Transitizing Prospect Avenue in Milwaukee

November 13, 2012 at 9:22 pm

Something I enjoy writing about is how we can better design our streets to be more human-scale and inviting for all users, whether it be pedestrians, people on bikes, people on buses or trams, or people in personal vehicles. I believe that certain modes should be prioritized and incentivized, however, because they are inherently energy efficient, inexpensive, good for health, and safe – characteristics of walking, biking, or taking public transportation. I also recognize the indispensability of personal vehicles for some uses (and of course, short-range freight transportation via truck).

I spent this weekend in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, where I went to school for my undergraduate degree. I spent the majority of my time on The East Side, which is where the University is located and I lived for the 3 years I was in school. The East Side is a great, dense neighborhood with a wide variety of people and uses. I would say the main arteries are Oakland Ave (north-south) and North Ave (east-west), with North Ave having the principal shopping, retail, and entertainment district.

I spent a good chunk of the weekend reading Fighting Traffic at Alterra coffee on Prospect Ave, which also gave me a lot of time to observe the traffic on Prospect Ave. It was a surprisingly nice weekend in terms of weather, so a lot of people were out. Something that’s always struck me as odd and became a reality when I was almost hit by a turning car is that Prospect Ave is a fast street. It’s a northbound one-way whose opposite-direction thoroughfare is a similarly-fast Farwell Ave, one block to the west. Both streets are two lanes with a significant buffer between parked cars and the travel lanes. While there are technically bike lanes, you can hardly see them any more – they’ve faded and were originally painted on some torn-up pieces of roadway. Most bikers would be smart to take an entire travel lane to avoid them.


Prospect Ave looking southbound from Ivanhoe Pl. in Milwaukee. Credit: Shaun Jacobsen.

The entire length of Prospect Ave’s one-way, two-lane roadway is about 1.2 miles. Often, drivers hit many green lights along the way in succession, leading to faster-moving vehicles and more dangerous streets. It’s a great thoroughfare between Milwaukee’s lakefront neighborhoods and important for the many students in the area, but it’s use is largely limited to vehicles.

Both Prospect Ave and Farwell Ave in Milwaukee should go on a road diet: The bike lanes should be buffered by the parking spaces (as most arterial streets should be). But what is interesting about this street is that it already has a traffic-calming device: curb bump-outs.

Prospect Ave and Ivanhoe Pl, Milwaukee. Credit: Google Maps.

You can see the curb bump-outs above. These bump-outs are supposed to shorten the length of the crosswalk, make pedestrians more visible to drivers, and make the street feel narrower, slowing drivers. But it really doesn’t work in practice. For 1/3 mile (5 blocks), there are no stop signs or signals to break up the traffic, which is almost always constant. This means that drivers have plenty of time to speed up to this area, which is full of shops, cafes, restaurants, bars, and housing. The low height of the buildings on both sides of the street and the large parking lots along some stretches widen the perceived width of the street and don’t do anything to slow drivers down.

What else needs to be done to Prospect Ave – and Farwell Ave – is bringing the parked cars in to the travel lanes and placing bike lanes in their place, creating a safer buffered bike lane and actually forcing drivers to slow down. All crosswalks should be raised and colored to make them more visible, and a stop sign should be placed at Kenilworth Place and Prospect Ave (and at Farwell Ave). These intersections are frequently crossed but drivers rarely stop for pedestrians, which is state law. Drivers turning left onto Prospect or right onto Farwell from Kenilworth Pl also have to wait for breaks in traffic. Delivery vehicles and university shuttles coming from Kenilworth Pl onto Prospect Ave should have the ability to turn onto Prospect Ave quickly and easily. Access to the Oak Leaf Trail, a wonderful multi-use path connecting the northern suburbs with downtown Milwaukee and the lakefront (and beyond), is provided on Kenilworth Pl and 2 blocks west on Oakland Ave. Access from bike lanes on Prospect and Farwell should be clearly marked and easily accessible.

For more express trips, drivers have Lincoln Memorial Drive. Access points are provided at Lafayette Pl (the last stoplight before North Ave 5 blocks away), North Ave, and further north on Kenwood Blvd. Since Prospect Ave and Farwell Ave are streets in dense, developing neighborhoods, they need to undergo change to reflect the new users of the street. Drivers should not be able to exceed 20 mph between Lafayette Pl and North Ave 5 blocks north. A simple stop sign at Kenilworth Pl and raised crosswalks at all crossings should make both streets safer.

Making this street safer and more open for all uses is almost important for the future of the Milwaukee Streetcar (future?) if it is ever extended up to the East Side and UWM. Turning these streets into complete streets would cause immediate change in traffic flow (but probably not capacity), making a transition to a fixed guideway on one lane easier and less drastic.

Prospect Ave and Farwell Ave are just one example of streets that need to be retrofitted for new uses. Oakland Ave and North Ave in the same neighborhood are other great examples of streets with very fast-moving traffic that should be slowed for everyone’s safety. In their desire to become a “bike-friendly city,” city transportation departments should focus less on just painting bike lanes and think about whether or not the current design of the street is conducive to all uses, bikes or otherwise. I hope that bike lanes buffered by parked cars catch on, as their safety benefits are far greater when compared against the traditional, vehicle lane–bike lane–parked design.

Milwaukee is among a class of Midwestern cities like Minneapolis and Cleveland which have both demonstrated dedication to transportation innovations like light rail, bus rapid transit, and bike sharing. Milwaukee lags behind even in basic features like enhanced bike lanes. It’s time to transitize Milwaukee and make its streets safer and more equitable for all uses.