Paving Wisconsin into oblivion

WisDOT’s track record does not bode well for the intersection of East Wash and Stoughton Road.
Illustration: Ghosts and ghouls are shown swarming about the Wisconsin Capitol. Illustration by Maggie Denman.
Illustration: Ghosts and ghouls are shown swarming about the Wisconsin Capitol. Illustration by Maggie Denman.

WisDOT’s track record does not bode well for the intersection of East Wash and Stoughton Road.

Each week in Wisconsin politics brings an abundance of bad policies, bad takes, and bad actors. In our recurring feature, Capitol Punishments, we bring you the week’s highlights (or low-lights) from the state Legislature and beyond.

Who’s going to tell the Wisconsin Department of Transportation (WisDOT) that “transportation” means more than private vehicles? 

The department has renewed interest in the intersection of East Washington Avenue and Stoughton Road. In 2014 the Wisconsin State Journal named this one of the worst intersections in the city, and East Wash as a whole continues to be a lethally dangerous road


Few details are available on WisDOT’s proposal to “improve” the intersection at this point, but we’ve been down this road before and the solution the department proposed in the 2010s was—you guessed it—more lanes. Because every solution WisDOT proposes to a traffic problem involves more lanes, making arterial roads more like highways. In turn, those roads become less safe overall, but especially for pedestrians and cyclists. So when someone wants to get from Point A to Point B, they drive by default.

In fact, in cities that are trying to implement traffic calming measures and improve safety, WisDOT has impeded those efforts on state highways even when they are in dense, residential neighborhoods and have a deadly history. While WisDOT has made some concessions on speed limits on East Wash, the department is forcing the city to open Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) lanes to all vehicles during rush hour, slowing down a service that was created to reduce the number of cars on the road. 

It’s a never-ending loop: build another lane, make other modes of transportation unsafe or unviable, and within a few months more cars are on the road and we have traffic issues again. 

We have been building our cities and communities to accommodate private vehicles for decades and the result has been that they are less safe, more expensive, and less enjoyable. The short-sighted, anti-urban attitude that dominates Wisconsin’s Legislature has only made this cycle worse.

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Remember that cute Netflix show (Old Enough in English, My First Errand in Japanese) where young Japanese children run errands for their families? There’s a great 99% Invisible episode that talks about why it is normal, even routine, for Japanese children to travel alone in their cities and run errands. 

First, most parents don’t send their children out when they are two or three years old unless there’s a film crew following them around, but they do typically run a first errand by the time they are four or five. Part of that is cultural, but the built environment is also a huge factor. 

Instead of rebuilding cities to accommodate cars, many Japanese communities require cars to accommodate walkers and cyclists. Cars are generally smaller and are not allowed to park on the street, so they have better visibility. Also the streets are narrower, which psychologically causes drivers to slow down. Also, many small Japanese towns or cities don’t have sidewalks or they are very narrow, so cars have to share the road. (Though the idea of implementing that in the US makes me nervous; drivers are already not-great about sharing the road, even when there is a designated bike lane.) 

Japan’s urban planners also intentionally plan cities around schools so children can safely walk to schools that aren’t too far away from their homes. Also, separate zoning for commercial and residential is not a thing, so shopkeepers still live above their businesses, a model we’ve moved away from for reasons I just cannot understand. This means shops are within walking distances of where people live. 

It’s not just Japan. If anything, the US is the aberration for how we’ve built our communities around cars instead of vice versa.

Like millions of Americans, I went on vacation in Europe (specifically, Zurich) last summer, where cars are a convenience for certain trips, and maybe necessary for some occupations, but they are not a necessity for everyone all of the time. In Zurich, you can buy a transit pass that gives you unlimited rides on all modes of public transit, including buses, light-rail, trains, and boats. Yes, there are cars, but for most trips, a bike, bus or even walking will do. 

“But I like to drive.” Great, then you’ll love having fewer people on the road. If all the people who can’t, shouldn’t, or don’t want to drive had convenient, quality alternatives, they would use them and everyone would be able to safely get where they need to go. 

It would also enrich our lives. Instead of sitting around the house scrolling on a phone or watching TV, you could take a walk or ride a bike through your neighborhood, see your neighbors, and patronize your local cafe or restaurant. Or you could just enjoy being outdoors among people. You don’t need to have money to spend to stroll along a tree-lined promenade or people-watch on a bench. 


Why do we travel to the other side of the world to experience what we could build here for much cheaper than adding another lane? Thanks to the narrow isthmus, Madison could easily have a small light-rail system that would take some pressure off its roads and parking. 

WisDOT has a “Connect 2050” initiative that is supposed to plan for multimodal transit across the state. But why wait when we could start planning our transit around walking, biking, and public transit now? How are we going to switch to multi-modal transit in 30 years when we’re still building car-centric infrastructure (which will then need to be maintained and rebuilt) now? 

Post-World War II, we rebuilt so much of our cities to accommodate private cars. Making them more walkable, bikeable, and public transit-centered is just a matter of imagination and will.

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