"We have a tendency to build our streets like highways," a traffic consultant told city officials and the public Tuesday night.
On few stretches of public street is that more true than on part of Wauwatosa Avenue north of North Avenue.
Variously described as "a free-for-all," "the Autobahn" and, simply, "a nightmare," Wauwatosa Avenue from North Avenue to Center Street is wide and unmarked, with plenty of room for rushing commuters to make up their own lanes and the rules to go with them.
Those rules seldom respect other uses for public streets, including travel by bicycle and crossing on foot.
That's about to change, and soon, as aldermen and city staff have moved to do something about safety on the busy route before school starts Sept. 4.
With approval Tuesday from the Traffic and Safety Committee, most of the length of that stretch of road will get parking lanes inside bicycle lanes on both sides, both marked by solid white lines.
With that, the avenue will be clearly delineated as having only one lane of traffic in each direction – and it will become illegal to pass on the right.
In November, a Longfellow Middle School student suffered a severely fractured leg when he was hit by a woman passing a car on the right where Wright Street crosses Wauwatosa Avenue north of the school.
The driver said she thought the car stopped near the center line in front of her was waiting to turn left. It wasn't. It was stopped in front of a crossing guard who was ushering the boy across.
Except for her failure to see the guard or the boy, what the driver was doing was not illegal and is done by thousands of drivers daily on broad, unmarked streets throughout Wauwatosa.
Police Chief Barry Weber confirmed Wednesday morning that a statute (346.08 section 2) allows for passing on the right "Upon a street or highway with unobstructed pavement of sufficient width to enable 2 or more lines of vehicles lawfully to proceed at the same time, in the direction in which the passing vehicle is proceeding."
"So I would say it is permissible on that stretch of Wauwatosa Avenue," Weber said. But once there is a solid white line 12 feet from the center line, it won't be, he added.
The two 12-foot traffic lanes will be flanked by 5-foot bike lanes and 8-foot parking lanes on each side of the street, under the plan put forward by consultant Kenneth Voigt, senior traffic engineer with Ayres Associates of Waukesha and accepted by the city.
Bike lane and other traffic control signs should also be added to the stretch, Voigt said.
"Signs take precedence over painted lines," he said, which can fade or be snow-covered.
For now, the paint alone for that long a stretch will cost $10,000 – which in these lean times is no longer a gimme, even when children's safety is at stake.
But City Administrator Jim Archambo had an idea of how it could be paid for without touching contingency funds.
"Every year, we paint the 'chicanes' on North Avenue" through East Tosa, Archambo said. Skipping a year, "would pay for it."
Even though Archambo cautioned that not repainting lanes on North could lead to pretty drastic fading there, aldermen greeted the suggestion with approval bordering on glee – the swerving chicanes are roundly disliked, and the city's North Avenue Plan calls for doing away with them.
Aldermen on the committee enthusiastically supported both the lane-striping measure and the method of payment and approved it unanimously.
To come: Wauwatosa Avenue as an example of the "Complete Streets" concept, and how the Wisconsin Department of Transportation helped make it happen.