I have to preface this piece by saying that, in the so-called "war" between bicyclists and motorists in the City of Madison, I am a neutral party. I am Switzerland. I'm the freakin' Red Cross. I'm convinced that if you people all just stopped hating on each other, we could all get to where we're going in one piece/peace. But no matter how you try, none of you is going to convert me to your side. As a motorcyclist, I sympathize with both sides, but I also see where both sides are out of line.
Even with that established, there are those who will try to paint what I say next as "anti-bicycle," but here goes:
Madison's "Ride the Drive" event, as planned, is an absolute disaster waiting to happen.
In case you haven't read the mayor's proclamation, "Ride the Drive" is an event, based on similar events in other cities, where people are supposed to "leave their cars behind to experience some of Madison's most scenic byways a whole new way -- via bicycle, skate, stroller or foot." In other words, for six hours on August 30, the city plans to close down a handful of major thoroughfares so people can take non-motorized traffic on them, and they want this to be a regular thing.
Okay, cool, it's a warm fuzzy feeling for the whole family, except it's going to hamstring east-west traffic in a city that doesn't move north and south. If you look at the map, the proposed closures are in green, and the proposed "detour" is in pink. By closing East Washington Avenue and John Nolen Drive, the city is effectively limiting traffic in and out of its densest center of population and commerce to ONE route. In the case of Gorham Street, the recommended westbound detour, traffic is limited to ONE LANE because of construction.
Now, granted, the event will take place on a Sunday morning, from 8:00 AM to 2:00 PM -- not exactly high traffic time. But on a typical Sunday morning, with all routes across the isthmus open, I've observed traffic on Gorham Street backed up several blocks due to the construction, from Broom Street to Wisconsin Avenue or so. If the city takes away John Nolen Drive and East Washington Avenue as an option for motorists traveling east to west, that will triple the traffic volume on Gorham.
It's not that closing major arterial streets to allow people to walk and bicycle on them is a bad idea -- it's just a bad idea for Madison. The proposal here is based on an event they host in Chicago on Lake Shore Drive called "Bike the Drive." Chicago, as you know, is that city of 3 million people situated to the south on the shore of Lake Michigan.
It is not a moderately-sized city planted smack dab between two lakes on an isthmus less than a mile wide. If Lake Shore Drive is closed, motorists have any number of options to detour it. In Madison, drivers will have one detour -- two, if you count the 25 minute drive around Lake Monona.
So what's the big deal? Can't we deal with a traffic hell for six hours on a Sunday morning? Normally I wouldn't take issue with a bunch of folks getting outside to enjoy themselves on their non-motorized-transportation-of-choice, and on the weekends I generally tend to leave the car parked and walk or take a bus anyway. Under different circumstances, I might consider joining in on the "Bike the Ride" festivities. But this isn't a typical Sunday morning.
Sunday, August 30 2009 is the last day for students to move into their downtown dorms and apartments before fall semester classes start at the University of Wisconsin. As anyone who's ever lived downtown or any parent who's ever helped their student move in knows, it's a day of pandemonium as thousands of stressed-out people from both coasts try to navigate U-hauls down streets they've never seen in their lives.
Gorham Street and University Avenue will already be a construction mess for this day, and there's nothing to be done about that. But adding more road closures, bicycles and strollers running right through the heart of that campus mess (yes, Lake Street between Sellery and Witte Halls, the two largest dorms on campus, will be closed as well) to the recipe is inviting the perfect storm. It's a bad idea.
I live along Gorham Street. I can attest to the fact that it's a main route for ambulances en route from parts east to any one of three hospitals located in the city's core. If Gorham is backed up all the way to Tenney Park, I don't even want to fathom what's going to happen to the poor sap who has a heart attack in Maple Bluff, unless the city has a speedboat they can equip as an ambulance.
This isn't about bikes versus cars. This is about something that could be a neat event in a unique city, but because of flagrant disregard or blatant oversights on someone's part, could stand to deadlock Madison on what's already one of its most hectic days. And for an event designed to "invite Madisonians to consider adding non-motorized means of travel to their daily lives," pissing off thousands of motorists doesn't seem like a very diplomatic way to further those ends.