Which Way Will Win? The debate over Johnson and Gorham

Credit: madison.comCredit: madison.comGay Davidson-Zielske raised a child on Gorham Street and knows firsthand that her street is the epicenter of downtown commuting.

“We have all the fast traffic we can bear over here,” said Davidson-Zielske. “It seems a little unfair,” she added.

Gorham and Johnson Streets are the gateways in and out of downtown Madison, respectively. According to city records, the two roads both see upwards of 20,000 cars each day. All of that could be changing soon.

Major construction on East Johnson St. is slated to begin in 2014. Initial planning for the project has already begun and will carry on in to 2012.

A discussion to make both Johnson and Gorham two-way streets has been circulating throughout the Isthmus and the near-Eastside for several years. Tenney-Lapham neighborhood residents have long believed that making this change would lead to a safer and more attractive place to live.

The onset of this new city planning for Johnson Street has elevated the conversation tenfold and brought it back to the forefront of the neighborhood’s agenda.

This August, the Madison Common Council approved a study to be performed by Strand Associates that will assess the implications of making both Johnson and Gorham two-way streets. Depending on the results of this study, the two-way transformation could become a part of the city’s 2014 Johnson St. plan. Following the August approval, Bridget Maniaci, District 2 Alderperson and area representative on the Common Council, reported to Channel 3000, “[this study] won't likely be the ‘be all end all’ verdict on the street use, but it will certainly start the conversation.”

The Tenney-Lapham Neighborhood Association (TLNA) passed a two-way street plan in 2008, that at the time was adopted by the city council, which incorporated a multi-modal public transportation initiative including light rail, bus transit, and bike lanes.

Although the Strand study only focuses on current traffic volumes and projected car data for the year 2035, special projects coordinator for the neighborhood association Patrick McDonnell still supports the original 2008 plan.

In the most recent TLNA Newsletter, McDonnell wrote to residents, “if the city pursues a serious plan to make other modes of transportation more convenient and accessible for commuters, then enough single-occupant-vehicle demand can be relieved from Johnson and Gorham to enable them to operate successfully as two-way streets.” McDonnell believes that if this is achieved, traffic can “move at a steady, reasonable pace that will support local businesses and residential life.”

Despite the numerous passages of the two-way plan within the TLNA, not all residents are one hundred percent on board with a full transformation.

Davidson-Zielske admits, “The speed is really my only issue. I’ve seen pets killed and I saw a little kid get hit a while back. But, there are a lot of drawbacks to two-ways. It would most likely eliminate parking completely and I can’t even imagine trying to back out of my driveway through two-way traffic.”

Even those with vested interest in making their immediate community more livable understand that this issue has important ramifications for the entire city.

“For the people who live along those streets, their front yards have essentially become the primary means of accessing downtown from the East,” said Tenney-Lapham resident David Staple. “Switching to two-way traffic should greatly enhance the livability of that area.  It should also allow the commercial district along Johnson to mature into something more similar to Williamson Street,” added Staple.

Staple is not the lone resident making this comparison. A common belief among citizens is that this transformation would allow Johnson Street’s business district to mirror its Isthmus parallel, Williamson Street. A few blocks South, Willy Street has seen a complicated growth and reconstruction of its own; rife with conflicting interests and heated debates. However, there is no debate over the fact that the rebirth of Willy Street has lead to a boom for new businesses.

Kyle Johnson, owner of the newly opened Johnson Public House coffee shop on Johnson St., is in favor of the switch.

“The popularity of Willy Street is something that we’re looking for, and I think a lot of the business owners want that,” Johnson said. “In terms of helping small businesses and promoting growth in general, I would love to see it.”

Johnson admits that his new business is doing well, thanks in part to a dedicated base of UW-Madison graduate students. However, he feels that with Johnson St. orientated away from downtown, they are missing out on the morning commuter market. “There’s always room in here for more customers,” Johnson added.

Staple, like many others on this issue, remains hesitant and neutral due to the sheer complexity. Adding to his previous remarks he said, “Switching to two-way necessarily means reducing the number of cars that travel down those streets. Where will that traffic go?  What will this mean for the city as a whole?  How does one balance the needs of the local residents and those of the entire city?”

Undoubtedly, those most strongly against a change to Johnson and Gorham are commuters who use the streets to get to and from work on a daily basis. Despite the 25-mile per hour speed limit, most vehicles travel closer to 40 MPH according to Gay Davidson-Zielske, who frequently observes the traffic in front of her house.

“I have yelled from my yard like a crazy person telling people to slow down,” said Davidson-Zielske.

Joe Lusson, housing representative on the TLNA Neighborhood Council, says, “There’s something psychological about one-ways. They have a racetrack effect.”

Lusson, who openly supports changing the streets to two-ways says that, “It would make it more desirable for families to raise kids, and that benefits the parks, and the schools, and the entire community.”

He fears that the 2014 start date for the E. Johnson St. construction is too soon to implement a working two-way plan. However, Lusson confirmed that even if the Johnson St. construction takes place, the city would make it so that the street could be converted someday.

“I don’t have a sense that the city is against [the neighborhood]. I was pretty convinced by the city staff that they’re real open minded about all of this,” Lusson added.

The Strand Associates study will begin its final stage in early January 2012 and should be completed by March. Regardless of the results, this debate will certainly continue.

“I am conflicted because I am afraid. We might cure one thing and end up with an even worse general situation,” said Gay Davidson-Zielske. “I just want the city to take this seriously. We should all have the right to a respectable quality of life.”


Johnson/Gorham will never be Willy

When East Washington Avenue was redone, every effort should have been made to push traffic to East Wash.  Instead we focused on bike lanes, bus lanes and wide medians.  There is no smooth transition from East Wash to the near West side of the square and through campus.  Johnson/Gorham is it.  The rest of the city is not going to go along with gridlock for the benefit of a few Gorham Street homeowners who bought their houses on a busy street.  By the way, I was driving on Willy Street this morning, with traffic, at 38 mph all the way from Winnebago to Blount Street.  I didn't stop at any businesses, there is no parking on one side of the street, traffic was moving fast in both directions, and I would have no interest in living on that street and trying to back out into traffic.