Southwest commuter path lighting proposal stirs up controversy

Lights with louvers, which are being considered for the project. Photo: City of MadisonLights with louvers, which are being considered for the project. Photo: City of MadisonCommunity members filled Edgewood College’s auditorium to express their opinions on a controversial project to light the Southwest Commuter Path. Over 100 people attended the meeting on July 19 led by Alderman Brian Solomon of the 10th District.

Armed with raised voices and strong opinions, few commentators took a neutral stance. The majority argued against lighting the path, but many – especially bicyclists – advocated for lighting.

The meeting began with an update of the lighting project, which Madison’s Traffic Engineering Division altered in response to feedback received from an initial meeting in December of last year. Warmer, less intense LEDs with louvers are now being considered  to reduce the amount of light spilling off the path.

Despite many attendees expressing appreciation for the city’s willingness to listen to their concerns, most still opposed the project. Some of the reasons include disrupting the wildlife, light pollution, and making the path a “light tunnel” by ruining users’ night vision.

One speaker said that no amount of compromise from the city would change his opinion.


“If I compromise to put a path in the wilderness, it’s no longer wilderness,” he said. “If we compromise to put light on an unlighted path, it is no longer dark…I am not an opponent of all progress, but when a resource is so extraordinary and so rare, it is time to say, ‘stop.’ This is not progress, it is destruction.”


Another path user disagreed, saying that the lights can be changed to accommodate everyone

“If there’s one thing engineers are good at, it’s fixing mechanical problems, and we can work on the color, the height, the number, and everything, but I really think we do need lights for all kinds of reasons and for people to feel safe on their bikes and walking,” she said.

She called herself a “two-percent” bicyclist – one who bikes in any condition, any time – but said she was wary of using the Southwest path at night. Even expensive bike lights don’t light the path enough to see other people without lights or reflective clothing, she added.

The part of the Southwest path in question stretches from Breese Terrace to the Beltline Highway. It was originally a railroad, but was more recently converted into a paved “commuter path.”

Part of the disagreement stems from differing views of the path. The city of Madison officially defines it as a “transportation corridor,” as do many bikers who use it on their daily commute. But people living by the path see it as a “linear park,” as one attendee described it.

Captain Joe Balles of the Madison Police Department’s South District sent a representative to argue in support of lighting the bike path. But he emphasized that deterring crime was not the reason for the MPD’s support.

“This particular neighborhood, this particular area, does not have a significant amount of crime and we don’t anticipate that bringing the lights will increase the amount of crime,” he said. “But I think the public safety issue is the reason…to avoid collisions, so we don’t have cyclists and pedestrians running into each other.”

Stories of collisions and near-collisions came up in many comments from both sides. But those against lighting argued the solution was more user education so bikers would wear reflective clothing and carry lights when traveling at night.

Alderman Solomon said he favors lighting because it could increase use of the path and encourage more people to commute by bike.

One resident disagreed, saying bad weather, rather than darkness, is the main deterrent. Others were concerned that a brighter path would cause bikers to go faster and thus decrease safety.

Amanda White, associate director of the Bicycle Federation of Wisconsin (BFW), noted that overhead lights would help decrease collisions. The BFW receives many complaints by bikers who have this problem on the Southwest path, she said, adding that she “fully, whole-heartedly supports lighting.”

In a comment on the BFW's website, Perry Sandstrom disagreed that overhead lighting is a solution. With a low-level bike light, riders are better off using their night vision than trying to see as they would during the day, he wrote.

Gary Peterson, a city planning consultant, also said this project doesn’t solve the main issue: bikes and pedestrians using the same paths.

 “You are using bikes and pedestrians on the same paved surface. They certainly don’t do that in Europe and it’s not working here,” Peterson said.

In a survey of bicyclists conducted by the BFW, 70 percent of the respondents said they would support lighting the Southwest path. Other attendees questioned the survey’s legitimacy, some claiming it followed a biased introduction.

The city has not taken a formal survey of those who live along the path, but Dryer reported on a survey of path users conducted on July 10. It found that 32 percent of respondents favored lighting, while 30 percent were against it.

Dryer also reported on the more than 300 comments that had been posted on the city’s website about the project. Of those, 36 percent supported lighting and 64 percent opposed.

A group called “Owlpath,” advocates against lighting because  owls nest along the path, and because it is “one of the only remaining accessible dark-sky areas in Madison,” according to its Facebook page.

Another resident responded to the argument with an observation he made while walking between the two sample lighting areas at Council Crest and near Sheldon Street. He said 65 of the houses next to the path had lights on in their backyard, from porch lights to floodlights.

 “If those of you that are opponents…to the lights because of dark skies, please pay attention to the fact that some of you I know have those lights in your yards,” he said. “But the issue is, why not lights for public space?”

While several attendees suggested the use of bollards – short posts that provide horizontal illumination – Dryer said they were not being considered because of higher cost and lower effectiveness.

The lighting project is already in the 2012 budget for $250,000, according to Dryer, a cost he says is relatively low. Others insisted the money could be put to better use in hard economic times.

To leave some nighttime hours for stargazers and people who want to enjoy the dark, one attendee suggested limiting the time the lights are on.

Alderman Solomon emphasized they are not considering 24 hour lighting. “If anything goes forward, there would be some shut-off time,” he said.

Solomon ended the meeting by outlining the two possible next steps. He or another alder could sponsor the project, in which case it would go through the Board of Public Works and the City Council. Residents would then have at least two more opportunities to speak at public meetings about the project, probably in the fall of this year.

Or, the project could be set aside for another time.

He emphasized that no final decisions were made at the meeting.

Alderwomen Sue Ellingson, District 13, and Shiva Bidar-Sielaff, District 5, were also in attendance.

To share your thoughts on the lighting project, comment here.

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