By David Shorr, District 2 Alderman
Special to the City Times
As one of the new City Council members who co-organized the September 15 listening and discussion session at Washington School, the meeting’s aftermath of attention and controversy has struck me as very strange. So maybe the best thing is just to say what I find perplexing about it.
I’ll start by admitting that I am in favor of reconfiguring some of our key streets to make more room for bike lanes. Except this isn’t much of an admission because it’s a position I stated regularly during my City Council campaign and after the April election—on my Facebook page, in public meetings and countless conversations with District 2 constituents as well as people who live in other parts of the city.
That brings me to perplexing thing #1: this has been an out-in-the-open topic, and yet somehow there’ve been reactions as if bike lanes are the subject of backroom dealing. Put it this way, how did a community meeting that we organized for the purpose engaging on the issues with our constituents end up sparking questions about transparency?
Now a few points about why I favor bike lanes. I’m actually not a recreational bicyclist in the same way as other bike lane proponents. Instead what really draws me to this issue is the impact bike lanes have had in communities across Wisconsin and the rest of the country. Our streets will be nicer and more appealing if we share the roads better, rather than making them like highways for motorists to drive fast. Bike lanes are for pedestrians as much as bicyclists—putting a bit of space between walkers and car traffic so that we feel safe walking down the sidewalk.
And as I’ve said in almost all of those countless conversations, it’s the economic development argument I find most compelling of all. Because all the studies show that people spend more money in local businesses when they are moving more slowly down the street, rather than barreling toward somewhere else. This issue sparks fears about congestion and traffic jams, and those fears never materialize. Particularly because having a middle turning lane actually makes traffic flow more smoothly. But I’ll be honest with you, the question to a large extent is about cars not driving as fast—and having fewer accidents.
The whole bike lane debate seems to be taking place on two levels. And for me this is confusion #2: the gap between the general issue and the practicalities of putting new bike lanes in place. After all, bike lanes enjoy enough support and consensus that last year city leaders and staff united around a grant proposal for federal funding to add bike lines to important arteries like Michigan Ave, Main St., Clark St., and Maria Drive. The good news is that the Stevens Point proposal for nearly $400,000 (requiring a local match of $100,000) was approved despite intense competition from communities around the nation. On the other hand, the question of when the bike lanes will actually be set up is much less clear.
And here is why we invited people to come discuss bike lanes for Stanley Street at our community forum. Compared with Division Street or even the streets in our federal grant, Stanley Street is one of the least complicated and least expensive options for the installation (painting the road surface, really) of bicycle lanes. Many of the residents who came to the forum spoke up in favor of bike lanes for Stanley Street, voicing their concerns about pulling into traffic or crossing the street.
Perplexing thing #3 is that community support for bike lanes doesn’t seem to get as much attention as opposition does. Before the community forum I visited most of the businesses on the part of Stanley in my aldermanic district, including a law office of an attorney who opposes bike lanes and attended the forum (which I certainly appreciated).
But I also spoke to another business owner who wanted to show me the side of his building and a driveway where he parks his car. The problem, he explained, was that the corner of his building blocks his view when pulling out of the drive, and he’s had too many close calls with bicyclists who ride on the sidewalk because they don’t feel safe enough to ride on the street.
Lastly I’ve been confused by the question of an alderperson’s proper role. As a new member of the Council, I’ll freely admit that I have a lot to learn. That said, the main “City Council 101” lesson that I’ve been hearing is about the importance of checking one’s ideas with city department heads to see if they’re feasible and could fit with pre-existing plans and priorities.
As we discussed in the recent Finance Committee meeting, that’s how I determined bike lanes for Stanley Street are a simpler matter than elsewhere. So if there’s a probationary period and special limits for alderpersons who were only elected recently, I’d like to know what those limits are.