Jordan Morales, a member of a concerned citizens group called the Sherman Park Reckless Driving Commission, is standing on a corner of the intersection of Sherman Boulevard and Burleigh Street, which he says is plagued by dangerous driving. He joined the group, which meets regularly with city and law enforcement officials, after he moved to the neighborhood three years ago and “immediately noticed” the driving problems here.
“Reckless driving is the No. 1 quality of life issue in Milwaukee, easily,” Morales says, especially in Sherman Park. He’s interrupted by a truck that loudly roars through the intersection going at least twice the posted 30 mph speed limit. Other problems Morales notes are people running red lights, and then he points out a car engaging in an obnoxious and dangerous maneuver that’s so common it has its own nickname: the “Milwaukee Slide” It’s when a driver uses the turn, parking or – as in this particular case – a bike lane to zoom ahead and pass traffic on the right.
“It gets on everyone’s nerves because we’re all waiting in line, and then this person thinks the rules of the road don’t apply to them and they can skip everyone,” Morales says. “I’d say it’s just part of the rotten driving culture that we have in the city of Milwaukee, and it’s something that needs to be fixed. We’ve let it go for far too long.”
“I have folks in my district who have told me they’re afraid to cross Capitol Drive to the closest local grocery store because of reckless driving.”
-CAVALIER JOHNSON, MAYOR
Someone who agrees with that is Mayor Cavalier Johnson. He’s made addressing driving problems one of the three major points in his thus far brief administration, along with shootings and policing. And it’s an issue he’s very familiar with. As a former alderman representing the North Side’s 2nd District, he had to grapple with some of the streets that see the most reckless driving: 76th, Fond du Lac, Silver Spring, Capitol.
“Capitol Drive is probably the most notorious street in the city for reckless driving,” Johnson says. “I have folks in my district or who live nearby who have told me they’re afraid to cross Capitol Drive to the closest local grocery store in our district because of reckless driving.”
Johnson sees several causes of the problem.
“I was fortunate to have a job so I could afford driver’s ed classes, but not everyone can, and that doesn’t mean they’re not driving,” Johnson says. He also cites the “no-pursuit policy” that was in place with the Milwaukee Police Department until 2017, which prevented police from chasing a suspect unless they knew they had committed a violent felony. That was intended to stop high-speed chases over stolen cars that often ended in fatal crashes, but Johnson says it also fostered a culture of lawlessness on the roads. “I’ve heard police say that people would speed by flipping them off because they knew they wouldn’t be pursued,” Johnson says.
A city-county task force with members from the mayor’s office, police department, municipal court, health department and other agencies studied the issue for a year and a half, issuing its findings in June 2020. The report focuses on three key areas in the fight to curb reckless driving: changing the city’s streetscape, boosting enforcement and accountability, and prevention and education.
Among the board’s many recommendations were public awareness campaigns, wider availability of driver’s ed classes, increased reckless driving penalties, and re-engineered roads to slow traffic.
Ald. Michael Murphy, the task force’s chair, notes that he followed up by adding a budget amendment to “allocate money towards prevention and education, and created a program where we distributed grants to 19 community organizations.”
Johnson says he will pursue more of the committee’s recommendations and adds that his own plan, which he calls S.T.A.N.D. for Safer Streets, already reflects many of them. “An all-hands-on-deck approach to take a stand against reckless driving will be my top priority,” he said at a December press conference unveiling his plan.
On the enforcement front, MPD Chief Jeffrey Norman created a new Traffic Safety Unit in winter of 2021, reallocating 20 officers to focus on reckless driving. A crime analyst assigned to the unit reviews data and citizen complaints to steer its officers to problem areas.
Capt. Jeffrey Sunn, who oversees the unit, says that in their first year the Traffic Safety Unit issued about 21,500 citations. “Over half those were speeding violations,” Sunn says, and another 4,000 or so were licensing issues.
Equally important is the need for safe street design, which involves reworking streets with a “road diet” or slowing traffic by narrowing or reducing lanes, switching car lanes with bike lanes and pedestrian islands, and creating barriers to stop moves like the Milwaukee Slide.
Sunn says such measures have already proven to be effective in some areas. In Riverwest, the Locust Avenue bridge over the Milwaukee River now has bike lanes protected by signs and concrete partitions. In Washington Heights, on North Avenue between 55th and 60th streets, every corner has a semicircle of white and green plastic rods bolted to the road to deter motorists from “sliding” into the bike lanes.
Similar arrangements of sticks and planters are found on 27th Street between Wisconsin and Highland avenues, and on the Hawley Road bridge over the Menomonee Valley. “Since the planters and sticks were placed in that area, taking two travel lanes down to one, we have seen a drastic decrease in accidents along that corridor,” Sunn says. “This is also true along North Avenue and Locust Street.” He adds that although there was a recent fatal accident on Hawley, “overall the numbers from the traffic sticks along that route has helped in the decrease of accidents.”
This success ties into part of Johnson’s plan that he wants to build on – a call for using tax increment revenue to improve streets to increase safety for motorists, cyclists and pedestrians. “There are a number [of projects] that are happening on the South Side, near the stadium business park, Downtown near Cathedral Square Park and on Water Street, and in my own former aldermanic district on Capitol and Fond du Lac,” Johnson says. “The investments we make in infrastructure will prioritize individuals rather than a sole focus on moving vehicles around.”