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).
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.
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.