Why Milwaukee Homeowners are Bankrolling Speed Humps in Record Numbers

Neighbors dig into their own pockets to slow traffic

Charlie Fox lives close to two of the city’s early speed humps. These ridges of asphalt positioned athwart the West Side’s West McKinley Boulevard are designed to slow cars down to 25 mph or less – the hard way if necessary. “We used to sit on the front porch with a cocktail and watch them hit the hump,” Fox says. “Some would ignore the hump, go too fast and hit their head on their car’s ceiling.”

“You can’t be texting,” he says, “and you can’t be yakking on your cellphone. If you’re speeding and ignore the humps, you realize it quickly.”

Fox is a citizen member of the city’s Safety and Civic Commission and a fan of speed humps, which are shorter but wider versions of the taller speed “bumps” often used in parking lots. He thinks the former are effective at calming traffic on his little stretch between North 27th and North 35th streets. But not all of Fox’s neighbors feel the same way.

“They go slow over the speed hump,” says Beryl Harper, “but then they blow through the stop sign on 29th Street.”

She questions the cost to homeowners throughout the city. When a hump is constructed, owners of houses on the block, on both sides of the street, typically have to pay 90 percent of the cost, which in 2017 was about $6,500. That means the average homeowner is billed about $260, and if they don’t pay, a special assessment appears on their property’s tax bill. The city rarely foots the entire bill.

Nonetheless, homeowners are requesting speed humps in record numbers. Since 2007, the city has installed 329 new ones – most of them in older city neighborhoods – and 164 of those were built since 2016. After an alderman and a majority of homeowners request a hump, the city conducts a speed study using a radar device to confirm that a safety hazard exists.

Why the recent interest? Ald. Mark Borkowski argues that speed humps are like Band-Aids. “Traffic enforcement (in Milwaukee) is not a priority,” he says. His district on the southwestern end of the city doesn’t have any speed humps yet, but he expects four to be installed this year.

When the Common Council approved the ordinance allowing speed humps in 2006, the late Ald. Joe Dudzik was the only alderman to oppose the ordinance. According to Ald. Bob Bauman, Dudzik – a soft-spoken alderman unafraid to break with his colleagues – told him privately that he “didn’t want someone telling him or his constituents how fast to drive.” In May 2015, Dudzik died in a motorcycle accident in which he was driving while intoxicated.

Other members of the Common Council remain strong supporters of speed humps, including Ald. Khalif Rainey, whose North Side district contains 50 of them. “They really make a difference in traffic safety, especially in neighborhoods with kids outside playing. People just want to have that additional buffer to slow traffic.”

And Ald. Terry Witkowski’s far South Side district has just three humps, but interest in them is growing. “When people call my office, they want more law enforcement or traffic signs, and the last thing they want to do is spend money,” he says. “But it’s reached that level of concern where they are willing to spend their own money to address the problem.”

But haven’t all these bumps taken a toll on car suspensions? No, said six central city repair shops we contacted. Dave Manyo of Manyo Motors on North Green Bay Avenue says he’s hit some humps himself without damaging his car. However, he says, “It scares the shit out of you.” ◆

‘Hump in the Road’ appears in the March 2018 issue of Milwaukee Magazine.

Find it on newsstands beginning February 26, or buy a copy at milwaukeemag.com/shop.