* This article was originally written by Isaac Yu of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
A recent #VisionZero member, #Milwaukee is utilizing #streetdesign strategies including rapid implementation projects, road diets, roundabouts and bike infrastructure. Here’s how these strategies are making a difference –
Milwaukee’s roads are unsafe. Ask residents, elected officials, business owners, police officers, community leaders and even kids — all will have a story to tell about the reckless driving they’ve seen, the headlines they’ve read and the infamous “Milwaukee slide.”
A record 107 people were killed on city streets in 2020, followed by 87 deaths in 2021 and at least 40 so far this year.
Among the most talked-about solutions is ramping up police enforcement. MPD is now towing unregistered vehicles involved in reckless driving, and the city launched an unusual lawsuit last month hoping to make an example out of a repeat reckless driving offender. And at least three special efforts have been launched since 2018 to step up citations and enforcement.
But there’s another, less flashy way the city is trying to bring safety to its streets: changing the streets themselves.
It’s subtle. You might see some additional construction in your neighborhood, but the work is otherwise fairly unassuming. A new walk sign here, some paint there, maybe a roundabout or two.
Bit by bit, street by street, engineers and transportation planners are giving Milwaukee a design facelift, trying to influence driver behavior without the drivers really noticing. They are using both old and new tricks in the design toolbox, hoping to further the city’s “Vision Zero” safety goal of zero traffic deaths.
Here are four street design strategies Milwaukee is already deploying.
Rapid implementation projects
They’re a mouthful to describe, but rapid implementation is one of the more immediate — and low-cost — fixes to a dangerous intersection. Often called “paint-and-post” projects, the Department of Public Works can put down bright pavement marking and use posts to construct wider curbs and pedestrian islands. In some cities, painted roads have also doubled as public art.
“Rapid implementation provides immediate safety improvements while allowing us to test out new ideas before more permanent concrete changes are constructed,” interim DPW commissioner Jerrel Kruschke wrote in a news release.
A “pinned” curb extension creates a slightly more permanent alternative to posts and is similarly cost-effective.
This strategy simultaneously gives pedestrians more space to walk and decreases the space drivers have to maneuver through, which results in slower speeds.
Just last month, DPW announced a list of 30 intersections that will receive this treatment.
Perpetrators of the “Milwaukee slide” — the description on social media of drivers who use bike or parking lanes to pass cars on the right — might find their options limited by a road diet. This strategy aims to reduce lane widths, or eliminate a lane of vehicle traffic altogether, with more parking or bike and bus lanes added in its place.
Road diets have been around for a while in Milwaukee, and the city just completed several along Oklahoma Avenue, Villard Avenue, King Drive and Van Buren Street. DPW touts reduced speeds, fewer crashes, and greater bike lane use at places where road diets have been used so far.
“We’ve been doing road diets — we’re trying to do more,” said Mike Amsden, a DPW multimodal transportation director. “Road diets have been used for many, many years and are proven to reduce crash frequency, speeds, and also helps prevent people from passing on the right.”
There aren’t any active road diets being constructed, a DPW spokesperson said. But they will be a tool in the $19 million box being poured into street safety this year.
Roundabouts and traffic circles
No, they aren’t exactly the same. Roundabouts and traffic circles look similar, but roundabouts have dedicated channels for entering intersections, making them more suited to high-traffic urban areas. Traffic circles, meanwhile, are more common in slower residential zones.
Roundabouts have produced lots of controversy over the last decade because they are unpopular with drivers (and sometimes, legislators). But while they might not reduce crashes down to zero, both traffic circles and roundabouts can help decrease the severity of those crashes. So traffic engineers and insurance companies are fans, even if drivers are not.
“They eliminate the potential for the most severe types of crashes — a head-on crash across the centerline, the potential for a T-bone crash,” Amsden said.
One of the city’s latest additions is a traffic circle on Galena Street, part of its Active Streets program that partners with various community organizations to strengthen the nearby walking environment.
Vehicle drivers aren’t the only ones on wheels who stand to benefit. The nationwide spike in traffic-related fatalities has caused cities nationwide, including Milwaukee, to invest more in bike infrastructure.
Becher Street is the newest example of that. After the street was torn up and reconstructed, the city added a raised bike lane that is at sidewalk level, fully separated from car traffic.
“We hear time and time again that people want to be able to ride a bike safely and comfortably, and to do so for much more than just recreational purposes,” Amsden said. “Numerous studies around the country showed that providing separate space for people to ride reduce crashes, and gets a broader spectrum of folks out riding.”
In the short term, new bike lanes can be added with pavement paint and posts in the same vein as rapid implementation projects. Street parking spaces can be used to create a buffer between bike and car lanes. This strategy is already being used outside of City Hall on Kilbourn Avenue.