Review: Wisconsin's first bicycle boulevard.

One of the identifying signs along the Wilson Street bicycle boulevard.

The City of Madison is ranked a gold level bicycle friendly community by the League of American Bicyclists, but the Badgers are going for platinum.  In their efforts to make the Capital more bicycle friendly, they are adding new facilities like bicycle boulevards.  I had to work in Madison on Tuesday, so I took my bike on the Badger Bus in order to try riding on some of the new treatments.  I asked the driver to drop me at 6th and E. Washington on the way in so I could try riding on the Wilson Street Bicycle Boulevard, which is the first bike boulevard in Wisconsin. 

A bicycle boulevard is a shared road in which bicycle travel is prioritized.  Bicycle boulevards typically have a series of traffic calming devices to slow motor vehicles.  They also have improvements done to intersections such as stop signs turned to halt intersecting motor vehicles and allow bicycles to keep rolling.  At intersections with major roads, there are often protections such as bump outs, median refuge islands, and diverters to help people on bicycles cross more easily and safely.  See more in this previous post

The Wilson Street Bicycle Boulevard connects two segments of the Capital City Path.

Wilson Street is a low volume local street on Madison’s east side that fills a gap in the heavily used Capital City Path.  Building a seemless network of routes that everyone feels comfortable riding on is a great idea. 

You can see the man at the front has to take a good look for cars before entering the Wilson St. Bicycle Boulevard at the cross street (Baldwin). If you look, you can see there is actually a stop sign for the bicycles coming off the path. This is no different from most other paths that end at an intersection with a regular street.

Right from the start, I had a problem with the Wilson Street Bicycle Boulevard as I was greeted by a stop sign when transitioning from the Capital City Path onto the street at Dickinson Street.  I would have assumed that the stop sign would be put on the cross street to prioritize bicycle traffic coming off the path, especially since the path probably carries more traffic than Dickinson. 

Good signs and pavement markings are a necessary part of a bike boulevard.

I did like the signs on Wilson that alerted motorists to yield to bicycles.  I also liked the use of shared lane pavement markings on Wilson and the large blue bicycle boulevard signs with the family bike.    

But at the next intersection with Baldwin I found the stop sign was turned to stop bicycle traffic instead of cross traffic again.  While I did not notice a speeding problem during the 30 minutes I spent observing traffic, I was expecting to find some traffic calming on Wilson, perhaps a speed hump or a neighborhood traffic circle at one of the intersections.  

Turn the stop signs and create a real bicycle boulevard.

It seems all Madison did to create a bicycle boulevard was to put up some signs and pavement markings.  This would have been OK if they had prioritized bicycle traffic at the intersections in some way or even added some traffic calming.  Without either of those elements Wilson is not much more than a bike route with some pavement markings and extra signs.  

So while I applaud Madison for being the first city in the state to install a bicycle boulevard, I think they kind of short-changed the bicycle boulevard concept a bit. Madison has plans for some additional bicycle boulevards, we will see if they continue to stop short on the road to a platinum rating.

About Dave Schlabowske, Deputy Director

Dave was the first full-time staff member hired to open the Bike Fed's Milwaukee office 15 years ago. A former professional photographer and life-long Milwaukee resident, Dave likes wool, long rides, sour beer, and a good polar vortex once in a while.

19 thoughts on “Review: Wisconsin's first bicycle boulevard.

  1. Pingback: Progress for Madison biking this summer « 20BY2020

  2. Dave Steele: No, you no longer have to box your bike. It is $10 to put it in the luggage compartment.

    Dave S: Great review – you cite the main concerns that I have. Madison has three bike boulevards now, and for the most part all they are is additional signage and sharrows. Those features are great to alerting cars that there may be more bikes around, and drivers seem more deferential to people riding two abreast or using the full lane on these streets. However, they don’t make things any quicker or more convenient for people on bikes.

    I am hoping that this is really just a first wave of improvements on the bike boulevards in Madison, and that in the near future some stop signs will be turned, traffic diverters installed, and some traffic calming put in place.

    • I did see the ghost bike and looked into it. From what I have read, the person on the bike was riding home drunk, at night, and did not stop for that stop sign. So while I do think that stop sign should be turned the other way, or better, a neighborhood traffic circle installed at the intersection, the issues surrounding the fatal crash are more complicated than the bikeway engineering.

      • I live right by there and think changing the stop signs to Baldwin instead of Wilson would create other problems. What I would prefer is to have bumpouts into Baldwin to increase visibility and shorten the span for peds. Similar bumpouts exist on many of the streets that cross the bike path a few blocks west of there.

        • In general I am not a fan of stop signs at the intersection of two local streets. Bump outs would probably help, but they are primarily a pedestrian improvement. On a bicycle boulevard I would suggest neighborhood traffic circles instead. Traffic circles not only slow cars, and reduce vehiclular crashes, but they are great for bicycles. In general, the only crashes that occur at traffic circles are drunk motorists hitting the circle, which is just one less drunk behind the wheel of a car. Thanks for the local comments Jon.

      • I don’t think there is room for a circle there. Also, I disagree that bumpouts aren’t helpful for bicyclists. The ones I mentioned further west of there are very helpful in allowing bicyclists to see traffic beyond the line of parked cars. They also serve to slow car traffic which is always a plus for bicyclists.

        • Hey Jon,

          I manage the traffic calming program in Milwaukee, and I am sure there is room for a circle. I put them in intersections of residential streets like that all the time, that is what they are designed for. But I did not say bump outs are not helpful for bicyclists, I said they are primarily a benefit to pedestrians. They do help cyclists for the reasons you mentioned, but on a bicycle boulevard, bicycle travel is prioritzed, as all vehicular travel is on a through highway for example. Bump outs alone do not give bicycles any priority over motor vehicle travel at intersections. Traffic circles do in the sense that most bicycle can go through them without slowing, assuming they have the right of way by arriving at the intersection first. In general though, as I mentioned in the original review of the Wilson Bicycle Boulevard, the stop signs should be turned to stop cross traffic at intersections to prioritze bicycle through travel on a bicycle boulevard. In this situation, I don’t know the traffic counts on the side streets like Baldwin, but I would guess the combined bicycle and motor vehicle counts on Wilson exceed the counts on the side streets. General rules of stop sign warrants would then have the signs control right of way for the cross streets, not the higher volume Wilson. It would be better to have the real traffic volumes, but that is not necessary if you want to give priority to the bicycles on Wilson.

      • You meant like a “little” traffic circle–the kind where there’s a raised concrete thing in the middle, so vehicles have to sort of “dodge” it to go straight through–as opposed to the bigger kind that might have multiple lanes? We have a few of the smaller ones in Madison, on side streets or medium-use streets in residential areas, usually with planters in the middle with flowers.

      • Another point in favor of switching the stop signs along Wilson is that, anecdotally, cyclists seem more prone to blowing their stop signs along this stretch of road. My guess as to a possible contributor to this behavior is that Wilson is used as a short connector for two sections of bike path, leaving cyclists still in a “path” frame of mind and in a less defensive posture.

        If that’s going to be the case (and Madison is going to prioritize the heavier traffic, which I think they should), something more tangible than cute street signs and sharrows wouldn’t be the worst idea. Here’s hoping they’re just a start.

  3. Thanks for an “outside” perspective on this. I agree that the city, so far, basically just put up signs and pavement markings; the trail-street-trail aspect of it, and its status as a low-volume street, pre-existed the Bike Boulevard designation. Perhaps there are more improvments in the pipeline.

    A similar situation exists on the East Mifflin Bike Boulevard, which only connects to a bike path (sort of) at its eastern end., although work will be starting to install (ok, “paint”) a counterflow lane to give access to the Capitol Square in the last block, and some signals to make crossing main streets easier will be added, also. None of these are constructed like the bike boulevards I’ve seen elsewhere, which truly discourage automobiles from using the street (other than local traffic), or prioritize for bikes. Kendall Avenue has a diverter which I haven’t yet seen in person.

    • Well, like I said, Madison gets some props for putting the first bicycle boulevard in the state, something Milwaukee has yet to do. Perhaps they will add the additional features later to truly prioritize bicycle traffic on Wilson or one of the other early bicycle boulevards.

      • Is it really a bike boulevard if you just put up a sign and mark the pavement? I live on the East Mifflin bike boulevard and would prefer the additional traffic calming devices. While I appreciate what the city has done to improve biking conditions, I think they need to do more with the bike boulevards. The additional signs and pavement markings should be standard on any street designated as a bike route. You can’t crack an egg and call it an omlette.

  4. I live in Madison, and am a little torn on the Wilson street design. On Mifflin (about 3 blocks north) there should definitely be turned stop signs to prioritize bike traffic, with the possible exception of Blair St., which is a one-way truck route that probably should have priority, as a major connector on the difficult to manage isthmus.

    I would agree that turning the stop signs at Dickinson is a good idea. The view when exiting the path is somewhat obscured by buildings & foliage on either side of the trail, so with the street having priority one basically has to stop to navigate the intersection safely. The same is somewhat true of the intersection at Ingersoll, where stop signs could also be turned pretty easily.

    Baldwin is a different story. It carries a lot of traffic, and is probably the primary means for people on the north side of E. Washington Ave. to get to the Williamson Street businesses. Also, Wilson is a relatively short block from the stoplight at Williamson, and I could see a domino effect occurring, causing traffic to snarl as cars turned off of Williamson.

    I think this might be a good location for a HAWK light. There’s been some discussion of using one of these at Mifflin & Blair as well. Essentially, it’s a signal that is always green for the cross traffic (Baldwin in this case), except when triggered by a bike/ped. Then it goes yellow, then flashing red for cross traffic, followed by flashing yellow and green again. Essentially, it lets the bike/ped traffic cross with some immediacy, then reverts to prioritizing the traffic on the busier cross street. As a short cycle & a light which is only active when needed, it has relatively little impact on the heavier cross traffic.

    I would agree with the overall impression that so far the bike boulevards are little more than lip service to an idea. Hopefully the next mayor will have a little more respect for real solutions, and less love of spin.

  5. On the near west side, the Kendall Ave. bike boulevard has similar issues. A few of the crossings — e.g. Highland Ave., Farley, Allen St. — have sufficiently heavy automobile traffic to merit stop signs as a matter of cyclist self-preservation if nothing else. However, the two-way stops at the likes of Forest, Princeton, and Prospect seem to be vestiges of previous traffic-calming efforts along Kendall. Since Kendall no longer is a through street for cars coming from west of Franklin, some of the existing traffic calming should no longer be necessary.

    One question is whether any city residents using the boulevards have contacted either city Traffic Engineering and/or their alders to ask about turning the stop signs to prioritize the bike boulevard traffic, and if so, what the response(s) have been.

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