try to stretch existing maintenance funding after years of State cuts to local shared revenue, and seeks to make quick, relatively low-cost repairs to roadways in dire need of resurfacing.

It generally involves milling a couple inches off the existing damaged asphalt surface and adding a new layer of asphalt and pavement markings. The projects do not repair curb and gutter or sidewalks as would be done in a typical full reconstruct project. The repairs are hoped to last 7-10 years, and the City has been able to resurface more than 60 miles of streets with the HIPP, probably more than they could have done with full reconstruction projects had the State not cut their shared revenue. Of those 60 miles,  approximately 25% were local (residential or side) streets. In 2017 DPW plans to complete approximately 24 miles of streets with the HIPP, of which 8 miles will be local. Thanks to the High-Impact Paving Program and to the City’s slow increases in DPW’s capital budget, Milwaukee has reduced the average replacement cycle for roads from 163 years(you read that correctly!) in 2004 down to 58 years. Given a street should last 25-60 years, depending on if it is constructed with asphalt or concrete, that is about where we should be.

A view from the Rockwell Clock Tower of the buffered lanes on 2nd installed with the High Impact Paving Program.

When an arterial street is resurfaced as part of the rapid fix program, the City evaluates current traffic volumes and is able to make some geometric updates if needed using the new pavement marking patterns. For instance, in many cases these roadways were widened decades ago to serve our then growing traffic volumes during Milwaukee’s industrial heyday when thousands of factory workers began driving to work in large factories. Those big peak-hour traffic volumes required the City to widen many of our historic boulevards and streets.

Unfortunately, this happens. People use the new buffered bike lanes on Roosevelt to speed and pass people on the right. The solution is protected lanes.

Since most of those factories are no longer open, the streets have more travel lanes than they need, which encourages speeding. If those streets were repaired with a more expensive full-reconstruction project, the entire roadway might be narrowed by moving the curbs in. That is what was done on S. 2nd Street by Rockwell and north of National Avenue. When the street was reconstructed the sidewalk areas were widened and bike lanes were added where the now-unneeded motor vehicle travel lane was added years ago. This process is commonly called a “road diet” now and is happening in other cities across the country.

Roosevelt Boulevard is a good example of a street that went on a road diet as part of the more limited High-Impact Paving Program. Last year Roosevelt went from four motor vehicle travel lanes and two parking lanes to two motor vehicle travel lanes, buffered bike lanes and parking lanes. The new pavement marking geometrics still provide adequate capacity to manage peak-hour traffic volumes, and they reduce the feeling that people are driving on a freeway and can go 50 mph.

The only downside is some scofflaws use the buffered bike lanes like they are still a motor vehicle travel lane to speed pass on the right. If the street was resurfaced as part of a normal full reconstruct, DPW might have added curb extensions or installed plastic bollards in the buffered area and moved the bike lane between the parked cars and curb to create a truly protected bike lane like those you find in Chicago, Minneapolis and most other major cities.

The curb protected bike lane on Clybourn Street in Chicago. (photo by Abel Uribe, Chicago Tribune)

Minneapolis is on track to have 44 miles of protected bike lanes and Chicago now has more than 100 miles of protected bike lanes, with many new projects being curb-protected bike lanes. Milwaukee currently only has one protected lane on Bay Street. The quick-fix HIPP understandably doesn’t have funds for those higher level bicycle improvements, but now that the City has caught up with street repairs, it would make sense to begin budgeting to add protected bike lanes like our peer cities.

The protected bike lane on 11th Avenue South in Minneapolis. Not car parking is in between the motor vehicle travel lane and the bike lane in both instances. (photo Minneapolis Start and Tribune)

The other bike projects done this year are listed below. The list was handed out at the Bicycle and Pedestrian Task Force, held a couple weeks ago on Friday, October 21st. Kristin Bennett, the City of Milwaukee Bicycle and Pedestrian Program Manger, updated those in attendance with a detailed list of project improvements done to date this year  The complete project updates list can be read here, but the list below shows the new bike lane locations added with the city’s annual high-impact paving program:

  • N. 6th/7th/Halyard (Walnut to North) – removed one travel lane in each direction for new standard and buffered bicycle lanes.
  • S. 16th Street (Windlake to Oklahoma) – removed one travel lane in each direction and added new buffered bike lanes and intersection turn lane improvements. No change to on-street parking.
  • N. 51st Blvd (Lincoln Creek Bridge to Hampton) – removed one travel lane in each direction and added new bicycle lanes. No change to on-street parking.
  • N. Atkinson St. (Keefe to Capitol) – removed one travel lane in each direction and added new bicycle lanes plus a continuous center turn lane. No change to on-street parking.
  • W. Center Street (N. 20th to 27th) – replaced existing bicycle lanes with minor modifications
  • W. Grange Avenue (S. Howell to S. 6th) – removed one travel lane in each direction, replacing them with buffered bike lanes.
  • N. Jefferson Street (St. Paul to Erie) – added new bicycle lanes, no changes to parking or travel lanes
  • W. Lincoln Avenue (S. 16th to Layton/27th) – replaced existing bicycle lanes with minor modifications
  • W. Morgan Avenue (Forest Home to S. 68th) – replaced existing bicycle lanes with minor modifications
  • N. Oakland Avenue (Edgewood to Park Place) – replaced existing bicycle lanes with the addition of green bike lane markings on southbound Oakland at Locust Street (right turn lane)
  • W. Oklahoma Avenue (S. Chase to S. 6th) – added new bicycle lanes, on-street parking removed
  • W. Roosevelt Drive (Fond Du Lac to N. 36th) – removed one travel lane in each direction, replaced with buffered bicycle lanes and wider parallel parking lanes

You can read the complete project update from the City by clicking on the thumbnail image to the right. While the majority of projects have been progressing, the City has fallen behind schedule on some long anticipated projects. Perhaps most notable is the Transportation Alternatives Program grant to hire a consultant to create a pedestrian plan for the City of Milwaukee. That grant only has a four year life cycle, has progressed so slowly that the City has had to request access to the grant funds again.

The City is making good progress on the pedestrian despite the lack of a formal plan. As the list to the right details, there have been many new crosswalk call buttons added. Not listed, but significant, the City recently constructed a raised intersection near the Bike Fed’s Milwaukee office at S. 37 and W. Pierce Streets. The raised intersection was installed to improve safety at the busy crosswalks by the ramp to the Menomonee Valley Passage to the Hank Aaron State Trail. The number of people walking and bicycling in the area has skyrocketed there since the opening of the Urban Ecology Center, La Esquela Verde, and the Bike Fed office. There is a lot of speeding on Pierce Street (AKA “The Polish Highway”), so the neighbors have been asking for traffic calming. This is the first step at the busiest intersection.

It is hard to see, but if you look to the right, you can tell there is no vertical curb face past the curb ramp detectable warning fields at the edge of the crosswalk.

This photo shows how the road surface rides up to meet the top of the curb.

If you read thought the PDF of the report linked above, you will see “no significant activity on this project due to staff medical leave” under a few other grant projects. The slow progress on existing grants was mostly because the Kristin Bennett was hit by a car on Water Street while riding home from work. The crash was serious and her injuries forced her to miss quite a bit of work. The good news is she is doing much better and is back at work.

Aside from the staff medical leave this year, City staff have got quite a bit accomplished if you look at all the new bike lanes. After his Bike to Work with the Mayor ride last June Bike Week, Mayor Barrett announced the City of Milwaukee was forming a group to recommend projects and policies to get Milwaukee a Platinum Bicycle Friendly Community rating from the League of American Bicyclists. We applaud that commitment, but look forward to the first new protected bike lanes, neighborhood greenways network (sometimes called bicycle boulevards, or safe streets) or other next generation bicycle facility to encourage more people to ride in Milwaukee.

While adding more buffered and traditional bike lanes is definitely a step in the right direction, no City can go Platinum without protected bike lanes (we have one on Bay Street) and a network of safe streets, and other next generation bicycle facilities from the NACTO guide. If we really do want to make Milwaukee a better city for cycling, the path is clear. We only have to look at the NACTO guide and what other big cities in the US have been doing for the last 5-10 years.

As a still-proud son of Milwaukee and a lifetime supporter of the 414, I appreciate that while Milwaukee has a lot of good things going, our City faces very significant problems, most of which have no easy solutions. Even with all the competing demands, we believe that is all the more reason to double down on cycling. Bicycling is a simple, inexpensive and proven solution to many complicated problems our Milwaukee faces today.

What can you do to help move Milwaukee closer to Platinum? Take a moment to call or email your alderperson and the Mayor to and tell them why you think bicycling is a simple, cost-effective way to make Milwaukee an even better place to live, work, and do business for all of our residents. Our elected officials tell us they hear about trash pick-up, taxes, snow plowing and crime all the time. If we want to move cycling further up their priority list, we have to speak up. When is the last time you contacted any of your elected representatives?  If it has been more than a year, it is time to reach out.

You can also provide your input to improve bicycling and safer streets throughout Milwaukee by taking this survey from the Path to Platinum Committee, a group of people and one Bike Fed staff member working to advise the City on how to get the Platinum rating.

About Dave Schlabowske, Deputy Director

Dave was the first full-time staff member hired to open the Bike Fed's Milwaukee office 15 years ago. A former professional photographer and life-long Milwaukee resident, Dave likes wool, long rides, sour beer, and a good polar vortex once in a while.

4 thoughts on “Milwaukee Streets Extreme Makeover Adds Bike Lanes Across City

  1. These “protected bike lanes” sound great except at every intersection and wherever there are parked cars. If one is riding in the lane pictured as 11th Ave in Minneapolis, one is now in danger of being doored from the left. No one is trained to look for approaching traffic when getting out of the passenger side of a car parked at the right of the roadway.
    No one is trained to look for traffic traveling to the right of parked cars and going straight (see same picture) – nor could they see that bike even if they were trained. If riding a bike in that lane and planning to turn left, does one have to stop, dismount, and cross as a pedestrian before remounting? Once certainly can’t cross safely between parked cars or jump two curbs (per the Clybourn St picture) to get to the left lane for a turn.
    This looks like a plan to trade one problem for a worse one, by instilling a false sense of security in bicyclists who now look to be even more at risk when in a so-called protected lane.

    • Excellent point to raise about the conflict zones at intersections Steve. Most crashes do happen at intersections, so protected bike lanes have special treatments to address those conflicts at the mixing zones. The treatments vary from simply moving the bike lane out next to the motor vehicle travel lane as they approach the intersection, to using “protected intersection” treatments. Protected intersection treatments are a bit new in the US, but are more common in Europe. There are also different signal phases for bicycles and turning traffic as protected bike lanes approach signalized intersections. Like any traffic safety problem, the devil is in the details of specific locations.

      The US has had these protected bike lanes in major cities like New York and Washington, D.C, for more than a decade now. In every situation I am aware of, crashes for all modes go down after the protected lanes are installed. That includes motor vehicle to motor vehicle crashes and those involving people walking and bicycling. Washington, D.C, and Chicago have a done a number of very comprehensive before and after traffic safety studies of protected bike lanes.

      I reviewed some of them in this blog post back in 2014, but a quick google search will find more as many other cities have protected lanes. In general, protected bike lanes get lots more people riding and improve safety for all road users. Kind of a rare traffic safety silver bullet.

  2. As a resident of Sherman Park, near the Roosevelt bike lanes, I can attest that until driver behavior changes, the bike lanes will merely be window dressing, not useful bike infrastructure. I’m not sure that adding protected lanes would even solve the problem, as drivers would probably still disregard rumble strips, and maybe even plastic bollards. After all, there’s a four way stop sign on Roosevelt, in a residential neighborhood, that is routinely and flagrantly disregarded by drivers going well above the speed limit. This casual disregard of the most basic rules of the road discourages people from biking and walking, and even discourages people from driving. I’ve been in neighborhood meetings where people express a fear of simply driving to the store, since things seem to have gotten so out of control.

    In many low-income communities and communities of color, bike lanes are often looked at as agents of gentrification, as trying to make neighborhoods superficially more attractive in order to attract more well-heeled residents and raise property values. Ironically, the presence of bike lanes like Roosevelt, that everyone perceives as window dressing, only serve to further this perception. After all, having been at the table when neighborhood groups were pushing for the bike lanes on Roosevelt, I can attest that the main argument presented for the bike lanes was that they would raise property values. People literally said they wanted bike lanes in the neighborhood because the East Side and Bay View had them and they would raise property values. Now we have nice bike lanes that no one uses, and the actual problem, which is driver behavior, is left unaddressed. And we wonder why many would see the bike lanes as agents of gentrification?

    The root problem isn’t a lack of infrastructure. The problem is the choices many of us make while we’re driving cars. We can engineer better driver behavior to a point, but at some point we need law enforcement to enforce laws that are on the books.

    I’ve been biking regularly in the city of Milwaukee for 10 years, and the experience has gotten progressively worse. This despite the proliferation of bike lanes and bike paths. It’s gotten worse because driver behavior has gotten worse. Until drivers are forced to make more responsible choices, through better law enforcement, average people will be discouraged from riding bikes in the city, no matter how many bike lanes are striped across the city.

    In many cities around the world, including developing countries that have major infrastructure and law enforcement challenges, special police forces are set up to only deal with traffic infractions. These police units are funded through the tickets they collect, and, since they are dedicated to only enforcing traffic laws, they can’t be pulled away by other matters. I’ve personally seen the use of these kinds of police in Guatemala City make a major difference in calming traffic down and making things safer, thus improving the quality of life for all.

    Why can’t we explore something similar for our city?

    • Thanks for the comment Dave. I can promise you that if true protected lanes were installed on Roosevelt, people would not drive in them. Driver behavior in Chicago is no better than Milwaukee, and the flexible plastic bollards work fine. Obviously concrete curb barriers would work better at keeping cars from the bike lane in cases where a car is out of control, but the bollards are much less expensive and work fine as a first step.

      It is my understanding that in order to take revenue from traffic tickets and use the money for something else, we would have to change state law. We considered that to help fund traffic calming. Why not make people who speed pay for neighborhood speed humps instead of the residents who just want their kids to be able to play outside? Our police budget is already stretched, as I am sure you are aware. It would take a new revenue source to hire more officers to just monitor traffic violations. In the long term, infrastructure is much less expensive than enforcement.

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