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Madison needs to think bigger than a pedestrian mall

Adding car-free spaces is great, as long as it’s part of a much deeper movement.

Photo by Richard Hurd on Flickr.

This past weekend the Wisconsin State Journal’s editorial board published its second article this year calling on the city of Madison to consider turning State Street into a pedestrian mall. The idea, which the State Journal first floated at the end of January, is that if pedestrians can use the full width of the street rather than just the current sidewalks, restaurants and businesses can take advantage of the sidewalk space for outdoor boutiques and patio dining, both of which are safer during the COVID-19 era. In time, the city can restructure the whole street to make it a pleasant, on-foot destination, adding trees and hanging lights overhead. The idea got enough traction and publicity that Tom Lynch, the city’s Director of Transportation, was compelled to address it specifically at the last Transportation Policy & Planning Board meeting. You can see a summary of the constraints and equity issues he outlined here or watch the whole discussion if you’re so inclined (it starts at 1:19:00).  

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It’s not surprising to me that readers’ response to this suggestion was, as the State Journal notes, “overwhelmingly positive.” We’re at the end of a long winter, heading into the second year of a pandemic that has kept most of us at home. The very notion of enjoying a burger on a patio somewhere is positively exquisite. On top of that, car-free spaces are wonderful. They’re quieter, safer, and cleaner. It is soothing to our animal brains to be separated from car traffic. This is why wealthy neighborhoods are usually set back from busy thoroughfares.

I adore having a beer and a snack on a restaurant patio, and have enjoyed countless happy hours around the Square over the years. I’m also a big proponent of car-free and car-light spaces. Not only is reducing car traffic an environmental imperative, but it would contribute a lot to our collective safety and quality of life if there were fewer cars on the streets of Madison. During non-pandemic times, I also spend a lot of time on State Street. I’ve been working near the Square for almost eight years. 

By all accounts I should be psyched for a pedestrian promenade. But the plan that the Wisconsin State Journal champions, alongside civic leaders like District 4 Alder Mike Verveer, falls flat. It might be tempting to view this plan as a small step towards the car-light utopia many of us in Madison are craving, or the natural culmination of a decades-long effort to give downtown Madison an attractive, pedestrian-friendly main drag. But in reality it is a giveaway of public space to private businesses at the expense of the very modes of transportation that make car-light and car-free spaces possible—buses and bikes. 

In fact, the most obvious practical objection to the plan at present is that it’s unclear what will happen to bicyclists if State Street becomes a pedestrian promenade. State Street is an important bike route, with no obvious alternative—and certainly no alternative that feels as safe and comfortable as State Street does, since it is already car-light, off-limits to motor vehicles except for buses, taxis, and delivery trucks. Pedestrians and bikes can mix, but as anyone who has tried to bike through Library Mall on a busy afternoon can attest, it’s not always easy. Pedestrians aside, last summer during the “Streatery” program that the State Journal has cited as proof of the potential of the promenade idea, State Street was barricaded at several intersections. I had to get off my bicycle and move a barricade in order to continue up to the Square.  

The actual logistical problem of moving bus routes from State Street might seem like less of an issue. As the Wisconsin State Journal points out, we already reroute buses off of State Street for a number of events every year. Permanently routing buses off of State Street could even eliminate some unpredictability for riders. But moving the actual bus stops is a different story. State Street has some of the nicest bus stops in Madison, featuring actual shelters with seating inside. They are in well-lit areas where there are usually lots of other people around and businesses you can window shop or even grab a coffee while you wait for your bus. Because State Street is already light on cars, these bus stops feel more comfortable than standing next to a busy street where cars are rushing past. Switching up bus routes to exclude State Street might be simple, but replicating the quality of the existing bus infrastructure isn’t. If we want to increase bus ridership, these things actually matter.

But my misgivings go beyond logistical issues.There’s something profoundly unjust about kicking bicyclists and bus riders out of a space in order to create a beautiful pedestrian promenade for people to arrive at in their cars. Thanks for choosing public transportation! Hope you enjoy standing near the cars speeding down Johnson Street at rush hour while you wait for your bus. 

Certainly, plenty of people would still come to the pedestrian mall on foot, bike, or bus. But we know plenty of people will still be driving there and parking, especially given what a draw State Street is for out-of-town visitors—as the State Journal‘s most recent editorial on the subject notes, “People here generally know how to get to State Street and where to park.” Unless the city takes a more holistic approach to cars and parking downtown, the pedestrian mall could create something of an unhealthy contradiction. 

The conversation also reeks of a particular NIMBYism towards buses, thanks in no small part to former Mayor and current Isthmus columnist Dave Cieslewicz’s contribution. Cieslewicz’s comments about “the noise and smell of the buses”—something that, presumably, any decent-sized city with outdoor dining has to contend with, and likely to be less of an issue as the city gets more electric buses on the road—remind me of my time on Marquette Neighborhood Association Board, listening to Jenifer Street residents complain about the buses idling near their homes. Later, when Jenifer Street was under construction and the buses were rerouted to Willy Street, it was the Willy Street businesses’ turn to be in uproar about the loss of free street parking for their customers and unruly bus riders hanging out near their businesses. The irony of people whose primary mode of transportation is a personal vehicle complaining about the noise and pollution of public transportation is old. We also shouldn’t pretend that antipathy towards buses isn’t frequently intertwined with racism and hostility towards homeless people. 

That brings me to my final concern about the State Street promenade plan. It was just two years ago that Downtown Madison Inc. and Alder Verveer were endlessly wringing their hands over the out-of-control “party” on State Street. Philosopher’s Grove, an interactive art installment where people could sit, was removed because it encouraged loitering by folks who are apparently undesirable to the State Street business set. Hostile design has been used in places where people used to rest. But now the State Street alarmists want it to be more like Pearl Street in Boulder, Colorado? 

We should have no illusions about whose enjoyment this giveaway of our public space is intended for. It will be for people who can pay to be there. Everyone else will be shuffled out of sight. In fact, I assume this is a part of the reason for wanting to move the buses in the first place. We’d hate for the out-of-towners to glimpse shabby office workers and homeless men sitting around at a bus stop. 

This half-baked idea for a State Street promenade is coming forward at a time when a growing number of Madison residents are actually eager to talk about making more parts of the city car-light and car-free, as well as more just and accessible to all. In some respects, the Wisconsin State Journal editorials feel like a cheap imitation of the rich and visionary conversation that we could be having. That’s why I think we should resist the allure of a pedestrian promenade as a tourist attraction, especially at the expense of critical modes of transportation. We deserve more than a quick gimmick aimed at attracting suburban families and we can do better than a downtown district with all the gloss and depth of Hilldale Mall. 

From neighborhood traffic committees to bus and bike advocacy groups, hundreds of people in Madison are already deeply invested in the kinds of questions the pedestrian mall proposal raises and the sorts of changes it merely hints at. That the Wisconsin State Journal could generate so much excitement over an idea that amounts to “less traffic for more patio tables” is a sign to all of these groups to start putting forward their own big visions. People are ready to hear them.   

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