Small-Town Transportation

November 24, 2012 at 6:29 pm

Spending the first 19 years of my life in a small town has given me a wide perspective of the continuum of American human settlement patterns, ranging from my family home in a rural setting to the dense, urban environment I live in now. I was 17 the first time I ever wrote up a proposal that I thought would someday solve a urban planning issue in my hometown.

I grew up in Lake Geneva, WI, a town of about 8,000 which is just 64 miles (as the crow flies), or about 80 miles if you drive, from Chicago. If you’re like me and take the Metra to Fox Lake and get picked up for the rest of the journey, it takes around 2 hours (it takes about 90-120 minutes driving). If you’re from Chicago or the suburbs, you’ve most likely heard of it – it’s a popular weekend destination in the summer (and the locals have a very affectionate term for visitors from Illinois – FIBs – and you can figure out what it means yourself). I don’t know exactly how to classify Lake Geneva. It isn’t a suburb, since it doesn’t border any other municipalities and it doesn’t really belong to the Milwaukee metropolitan area, nor Chicago’s. It also isn’t an exurb or “commuter town” or “bedroom community,” since many of the residents do work nearby. It is probably best classified as a “resort town,” since the local economy is very focused on hospitality and visitors.

For the Thanksgiving holiday I was in Lake Geneva to see some family and friends, but never wanting to miss an opportunity to compare how cities are formed and the transportation options they offer their residents, I made sure to take a few photos of some interesting features. I remember when I was in high school and some bike paths were being built. Here is an outdated map from the City’s website:

Credit: City of Lake Geneva, WI.

You can’t tell from the map, but the paths do hit some key community areas: the high/middle schools (large buildings at the bottom), the CBD (end of the blue lines at the left), and the big-box stores that serve local residents (near the highway interchange).

Yes, there are bike routes out here! Credit: Shaun Jacobsen.

Part of the multi-use trails. Credit: Shaun Jacobsen.

Part of the multi-use trails near the middle school. Credit: Shaun Jacobsen.

Multi-use trail next to townhomes at the edge of the city. Credit: Shaun Jacobsen.

The trail runs adjacent to the big-box stores, too. Credit: Shaun Jacobsen.

The trails aren’t paved everywhere (but they are for the most part). Credit: Shaun Jacobsen.

The trail that runs at a ~45° angle in the map above used to be railroad; the history is displayed on a sign along the trail:

Lake Geneva Railroad History. Photo credit: Shaun Jacobsen.

I was curious about the history of the railroad but didn’t have a lot of time left before coming back to Chicago to go looking for it. From what I found on the Internet (and the Flickr image below), it used to be a commuter line:

C&NW commuter trains in Lake Geneva, April 1975. Credit: Mark Llanuza/Flickr.

It would be great if a Metra line extended into Lake Geneva today. So many visitors come from Chicago and the Chicagoland area, so traffic in the busiest months would be reduced (and therefore emissions as well). Traffic congestion is surprisingly a pretty big issue in the summer months. I remember the special back roads I’d have to take in my car just to get to work in the summer because the roads were so congested, as well as having to park many blocks away because there wasn’t enough parking. One of my first urban planning ideas (and probably why I ended up wanting to work in the field) was a market pricing strategy for downtown parking and a parking garage at the edge of town, where a free shuttle would take visitors into the downtown area, therefore alleviating summer traffic congestion. This was actually offered recently, albeit with an existing parking lot and only on certain summer weekends. The large high school parking lot, unoccupied during the summer, could also be used:

Badger High School parking lot, Lake Geneva. Credit: Shaun Jacobsen.

Unfortunately, much of the land planning still ignores pedestrians:

No sidewalks on many streets, even this one just a few blocks from the middle and high schools. Credit: Shaun Jacobsen.

Then again, the downtown area is following some recent trends:

Painted pedestrian crosswalk downtown. Credit: Shaun Jacobsen.

It really just depends on where you are. I noticed some people walking along the side of the road in the areas that didn’t have sidewalks; the traffic in those areas is so low anyway that I doubt it is very dangerous to walk along the road in the first place (but that is not an excuse for City Hall to ignore pedestrian facilities).

Overall I was impressed with the multi-use paths, as they look to provide a great outdoor place to exercise or take a walk (which seems to be their primary function, instead of providing transportation for shopping, work, or school). Even with the two schools directly adjacent to the paths, I can’t remember anyone using them to walk home. The other recreational multi-use paths in the neighboring communities are nice as well, but most likely purely for recreation:

The community is still very auto-centric; everybody drives, whether it’s those living close to the downtown (because it has very few quotidian necessities for locals), or those living close to the big-box stores (which provide quotidian necessities for locals), simply because it’s too easy to drive.

So while the community and its neighbors are auto-centric, requiring driving many miles just to get the basics, Lake Geneva has tried to provide amenities for recreational biking or walking. I don’t believe that adding sidewalks where they don’t exist or painting bike lanes would really do much to reduce the amount of driving because auto-centrism is a symptom of decades of bad government decisions that aren’t easy to fix with concrete or paint. And, of course:

Free parking!!!