I made it to Milwaukee, WI, my new home! (Although that photo is not what it looks like now. Not for a couple months at least.) During my first few days here I saw the apartment we’re moving into soon, cooked and baked more than I have in weeks, and adjusted to a new freelance schedule. So far the biggest shocks to my system after moving from NYC have not been the lack of skyscrapers, the Midwestern accents, or the quiet atmosphere (praise the Lord for this). No, the biggest change has been the drastic shift in my transportation options.
Milwaukee is definitely a car-centric city, but I do not have a car (nor do I have plans to procure one)—just my feet and a bus pass. I was prepared for this, but it’s still a huge change coming from New York, which is the land of quick, cheap and easy public transit.
One thing I noticed upon my preliminary attempts at traveling by foot was the half-assed nature of walkability in this place. The city is chipping away at it’s auto-oriented streets with sidewalks, crosswalks and more, but none of these are quite accomplishing what they’re supposed to because they weren’t invested with the proper amount of forethought and intention in the beginning. This is not unique to Milwaukee by any means. It’s also not a bad thing at face value: better to have some sidewalks than none at all, right? However, as someone who is always looking for ways to improve cities, I have to take them to task when they half-ass their walkable places. Here are three of those half-assed attempts, and ideas for how to make them better:
1. The sidewalk that suddenly terminates. Here’s what it looks like: You’ve charted your course to the grocery store and you’re making good time on the sidewalk. You can see the store two blocks ahead of you when all of a sudden, you realize that the sidewalk is about to end and only way forward is in the road. We usually encounter these interruptions near busy, multilane streets where the focus is obviously on the driver, so much so that it appears the engineers forgot that there might be pedestrians around.
Solution: It’s probably not doable for most towns to interconnect every one of their sidewalks, but at the very least, they should acknowledge their negligence. A simple sign indicating that the sidewalk is about to end would suffice. One step up from there would be aiming for connected sidewalks on at least one side of every street, and well-placed crosswalks the help people navigate these roads.
2. The crosswalk that doesn’t give you enough time to cross. This is also an issue we encounter near large, multilane intersections. You have stoplights pointing every which way and it takes a minute to locate the walk-sign that’s meant for you. After patiently waiting for several minutes to get your turn to cross, you see the walk-sign light up and you march forward into the road, hoping to God that these speedy cars are paying attention. However, you’re no more than halfway across the intersection when the little white man on the sign quickly turns into a flashing orange hand. You start picking up the pace and just barely make it to the other side before the red light hits. This is dangerous and completely unfair to pedestrians; the light gives enough time for cars to dart across, but hardly any time for an able-bodied human to pass through, much less someone in a wheelchair or pushing a stroller.
Solution: Make the walk-sign last a reasonable length of time for a human being to get across.
3. The crosswalk that drivers don’t obey. This is a problem we run into on smaller streets without complicated intersections—just tons of cars speeding down them. The diamond-shaped yellow sign clearly instructs drivers to stop for any pedestrian that wishes to cross, so theoretically, a person should be able to walk up to the road in question, make clear his or her intension to cross, and begin walking immediately. What actually happens is that drivers completely ignore these signs, leaving pedestrians stranded at the edge of the road, waiting far too long for a break in traffic where they can run across and hope the road remains free of cars during their crossing.
Solution: Enforce the heck out of crosswalks until drivers get the message. One summer when I was 17, equipped with a shiny, new driver’s license and my parents’ car, I blew through a pedestrian crosswalk. It was on a street I’d driven dozens of times and had never once noticed the crosswalk, until this instance when a man walked out into the street in front of me with about five different-sized dogs parading in front of him. The crosswalk happened to be right next to a police station, so a cop, of course, pulled me over. He let me off with a warning, thankfully, but I have never disregarded a crosswalk since. If that’s what it takes to get people to stop, then so be it.