Bike Lanes Squeezed Out

No room for bike lanes on Michigan Street? Moving the handful of cars parked on the street into that 40% empty parking structure across the way would free up enough space for wide bike lanes and wider motor vehicle lanes to better accomodate buses.

Milwaukee is working to add bike lanes on arterial roads wherever they fit,  but there are many streets where bike lanes don’t fit and are sorely needed. They mostly don’t fit because we provide lots of unused on-street parking spaces in Milwaukee.  For bike lanes to fit, a street needs a minimum of five unused feet in each direction, 10 ft on two-way roads.  Say a road is 48 ft or 50 ft wide, like Downer Ave.  That gives two 11-12 ft motor vehicle travel lanes, two eight ft parking lanes and two five ft bike lanes, the perfect width for a complete street (if you add the sidewalks).  

Michigan Street has empty parking spaces from Water Street to 8th Street. Most of those empty parking spaces are right next to a parking structure or surface parking lot, all of which are also well below capacity.

Streets like Michigan Street or National Avenue could really use bike lanes, but don’t have the necessary space. They are 60 ft wide from curb to curb and have traffic volumes high enough (15,000 to 25,000 vehicles a day) to warrant four travel lanes according to the WisDOT Facilities Development Manual.  So that means 60 ft minus four eleven foot motor vehicle lanes leaves just 16 ft left over, just enough for two eight ft parking lanes, but no room for bike lanes. 

On-street parking can benefit businesses, but Milwaukee has way more parking spaces than we need.  On average, 40 % of the parking (about 17,000 spaces) in downtown Milwaukee is empty and unused on a typical day. That is about 4.5 million square feet of empty pavement. I know, I ride by a lot of it every day. A study by the engineering firm HNTB found the following:

  •  77,025 on-street and off-street spaces exist downtown.
  • There are 8,394 on-street parking spaces.
  • The occupancy rate for downtown parkng is 61%.

A report by Colliers International found Milwaukee under charges for parking at every level compare to national rates.  

  • The median monthly reserved parking rate in downtown Milwaukee is $150, compared to the national average of $185.78.
  • The median daily parking rate in downtown Milwaukee is $12, compared to the national average of $15.42.
  • The median hourly parking rate in downtown Milwaukee is $4, compared to the national average of $5.10.
  • The median monthly unreserved parking rate in downtown Milwaukee is $120, compared to the national average of $153.79, according to the report.

Perhaps because we have more parking than we need, the demand is low and that keeps prices deflated.  That means we could comfortably remove a bunch of parking.  The City won’t lose parking revenue because as demand increases, rates can be increased. 

Michigan Street is the first place I would remove on-street parking if it was politically feasible.  From Water Street to 8th Street, Michigan is lined with parking structures and surface parking lots that are only about 60% full. So there is really no need at all for on-street parking.  There are no coffee shops or retail stores.  Except for all the parking lots and structures, there are only a couple smaller office buildings on Michigan. 

A similar case can be made for S 1st Street, a key bicycle connection from Bay View to Downtown Milwaukee.  South 1st Street has lots of unused parking spaces and most businesses would never miss them if they were gone.  On the west side of the street, there are almost no businesses that need on-street parking.  If we only removed the parking on the west side, and kept the east side parking, there would still be room for bike lanes on S 1st Street.  But parking is a sacred cow in Milwaukee. 

Did you get water in your basement? Empty surface parking lots are more than just an eyesore and wasted of developable lane, all that pavement adds to flooding.

The other sacred cow is congestion free roadways.  Chicago and many other cities are much more tolerant of congestion.  There are many examples of roads in Chicago (Belmont, Halstead, North, Clark) that carry 30,000 to 40,000 cars a day with only one motor vehicle lane in each direction.  Those streets have full-time on-street parking, and bike lanes.  In Milwaukee, North Avenue carries about 25,000 cars a day between N 7th Street and Dr. Martin Luther King Drive.  The roadway cross-section is 50 ft wide, room for one motor vehicle lanes, bike lanes, and parking lanes.  But because we are so averse to congestion, we restrict parking during the peak hours when the road is busiest.  That means the wide (14 ft) parking lane turns into a travel lane.  If we did not have the peak hour parking ban, we could take five or six feet of that outside lane and paint bike lanes.  On-street parking is also a big contributor to congestion.  Not only does it take up space on the road, but estimates suggest as much as 30 % of congestion in urban centers is from people cruising for on-street parking. 

So what are the solutions?  Get rid of on-street parking where it is not needed either because of lack of demand or because there is adequate off-street parking within about 500 ft. When there are fewer empty parking spaces, it will be easier to charge more for the parking we keep. Take another look at peak hour parking restrictions in business districts.  As long as we are going to have parking where it is needed, we should leave it in place during the busiest times of the day when businesses can most benefit from drive-by traffic.

Parking issues are larger than this post can cover.  To learn more about the problems of parking in Milwaukee, read over the ideas proposed Milwaukee Downtown Plan.  You can also find some discussion on the excellent blog Urban Milwaukee.  If you are really ineterested, read Donald Shoup’s “The High Cost of Free Parking,” only about 700 pages. Finally for a vision of what an economicly vital and livable city can look like when most of that parking is removed, watch this great video from the folks at StreetFilms.


About daveschlabowske

Cyclechic advocate from Milwaukee
This entry was posted in Bike facilities and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

9 Responses to Bike Lanes Squeezed Out

  1. Dave Steele says:

    Milwaukee’s auto infrastructure, its freeways, surface streets and parking, is ridiculously overbuilt for a city our size. Many cities many times our size have nothing on the scale of the Marquette Interchange, to say nothing of the plethora of four lane arterials like Wisconsin Avenue, National or 27th Street. This makes driving in Milwaukee a breeze. We’ve got more traffic lanes going in all directions than we need.

    Because driving here is so easy, biking and transit seem less attractive than in other cities. But ironically, the easy driving environment might help make the city an easier biking environment. Because there are so many congestion-free driving options, this makes for a lot of congestion-free biking options.

    For instance, Highland Blvd. has four wide lanes of auto traffic, making it a major east-west auto thoroughfare. This takes cars away from Vliet Street, just a few blocks to the north. That’s the street I usually take, because all the car commuters are a few blocks away on Highland. Similarly, because North Avenue, Center Street and Capitol Drive have multiple auto traffic lanes and relatively high speeds, this contributes to Locust Street being a relatively quiet thoroughfare. I usually take Locust when cutting straight across the North Side over to Riverwest or the East Side.

    I remember one time I-94 westbound was completely closed off at 84th street due to crash. You would think as a bike commuter this would not have affected by ride home. But it did. All those cars that usually take the freeway were suddenly on the streets I take to get home from work. From that point onward, everytime I pass over the freeway, I both shake my head at the wastefulness of freeways, and am thankful that it’s there to take large numbers of cars away from my streets.

  2. Great posting Dave. You have made an excellent case for reduced parking that I think may sway some would be naysayers. Any chance you can submit your piece to other media outlets including the JS? I think you could get a few converts with this one!

    It seems to me that the other way you could look at this is that we need to remove parking OR have a road diet. What do you think it will take for road diets to be considered? Milwaukee’s lack of left turn only lanes renders many four lane roads fairly inefficient. Left turn only lanes seem to be key to the design and flow of the Chicago streets you mentioned.

  3. daveschlabowske says:

    I need a proof-reader and IT support. Or at least I should write my posts before midnight and take a class on html. Thanks Michael.

  4. Lance says:

    Excellent post full of facts so delicious and meaningful it will take a few reads to digest.

    Great point about Michigan Ave. I consider it a wonderful biking route now, but many others might as well if it were designated as such.

    As always, cyclists should include the benefits to others. Less parking means more walking from the parking that exists. That is better for business and for overall congestion.

    Roads all over Milwaukee County are way too wide. It’s a waste of money, and that unused asphalt also overburdens the sewer system. Think Michigan Ave is too wide, what about all the 4-lane residential roads – two lanes of traffic with two sides of parking? Talk about wasting money.

  5. Lance says:

    Driving is a voluntary act, a freely made decision, so I don’t agree with a previous poster that parking rates constitute “theft.” If you don’t like parking fees, don’t park.

    By the way, the new Milwaukee Magazine (Sept 2010) has an article on parking structures. While I agree with the author’s assertion that all things Milwaukee should be done well, I do not agree with his assumption that we need more and more and more parking. If we didn’t “need” so much parking, we wouldn’t have to look at so many ugly parking structures.

  6. Sam Dodge says:

    I ride Michigan all the time, and I think I’d prefer they repave it before adding a bike lane. Most of the times I ride it there’s little traffic, so I don’t feel any guilt at all for taking the right lane and riding as a vehicle.

    But you make some great points about the parking situation and lack of business fronts. I enjoy the quick passage on Michigan, but the “deadness” of business life annoys me. Feels like a concrete canyon.

    In the new biking plan, did they say anything about trying to add a “Green Wave” on certain routes? That seems to be the latest identifier of truly forward-looking cities.

  7. Pingback: Tweets that mention Bike Lanes Squeezed Out | Over the Bars in Milwaukee --

  8. Bill Sell says:

    Thanks for yet another interesting video from Copenhagen.

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