Narrow streets continue to drive debate among officials

Port alderwoman raps philosophy but official says it has made city safer
By 
KRISTYN HALBIG ZIEHM
Ozaukee Press staff

Port Washington’s policy of narrowing streets when it rebuilds them, which has been in effect for the last 20 years, came under fire last week from Ald. Deb Postl, who said she fears it is sending bicyclists onto the city sidewalks.

Bikers, she said, don’t feel safe riding on the narrow roads.

“I see more and more bicycles on sidewalks,” Postl said. “I think that is causing a safety issue in the city. I think the narrowing of the streets needs to be reviewed.”

Bicyclists not only don’t feel safe on the streets, she said, they are causing problems for pedestrians using the sidewalks.

But Public Works Director Rob Vanden Noven said that the narrower streets have been effective in slowing traffic and making the city’s roads safer for motorists and pedestrians.

“I don’t see that impacting the feeling of safety a bicyclist would have,” he said.

People driving on narrower streets are more likely to see bicyclists and pedestrians, Vanden Noven said, and are driving slower so there is less risk of accidents. 

Narrower roads make drivers feel like they need to slow down, shortens the distance pedestrians need to traverse when crossing the street and increases the green space in which trees are grown and snow is stored in winter.

“It not only calms traffic, but you have greater separation between pedestrians and traffic,” Vanden Noven said. “Where you have no terrace, it can be uncomfortable for people to walk, especially people with young kids.”

It’s also less costly, he said, noting it can cut construction costs by 3%.

The streets that are narrowed generally have a low volume of traffic, carrying between 100 and 200 vehicles a day, Vanden Noven added.

The difference narrowing a street can make may be best illustrated by looking at two of the city’s main  streets — Franklin Street, which was narrowed when it was rebuilt in 2008, and South Spring Street, which was widened when it was rebuilt.

Vanden Noven said when he began working for the city, pedestrian safety in downtown was a major concern for officials and business owners. 

Narrowing the street, adding bump outs and decorative brick crosswalks not only helped alleviate that concern, he said, it allowed the city to flatten the sidewalks and add amenities such as trees, planters and benches to beautify the area. 

“That would have been impossible without narrowing the street,” Vanden Noven said. “They allowed us to further separate pedestrians from parked cars and traffic. It allows people to enjoy what the businesses downtown have to offer.

“I would say it met our goals.”

While Franklin Street is now 42 feet wide with parking on both sides, South Spring Street was built as a 46-foot-wide road with little parking.

“You don’t feel the need to slow down,” Vanden Noven said. “People fly by. It’s one of our widest streets.”

Vanden Noven, who was not working for the city when Spring Street was rebuilt, said officials at the time unsuccessfully fought the DOT to try and narrow the roadway.

Officials remembered that lesson when Highway 33 was rebuilt, Vanden Noven said, noting the DOT proposed a six-lane road with 12-foot traffic lanes and narrow parkways.

“My goal when rebuilding Highway 33 was to make the pavement as narrow as possible,” he said. 

The roundabout helped by eliminating the need for turn lanes, he said. And the narrower traffic lanes allowed the city to create wider parkways and medians where trees and plantings separate pedestrians from traffic.

Vanden Noven said narrowing streets by even a few feet helps to slow traffic and make the roads safe.

“We design roads according to the usage,” he said. “I would say the program’s been a real success.”

But Postl said the streets are safer for everyone but bicyclists, who she said are being forced off the street.

“I see people riding bicycles on the sidewalks on Franklin Street,” she said. “I can’t vote yes on this.”

The Common Council did approve hiring Gremmer and Associates to design next year’s street projects — Jefferson Street between Holden and Wisconsin streets and Benjamin, Stanford and Webster streets between Whitefish Road and Walters Street.

Vanden Noven said he had not heard concerns about bicyclists being negatively affected by the narrower streets before, adding that by slowing traffic they have improved safety in the city for everyone.

“What we’re doing by having the wider streets is encouraging traffic to go faster,” he said. “We are confident we are increasing safety for all users of the streets when we narrow the streets.”

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Wisconsin’s largest paid circulation community weekly newspaper. Serving Port Washington, Saukville, Grafton, Fredonia, Belgium, as well as Ozaukee County government. Locally owned and printed in Port Washington, Wisconsin.

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