The Appleton Common Council is preparing to vote on a proposal to repaint College Avenue in what the Wisconsin Department of Transportation (DOT) calls a roadway configuration or a “road diet.” Appleton’s Traffic Engineer Eric Lom defined a road diet as when a four-lane road is restriped into three, with one lane in each direction and a center lane for left turns and emergency vehicles. The $130,000 plan would take effect at Drew Street and stretch all the way to Richmond Street. District 6 Alderperson Denise Fenton said the proposal would be an 18-month trial of the reconfiguration.
Currently, College Avenue has two lanes each for eastbound and westbound traffic, adding up to four total lanes. The proposal passing the vote would mean one lane on each side would be lost to converge into a middle lane. Additionally, Lom said bike lanes would be added on each side of the road between the parking spaces and the lanes.
Lom said that there are benefits that come from implementing a road diet. Even though College Avenue is under an ordinance banning bikes, skateboards, scooters and other such vehicles from the sidewalks, District 1 Alderperson Bill Siebers, who represents the stretch of College Avenue that would be reconfigured, said that the ordinance is often ignored. Siebers claimed that while bikers are not allowed on sidewalks, there is currently no designated place for pedestrians on wheels to ride. The road is too dangerous for pedestrians on wheels to utilize and this drives them to go against the ordinance and use their wheels on the sidewalks. Should the reconfiguration come to be, Lom believes that the City of Appleton could more effectively enforce the ordinance, creating safer sidewalks for pedestrians on foot and space for those on wheels.
However, Siebers expressed some concern that while the proposal could increase pedestrian safety, bike lanes may not be completely safe for riders. He worries that since they would fall between the parking spaces and either lane, cars would need to cross them to park, placing those using bike lanes in danger. District 9 Alderperson Alex Schultz feels that the concern is valid but supports it because he sees it as a much safer alternative to bikes and scooters on the sidewalk.
Associate Professor of Government and Stephen E. Scarff Professor of International Affairs Jason Brozek, who also serves on the City of Appleton Bike and Pedestrian Advisory Committee, hopes that the Appleton community will come to see the benefit to safety for wheel-using pedestrians. He hopes that if accepted, the reconfiguration will lead to further measures to increase safety for bikers downtown in the form of protected bike lanes.
Lom and District 11 Alderperson Kris Alfheim, who represents the Lawrence campus, both agree that the reconfiguration would result in safer and more efficient left turns. Right now, Lom said it is difficult to make left turns off College Avenue since drivers often cannot see around one another. Moreover, those behind the car making the turn are stuck waiting until it pulls away, said Lom. Lom claimed that adding a left turn lane would reduce the wait as well as give those turning better visibility to exit the Avenue more safely.
Car-on-car accidents would become less prevalent, Lom said. According to the Wisconsin DOT, the average corridor crash rate—number of crashes per hundred million vehicle miles—for a four-lane urban highway (highway meaning any public street) is about 465. College Avenue’s corridor crash rate is upwards of 1100, almost two and a half times the statewide average.
In addition, Lom said the change would lead to a decrease in overall speed, resulting in less car accidents involving pedestrians. Since there would be one lane available in each direction, he explained that drivers who go slower would define the speed that the cars behind them would be able to go. Lom’s claim is backed by a study from the U.S. Department of Transportation, which states that pedestrians hit by a car going 23 miles per hour (mph) have a 90% chance of survival, which drops to 50% at 42 mph and 10% at 58 mph.
Lawrence University Democrats Vice President Rowan Tipping said that much of the noise on College Avenue is created by drag racing cars, and when drivers only have one lane going each way, racing would become less common, thus lowering noise levels and increasing safety, especially for students from Plantz Hall who must cross the Avenue daily.
Lom acknowledged the public concern surrounding more heavily regulated speed. Some community members are concerned that traffic congestion would become heavier as a result. Based on the computer modeling that has done, he suspects that outside of morning and afternoon rush hours, where one would be delayed about thirty seconds and three minutes respectively, that traffic would run as smoothly as it has been.
There may even be some upsides to the momentary congestion, said City of Appleton Director of Public Works Danielle Block. As well as lower speeds, she predicted that one could expect a lower noise level. Block said that this would make it easier for those who live by or would like to enjoy the amenities of College Avenue to have a more comfortable experience.
Livability would be improved should the proposal be accepted, said City of Appleton Principal Planner Dave Kress. He believes that in creating a safer avenue environment, Appleton will become a more pleasant place for current residents and more attractive to prospective ones.
“I think too often people view streets as just vehicle-movers and that’s not the case, especially with a street like College Avenue,” Kress said. “It’s a public place that people of all modes of transportation—whether you’re living, working, or just visiting downtown—should be able to appreciate.”
Brozek agrees with Kress. He stated that he does not believe that a city’s goal should be to make their downtown a fast place to drive through, but rather a pleasant place to shop, play, and live.
Increased pedestrian presence has the potential to help College Avenue businesses, according to City of Appleton Community and Economic Development Director Kara Homan. She referred to studies that demonstrated local businesses would not be harmed and may even see an increase in business when the street they are on gets a road diet since downtown would prospectively become more pedestrian-friendly. With a more inviting downtown, she believes that current and future residents of the area will be more comfortable with the Avenue and more willing to become patrons of the establishments it offers. Kress agreed that College Avenue businesses would benefit from the passing of the proposal.
“All customers, regardless of how they arrive downtown, finish the last leg of their trip into a business on foot,” Kress said.
Brozek and Alfheim agree that there is some community anxiety when it comes to change, especially within the small business community. However, Alfheim pointed out the benefits of increased pedestrian traffic.
“Change is difficult and scary, especially in the small business community where margins are razor thin,” Alfheim said. “While every business owner will be concerned about loss of traffic, the science and data of this project strongly validate an increase in customer flow while decreasing pass through traffic and accidents.”
Brozek hopes that if this proposal comes to fruition, it will inspire the city to be more open to expanding their efforts for increased pedestrian safety, especially to the Lawrence campus. LU Democrats President Tucker Hall agreed, adding that Lawrence students would see increased safety when crossing College Avenue between the Conservatory and Main Hall green.
“I…hope that further lane reconfigurations take place along College Avenue, especially in areas that run through Lawrence’s campus.” Hall said. “Every year we have students injured at these intersections, and the lack of motorist attentiveness on our campus not only physically harms students but also creates a negative environment when walking across campus.”
While the proposal has been making progress, Siebers pointed out that this is not a done deal; it would still require council and committee approval to be enacted. Block said the proposal is still in the stage where planners are still considering community feedback into account. Only after everything is finalized can the council vote on whether to proceed, which she expects will be this coming spring. If approved, she imagines that the lane reconfiguration will be completed this summer.
Homan claimed that if the lanes are reconfigured, the Appleton community may come to see what she believes to be its benefits and become more willing to accept further livability-related road projects in the future.
“It’s one of those things that with some paint, it has the potential to transform the neighborhood.” Homan said.