Saturday, August 05, 2006

Big cities don't need big roads.

Milwaukee loves its big streets.

The little downtown street where I sometimes park runs for only 3 blocks, ending at the Performing Arts Center on one end and the new McKinley Avenue on the other. Yet it's wide enough for parking on both sides and at least 3 lanes of traffic. Why's it gotta be so huge?

McKinley Avenue is an egregious offender in this regard -- and doubley so because of its origins. It sprang up to replace the demolished Park East Freeway, a reduntant, dead-end highway that was blissfully removed in 2002. Milwaukee's then-mayor John Norquist saw the grand urban opportunity presented by freeing up a 16-acre chunk of land right next to downtown, and after some years of effort was able to get taken out. The plan is to turn this land into a continuation of downtown's urban, pedestrian-friendly environment.

Why, then, the first step was to run in a freeway-width "avenue" is somewhat baffling. When it meets Water Street -- Milwaukee's biggest bar district -- it is 6 lanes wide. Cars fresh off the highways, reacting naturally to the preponderance of space, come roaring in from the west at fifty or more miles per hour. Woe betide the pedestrian who must cross this vast gulf of concrete. You better run fast!

Let me reiterate a fact in that last paragraph: drivers will set their own speed not based on posted speed limits, but on how fast they feel they can safely drive. Build a wider road, and you will get faster traffic. Line a road with parallel parking and a bike lane, and you will get slower traffic.

Another oddly wide street is the short stretch of North Avenue between the reservoir and the river, just west of the East Side. For some reason, after a lengthy run as a mostly 1-lane road runnning through a dense residential area, the road widens to two lanes just west of Humbolt. Then it widens still further as it runs down the hill and across the river:

Drivers, of course, go roaring down the hill at near-freeway speeds.... only to abruptly hit the breaks after crossing the river, where the road (back down to one lane) is narrowed by a traffic-calming island, forcing drivers to slow down to more pedestrian friendly speeds as they enter North Ave's busy bar district.

Why they didn't just make a left turn lane at Humbolt and keep the road at one lane with parking is beyond me.

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