PRESS EDITORIAL: How narrower streets broaden community life

The great American shrinking streets movement has reached the Village of Grafton.

The Village Board voted unanimously on May 21 to approve an ordinance requiring narrower streets.

The ordinance applies only to new roads, but Village Administrator Jesse Thyes said the width of existing streets could also be reduced when they are rebuilt.

The result will be a safer community for people in vehicles and on foot.

Communities across the country are moving in the same direction, abandoning the now discredited street-design orthodoxy that wider is better and safer.

Decades of experience with cars speeding through towns on wide swaths of concrete, backed up by reams of traffic studies, have shown the opposite is true.

While wide streets encourage speed and aggressive driving, imperiling pedestrians and making vehicular crashes more serious, narrower streets calm traffic, are safer for walkers to cross and more attractive for all users with room for wider sidewalks with trees and amenities.

The City of Port Washington offers a spot-on case study.

Franklin Street, the city’s main business street, was a veritable urban highway.

Built as a seeming monument to the cultural dominance of the automobile in the mid-20th century, it was the width of four traffic lanes.

Combined with narrow sidewalks, it presented a sterile atmosphere.

Crossing this equivalent of an airport runway by pedestrians was a risky business, thanks to the extravagant width of the street and the speed and get-out-of-my-way attitude it encouraged among drivers.

Ozaukee Press editorials implored police to crack down on drivers violating the rights of pedestrians, who in some cases had to literally run for their lives, in marked crossings.

Beyond its impact on safety, the old Franklin Street urged drivers to transit the downtown as quickly as possible and discouraged others, such as shoppers wanting to stroll from store to store, from spending time there—hardly a recipe for a successful business district.

That all changed 12 years ago when Port Washington tapped into that great American shrinking streets movement, and all of the benefits predicted by advocates of narrower streets came to pass.

Franklin Street was narrowed dramatically.

The extra space was used for wider sidewalks. More than a boon to pedestrians, this made room for planters, benches, restaurant tables and many trees, which are graceful ornaments both when in leaf and in winter when lit with thousands of tiny lights, making Franklin into Port’s version of the great white way.

The street became safer to walk across, not just because it was narrower, but because it changed drivers’ behavior.

Today, courtesy to pedestrians by drivers is on daily display.

A walker need only put a toe in the crosswalk to be rewarded with a pause by drivers to allow a stress-free crossing.

(Which leads to this request to City Hall: Would someone please get rid of the ridiculous day-glo orange flags in containers at each Franklin Street intersection?

Their purported reason for existence is the notion that there is a need for pedestrians to take a flag and wave it vigorously to get drivers’ attention while crossing the street.

No one uses them because they are not needed, and in any case they are an embarrassment suggesting that the street is dangerous.

They should be donated to a community living in the past with extra-wide streets.)

It goes without saying that today’s Franklin Street is not an efficient traffic mover.

Congestion is the norm on busy weekends. When the town is full of visitors and the farmers market is in full swing and a few drivers attempt a parallel parking maneuver, a sort of benign, shortlived gridlock sets in.

But it’s a small price to pay for the appealing downtown ambiance the street offers.

Drivers who want to bypass the downtown have alternatives in Port Washington, but many prefer to experience the eclectic activity of Franklin Street.

This is testament to the realization that streets are meant to be more than travel routes.

Whether in commercial districts or residential neighborhoods, they are vital contributors to the richness of community life, and narrow streets do that better.   


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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.

125 E. Main St.
Port Washington, WI 53074
(262) 284-3494


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