First, having actual tracks in the ground will hopefully end the illogical bus v. train debate in Milwaukee. Urban transportation is about moving people from point A to point B, but for some reason the debate over urban transit in Milwaukee is all about modes of transportation rather than the concept of transportation. How often have you heard opponents of the streetcar argue that trains are outdated?
Incidentally, both buses and trains are descendants of the omnibus, which was essentially a horse drawn box-like container. The first omnibus used for mass-transit in America, in New York in 1829, did not operate on a fixed track. It wasn’t until 1832 that someone decided to put the omnibus on a track and call it a horse-railway. So arguably, a streetcar operated on a fixed rail is a more modern idea than a bus. But that is beside the point. What matters is that Milwaukee needs a modern transit system, and the construction of the streetcar will hopefully shift the debate to how Milwaukee can best use a diversity of modes of transportation (like most other large cities) to meet the needs of its citizens and visitors.
Second, if the potential route of the Milwaukee streetcar (check out the second graphic down here) is ever realized it would be hugely successful. Connecting natural destinations like downtown, the airport, the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, Marquette University, and Miller Park will ensure ridership in a way the original route does not. More important, in can turn Milwaukee from a car-city to a public transit city. That idea may seem abstract, but I do not think it coincidence that the cities most successful at attracting young people (and their entrepreneurial energy) are easy to navigate via predictable public transportation.
Which leads to my third point – having tracks in the ground creates route permanence. Nobody (that I know of at least) opens a business or buys a home because it is near a bus line. As we’ve seen in Milwaukee bus routes can and do change frequently. Route changes are much less likely when there are tracks in the ground, making it more likely that people will invest near lines.
Fourth, building the streetcar demonstrates that Milwaukee is willing to take risks and boldly invest in its future. And the streetcar is a risk, especially with its current route. But without taking this risk the city will never get the broader system streetcar advocates are smartly emphasizing. I admit part of my support for the streetcar is emotional Milwaukee boosterism; a major diverse city like Milwaukee ought to have a major diverse transportation system.
The shame about all these years (decades?) of debate over the streetcar is that it could have been so much more productive. Maybe if we were not mired in argument over the existence of fixed rail there would have been agreement on a better and/or broader route. But regardless, the streetcar still has huge upside, and I am hopeful the boldness and persistence of advocates will pay-off in the years to come.
My wife works second shift in Oconomowoc and we have a home in Bay View. Too many times during her nighttime commute home she sees the aftermath of a wrong-way driver. It is terrifying. After all, what can you do to protect yourself from a wrong-way driver on the freeway? Pay attention? Well obviously, but really it comes down to luck.
Earlier this week I sent a request to the Milwaukee County Sheriff’s office asking them for data on wrong-way driver incidents on Milwaukee County freeways. I wanted to know how often it happens, how often it involves alcohol, and whether there are any specific ramps where wrong-way drivers are more likely to get on the freeway in the wrong direction. My thinking was I would do a piece on the need for wrong-way spikes or something similar to help stop these incidents. Thankfully, the County Sheriff’s office is way ahead of me.
It is also a great example of what I meant when I previously touched on the many positive functions of government. Simply, there are limits to the effectiveness of personal responsibility. Though it is a depressing thought that there exists multiple people in our city that will attempt to drive a car after getting inebriated to the point of being unable to tell which is the right side of the freeway, it is reality. Sure, stronger drunk driving laws may deter some from this behavior, but I have to think someone unable to process that they are putting lives (including their own) in danger is unlikely to make a good decision out of the fear of a DUI.
Hence, it is a perfect example of where government is best positioned, and really the only entity at all positioned, to take the necessary actions to address a social problem. Kudos to Milwaukee County for taking this important step to better protect those, who like my wife, are just trying to get home safely. Now we can only hope that no more lives are taken by these senseless incidents.
Again, I think the value Milwaukee brings to Wisconsin as the state’s lone major urban area is obvious. Consider, a Wisconsin without Milwaukee would be a Wisconsin without:
A major public urban university;
Summerfest and the other ethnic festivals;
The Art Museum, Symphony Orchestra, Marcus Amphitheater and other top-line cultural attractions;
Port of Milwaukee;
Professional baseball and basketball;
A major urban daily newspaper;
The ethnic and racial diversity of a city that is 55% non-white; and
Johnson Controls, Manpower, Rockwell Automation, Northwestern Mutual, Harley-Davidson, and the many other corporate citizens big and small.
All of things on this list contribute to the quality-of-life in this state, and all exist because of a unique confluence of size, density, and diversity in southeast Wisconsin. The state has other great places, but none offer the urban amenities of Milwaukee.
Madison, for example, is a growing and intrinsically interesting place due to the presence of state government and a world-class research university. It however, cannot supplant Milwaukee.
Take the issue of diversity. Milwaukee is 55% non-white, Madison is 21% non-white. 15% of Madison residents are foreign language speakers compared to 19% in Milwaukee. Only 5.3% of Madison businesses are Black or Hispanic owned. In Milwaukee that number is 26.3%. Milwaukee also has a higher percentage of female owned businesses, and wider income distribution than Madison, especially at the high-end.
The type of diversity present in Milwaukee is essential for a thriving urban area. It is the extremes and contradictions of great cities that yield energy, creativity, and productivity. The rich and poor, foreign and native, and young and old are all universally attracted to the economic opportunities, social mobility, and amenities present in dense urban places like Milwaukee (Milwaukee has over twice as many residents per square mile as Madison or Green Bay).
None of this is a knock against Madison – it too is an irreplaceable asset to Wisconsin for an entirely different set of reasons. It is however, a reminder that despite Milwaukee’s problems it is far from a drag on the rest of the state. The city is already a dynamic place and has much potential that remains untapped. It is reassuring to see, via the Franklin poll, that the majority of Wisconsin residents recognize the importance of their largest city.
An article in the February 10thBusiness Journal comments on the continuing debate over who is responsible for moving utility lines to make room for the new Milwaukee Streetcar. As I have touched on before, the fight over the project seems way out-of-proportion to its scope; the line will only go from the Intermodal station to the East Pointe Pick ‘n Save.
The contrast between the battle for a downtown streetcar and the creation of the MetroEXpress routes reminds me of a 1968 Lewis Mumford essay, “The Highway and the City.” Mumford, an urbanist and social critic, argued that there is no single best mode of transportation. Though the target of his criticism was the automobile, his point is no less relevant to other types of transportation. A bus is not inherently better or worse than fixed rail, a car, or even a horse. What matters is what these modes of transportation do, not what they are.
In that vein, Mumford defines the purpose of transportation as being:
“to bring people or goods to places where they are needed, and to concentrate the greatest variety of goods and people within a limited area, in order to widen the possibility of choice without making it necessary to travel.”
Under this framework MCTS looks enlightened, and the streetcar plan looks foolish. Connecting the airport to the region’s largest concentration of jobs and commerce is a no-brainer. The terminal points of the streetcar, on the other hand, are both downtown (or at least on the edge of downtown), and less than two miles apart. What lies between are the dense blocks urbanists should want people walking. What exactly does moving people from one part of downtown to another via a streetcar accomplish?
The counter to my point remains the potential route map that if built, would be a genuine transit system. Mumford was a critic, not a politician, so perhaps his framework cannot account for the political argument that the initial route will lead to new useful lines. I hope that is true, and that a particular type of transportation infrastructure is not being pursued at the expense of an improved transit system.
I made the classic mistake of looking at the comments section of an online article and to my surprise found something that made some sense. The relevant comment was in response to a Journal Sentinel article on the utility issues holding up the proposed Milwaukee streetcar. Someone named apaldino2150 wrote at 3:32 this morning:
“A two mile rail line allows people to move around more freely? Quit peeing on my leg and telling me it’s raining out!”
Eloquent prose it is not. But it encapsulates my feelings on this project.
I instinctively want to support the streetcar. I am an unabashed urbanist and Milwaukee booster that recognizes the role a modern transit system plays in economic development. However more important, and too often lost on many opponents of rail, is the positive impact a good transit system can have on the quality of life for city residents. I use the Milwaukee County Transit System (MCTS) frequently and often find myself frustrated waiting for a bus that fails to appear at my stop despite what the schedule in my hand tells me. It is nice of MCTS to put a time of arrival on the bus schedule, but if a bus does not actually come at that time, it really does not help me.
Rail addresses this problem; a fixed line does not get caught in traffic or get re-routed. It offers certainty and speed. The problem with the streetcar proposal is, as pointed out by the early morning commenter, it is unlikely to improve the quality of life for Milwaukee residents. The maps on the streetcar website suggest that even proponents of the project recognize this. Below the map of the actual route is a larger map dotted with destinations and “potential future extension” routes that if built would connect my south-side neighborhood (and a host of others) with the airport, downtown, Marquette, Miller Park, and UWM. It would be a system I, and many others would use daily.
But the potential routes are only that; the actual streetcar will take a rider from the Intermodal station to the Easte Point Pick ‘n Save. The distance covered is small, and includes no natural destination to drive up ridership. It is hard to see why people will use this thing.
The counterargument to my concerns is that getting some kind of rail system installed is a necessary first step to bigger things. I want that argument to be true, as of now Milwaukee transit leaves much to be desired when compared to peer cities. Long term, I hope we get a modern transit system that serves neighborhoods and city destinations in a way that improves the quality of life for Milwaukee residents.
My new column is up at the Isthmus – it discusses why the state bans benign vanity license plate messages, and suggests ways the state can profit from mulleted-Americans:
As P.J. O’Rourke once said, for some people, free speech is a curse. So if people want to put “GEEK” or “NOSEX” on their plates, why not let them? In fact, “NOSEX” is simply a synonym for “MARRIED,” so why not ban that, too?
It just seems incongruous that Wisconsin state government would want such a tight grip on its citizens’ right to express themselves. There’s no law banning what people can put on a bumper sticker, so why do we care what goes on their license plate? If they are willing to pay extra to be an imbecile in public, let’s let them — most people get to be morons for free.
In fact, the state is turning down extra revenue every time it doesn’t let some guy with a mullet put “HELLYEA” on his El Camino’s vanity plate.
I hate them. You hate them. Countless other thrill seekers hate them too. They are the people who, after paying for admission fees and greasy food, decide to spend exorbitant sums more to get themselves to the front of the line without waiting like the rest of us.
And it is all thanks to a creation that has spread to amusement parks across the nation: the speed pass. This simple piece of paper is actually an ingenious business invention. It does not produce extra costs for the park, aside from the paper and ink they need to print the passes, since you can only get a certain amount of rides in during the hours of operation. Yet there is sufficient demand to warrant its high price. It is entirely profit. I suspect that it is also a college fund for all of the children of the park owners and managers.
They work well for public relations too. I once got to experience the magic that is the speed pass after getting stuck on a raft ride while the raft that had just finished was being repaired. On a hot summer day, this was not the worst fate, although we did not say so when the ride operator pulled the pad of speed passes out of his pocket and started to walk our way. The true magic commenced when we used our speed passes to get to the front of the line for the Batman ride. This ride has a line that normally requires an excruciating wait in a setting meant to resemble a dirty, wet, back alley of Gotham City while you listen to sound effects that play on a loop as you walk in a loop. For an hour.
The speed pass seems to make sense for the amusement park industry. But does it also work for government? Scott Walker states that he would be open to a speed-pass-esque idea for Wisconsin highways as a way to help fund the transportation budget. The plan could be to open lanes where busses and carpools drive for free to anyone else who purchases their very own highway “speed pass.”
If this plan is going to be seriously considered in the future, there are a few issues the decision makers need to take into account. First, like the amusement park owners, they need to be able to correctly price these passes. They will have to be fairly expensive to deter too many people from purchasing them and making the speed lane into just another clogged space, at which point no one will want to spend the extra money.
Second, they will need to consider the incentives at stake. Bus and carpool lanes encourage lower fuel use, lower congestion, and lower parking needs. Opening such lanes to single-occupant vehicles reduces these incentives and may hurt the metro system revenue if riding the bus does not get people to their destination on time. Third, they will need to consider if such an undertaking is worth the payoffs. The Department of Transportation budget is $6.8 billion. Of that, the budget for state highways is $3.5 billion. It is questionable of the cost of enacting, producing, and enforcing the speed pass use will have a significantly positive effect on the DoT budget.
Fortunately, Walker has other plans. He also mentions that he is in favor of banning raids on the DoT’s funds. This would hopefully force the state to look to other measures, such as spending cuts, to balance the budget, rather than relying on last-minute creative accounting. Ultimately, the state does need to use more reliable accounting practices if it wants to maintain a stable and balanced budget. Many of these tricks represent a speed pass to a “balanced” budget. But we should not be so eager to use them since, just as on those roller coasters, they take you on a vicious loop that just leaves you in the same place as you started out.
Harkening back to my days in the lecture hall of Economics 522: Economics of Law, I remember a particular model we used to see; how the structure of a law had economic effects on the actions of individuals. In this model, we twisted the definition of who was liable for damages in the event that a bicyclist and a motorist collided – to see how much precaution each would take (wearing reflective clothing, using better headlights, attaching blinkers, slowing down, etc.). We used extreme examples that always put the blame on one side, and more refined examples that took into account negligence and cost of preventing the accident, and argued over which one was the best.
Outside of the world of theory, we find that the debate rages on. In areas of high bike usage, such as Madison, where the two parties confront each other daily, it is not difficult to find individuals with strong opinions about how the other side should act, especially after incidents such as Monday’s hit-and-run accident that left a biker in critical condition. Though many people have the ability and the passion to list every transgression the have seen the other party commit, I’ve synthesized the results of my own informal polling of each side down to their biggest complaints. The motorists hate that the bicyclists do not obey traffic rules and ride recklessly, while the bicyclists rage that motorists never properly watch for them or consider their space.
There are plenty of people who rely on each type of transportation and many cities that want to encourage bicyclists to take to the streets to reduce congestion and decrease reliance on gasoline who must deal with their conflicts. If we really want to encourage people to bike, we first have to make the roads safe for them. (I realize that there are some drivers who may not want to encourage biking, but for argument’s sake, and for the economic incentive that less demand for gasoline leads to lower gasoline prices for drivers, let’s assume that most do.) That is the biggest obstacle to many would-be bicyclists.
Providing safe conditions goes beyond making bike lanes, though these do a great deal to provide a safe space for both parties, and must address the way people drive as well. Aside from continuing to watch for bikers, motorists need to realize that many of the assumptions they make about bikers are incorrect. The largest of these misconceptions comes down to speed. Though they may appear relatively slow, they can accumulate a great deal of speed in a short amount of time, and movements should be planned with great care for how fast a cyclist is really traveling. Many times this has resulted in accidents when a car slowing down to turn in front of a bike lane doesn’t realize that the biker they just passed has caught up to them. This also means that bikers cannot stop on a dime. Too often I have seen a car cut out or pull out in front of a biker without realizing that the biker cannot easily avoid them just because they have two less wheels.
Ultimately, however, bikers must realize that they are in charge of their own safety. Though the incentive for precaution theoretically goes down when liability is placed on a driver for all expenses resulting from an accident, the bicyclist must still live with the impacts that any accident has on his or her life. The biggest mistake that bicyclists often make is assuming that they are visible and that they will be yielded to. This mistake intensifies in risk when bikers do decide that traffic rules do not apply to them.
In my economics class, our goal was to find the liability law that would lead to the most efficient level of precaution. After looking at the risks, probabilities, and costs of each scenario, we concluded that such a law would encourage both sides to take some level of precaution. Although our criteria of wearing reflective clothing and buying better headlights is not entirely inclusive of the many precautions that each side can take, the empirical result is likely the same as the theoretical: both sides need to exercise precaution. Having been on both sides of this debate as a biker-turned-driver in the city, I can appreciate this result to its fullest extent. Just don’t get me started on those pedestrians.
With the Legislature currently considering an increase in the tax on hard liquor, State Representative Terese Berceau seems to think this would be a good time to resume her crusade to increase the tax on beer:
Proponents of this bill seem to want to have it both ways – one the one hand, they say the tax is “only” 2.5 cents per bottle of beer. But on the other hand, they believe that tax is enough to keep people from drinking and driving.
I wrote about the whole idea of using taxes to coerce people’s behavior (and increasing the beer tax) in one of my first ever WPRI columns.
On Monday, Wisconsin Senate Majority Leader Russ said he was committed to retaining a tax on “big oil,” along with a dubious provision that prevents those oil companies from passing the tax on to drivers. On Wednesday, the Senate unveiled their version of the budget, which completely eliminates the tax altogether.
You may say to yourself, “self, that doesn’t make any sense.” Why would Decker so quickly abandon a lynchpin of his budget? He really just realized on Tuesday that he couldn’t stop the oil companies from passing the tax through to consumers? WPRI wrote our report saying exactly that in March of 2007 – it’s good to see him admit that he should have listened to us all along.
Here’s why – he merely needed to give a couple of his members a vote without the tax in it. It’s coming back – you can bank on it.
Decker replaced the funding from the oil tax by eliminating the tax exemption for capital gains. This is, simply put, insane. It amounts to a $485 million tax increase on the middle class, many of whom have been waiting to cash out their retirement funds, and completely blows any argument Democrats have that this budget somehow only affects the rich.
But by replacing one unpopular tax increase with another even more unpopular tax increase, Decker will be able to argue that he’s somehow doing taxpayers a favor when he re-implements the original oil company proposal in the conference committee version of the budget as crafted by the leaders of the two houses. Eventually, the Legislature will end up either where Governor Doyle and Decker were (with the no-pass through provision) or where the Assembly was, allowing oil companies to pass it through to consumers.
In positing this theory, I’m giving Decker a lot of credit for his political cunning. But if I’m wrong and he’s actually serious about jacking up taxes on peoples’ retirement accounts during a recession, then he’s the most tin-eared politician alive.