EDITORIAL: A street policy that makes the city safer and prettier

Clueless drivers on our streets, roads and highways will always be with us, but most of the people behind the steering wheels of motor vehicles are aware of their traffic environment and able to adapt to changing conditions. That’s why street narrowing works to reduce speed and increase safety.

Franklin Street in Port Washington proves it. In its ultra-wide days, the street was notorious for pedestrian peril. Crosswalks were gantlets to run between speeding vehicles piloted by drivers heedless of walkers’ rights. Today, the city’s main downtown street is narrower and safer, traffic is slower and it’s standard operating procedure for drivers to stop to allow pedestrians to cross.

Franklin is the city’s marquee street-narrowing success, but others can be found on a smaller scale in Port Washington neighborhoods. A policy of making streets narrower when they are rebuilt has been in effect for two decades. And when new subdivisions are built, city planners insist on narrow streets.

Ald. Deb Postl recently took issue with that policy. Her specific point was that narrow streets can be dangerous for pedestrians and bicycle riders because they encourage cyclists to ride on sidewalks among walkers.

No doubt, Postl and other elected officials have heard from constituents who disapprove of narrowing streets. For many, the concept that narrower is safer is counterintuitive.

It wasn’t that long ago that traffic engineers agreed that wider was better. Moving traffic through cities efficiently was the priority. Pedestrian safety and convenience was a secondary concern. Aesthetics were no concern at all.

Port’s South Spring Street is a monument to the wide-street mentality. Rebuilt as a four-lane thoroughfare at the insistence of the state Department of Transportation, South Spring invites vehicle speed and makes pedestrian crossing a daunting adventure. The street is so wide its two outside lanes are considered surplus concrete. Signs instruct vehicles to stay out of them except when turning.

When lit up at the night, the street resembles an airport runway. At any time of the day, this highway posing as a city street makes for a stark, unwelcoming entrance to the community.

Safety aside, narrower streets, whether in residential or commercial areas, are more visually appealing, with added space for sidewalks, parkways and plantings.

Public Works Director Rob Vanden Noven helped form Port Washington’s street-narrowing policy and has vigorously carried it out, but he didn’t invent the concept. Narrowing streets is an established strategy proven effective at calming traffic and used by cities large and small.

Simple observation shows that it works, but its impact on street safety has also been documented in a number of studies with findings confirming that narrow streets are safer for all users, motor vehicle drivers, passengers, pedestrians—and bicycle riders, the focus of  Ald. Postl’s concerns.

The relationship between motor vehicles and bikes is problematic regardless of street width. Making that relationship work safely depends on both drivers and bike riders showing consideration for each other. Aggressively claiming the full width of traffic lanes, as some teams of hard-core fitness bikers are wont to do, is as much a cause of conflict as is careless or discourteous drivers.

In any case, if narrow, crowded streets encourage some bikers to use sidewalks, it should not be a significant worry. Walkers, runners and bikers can co-exist safely on sidewalks, which is why many communities, including Port Washington, are installing shared-use, bikes-welcome walkways instead of classic sidewalks.

Vanden Noven made the case for narrower streets succinctly in his response to Postl: “We are confident we are increasing safety for all users of the streets when we narrow the streets.”

Changing that policy would move streets in two directions—outward and backward.


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Ozaukee Press

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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Port Washington, WI 53074
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