Get Outta My Bike Lane! Hot Tips For Effective Advocacy

Recently there was a thread on the Milwaukee bike to work listserv about some problematic stretches of bike lanes on a couple different city streets. The thread began with a complaint that motorists were ignoring a bike lane and just driving in it like it is a regular travel lane. The thread shifted to another street where cars are encroaching into the bike lane at a curve. The law is pretty clear on this:


(12) Driving on bicycle lane or bicycle way. No operator of a motor vehicle may drive upon a bicycle lane or bicycle way except to enter a driveway, to merge into a bicycle lane before turning at an intersection, or to enter or leave a parking space located adjacent to the bicycle lane or bicycle way. Persons operating a motor vehicle upon a bicycle lane or bicycle way shall yield the right-of-way to all bicycles and electric personal assistive mobility devices within the bicycle lane

Rather than just complain, the person who brought up the bike lane at the curve got proactive and suggested cyclists band together, ala Common Ground, and make an appointment with the local alderman to ask that he do something about it. While Common Ground techniques may be effective, based on my experience as a professional bicycle advocate and my insider bureaucratic knowledge gleaned as a former City Bike Ped coordinator, I have a few suggestions on how to increase the chances of getting what you want. Rather than respond directly to a relatively small group on the MILBTW listerv, I thought I would use this comment thread as a foil to offer some suggestions to the much larger blog readership on how to be an effective advocate.

Highland Avenue as it exists today with bike lanes where it curves just east of the bridge over the railroad tracks.

Let’s start by taking a look at the initial comment about the problematic bike lane:

“My personal “bad spot” lately has been Highland Blvd. west of 35th Street where it curves at the bridge. People take that curve far too fast and often veer into the bike lane. I had one moron give me three feet (gee thanks) and then right in front of me veer into the bike lane, his passenger side tires right in the middle of my lane.
It’s a bad spot because that’s a blind curve. I curse everytime I see said behavior because there could be someone in that lane and the driver would not see them as they come whipping around that corner. I was mere inches myself from a guy’s side mirror as he came around that curve 15 over the speed limit, hurtling well into the bike lane.
This is the prime spot for the city’s next raised or protected bike lane.
Who do I call at the City to get this done?”

This was the final comment in the thread that prompted me to write this post:

“How many are familiar with the work of Common Ground? This grassroots organization achieves change by simply placing large numbers of people in front of politicians. They have found that when you pack 20 people into the office of an alderman or State Rep, they listen. They even managed to get DuetchBank to pony up millions to relieve the foreclosure crisis in the city.
Surely if people power can make this happen we can get a protected bike lane on Highland Blvd.
Let’s get 20 people who live in Alderman Murphy’s district (Washington Heights and Sherman Park) to pack into his office and demand that something be done to make the said Highland curve safer for us cyclists. Mike is my alderman and is a good guy. He will listen.
And let’s stick on him like white on rice until it happens. Who’s with me?”

Ostensibly this sounds like a reasonable plan, but let’s take a look at what Common Ground does. This is from their website:

Issue Campaigns are the work we do. Members of Common Ground identify problems and concerns in our communities. Through research, relationships and action these problems and concerns become our Issue Campaigns. We usually have more than one active campaign at any given time. The more Issue Campaigns we win — the stronger we get.

Let’s use that strategy for the Highland Ave bike lane issue:

Identify problem and concern: Person expresses concern to fellow cyclists on the MILBTW listserv that it is sometimes unpleasant and scary to ride in the bike at the Highland Ave. bridge. Some others second those thoughts.

Research: Missing

Relationships: Organize a group around this problem and meet with the alderman regularly until a protected bike lane is installed.

The key problem here is that the research is missing.  I can help a little with that, because I worked on the bike route spot improvement project that resulted in the initial installation of bike lanes on Highland Ave.  I also worked as the bike coordinator for Milwaukee Dept. of Public Works when the Highland bridge was reconstructed.

When the bike lanes were first retrofitted to Highland Ave., they would not fit on the section where the bridge crossed the railroad tracks at the curve because the road narrowed.  This was a real drag, but we decided that it was better to put in the bike lanes where they fit and worry about the bridge later, as it was scheduled for repair.

The top Google street view image shows the old lane configuration were the bike lane ends just prior to the bridge. The lower plan view Google image shows the new bike lane and the new bridge with a bike lane.

This street view image of the old bridge shows there was no place for bicycles. At the time I commuted daily on this bridge and you had to be a very assertive cyclist to take lane in order to ride it safely.

A few years later, the bridge did get reconstructed and it was widened to fit the bike lanes.  Widening a bridge is quite expensive, so this was no small thing. I think it demonstrates the commitment of the City of Milwaukee to improving conditions for bicycles in that they took this bicycle bottleneck seriously and made quite reasonable efforts to fix it.

I think you can see by the photos that the bike lanes really did make a huge improvement for bicycle conditions.  Given all that the City has already done, is it reasonable to ask that they do more? Certainly it is reasonable if a significant number of people still feel unsafe pedaling through the area, but the first thing traffic engineers are going to do is look for crash statistics.  I am willing to bet there are virtually no crashes involving bicycles and motor vehicles at the bridge. Assuming that is true, what can cyclists do?

I would still suggest people contact the alderman, but begin by thanking him for his support of all the bicycle improvements the city has already done on Highland and the bridge.  Then mention that despite all those improvements, the curve remains a scary bike lane to many people on the bike to work listerv because cars are taking the turn too fast and entering the bike lane. Ask the alderman to request a peak hour traffic study that includes the following:

  • Count the cars and the number of cars that veer into the bike lane.
  • Count the bikes
  • A speed a speed study to see how fast the cars are taking the turn.
  • Perhaps volunteer to make video tape the cars if it seems quite obvious that they are entering the bike lane and taking the turn too fast.

If that traffic study backs up the complaint, then it would be time to suggest improved signage to take the curve slowly and stay out of the bike lane, perhaps install a colored bike lane in the most problematic areas. Ask for increased enforcement, and if all that doesn’t work,  suggest that the City bike plan includes protected bike lanes and that given the importance of this bike route, this might be a good place to pilot a flexible bollard protected bike lane.

When the inevitable “how will we plow it?” question comes up, suggest the flexible bollards could use recessed mounts and be removed prior to winter.


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.

7 thoughts on “Get Outta My Bike Lane! Hot Tips For Effective Advocacy

  1. Seeing the Google image with the old bike lane ending before the curve and bridge makes me think of many other bike lanes that just end in Milwaukee. Why does Milwaukee think that putting in bike lanes that just end (usually in a dangerous situation for a cyclist!) is a good idea? I have come upon many bike lanes in Milwaukee that just drop you off in a dangerous situation.

    As for the W Highland Blvd curve with the new bike lane, its still dangerous as ever. I think it has less to do with the bike lane layout than it does with the way certain groups of people drive in the city of Milwaukee. They show no respect or regard to follow rules of a safe driving/bicycling environment. It’s a free for all. Vehicular thugs. It seems like this type of behavior is an accepted way of life in Milwaukee. Do the Milwaukee police respond to these issues?

    • As I explained in the post above, when retrofitting bike lanes to streets, there are often times when a roadway geometries will not accommodate a bike lane. To install a bike lane, the road must have a minimum of five feet plus the width of the motor vehicle travel lanes (10-11 feet) and a parking lane (7-8 feet) where it is allowed. So there are often places where bike lanes end in all cities. Recently the shared lane pavement marking was added to the Manual of Uniform Traffic Control Devices. This pavement marking (bike and chevrons) can now be used to fill in gaps where bike lanes don’t fit and encourage people on bikes to take a center position in the motor vehicle travel lane. Sometimes, like on S 2nd Street, the City will remove motor vehicle travel lanes (or parking lanes) to add bike lanes and wider sidewalk areas, but that is not always possible, so we still have places where bike lanes end.

      Milwaukee started out with no bike lanes and about 450 miles of arterial streets. Slowly over the last 15 years or so, the bike lane network has grown and gaps have been filled in. The City now has 56 miles of bike lanes. Still an incomplete network of arterial streets, but way better. Over the course of time that the City has added bike lanes, the number of people riding has more than doubled and the crash rate has gone down by 75%. While I am the first to advocate for more and better facilities, I applaud what has been done so far as a success.

      I very much disagree with the comment that the W Highland curve is “still dangerous as ever.” I rode it daily before the bike lane and before the bridge was widened. I ride it regularly now. I find it MUCH more pleasant now than when the bridge was narrow.

  2. I really don’t believe that “certain groups of people” drive like “vehicular thugs” in this city. I think the driving culture in Milwaukee and surrounding suburbs is out of control in general, and everyone, not “certain groups,” share the blame.

    But to me, the Highland Curve is a design issue, not an enforcement issue. The way the curve is laid out encourages drivers to open up the throttle. Some kind of traffic calming treatment (ideally a protected bike lane) would slow cars down, and that would make everyone safer, especially us bike users.

    • In this bike lane, as in all bike lanes, comfort is often in the mind of the rider. Some people are comfortable in heavy traffic with no bike lane, others will only ride on trails. Protected bike lanes definitely appeal to a wider audience of people who ride bikes. I honestly believe they are the key to getting significantly higher numbers of people riding.

      In this situation, I would hesitate to say this curve is dangerous. I would want to see a traffic study done that looks at all the things I mentioned above. Then I would argue that because it is an important bike route, it deserves a bike facility that provides the highest level of service to the widest range of users. A protected bike lane would be the highest level of service you could do here. Bollards typically need a buffer zone, and I don’t think there is room for a buffer here. That said, you could try flexible bollards without a buffer. They will get hit, but then thousands of street light and sign poles get hit every year in Milwaukee and they are behind the curb.

  3. Good comments, Dave. I live not far from the Highland Avenue bridge and bike that route often. I feel comfortable traveling southeast on that outside curve, but not on the inside curve. I agree many vehicles encroach on the bike lane rounding the curve headed northwest. I think your idea to request a traffic study is a good one. It could be that more signage and more aggressive pavement markings would adequately draw drivers’ attention to the bicycle right of way.

  4. One of the comments made on Milwaukee Bikes was about my getting doored by a motorist in a green mid ’90’s Toyota Camry about the 3000 block of Highland this past Sunday about 10:30 AM. That area of Highland is forever getting its bike lane markings erased by the motorists. It seems many of the residents in that area feel they’re taking back their streets from the bicyclists by erasing these lane markings. Also, how do we reach out to this area to discourage doorings?

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