Green Lanes and Bike Boxes: Wauwatosa Gets It Right

A commuter rolls past the sidewalk cafe diners at Juniper 61 (my second kitchen).

Wauwatosa is open for business, and the businesses on North Avenue officially hung up a big welcome sign for people arriving on bicycle and on foot. With enhanced crosswalks, redesigned curb extensions, pedestrian islands, green bike lanes, bike boxes and pothole free smooth asphalt, the stretch of North Avenue from 60th Street to 76th Street might just be the most bicycle friendly stretch of street anywhere in the Wisconsin, outside of Madison. I live in Milwaukee, one block on the other side of the border, and although I may fill my wallet in Milwaukee, I tend to empty it in Wauwatosa. That didn’t used to be the case when my wife and I used to travel to Bay View, Walkers Point, or Broadway Street downtown to go out. Now we rarely leave our neighborhood.

The original curb extensions have been pulled back to allow for the bike lanes.

This project is a great example of how place-making roadway design combined with demand from residents and a progressive business community can work hand-in-hand with government to spur big gains in economic development. The project all started with a few good businesses on North Avenue and nearby residents who wanted to walk and bike there instead of drive. It was probably five years ago when East Tosa resident Ed Haydin, an architect who specializes in community sensitive design and economic development, came to me to get ideas on how Wauwatosa might improve North Avenue for bicycle and pedestrian traffic. Ed is a bike guy, but he was  very clear about his goals: “This isn’t a bike project, this is a neighborhood development project. Our goal is to spur new development on North Avenue to improve our neighborhood. I want my property value to go up and have more places to go where I live.”

Those early conversations were followed up with action by Wauwatosa, and in 2011, the Wauwatosa Common Council adopted a Master Plan for the East Tosa commercial corridor. City of Wauwatosa 5th District Alderman Joel Tillison reminded me that beginning with the 2012 municipal budget, a capital improvement fund was established to begin setting aside funds to put towards implementing recommendations in the plan. In conjunction with residents and businesses in the East Tosa neighborhood, the City decided that the first project we would undertake would be a redesign of North Avenue itself. I asked Alderman Tilleson if he had any figures on he amount of investment on North and he had the following comments:

“While it’s too early to tell what private investment we’ll see after the addition of the bike lanes and bike boxes, the mere promise of the plan as proposed (which recommended these design elements) has already attracted significant reinvestment. BelAir Cantina pursued their site after the implementation of the plan. Both Josh Jeffers (owner of the Hue building at 6519 North) and Paul Hackbarth (owner of the Camp Bar building at 6600 North) cited the promise of the plan as reassurance that they’d see returns on their building rehabilitations). Several well-known area developers have expressed interest in building multi-use buildings along North Avenue, hoping to capitalize on the transportation alternatives that North Avenue now offers and appeal to a younger demographic.The businesses are strongly supportive of the new bike lanes and are reporting increased revenue as a result of bike traffic. Both BelAir Cantina and Camp Bar included stationary bike racks in their designs, with BelAir’s bike racks routinely full.”

It may take a bit of education for people to learn how to use the bike boxes at 68th and North Avenue.

Those recent investments and the plan are important, but we also need to give credit to the first businesses that moved in before the plan was even written. I feel like Il Mito and Juniper 61 were pioneering new restaurants on North. Closest to me, Juniper took over the old Jake’s building that had changed hands a number of times. The owners (who also own Cafe Lulu in Bay View) did a modern remodel,  offered a delicious menu, creative cocktails and good service. Around the same time, the Rosebud and Times cinemas changed hands and the new owner began reinvesting with modern projection equipment, new comfortable seating and serving food and alcohol.  So Juniper built on the success of Il Mito and Walters, and suddenly East Tosa had a nightlife scene with enough gravity to be considered a destination.

With their expansive patios and tasty margaritas, BelAir Cantina is a popular destination for people on bike and foot.

I live in the area, and I have been trying to remember the timeline for all the businesses that have gone in since, but there are so many, it is hard to do! I think this is the order of development: Il Mito, Juniper 61, Mekong Cafe, Cranky Al’s bakery and pizza place, BelAir CantinaRocket Baby Bakery, Red Dot, Hue’ going in, Camp going in, and those are just the restaurants. We have other new businesses like fitness centers, guitar stores, etc. I am friends with Scott Johnson and Kristyn St. Denis, two of the owners of BelAir, and they told me business was off the hook when they opened, busier than any of the numerous other restaurants they have owned over the last 20 years or so. Hopefully Camp and Hue (both opening in a week or two) will have the same success.

Kristyn St Denis is one of the owners of BelAir who also lives in the neighborhood was strongly in favor of the North Avenue redesign project.

While some cities actually create playful bike people in their bike lane symbols, we have Cranky Al’s adding tasty treats to ours!

When the Wauwatosa council was considering approving this project, the public meetings were overwhelmingly packed with supportive crowds that included neighbors as well as many of the area business owners, like Cranky Al’s.  “With those bike lanes coming in, it’s going to reduce the traffic flow and bikers are going to be able to bike on the lanes,” said Joey Carioti of Cranky Al’s Bakery. Carioti was so happy to see the green bike lanes go in, he literally invited people to come to get donuts by bicycle with the image to the right.

Erik Busby, the general manager at the Belair Cantina, said their restaurant group encourages employees as well as customers to commute to work by bicycle. “It’s a beautiful city, so to see it on two wheels is real important,” Busby said.


If you build it they will come (by bicycle) to get great tacos and margaritas.

Mother and child on bicycles: two of the strongest indicator species of a bicycle friendly street.

Even though the construction on North Avenue is not complete yet, it will be done soon, I have already noticed an increase in people riding on North Avenue. Before the project most people (me incuded) avoided riding on North, taking parallel side streets as much as possible before cutting over to get to the businesses on North. Now I see people confidently cruising down the smooth new pavement. One of the true testimonies to a bicycle friendly street is whether parents are willing to ride with their kids there, and I have been seeing more tiny wheels and Burley trailers too.

In addition to improvements for people on bicycles and on foot, the project removed the left turn only lanes that created a serpentine travel pattern for motor vehicles. That was an early attempt at slowing traffic on North, and while it did slow motor vehicles, it didn’t work well for other users and most drivers hated it. The new design with bike lanes, pedestrian islands and smaller bump outs appears (anecdotally) to have a similar traffic calming effect without the swerving traffic.

People are so excited about the wonderful new development on North Avenue, that the East Tosa Alliance has become stronger and there is evan a #EastTosaRocks social media campaign now. All things considered, it looks like Wauwatosa did just about everything right on this project.

I’d encourage you to bike over there for a fish fry tonight, but if you want to wait, you can come to the grand re-opening ceremony on October 4th, which will feature a ribbon cutting, bike parade, pedestrian and cycle safety presentation.

Red crosswalk treatment going in.



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.

8 thoughts on “Green Lanes and Bike Boxes: Wauwatosa Gets It Right

  1. Oh no tue burbs are passing up Milwaukee. The city but start getting its act together. Tosa is bexoming more and more of a destination.
    MKE should copy what is successfull. The project on North Ave and S. 2nd street really shows what happens to business strips when built to a more human rather than machine scale

    • Casey, I considered S. 2nd street when I suggested that this might be the most economically successful bicycle friendly street redesign, but the combination of green bike lanes, colored crosswalks, curb extensions, and ped islands put North Avenue ahead in my mind. I think traffic volumes might be higher on North than on 2nd, which could be a negative for those who are more traffic intolerant, but it is a bonus for the businesses. I would love to see the City of Milwaukee continue what East Tosa did on North east of 60th and on down to Uptown Crossing. That area might have better bones, with wider sidewalks/building setbacks, so there is a lot of potential there.

      Other places that could use this kind of design are Broadway, Kilbourn and Van Buren downtown. I think all those streets are overbuilt for the capacity they carry. They might be able to get protected bike lanes in places.

      Nice to see other communities moving cycling forward. I will be curious to see how Shorewood does with Oakland when the new grocery store goes in.

      • From what I recall, the curb bump-outs / colored ped and bike lanes / etc was originally part of the S 2nd design….at least that was what the original renderings displayed. Too bad the City pulled those elements out of the final product.

        • Good memory Max, here is a link to the proposed conceptual design for S 2nd. While I agree that would have been better, we have to remember that S. 2nd Street was a four lane road converted to a two lane road with bike lanes and pedestrian walkway improvements. The idea of a “road diet” was pretty ground breaking at the time, so the City still deserves kudos. And the project is still a big success in my mind. South 2nd street is one of hottest in the city in terms of new development with nationally recognized restaurants, micro breweries, ice cream, a cheese factory. The multi-modal traffic improvements work well and the street trees, gabion planter/benches, etc., have helped in the place-making realm. Some of the colored pavement markings and enhanced crosswalks might still be added. I’d like to see some sort of artistic intersection treatments done to the crosswalks at Freshwater Way, Bruce, and National Ave.

          Another option given there are no curb extensions might be to put in protected bike lanes. There is definitely room south of National Avenue, but the curb extensions by Rockwell would need to be pulled back or cut through. Given the low demand for on-street parking on S 1st, one blog to the east, and the fact that it is a more direct route between Bay View and downtown, a protected bike lane there might be a better choice.

  2. I can’t tell you how happy I am about this redesign of North Avenue and the recent improvements to the East Side. However, when will the City of Milwaukee could do something about the disastrous state of its bike lanes heading west towards these suburbs that have a great biking infrastructure (Tosa, West Allis)? Highland Ave and Wisconsin Ave in particular were really hit hard this past winter and make for a teeth-rattling ride downtown. Wouldn’t it be great to be able to ride to these types of business from downtown or the East Side? (And I’m aware that the Hank Aaron provides an off-street option, but more direct on-street options would be even greater. On my commute from Tosa to downtown, the Hank Aaron takes me an extra 4 miles of pedaling.)

    • Jenny,

      The City of Milwaukee does repaint the bike lanes each year, and I think Vliet and Highland were just repainted. Of course without the fresh asphalt and green lanes, it is not quite the same experience as East Tosa, but if you try riding Humboldt, I think you will find it pretty similar. S. 2nd in Walkers Point is also still nice, with new concrete and clear pavement markings.

      I have already sent an email to the City of Milwaukee City Engineer and their Bicycle and Pedestrian Coordinator to ask that they consider continuing the East Tosa bike lane treatment east of 60th down into the Uptown Crossing area.

      My vote for an improved on-street connection from Wauwatosa to downtown Milwaukee is Vliet Street. I think it is the most direct with the least amount of traffic, and it already has bike lanes. My suggestion to the City has been that they time the traffic signals on Vliet from 60th to 6th to match a typical bicycle speed of say 12mph. That is called “green wave signal timing” and it would allow a person on a bike to ride the entire route without stopping. Through in some improved bike lanes and you would have pretty nice bikeway. Fresh pavement would make it even better though.

    • Brady was just repaved and not much more can be done to that street other than maybe adding shared lane pavement markings. Walkers Point/5th Ward is getting S Water repaved and a side path and bike lanes, as I mentioned in this overview from the last County Trails Council meeting. I have heard there are discussions about Virginia getting redone, but have not heard any details. Anodyne on Bruce did sponsor a Bublr station, so that should be going in next spring. Perhaps Kristin Bennett, the City bike coordinator has other news. She was not able to make the last trails council meeting.

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