Background on Wisconsin’s Complete Streets Law


This is what a complete street looks like: S 2nd Street in Milwaukee. The project to widen sidewalks, add bike lanes, curb extentions and street trees was initiated by Rockwell International. The Fortune 500 company with their international headquarters in the clocktower building wanted a complete street to help them attract and retain a youthful, talented workforce.

The same S 2nd St., before the complete streets makeover.

As the Bike Fed fights to save our Wisconsin Complete Streets Law and restore funding for bike and pedestrian projects and trail development in the state budget we thought it would be a good idea to go into more depth about each of these issues.

We’ll start today with Complete Streets and follow up with more in-depth blogs about the Transportation Alternatives Program and the Stewardship Fund.

Complete Streets was passed by the state legislature in 2009. The language of the law was written by State Senator Fred Risser of Madison, an avid biker. Following national models from around the country, Wisconsin’s law provides that our state’s Department of Transportation:

“ensure that bikeways and pedestrian ways are established in all new highway construction and reconstruction projects funded in whole or in part from state or federal funds.”

Then the law goes on to list five areas of exceptions that may be granted. Essentially, those are cases where bikes and pedestrians are prohibited, like Interstate highways; where the cost are excessive or an absence of need has been demonstrated; where there are constrained environments; or, in the case of sidewalks, where the community refuses to accept an agreement to maintain them.

In other words this is not, as Governor Scott Walker’s budget states, “a requirement that the department must construct bicycle and pedestrian facilities on new highway construction.” A more accurate way to read the law is that it requires only that bicyclists and pedestrians be taken into account when a new road is being built or reconstructed.

The department itself has recognized that facilities that might accommodate bikes and pedestrians can also end up serving motorists and even prolonging the life of the road, as is the case with paved shoulders on rural roads. And the department acknowledges that building in these facilities, whether in rural or urban areas, from the start is less expensive than retrofitting them later on.

Click to read the text of the Trans 75 Complete Streets Law

So, the estimate in the governor’s budget that repealing the law will save $7.4 million over two years just doesn’t have any basis in fact. The law may even wind up saving money in the long-run. In any event, there’s no pot of money in the state budget that is set aside just for Complete Streets projects. The costs, if there are any, are absorbed in the overall projects as they occur.

The primary argument used against Complete Streets is that they make projects too costly. But again, those costs are usually either insignificant or these investments can actually save money over time. And if a case can be made that these facilities do cost too much the law allows for an exception.

Finally, Complete Streets ends up benefitting motorists in another way. It seems the leading complaint of drivers about bicyclists is that they share their road space, as we are legally allowed to do in most cases. But Complete Streets is often about building in clearly marked space or actual separate space for bikes. It means less conflict on the road, which should be good for everyone.

Beyond improving traffic flow, complete streets spur development. South 2nd Street in the Walker’s Point Neighborhood just south of Milwaukee’s downtown is now one of the hottest development zones in the city, and it all started with a complete street.

Note: My wife, Dianne Cieslewicz, worked on the Complete Streets legislation when she worked for Sen. Fred Risser.

About Dave Cieslewicz, Director Emeritus

Dave Cieslewicz served two terms as mayor of Madison where he set the city on a path for Platinum status as one of the best biking cities in North America. Before that he started his own nonprofit, 1000 Friends of Wisconsin, which focuses on land use and transportation policy. He has been an adjunct professor at the UW Madison's Department of Urban and Regional Planning where he teaches a class called Bikes, Pedestrians and Cities. He pronounces his name chess LEV ich, but nobody else does.

3 thoughts on “Background on Wisconsin’s Complete Streets Law

  1. (1) Complete street projects have been shown to be significant economic drivers once completed. So even if that bogus $7.4 million figure was real, it is probably more than worth it to the local community.

    (2) Wisconsin has one of the weakest complete streets policies out there. If WisDOT doesn’t want to build bike/ped/transit facilities, its WAY too easy for them to make excuses to get out of it. ( Not only should the policy not be repealed, it should be further strengthened. (No offense to your wife, as I admit this was probably the best that could be done at a state level)

    • Thanks, Maggie!

      It’s true that our law isn’t as strong as some others, but it has been a good start. It would be a shame to back away from even what we have now.

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