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East Wash is still a highway

Danger and delusion run through Madison’s sparkly Cap East project.

Danger and delusion run through Madison’s sparkly Cap East project.

Illustration: A paved road twists over a textured purple background. Alongside the road are symbols of East Wash and the so-called Cap East neighborhood, including an outdoor table and chairs, a beer and a cocktail, the Sylvee, and the logo of Google, which has an office in the area. Illustration by Maggie Denman.

A series of recent protests, organizing efforts, and tragic deaths have all driven the message home that East Washington Avenue is a major safety problem in Madison. The problem is not one particular “dangerous intersection” or block or crosswalk or time of day or a few reckless drivers, but the road itself. The whole thing. East Wash. A portion of U.S. Route 151 running right through the crowded center of our isthmus. The conversation is now centered on the overpowering physical fact of this road and the choices it represents about how we get around and how we use urban space.

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East Wash punches a great big hole in how Madison dreams of its future. A decade ago, the first couple miles out from the Square were pretty dead along East Wash, a moldering post-industrial corridor. An unappealing trough separating the Willy Street and Tenney-Lapham neighborhoods, an interruption running through the leafy and walkable core of the near-east side. There were a few things going on, especially the High Noon Saloon and the storage lot where they kept that church steeple, but at that time you wouldn’t just stroll down East Wash to have fun and bump into friends. 

Business and civic leaders saw an opportunity to fill it in, so they did. On either side of the road, developers rapidly built up glassy new buildings full of expensive apartments, sunny office space, and ground-level spots for retail, bars, and restaurants—a familiar pattern that plays out in any city where capital senses a void. We got a Festival Foods to help address central Madison’s weird grocery gap, a startup incubator, revived sports and music events at Breese Stevens Field, a sleek new indoor music venue. The older buildings that remained in the area took on new life, too, for instance in the multi-use Robinia Courtyard and the cozy Bos Meadery.

At some point the term “Capitol East District,” or just the casual “Cap East,” began to catch on.  Cap East isn’t a neighborhood so much as an aspiration, constructed and hyped and willed and bullshitted and elevator-pitched into being. It embodies the comical, desperate insecurity that inexorably bubbles under Madison’s cosmopolitan pride, the ache to be validated as an “up-and-coming” city, fused with the hope seemingly every mid-sized to large city has of becoming a booming tech town. Cap East is split between two Common Council districts, which makes it a bit vague as a political constituency. Depending who you ask, Cap East arguably bleeds into Willy Street or East Johnson Street, because neighborhood boundaries are a bit fuzzy anyway and this one is nascent. Maybe any neighborhood feels a bit artificial and tenuous when it first comes into being. Maybe this is less an attempt to create a real neighborhood than an attempt to generate shameless puff pieces.

Concurrent with the growth of Cap East, the air grew thick with wisdom about How to Attract Young Professionals and What Millennials Want. This mostly meant that people were saying a lot of insane things, like claiming that millennials living downtown don’t eat at home, as then-Downtown Madison Inc. president Susan Schmitz told Isthmus in 2015. But they were right about a few things, especially about the growing demand for dense, walkable neighborhoods.

The problem is that we as a city have tried to astroturf one such neighborhood onto either side of a literal highway. Not just any bustling surface street or heavily-trafficked arterial, but an honest-to-god United States Numbered Highway. To get from a drink at the Vintage to a concert at Breese Stevens, you may not have to walk under an overpass or sprint across the Beltline. Either way, you still have to cross six lanes of a road whose primary function is to let cars go fast to the Interstate and points beyond. We have fooled ourselves into building something that doesn’t make sense. There is a long history in the United States of plowing highways through neighborhoods. In Cap East, we have done that in reverse, and it’s weird.

Cap East is now a place where businesses and city leaders actively encourage people to get about on foot—that is part of the attraction. We should absolutely create a walkable neighborhood along East Wash where bars, restaurants, and music and arts venues can thrive. But an alarming number of people get killed crossing East Wash. It happens not just farther out where Madison’s East Side gets way more sprawl-y but right in the heart of the supposedly pedestrian-friendly action, including the intersection of East Wash and Paterson Street. It doesn’t have to be this way.

In the short term, we can at the very least make design changes along the road that encourage slower driving. The plan to add Bus Rapid Transit lanes to East Wash will certainly provide one component of the solution. Speed traps and public messaging about safe driving will not cut it, and even reducing the speed limit last fall did not prevent several recent pedestrian deaths. People are still drag-racing in broad daylight. The arrangement of the road is conducive to reckless driving.

Because East Wash is an actual U.S. highway, local government can’t unilaterally make drastic changes to the road without the cooperation of state and federal officials. Contending with that should have been part of this whole development effort over the past decade. People who didn’t factor that in as they cheered on the exuberant creation of Cap East have contributed to a dangerous situation.

We also can’t stop at just saying, “Well, we have to get a lot of car traffic through this narrow isthmus somehow!” We don’t, in fact. What we have to do is actively work to reduce private passenger cars in central Madison and beyond. Add more public transit, improve the bike and pedestrian infrastructure, slash parking requirements, disincentivize driving, and yes, change the routing of U.S.151. It’s at odds with the supposed Cap East lifestyle and increasingly at odds with human life.

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