Milwaukee Adding 76 Miles to Bikeway Network

These odd skip dash symbols on St. Paul Ave. denote the location of a soon-to-be-painted bike lane.

If you live in Milwaukee and ride a bike, you have probably notice a lot of recently spray painted lines and symbols on the roads.  There a skip dashes, little arrows and other odd symbols in white paint on streets all over the city.

I am very pleased to report that these markings denote the locations of 38.1 miles of new bike lanes and another 38 miles of shared lane pavement markings (often called “sharrows). The Wisconsin Dept. of Transportation recently approved a bike lane project to paint the new bikeways.  City painting crews will be painting the lines in a systematic way as their long-line pavement marking truck moves around the City streets.

Milwaukee currently has 56 miles of bike lanes, and this project will fill in all the remaining streets on which bike lanes fit without changing any motor vehicle traffic or parking lanes. Essentially there are 38 miles of streets in Milwaukee with an extra ten feet of pavement not necessary for motor vehicle travel lanes (typically 11 ft) and parking (8 ft).  That means the City can add two 5 ft bike lanes without affecting motorized traffic.

These little symbols are mark future locations for shared lane pavement markings, a bike and two chevrons.

The shared lane pavement markings are a little different. These go in on streets that have more room than needed for parking and a motor vehicle travel lane, but not quite enough room for a bike lane. This is often the case with city bike routes. There might only be an extra 3 or 4 feet of space, not enough room to paint a bike lane, but still enough to make a street comfortable to ride an bike on. These are the roads that will get sharrows.

The last time the City of Milwaukee made a big splash like this was in 2005 when they painted 30 miles of bike lanes. Since they did that, they have been slowly adding new bike lanes as roads are repaved, but nothing that will have this noticeable of an impact. The percentage of people who rode bikes increased by 50% after the last big installation and the bicycle crash rate dropped 75%. I hope this new batch of bikeways will have a similar effect.


This map shows the existing bike lane network.

This map shows the what the bikeway network will look like after the new pavement marking project is done.

City Engineer Jeff Polenske rides his Milwaukee Bicycle Company commuter south on the raised bike lane on Bay St.

Milwaukee has about 1,400 miles of streets that allow people in motor vehicles to get efficiently anywhere they need to go. Of those, 450 miles or so are major streets (arterials and collectors) that have centerlines, bike lanes and other pavement markings. These are the streets that bike lanes go on. Low volume side streets are generally fine for bicycling and don’t have any sort of pavement markings.

Alderman Kovak and Alderman Zielinski adress the crowd as a cyclist pedals past behind them in the raised bike lane on Bay Street.

After the new lanes and shared lanes are painted, about 35% of that 45o mile major street network will have accommodations for bicycles. That is still a long way from a complete, complete streets network, but it is a lot better than the 12% we have now!

I must emphasize that filling in the gaps in Milwaukee’s growing the bikeway network will take time.  We have decades of autocentric planning to correct and that can’t be done overnight, but this latest bike lane project is a significant step in reclaiming our city streets for people.

Yesterday the City celebrated another big step towards making its streets more bicycle friendly. Aldermans Zielinski and Kovak joined City Engineer Jeff Polenske and about 25 cyclists to formally open the raised bike lane on Bay Street. The Bay Street raised bike lane is the first in what will hopefully be many miles of protected bike lanes to come in Milwaukee.  While regular painted bike lanes are great, buffered, raised and bollard protected bike lanes are really the key to getting a lot more people riding because of the additional comfort and protection they offer.

Cyclists riding south on the Bay Street raised bike lane.

All-in-all, it really looks like the City of Milwaukee is making consistent progress towards becoming a more bicycle friendly city. One of the advantages a densely populated City with a complete street network that takes advantage of walking, bicycling and transit is less congestion and more commerce. Single occupancy vehicles are great for some things, but they are a very inefficient and costly method of moving people in an urban area.

Click image to open a pdf of the project map.


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.

26 thoughts on “Milwaukee Adding 76 Miles to Bikeway Network

  1. Awesome. Good to see them following up on recommendations from the 2010 bike plan. Still a long way to go, but this is a great step!


  2. As an avid commuter, I am very happy for more bike lanes. However, from the map above it is hard to determine just how many lanes will be added to the downtown area. Biking through downtown can be harrowing given the dearth of designated biking lanes. I need to commute from West Allis Memorial Hospital to the Conservatory of Music on Prospect between 5:00 and 6:00 p.m. I’ve observed that there does not seem to be a good direct route from the end of the Hank Arron trail on 6th street to Prospect and Brady. Given that I’ve had a couple close calls with cars recently as I bike the downtown streets, I wonder how many more people that work downtown would commute more by bike if it were safer.

    • Hi Jeannette,

      I will add a more detailed map to the blog post in a few minutes to help you see the planned lanes. I have to disagree with you about your route though. I used to work very near there and I loved my route because it was 90% on trail. Here is a link to the route I would take if I were you: Note that St. Paul is new, smooth concrete and will be getting bike lanes with the new project. Michigan is not great, but you are only on it for a few blocks. The rest of your route in Milwaukee is all trail!

      One more point of clarification: from a crash rate and statistics perspective, it already is very safe to ride a bicycle in downtown Milwaukee because traffic moves very slowly and motorists expect to see bicycles. By comparison, it is quite dangerous to ride on country roads in places like Marathon, Waukesha or Racine counties because the speed differentials are high. I think it would be more accurate to say you find it unpleasant or uncomfortable to ride in downtown Milwaukee. You are probably not alone in feeling the way you do. Part of that discomfort can be alleviated by taking an adult cycling class. But the real solution is to provide people with facilities they feel comfortable riding, such as protected bike lanes.

      Unfortunately, all the low hanging fruit is gone after this bike lane project. To add those future bike lanes and protected bike lanes will take some modifications to existing lane patterns and perhaps the loss of some on-street parking.

      • I bike from downtown to the 3rd ward for work (and pleasure). There is a small section from Water St to Van Buren that runs under the interstate that I find not just “uncomfortable” but simply dangerous.

        The bike route I downloaded from the city website (and the above recommended google map route) say that Van Buren is the official route, but there isn’t a bike lane, and it is 3 very narrow lanes of traffic heading one-way North. Ride against traffic, with people speeding off the interstate? I don’t think so. The other streets are just as chaotic, with interstate traffic merging on and off, and zero protections for bikers.

        I end up on the sidewalk every time because I’d rather annoy pedestrians than lose my life.

        What should I be doing? For example, starting from Metro Mart and ending at the Cafe Benelux or the Public Market.

        Is there a realistic option, without going completely out of the way & being forced to backtrack? It seems like a very serious hole and connecting these 2 areas would make it not only better for commuters, but for tourists and visitors alike.

        • OK Kelly, so if I understand correctly, you are going south, from the Metro Market area to Cafe Benelux. I will plot the route I would take if I was going south. Since I used to work in that area and I am a pretty confident vehicular cyclist, I would go this way: But riding south on Milwaukee Street requires a cyclist to “take the lane.” I am comfortable doing that on Milwaukee as the traffic moves slowly so it is quite safe, but requires a bit of confidence. There is one block near the Freeway onramp that can be a bit challenging because you have to ride down the middle of a wide. Here is a longer route for those who are less tolerant of heavy traffic And here is a sort of in-between route that uses Mason, which has room for bike lanes and will get them with the new pavement marking project That route I use the pedestrian routing because at Milwaukee and Clybourn, I ride across the street and go through the parking lot for the public market under the freeway. But I do understand your issue with the roads downtown. They are prioritized based on the freeway on and off ramp volumes. For instance, Milwaukee Street should be a balanced two lane road with bike lanes rather than an unbalanced three lane road. The restaurants on the street would benefit because people could actually have room to get into their parked cars instead of now you have to stand in the traffic lane and wait for a gap, dash to your car and open the door and hop in. These geometric changes should be part of the next bikeway project. As I mentioned in the blog post, this project gets rid of all the low hanging fruit by putting bike lanes in on all the remaining streets that don’t need geometric changes for bike lanes to fit.

  3. Of course I live in that big ‘ol empty space with no lines on the NW side. go figure! At least we have some Oak Leaf!

    • Well, those homes tend to have bigger yards. There are always trade-offs. Some of the roads on the northwest side will get paved shoulders as they get reconstructed though. Make sure you show up at any roadway project public information meetings.

    • I’m glad I’m not the only one that noticed that. I don’t follow how homes with bigger yards = less bike infrastructure? There’s also a big hole in this map at 35th and Locust.

      • Marion,

        I did not mean that bigger yards = less bike infrastructure, I was just trying to say something positive about the area. The bike lanes are going in where they fit without removing parking or travel lanes for motor vehicles. If no bike lane is going in on a road, or in an area, it means bike lanes won’t fit as the roads are currently configured. That does not mean bike lanes might not go in sometime in the future if people change their priorities or if there is room to change the geometrics of the roadways when they are reconstructed.

  4. Dave,
    GREAT to see the raised bike lane and the implementation of some of the bike plan! Is there any feedback from the street maintenance perspective on how it’s working? Does it stay clear of debris?

    • Hey Catrine,

      Sounds like maintenance was super easy (easier than VCF). Let’s put them in everywhere. Tell Tom you want them on every street in SD with a bike corral 😉

  5. So great to see sharrows on our streets. I’ve been hoping for these on Brady St for years. Now let’s talk bike boxes and protected and painted lanes. Any word if these are in the works?

  6. This is great news and long-waited-for improvements in identifying the place bicycles have in transportation. Does this fit in to an overall transportation plan for the city that includes targeted increases in bicycle use or is it simply putting facilities in where the city happens to know there is space to do so in hopes it will lead to something more?

  7. Since we’ll finally be getting sharrows on Brady St.,can this be extended to Oakland and Cambridge south of North Ave.?

  8. What about the KK river trail from Bay/KK to 3rd ward? last i heard it was going to be completed in 2012. Is it still the plan?

    • That project has been in paperwork limbo for years. A Milwaukee DPW engineer started working on getting the paperwork approved before I worked for the City. When he quit to become the Bike Coordinator in San Diego, I took it over and worked for several years to get the paperwork approved. Since I left the City, they hired a private engineering firm to get the paperwork approved. That firm has been working on it for about a year now, and when I called the City about it today, they told me the state still has some questions on the paperwork, but they have confidence in the consultant will get the project approved this year and they will be able to advertise later this summer. This is all part of a much bigger problem that affects every project that uses state or federal money and is much too complicated to explain in the comment section of this blog.

      Buy me a beer sometime when you have an hour and I will explain it 😉

      • Gladly!! I have much appreciation for your work, and like learnign abut things like that! I am out of town now, but back in MKE on June 15th.. 😉

        Thanks for the Info: Last news article about it was dated January of this year (JSOnline, about the Hoan Bridge not getting bike lane), still promising completion this year. Sure made it sound like it was all a go! Guess not, but sure hope it happens! KK is getting tiresome!

        Do you know if they are planning to add street lights to that trail? at least to the section between Water St and KK? doesnt mention any, but this was the first thing my girlfriend asked when i told her about that bike path.


        • No lights are planned for the trail that I am aware of. The process to get the project started requires that the City submit a bid package and request to advertise to WisDOT. WisDOT has a master consultant (DAAR Engineering) who reviews the bid package, which includes plans, specs, and WisDOT and FHA required forms that must be approved before the city can advertise the project. After the request to advertise and bid package are approved, the city has about 6 weeks in which to advertise and choose a consultant based on low bid. Then they file a request to award paperwork (much simpler) with WisDOT. After that is approved, they can get the low bidder under contract and start the project. I will let folks know when I hear the Request to Advertise has been approved.

  9. Dave – all the advocacy you and the Bike Fed have done is terrific! Wish we could get more East-West routes through the central city, though. Those roads are tight, but it’s a shame there’s not a real E-W route between Vliet and Villard, both for central city residents and for those of us west-siders who’d like an alternate loop from the north shore.

    • Barb, do you mean a North-South route? Vliet is an east-west street and is getting bike lanes. I think 27th is getting some bike lanes. There is an abandoned rail corridor that runs from Harley north. No plans for that he though.

  10. This is great news, I was starting to wonder what all that spray paint was about.

    One question, though. Do you know if the city has a plan in place for the maintenance of bike lanes? Some of these are being painted on streets that are already a very bumpy ride, and a lot of our current lanes need to be re-painted or patched. I’ve seen some cities that prioritize re-paving/patching the bike lanes. How do we get this to happen here?

    • Sam,

      The City of Milwaukee recently purchased a new long line pavement marking truck that now allows them to do a much better job of repainting bike lanes and center lines. The most efficient and cost effective way to do that is systematically across the city rather than jumping around. Once the new lanes are installed, at the same time the truck paints the center lines, they can be repainted as needed. Some center lines and channelizatiin lines need to be redone three times a year.

      As for pot holes and resurfacing streets, that is a different budget. The prioritization is done using a pavement rating system, and the worst streets are done first. Prioritizing bikeways would be more costly. The city is still catching up on years of underfunding maintenance fr previous administrations after state shared revenue was cut. Until Milwaukee is back where they want to be, or until a new revenue source is found, it is hard for me to imagine pushing streets with bike routes ahead of roads in worse condition.

  11. Ok so this was posted a year ago and I don’t THINK any of these lanes or sharrows have been added. What gives? More Milwaukee Mediocrity?

    • Hey Casey,

      Milwaukee did add a number of new bike lanes last year, but not with this project. After I (Dave) left that position early in July, they did not have a bike coordinator to manage that project. The lack of a project manager combined with the onerous state approval process pushed the new bikeway pavement marking project back. I just talked to Kristin Bennett, the new bike/ped coordinator for the City, and she said as many of the new lanes in that project as possible would be painted this year. Unfortunately, many of the original hand painted symbols for the bike lane layouts have worn away, so they need to be painted again. That work was done by traffic engineering interns under the supervision of a full-time staff member in the
      Traffic Engineering section of DPW. That person just retired, so now Kristin has to oversee the work.

      If you have more specific questions, you can contact Kristin. If you feel like the City needs to put more resources toward bicycle facilities, you need to contact your alderperson. Thanks for reading, writing and riding!

      • Thanx Dave. It really is sad that they spent the time on making the markings only to have to redo them now…so goes the govmt.
        Would you have Kristin’s contact info? The city website still has some schmuck’s email up 😉

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