Right after my Spring 2016 election to city council in Stevens Point, WI, a constituent told me it was time to brush up on my Jane Jacobs. His advice was more on-target than either of us could’ve known. In all honesty, at the time I wasn’t really up for delving back into Life and Death of Great American Cities. So I did the next best thing and read Jeff Speck’s Walkable City.
That’s all it took to launch me on a two-year battle over a major artery running through my council district—to convert from four to three lanes of car traffic and add bike lanes. When I started Speck’s book, I had a vague commitment to bike- and pedestrian-friendliness and a loose grasp of the benefits of vibrant street-level life. Once I’d finished, I had an animating cause for my new life as a local politician.
The fight to redraw the lanes of Stanley Street was longer and more heated than I expected. It was also knife-edge close, nearly going down in defeat more than once. Fortunately through a combination of supportive allies, strokes of good luck, and a strong set of arguments and evidence, the decision was ultimately approved by our city council.
While I’m new to the politician’s role, my career in policy advocacy has meant many years spent coming up with recommendations for policy makers and strategies for getting traction on issues. I’m grateful to my constituents for the opportunity of this new first-hand experience as a decision maker. And inevitably the instincts of an advocate have carried over into my new role.
The Impetus: A Push for a Bike-Friendly Town
The same month as my election, a group of local leaders took a bicycle tour around town with Steve Clark of the League of American Bicyclists (LAB). Three years earlier Stevens Point had been granted bronze status as a Bicycle Friendly Community, and Clark was here for a first-hand inspection. Since city leaders wanted to upgrade to silver status, Steve told us what it’d take to raise our bike-friendliness game. His key point was to emphasize the difference between bike trails for recreation and bike lanes for transportation. One of our community’s prize jewels is the 27-mile Green Circle Trail—a real treasure and a lure to tourists, but little use to anyone wanting to do errands or commute to work on bicycle. The key to silver status would be more bicycle transportation infrastructure.
The Stanley Street battle brought to the surface significant community ambivalence toward bike-friendliness. A road diet to convert Stanley from four lanes to three represented a new kind of tangible change and the first real test of our commitment. Elected officials had taken some significant previous steps: adopting an ambitious plan for greater bike- and pedestrian-friendliness; establishing a standing advisory panel to spur progress; and approving a successful $400,000 grant proposal for a 13-mile network of bicycle infrastructure (requiring a 25% local budget match). But they hadn’t yet redrawn the lanes on any streets where drivers would have to adjust.
Still, it was just a matter of time before we’d have to start making these kinds of changes. If we waited several more years until the $400,000 grant would be implemented, that would mean dealing with 13 miles of change all at once. To me it made more sense to start with just a one- or two-mile stretch of road. Additionally, because road diets are purely a matter of re-striping the lane markings rather than reconstructing the road, they cost tens of thousands of dollars as opposed to millions or tens of millions.
At around the same time, an active local urbanist (who later ran for city council herself and became a colleague) made videos showcasing a successful lane conversion in a community to our north and highlighting the safety hazards on our main thoroughfare. One thing I discovered, though, is that the question of road safety can be tricky. Not that there’s any ambiguity about the safety benefits of going from four to three lanes of car traffic—which switches from having two lanes going each direction to just one lane each way and a left-turn lane in the middle. What proved tricky in making my case was the lack of a dramatic safety issue on Stanley Street specifically. In other words a road diet improves safety on any street, but not every street has the same degree of safety problem.
In hindsight, it’s clear my original timeline was overambitious. I looked at the Streets Department’s $300,000 budget item for surface improvements city-wide and thought we could earmark some of it for re-striping Stanley Street. This illusion of swift approval was punctured when the Council formally took up the City’s budget, and I lacked enough support from colleagues.
Defining the Problem: Does There Have to be a Safety Emergency?
Back in public policy graduate school, we were taught the importance of how you define a problem. This has proven true in my experience as a decision maker, and certainly in the Stanley Street controversy. The most vocal critic of this project, an accountant with an office on Stanley Street, argued repeatedly that my entire case is undercut by my failure to show a record of accidents. As he sees it, this would be the only reason to even consider a change.
Except that I define the problem differently. For me the key issues are: the lack of infrastructure noted by LAB, the overbuilt mini-expressway splitting my neighborhood in half, and the economic consequences of both these things. After all, drivers mostly whiz right by our local neighborhood shops and restaurants. More to the point, the traffic deters residents who would patronize them more if the street was more walkable.
Given our community’s paltry infrastructure for bicycle commuters, driving commuters who insist on keeping four lanes for cars are basically keeping things inconvenient for bike-riders. If you think about it, drivers wouldn’t like it very much if they were forced to use side streets with all the extra stop signs and corner-turning.
A couple key points about people who use bicycles for transportation. First is an issue of fairness: some of them don’t have the option of driving—because they can’t afford a car or have had their license revoked. For the majority of voluntary bike-riders, though, it’s a generational thing. Millennials have proven themselves dramatically less car-reliant compared to earlier generations and clearly want to live in communities with good bicycle infrastructure. Luckily, Stevens Point recently has done well in luring young people to live here, partly because of University of Wisconsin – Stevens Point. However, letting cars continue to rule our roads will not help with this crucial challenge.
How Toxic Public Discourse and Opposition Within City Hall Nearly Derailed the Project
By early-2018 an official decision about Stanley Street was getting closer, but public discussions had skewed toward a very strident opposition. A good illustration was the contrasting views of a Stanley Street homeowner and a business manager about the safety of bikes on sidewalks versus bike lanes. At a public session, the homeowner said he dreaded someday having his kids watch him cleaning blood off his curb from someone who’d been hit in the bike lane. I met the businessperson on an early round of local shops, and he responded enthusiastically to my visit. It turns out that for years he’d been afraid of backing out of his blind alley and hitting a bike-rider on the sidewalk. And rightly so. Bicyclists are in more danger on sidewalks for precisely this reason. Even without a blind alley, it’s harder to see bicycles coming from the sharper angle of a sidewalk than from a bike lane a little further out. When I first met the businessperson, he said he’d be happy to weigh in publicly. Eighteen months later, he felt it wasn’t worth drawing the ire of opponents. The toxic public discourse was becoming a real problem.
Compared with higher elected office, we local officials tend to be very accessible, which last year meant getting plenty of calls and emails about Stanley Street. My interchange with opponents of the road diet split into two clear categories. I spoke with many opponents willing to have genuine dialogue, which I greatly appreciated. We didn’t change each others’ minds, but we treated it as an honest disagreement. In the second category were people who saw no room for disagreement. To them, any council member who defied the supposedly overwhelming anti-road diet sentiment was pursuing some kind of private agenda. The level of rancor reached its peak at a March 2018 public information session presented by the mayor and our new public works director. Two other alders heard from pro-road diet constituents who came intending to speak but ultimately felt uncomfortable.
Meanwhile the substance of the mayor and department head’s new proposal threw a wrench in the works—catching me off-guard and putting me at odds with City Hall. For 18 months, discussions had focused on a 4-to-3 lane conversion. In my one-to-one conversations with the new public works director, the only question was how far the project would span. To show my willingness to compromise, I agreed to shorten it and back away from an entrance/exit to the interstate. Now suddenly we had an official proposal straining to avoid a lane conversion. Instead of bike lanes, there would be sharrow symbols to gently remind drivers to look out for bike riders. For the intersection where our neighborhood shops are, flashing beacons would be installed for pedestrians to ask permission to cross.
As I prepared for the Council to make our decision, the counterproposal complicated matters. For one thing, I could no longer look to the staff professionals in our Department of Public Works for the kind of advice elected officials typically rely on. For another, the threat of a mayoral veto literally changed the political calculus. Instead of a simple majority of six Council members, now we’d need a supermajority of eight.
Rallying the Needed Support
On the problem of expert professional advice, we caught a lucky break. Each April our community hosts the World’s Largest Trivia Contest, and that weekend a councilmember saw on Facebook that a highly credentialed traffic engineer was among those drawn homeward for “Trivia.” The engineer had been following the press coverage of Stanley Street from Indiana, joined us for coffee before leaving town, and for the next several months provided invaluable counsel.
Now there were just two more Council meetings until the issue would be put to a vote: our regular April meeting and a special mid-May session devoted solely to Stanley Street. While I was optimistic about garnering the votes of seven other alders and knew there was significant support in the community, most of the political pressure was pushing in the other direction. So in April I requested to speak under the rules for addressing non-agenda items (to watch my remarks, click on item #4).
Then for the climactic May meeting itself, we needed to mount a strong showing of support for the road diet. With the opponents having been so much louder, it was time for supporters to speak up and offer a counterweight. And as this highlight reel shows, they did brilliantly. Since Wisconsin’s open meetings laws block alderpersons from lobbying one another, we have to gauge our colleagues’ positions via their public statements. In this case, that was enough to make a good guess about the decisive eighth swing voter. That evening when the swing alderperson finally spoke about her intentions, I knew we’d won.
Since the next step entailed putting the project out for bids, cost would be the next hurdle. With $60,000 set aside for the project, and the previous public works director’s conservative estimate looking less conservative, I was paranoid about cost. My solution was to hedge bets by seeking bids for two versions of the lane conversion (spanning six blocks and four blocks). I arrived at the May meeting with extra copies of a resolution spelling out my parameters, and passed them out to the audience and media. Because no good deed goes unpunished, this sparked a pseudo-scandal. How could I have pre-written the motion even before hearing the meeting discussion? And if I was going to write my motion, did I at least get the city attorney’s help? And why did my resolution say “prepare to solicit bids in June” instead of just “solicit bids?” Oy.
Stanley Street Gets Its Stripes
I was right to be paranoid about cost. When Public Works advertised for bids, none was submitted. Two interested contractors were tripped up by specs in the RFP and declined to bid instead of asking for clarification. In a second round, one of the two turned in a bid that exceeded our budget by $30,000.
This put the political coalition of support to the test once again. From my vantage the debate over cost was just more slow-rolling—less about the money than opposition to the project. At our September Council meeting the mayor raised the possibility of the City doing the work itself, but the idea was so hazy that I insisted on proceeding with a vote on the contract. To my eternal gratitude, all of the pro-road diet alderpersons stuck together. (As a side note, the coalition on our majority-women council was basically the women plus me.)
But while the most of the Stanley Street battle was a zero-sum political fight, the very last step ended up being a consensus solution. We learned right after the September Council meeting about a Streets Department staff member who’d been at a trade show and noticed a stripe-painting machine that would enable his department to do this type of project themselves. The price tag almost exactly matched the $54,000 left in the budget after our design costs. With our council president serving as broker, the mayor and I reached an agreement for me to submit a “motion to reconsider” and reject the contract—with the intent of buying the equipment instead.
Now, after all this snow melts, and Streets Department staff get trained on the new equipment, Stanley Street will finally get its new stripes.
About the Author
Alderperson David Shorr represents the 2nd council district in Stevens Point, Wisconsin. He has a consulting practice focused on independently assessing nonprofit programs in the policy realm—particularly evaluating grantees for their foundation donors. Learn more at his website DavidShorr.com and/or follow him on Twitter @David_Shorr.